The Future of Work Post-Pandemic: We’re Not Going Back

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COMMENTARY | Suddenly, the conversation about telework has shifted from “do we have the right technologies in place?” to “do we have the right people policies and training in place?”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius opined recently that “there’s no question that we’ll be living in a different world post-pandemic.” He writes that more than half of Americans “believe their lives will remain changed in major ways.”

Technology will allow people to work and live remotely, Ignatius writes, and they will continue the habits developed over the past seven months. He cites a survey by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that reports private sector companies pivoted to the new work arrangements 40 times faster than they expected possible. It estimates that companies jumped three to four years ahead into the future workplace in the space of a few weeks.

Shifts in How Government Work Gets Done 

It’s not just the private sector that has changed. Governments are also beginning to adapt to the new normal by transitioning services online that they had been traditionally reluctant to redesign, such as:

Initially these shifts to the web were done as temporary emergency measures. However, in many cases they are beginning to be incorporated into a new normal for agency operations.

In addition to changes in how work is done, the governmental shift in where work is done—using distance work arrangements much like the private sector—may well stick. At the federal level, there was initial surprise in productivity increases in some agencies, as noted by telework expert Kate Lister in testimony before a Senate committee this past July. In fact, the vice chief of staff of the Air Force said recently: “it’s changed the paradigm on how we’re going to do work” and that he envisions one-third of its workforce remaining in a distance work arrangement after the pandemic subsidies.

Why do these shifts in how and where work is done matter? Alice Armitage, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco was quoted as saying: “This pandemic will open everyone’s mind, and gets people to move out of their silos.” 

Shifts in Where Work Gets Done 

It is this shift in mindsets over the past several months since COVID lockdowns were instituted that is highlighted in a new report by the IBM Center for The Business of Government:  Distance Work Arrangements: The Workplace of the Future Is Now, which I edited, with contributions by Emily G. Craig, Michaela Drust, Sheri I. Fields, and Lawrence M. Tobin. This report comprises a series of essays by IBM colleagues who observed and experienced the transition in the public and private sectors, and in their own lives, over a six-month period.

Initially, many thought the coronavirus would be an inconvenience to organizations for three or four months, and then everything would go back to “normal.” Well, it hasn’t and we are constructing a new normal.

Distance work arrangements, such as telework, remote work, and distributed teams, have been a growing trend in the workplace for more than a decade. But the adoption of these arrangements was slow, and industry observers predicted it would take years to transition.  However, in mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic struck and much of the U.S. pivoted to a new workplace—home. 

Suddenly, the conversation about distance work arrangements—in particular telework—has shifted from “do we have the right technologies in place?” to “do we have the right people policies and training in place?” And it isn’t just putting signed agreements onto paper, but changing how work is done, how teams work together, and how managers manage.

The rationale for telework quickly pivoted from being seen as family-friendly policy to a vital element for the continuity of operations in both public and private sector organizations. 

Shifts in How We Manage 

Distance work arrangements involve different ways of working, as individuals, teams, and organizations. The most obvious is how we personally manage ourselves. There are lots of tips being offered and the benefits of increased personal autonomy and job satisfaction are well-reported, as are the challenges of maintaining work-life balance and staying connected are.

The larger challenges of preserving and creating interpersonal ties with colleagues and peers continues to be a new learning curve. Building these ties, along with developing trust and norms, is part of the new dynamics of working in teams. Organizations and leaders have to find new ways to lead, to maintain productivity, and to create alignment around common goals. As workplace guru Glenn Dirks says, “the more you go ‘virtual,’ the more the quality of management matters.”

Managers have to learn to manage a distributed team differently—informal taskings or in-person, non-verbal communication are no longer an option. At the same time, new forms of team communication, through chat boards on telework meetings, can add new insights. In any event, managers will increasingly have to trust their workers to do the right thing and to ensure their team has the support, information, training, and tools to do it.

There will always be jobs that can’t be done remotely, such as emergency response, or garbage pickup, or hospital care. But for a large segment of government work, distance work is an option and will likely be here to stay as leaders become more comfortable with managing these arrangements for both the employees and mission continuity.

Kinks That Need to be Worked Out 

Still, there are challenges to longer-term distance work arrangements that need to be resolved, including:

  • Ensuring adequate cybersecurity for both workers and data 
  • The formation and maintenance of informal interpersonal relationships
  • Networking and trust building within teams and between individuals
  • The inculcation and maintenance of organizational culture
  • New ways to manage one’s self, teams, and career paths

Like the private sector, governments will have to figure out the solutions to these challenges, but with a concerted effort—and maybe even a joint effort—it can be done. And as these challenges are addressed, a new normal will become the norm.

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. 

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