Flexibility and Remote Work: Finding the Balance Between Employee Needs and Business Demands as the World Emerges from the Pandemic

The economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is projected to be bumpy and nonlinear, and it will accelerate many ongoing transformations, with the effects of the crisis felt most in labor markets.  Few areas of our daily lives have been impacted by the pandemic as much as the way we work.  As the world reopens, the future of work – across industries, sectors and markets – has been permanently altered.  By 2024, it’s predicted that 30% of the global workforce –  600 million people – will be remote.  How will this impact communities and the businesses within them?

In a post-pandemic world, the challenges associated with the future of work are many:  building the right skills, creating equal opportunities, fostering good and fair work environments, etc.  It will likely require an ecosystem approach across policymakers and businesses, both domestically and globally.

One of the major positive impacts of a remote work environment is the ability to focus on employee performance and production while reducing the potential for bias and claims of hostile work environments.  But what about the social impact, the lack of human connection and collaboration in the workplace? What do employees want and what are employers willing to provide to recruit and keep top talent?

Investing in People

This environment presents us with an opportunity to focus on building the workforce of the future with a deep investment in people.  We are witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon with new technologies having a strong impact on the job market.  We must invest in, and address, this challenge to ensure that individuals are equipped to successfully participate in the world of work and be able to build skills they need to be competitive.  Reskilling and upskilling enable sustainable and lifelong employability for individuals and empowers organizations to optimize their workforces for long-term success.

A paradox exists today between record-high job openings and relatively high unemployment.  The International Labour Organization estimates that in 2020 the global workforce lost the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs.  The pandemic, combined with the effects of technology, are reducing the shelf life of skills.  Workers who are facing redundancy or displacement from automation need to be open to building new skills, even if at first it seems daunting.

According to a recent report by the World Economic Forum, an accelerated investment toward reskilling and upskilling of workers could inject at least $6.5 trillion into the global GDP by 2030 and may create 5.3 million (net) new jobs.  It would also help develop more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies worldwide.

Investing in skills requires a multi-stakeholder solution.  First, we need to invest in the worker to promote a mindset of lifelong learning.  Second, companies should shift from the idea that the workforce is replaceable to one that sees the workplace as renewable, by breaking the cycle of hiring/firing and instead investing in the existing workforce.  Finally, governments should incentivize re- and upskilling by partnering with private sector experts.

Flexibility and Equity

Additionally, employees’ demand for flexible work – both in time and location –  must be embraced across employers in virtually every sector.  The long-term implementation of both remote work and flexible types of work in a post-pandemic reality does not come without challenges, from both an organizational and a regulatory point of view.

From a risk of rising inequalities, drop in productivity and uncertainty around taxes, costs and wages, the transition toward hybrid work models will not be a success story unless accompanied by adequate policies.  If unregulated, remote work could worsen inequalities, as not all workers enjoy the same access to this model.  Inequalities may also arise between workers who decide to return to the workplace and those who do not.

Ensuring equity in remote work opportunities will be critical for disadvantaged populations.  A focus on infrastructure, including high-speed internet in underserved communities, will help level the playing field.  Not everyone has high-speed internet in the home and if the employer isn’t required by state law to reimburse for such an expense, a company may end up excluding disadvantaged populations.  These will be critical elements for building a long-term and viable workforce for the future and good jobs accessible to all.

Flexible work arrangements often drive flexible pay arrangements, too.  Working remotely implies new costs and new ways of calculating wages and taxes.  On the company level, employers should make clear which costs are incumbent to whom.  In addition, governments will need to address wage and hour laws to assist this new way of working.  For example, unless Congress or the U.S. Department of Labor amends the Fair Labor Standards Act and its regulations to keep up with the future of work, strict adherence to these outdated regulations will still apply.

And while the flexibility of the remote work model has increased in demand among workers, it’s made businesses even more vulnerable to cyberattacks.  Investments in IT tools are crucial.

Finally, a focus on the populations that have yet to return to work post-pandemic is vital.  Nearly 2 million women who were forced out or voluntarily left the workforce during the pandemic have yet to return.  Women in the workforce have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the demands that have been placed on them (for example, lack of childcare and increased demands at home).  According to the Census Bureau, in the U.S. almost 1.5 million fewer moms of school-aged children were actively working mid-pandemic than in February 2020.  Addressing the inequalities and systemic challenges working women face will ensure access to quality jobs, skills building and advancement.

Overall, flexible/remote work could be a turning point, laying the foundation for the future of work over the next several years.  With adequate policies in place, its long-term implementation will boost productivity, foster a better work-life balance, and address the talent scarcity.  It is crucial that we work to ensure this transition is inclusive, fair and profitable for all.

Based in Zurich, The Adecco Group is “the world’s leading talent advisory and solutions company.”

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