How COVID Brought the Human Back to Work

By: Michael McQueen

We have always known that the future of our work will look dramatically different from the present. What we did not know is that the global pandemic would pave much of the groundwork for this future’s arrival.

It is well-known now that many of the jobs with which we are familiar will be lost or significantly altered due to the rise of automation. Jobs which involve repetitive tasks, objective reasoning and predictable outcomes are the primary ones being handed over to our machine counterparts.  Automation will see workers rely more on their brains and personalities than on physical labour. Machines will be able to take over the time-consuming, repetitive work that humans have traditionally conducted. This will allow for a greater human focus on the interpersonal, instinct-driven and creative tasks that we humans do best.[1]

The rise of robots and automation will free up humans to become more human than ever, and so moving forward, our human skills will need to be up to the job. Empathy, negotiation, communication, collaboration and leadership will need to be among the core capacities of tomorrow’s workers, as innovative thinking and collaborative work becomes the new norm.

However, beyond the human skills that tomorrow’s work will demand of us, the other key area of need will be cross-industry skills. As jobs become more and more interdisciplinary in managing an increasingly complex world, horizontal knowledge which draws upon various disciplines and industries will be essential for workers. Vertical skills which specialise in specific areas of technology will also be crucial.[2]

COVID may have provided the catalyst we needed to fully adopt these skillsets.

Microsoft recently released a report full of insights into the future of hybrid work that has resulted from COVID’s changes. It was revealed that despite its high productivity, the workforce is distinctly fatigued, with 54% of workers feeling overworked and 39% exhausted. Various minorities have borne the brunt of this overwork. On top of this, Gen Z has suffered disproportionately as a result of remote work and isolation, with many lacking the means to create a viable home office or the workplace connections to maintain engagement with their teams.[3]

Despite these trends, it also became clear that the changes COVID forced us to implement in our workplaces may be the very thing that empowers us in our future work.

The flexible work conditions that we had no choice but to embrace in 2020 align with many of the trends of future work. Almost three quarters of employees want ongoing flexible work conditions,[4] setting the average worker up well for the multiple roles he or she will likely have in decades to come.[5] With remote work allowing for greater independence and flexibility in work life, cross-industry employment and multiple job roles will be enabled for the individual worker. These conditions increase workers’ exposure to different industries, this exposure maximising the horizontal thinking our future work will require.

Beyond this, remote work broadens the pool of potential workers. People who once may have been geographically disadvantaged in accessing job opportunities are now being granted access in a way that many of us may not have foreseen a few years ago. Underrepresented groups now have a better chance of being hired by big companies as physical proximity is no longer an issue and the means to live close to a big city is not required.

This will undoubtedly have effects on the kinds of minds, talents and skills we see emerging in companies in the coming years, as people who would previously never have applied for certain jobs are now being given the chance to do so. Knowing that the future of our work will depend on our capacity for cross-industry skills and innovative thinking, the emergence of underrepresented groups in business is a significant step towards this future.

In line with these trends, the move to maximise office spaces by integrating collaborative infrastructure further empowers the collaboration that our future will require. With independent work being conducted remotely, office spaces are now being adapted into places for collaboration; the demand for these spaces among employees is high at 67%.[6] While in many ways innovation has suffered as a result of the limited face-to-face interactions of remote work and the return of siloed teams, these emerging workplace trends are laying the groundwork for optimal collaborative conditions in the future. These conditions will be essential for empowering the diverse collaboration that makes our best innovation possible.

While these practical developments to work will certainly assist in ushering the future into our workplaces, one of the most significant changes surrounds the way we relate to each other. While quantifying qualities like authenticity and trust is difficult business, many markers suggest we have become more authentic than ever in the past year of our work life. Microsoft’s recent study revealed that one in five of us have met the loved one of a co-worker in the last year and one in six of us have cried with a colleague. The number of people who feel comfortable being themselves at work has soared, as has the number of people who feel more deeply connected to co-workers. [7]

Work has undoubtedly been more stressful than ever in the past year, but the meaningful connections it has created between employees will encourage a level of wellbeing in the workplace like we have never seen. With our future work looking increasingly robotic, this ability to bring our whole human self to work is the essential ingredient to optimise our creativity, diversity and innovation. For this reason, this influx of authenticity is exactly what our future needs.

The future of human work will be characterised by our collaboration, innovation and our human skills. The ability to think creatively, drawing upon diverse perspectives and multiple industries, knowledges and skills, will be what sets us apart from robots. By encouraging the conditions for more flexibility, collaboration and connection at work, the chaos of last year may have been just what we needed to usher the work of the future into the now.

[1] 2017, ‘The Automation Advantage’, AlphaBeta, August.

[2] Burgess, M 2021, ‘Future of work: how today’s iso babies will work and learn in 2038’, The Courier Mail, 25 March.

[3] 2021, ‘The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?’, Microsoft, accessed 6 April, 2021.

[4] 2021, ‘The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?’, Microsoft, accessed 6 April, 2021.

[5] Burgess, M 2021, ‘Future of work: how today’s iso babies will work and learn in 2038’, The Courier Mail, 25 March.

[6] 2021, ‘The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?’, Microsoft, accessed 6 April, 2021.

[7] 2021, ‘The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work—Are We Ready?’, Microsoft, accessed 6 April, 2021.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Adomas Aleno on Unsplash

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