Despite many mostly-transparent attempts to convince workers and businesses alike that, now the dust is settling and we’re fully entering the post-pandemic era, work will magically snap back to how it was before, we all know the real truth.
The face of how, where, and even why we work has changed forever. What does this mean for workers as we go forward? What is the New Work Era? And will slow-to-adapt companies survive the transition? Today we take a look at how the very meaning of work has changed forever- and why that’s not a bad thing at all.
The 2020 Shock
For many, it’s tempting to believe that the work-from-home, or WFH, revolution began abruptly in March 2020. And it’s true, March-May 2020 would be the watershed quarter where organizations globally were forced to face the reality of a work environment that changed nearly overnight.
Now it was no longer the ‘future’ of work under question, it was very much the immediate now. As in, how do you keep your workers working without coming into the office today? Adapt or die was very much in play
There was a nest of hiccups to navigate. Particularly the rapid need for flexible, intuitive, and economical cybersecurity solutions on an unprecedented scale. But overall, we didn’t do too badly. It’s rare to see positives in the COVID-19 crisis, but it sure proved that both everyday people and the staid organizations that had been resisting change for decades previously could fluidly shift not only to survive, but thrive, in the New Work Era.
The New Work Era: Not All The New
However, despite the crisis that precipitated the abrupt 2020 shift, let’s be brutally honest. This work transformation is nowhere near as new as it feels. What held back the New Work Era before 2020 was not a lack of imagination, creativity, or conceptualization, nor the lack of the technology needed to support it. It was simple corporate inertia.
Prior to the digital revolution, work from home models like we now see would have been near-impossible to enact. At best, you may have managed to allow a sick or incapacitated, but critical, employee to do some work at home.
However, they would be tied to a desk with a fixed telephone line, would struggle to access any kind of company resource without being at the office, have no sense of community or interaction to lean on, and productivity would likely be far lower than when they were in the office.
The infrastructure to support them to work efficiently at home simply wasn’t there. It was more the equivalent of taking homework to a sick schoolkid than a real workable corporate solution.
As computers have gotten both mobile and interconnected, however, we’ve seen the technology needed for efficient, effective work from home options come online and become mainstream long before 2020.
The first VPNs were in place in 1996. Cloud-based solutions were conceptualized in the mid-90s and a workable reality by the mid-2000s. The same time that high-speed broadband internet became common in U.S households. Remote support and screen-sharing became a reality around that time too.
Smartphone penetration crossed 50% in the U.S in 2014 and mobile phones were commonplace before that. Cybersecurity precautions have been evolving alongside wider internet reach, although at varying levels of responsiveness, effectiveness, and affordability, of course.
In short, it wasn’t the technology that prevented the New Work Era from beginning on a wide scale a lot earlier. Nor was it even the conceptualization. In the early 90s, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration were already looking at work from home as a viable solution.
The Federal Flexible Workplace Pilot Project invented the idea of ‘flexiplaces’, wanting to “assess the benefits and challenges of allowing employees to work at locations other than their government office base.” 550 employees participated, and their findings echo what we see today.
Greater productivity, reduced office space demands, and reduced costs. Telecommuting for government officials and the Clinton-era demand for ‘family-considering flexibility’ was actually pretty well embraced at the time.
The Rise of the Gig Economy
Brett Jordan/Unsplash Rideshare, food delivery Apps, and similar entities are perfect representations of the Gig Economy at work
This was an idea that found echoes in the rise of the ‘new corporate’, strongly associated with Silicon Valley and the boom in forward-thinking, ultra-trendy tech startups that enticed talent with the promised of flexibility, ‘working from the beach’, and an altogether different model from the ‘standard’ corporate business one in play for work-a-day people at the time.
The late noughties are also seen as something of a watershed moment for the rise of the ‘gig economy’, a term coined by former New Yorker editor Tina Brown in 2009.
The gig economy itself is a little different from work from home, referring to workers in the ‘knowledge economy’ who would look for multiple projects and contracts, often part-time, and all conducted through digital marketplaces, rather than seek traditional one-company employment.
It’s best thought of as the entry of the traditional contract worker into the digital space.
However, most of these new gig workers did not have an office space at all, instead working from home and leveraging all those available tech assets we just looked at to get the job done. So the two histories are very intertwined, and the Gig Economy has been a big driver of work-from-home developments for over a decade at this point.
The Gig Economy was also the driver of the rising demand for outsourced solutions. Key operations areas like admin, marketing, IT support, and ‘back-office tasks’ are critical to a successful business, but are full skillsets in themselves.
For small and medium enterprises, especially, it’s not always productive to retain a full-time staff member to handle these aspects, yet they can deeply distract from core business tasks and are a necessity of modern business. Enter remote assistance to keep things ticking over effectively.
Paired up with the rise of globalization and the idea that you can employ talent worldwide, not just in one geographical area, and you have the slow simmering of a workplace revolution like never before.
One that we can realistically pin on the late noughties and era following 2010- well over a decade before the 2020 work crisis pushed everyone out of their cozy corporate nests.
With everything in place for remote working many years before COVID came to visit, why did it take the pandemic to cause a mass shift in how we work?
It’s a question that has, quite legitimately, fuelled academic studies, so there’s a lot more to unpack than we’ll mention here. But the simplest explanation is corporate inertia. Put another way, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Office buildings have been rented, middle management have eagle eyes on the cubicle farm, and everything ‘just works’. Newer, more forward-looking companies were well on the road to understanding that better serving the human aspect of their businesses was the way to thrive, just like those early tech startups.
Flexi-work and the idea of a digital nomad are familiar ideas by now. But older companies and less excitable industries just kept on doing what they’d always done with little incentive to change. It was tried and tested, easier, and needed no additional investment or new skillsets.
Until the Big Pause and the need for a workplace revolution that caught many corporate cubicle farms with their metaphorical pants down.
The New Work Era is Here: Embrace It
There’s many workplace challenges to iron out as there’s a mass migration to WFH, but one thing is for certain. Employee demands and workplace practices have changed for good.
Luckily, technology has reached a place where organizations can transform their workplaces and company culture relatively easily. It’s very clear that flexible work arrangements, at the very least, will remain a huge staff drawcard.
Despite the perception that without the constant vigilance of a manager people will ‘slack off’, real-world stats suggest that productivity is maintained or improved in WFH models.
A good manager can motivate a team without them being right there. Keeping company culture is tougher. Some want more workplace interaction, others are happy without it. Hybrid work may become the more dominant model, or we may see an evolution towards full remote.
Much of that is industry-dependent, too. Some industries have a far higher need for in-person work than others.
Likewise, cybersecurity and third-party risk management have become a focus in the New Work Era. How do you allow seamless work-from-home protocols without putting sensitive data at risk? How do you embrace a remote workforce that manages risk around access rights?
How do we secure cloud servers and resources without falling risk to data leaks and exploits? Rapid waves of change are inevitable as we settle into a changing work landscape.
It’s the early days of mass WFH protocols, and predicting the future is a fool's game. We’re still tentatively taking our first steps back into a post-pandemic world. One thing is for absolute certain, however.
The WFH and remote work ‘trend’ of 2020 was the opening foray into a New Work Era that is set to become the norm. There will be no mass roll-back to older working models. Companies that want to thrive in the New Work Era need forward-looking solutions to the new challenges it brings. A sustainable new normal is here, and it’s up to companies big and small to embrace it and find their space within.
Guest Post: Tevai excels at creating compelling content, and consuming caffeine. When not crafting copy to drive campaigns, she enjoys the world with her Lhasa Apsos.