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In the age of coronavirus, the future of work is now

Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay
(Image credit: Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pixelbay)

There’s been much talk in recent years about the future of work, focusing on innovation in artificial intelligence, shifting workforce demographics, and the emergence of nontraditional work through the gig economy.

But those conversations unfolded in what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls the B.C. era – the world before corona. With the arrival of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and the consequent months spent adapting, employers and employees alike are only just beginning to make sense of the world after corona – the A.C. era. The same factors that were set to transform the nature of work will still do so – but as offices worldwide transition to remote work arrangements for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the current crisis has hastened the future’s arrival.

By 2016, according to a Deloitte study, 30 per cent of full-time employees were already doing most of their work away from their employer’s physical location. That share has significantly spiked in recent weeks – and with some experts predicting that extreme social distancing measures will be in place for another 18 months, the staggering share of remote working taking place represents a new normal, not a temporary blip.

While the catalyst for this change is an immense social and economic tragedy, the shift was inevitable even in a world without Covid-19. The question now is how employers and their workforces can successfully adjust. Moreover, this shift has added fuel to the fire when it comes to engaging in such conversations for the first time. The time to explore and act on communication innovation is now.

Remote work presents a set of opportunities and challenges that, if managed well, can bring about a future that’s more flexible, productive, and oriented toward employees’ needs and well-being.

The remote work landscape

According to Owl Labs’ 2018 State of Remote Work Report, 56 per cent of global companies allowed remote work, compared to 44 per cent who did not. Most employers who offered remote working options were so-called “hybrid companies” – they allowed remote work, but employees also worked at physical offices. Overall, only 16 per cent of companies surveyed were fully remote.

But there’s been growing pressure from workers for employers to show greater flexibility. A 2019 Buffer survey found that 99 per cent of respondents wanted the option to work remotely at least part-time for the remainder of their careers. Workplace flexibility – including the remote-work opportunities – ranks as a top priority for millennials, who are now the largest generation in the workforce.

Yet while workers see plenty of upside to remote work, they’re also attuned to its potential drawbacks. Researchers at Cigna recently discovered that remote workers are more likely to report that they lack meaningful workplace relationships and to say that they don’t have anyone to turn to at work. Echoing those results, Buffer found that remote workers ranked loneliness as their second-biggest struggle.

As employers prepare for more telecommuting and more distributed workforces, these findings should be taken seriously – not only because employees’ mental well-being and sense of belonging are vital priorities in themselves, but also because lonely workers are less motivated and productive.

Making remote work, work

Employers can beat the blues and facilitate clear communication by turning to video  and audio. While video conferencing is hardly new, the Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated its adoption and scale.

The transition has been and will be a bumpy one for IT teams, who must contend with the issues surrounding scale while overseeing the adoption and rollout of new tools in quick order. It’s not pain-free for other employees, either: According to Owl Labs, more than half of video conferencing users spend 10 minutes per meeting on set-up alone, and 83 per cent reported that set-up took at least three minutes. But in-person work has plenty of its own bugs – starting with the long hours (and lost productivity) wasted on congested roads and train lines – and more experience will help fine-tune the process, while delivering big benefits for employees and their employers.

Video conferencing enables more interaction among employees than instant messaging services and email, and it’s a much more contextual medium; social cues that may be missed or lost in translation in an email can be more easily picked up in a video chat, for instance. In making a more flexible workplace possible, this approach also offers employees, particularly millennials and Gen Zers, the kind of work experience they crave.

Many organisations are also investing more heavily in video based executive communications, holding frequent townhalls, having executives share video messages, and launching vidcast series. Many executives are finding during Covid-19, that it is quite easy to communicate over video with the entire organisation from their homes, and that the authentic personal reach out, is just as important as having highly produced webcasts that were previously delivered from their expensive studios. Because company leaders are less approachable at these times, yet are even more than usually needed, it is very important that they resort to video in order to communicate with their internal and external audiences.

Corona’s effects will last long after the virus itself has been defeated. When it comes to remote work, now is the time for early adopters to find a workable approach that will see them through the crisis and beyond. Encouraging employees to use video not only for large team meetings, but also for one-on-one conversations with their colleagues, is a good way to combat feelings of isolation and keep employees engaged and motivated.

Above all else, regular communication and social support are paramount – at all times, but especially in this turbulent moment. Done right, remote working will not simply keep employees physically healthy today, but will also promote greater satisfaction and well-being in the long run.

Dr. Michal Tsur, Co-Founder and President, Kaltura