“If the U.S. [continues] to grow … crops of poor, desperate, dissatisfied, nomadic, miserable-waged populations … then our republican experiment notwithstanding all its surface-successes, is at heart an unhealthy failure.” – Walt Whitman
With the approval of Covid-19 vaccines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use, it is expected the U.S should achieve herd immunity by the end of summer 2021. While this will allow individuals to return safely to the workplace, the offices we left in March will not be the same. Instead, we’ll be returning to a different economy, one in which the link between work and place has been permanently broken. For many, new and emerging business structures, employment relationships, and job characteristics will reenforce the idea that the office has become a state of mind versus somewhere you travel. Since the initial “work-at-home” orders, hybridity has become standard. Jobs are no longer determined by geographic proximity. They can be performed from anywhere.
A surprising twist of events
In early 2019, I published an essay that summarized beliefs concerning the future of work. The intent was to provide policymakers, corporate leaders, lawmakers, and others with a series of planning assumptions to be considered. It touched on issues related to technological unemployment, artificial intelligence and machine-based decision making, trans-national digital assembly lines, and cyber marketplaces supported by a cadre of “gig” workers. It also stressed that future competitive advantage would be determined by the depth of an organization’s talent pool versus intellectual property alone.
While it held that jobs are no longer bound to place, it envisioned that workers would continue to congregate in factory-like office settings in order to maximize effectiveness, realize economies of scale, and benefit from network effects. In order to offset geographic concentration risk, continuity-of-business plans ensured organizations could spread work across multiple centers, both on and off-shore. At-home (remote) workers were the exception, generally an accommodation to attract and retain specific talent or special circumstances. This overall structure was shadowed by the image of a steady technology-driven march towards “a world without enough work.”
In less than 12-months, organizations have recognized the concentration of workers is no longer optimal. Overnight, they were forced to revolutionize their business processes. While disruptive, a survey of CEO’s suggests the pandemic had a silver lining. It caused their organizations to move substantially faster than the norm for major corporate-wide change efforts. Their organizations transitioned to a “cottage industry-like” structure that was characteristic of the pre-industrial age, a time when business activities were carried on in a person’s home. No industry, organization, or region was left untouched
As Covid-19 recedes into the background, 34 million U.S. workers will likely continue to work from home multiple days per week versus 5 million prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. Longer term, this may grow to over 50 million.
The hybrid model has entered the mainstream and is increasingly the preferred choice of employers and workersdue to the benefits that accrue to them. In the case of employers, they have achieved a much greater degree of resilience as a result of the geographic disbursal of workers. They are less subject to disruptions to their business operations due to weather and other events. At the same time, workers’ quality of life has improved due to the reduction (elimination) of the daily commute. In addition, they have more money in their pocket. It varies by region, but an average American spends approximately $4,400 per year in commutation expense. While the hybrid model needs to be refined, childcare issues resolved, employment law updated, and a series of social challenges addressed, it offers a “win-win.” There is no going back.
Beyond these immediate benefits, the hybrid model has freed workers to choose the location they prefer to live. There is no longer a need to maintain geographic proximity to the workplace. Instead, they can choose based on a region’s amenities, cost of living, climate, state and local tax regime, etc. In fact, the velocity of U.S. domestic migration has accelerated, with Austin, Nashville, and Phoenix being the top three destinations. We have entered a “work from anywhere” future.
A new and unanticipated opportunity
The hybrid model has been greeted as a “better normal”, but it has also highlighted a divide in our society. It requires that a worker has a suitable “at home” workspace, with adequate technology and broadband access. For segments of our society, these resources are not available. The rise of the hybrid model has shined a spotlight on society’s continued polarization, i.e., the distinction between highly-paid and low-paid jobs, and erosion of those in the middle.
While the transition has highlighted important equity issues, it has opened up the opportunity to provide jobs to those that find themselves on the wrong side of the economic divide. This issue has worsened with nearly 8 million Americans falling into poverty since the summer. Over the past nine months, organizations have successfully adapted their business processes to recruit, hire, train, coach, and communicate in a remote setting. Distance is no longer a barrier to achieving corporate hiring goals.
If we extend recent experience one step further, a portion of the $66 billion in corporate commitments to address economic and social justice issues should include the leveraging of the hybrid model. In addition to supporting minority-owned businesses, pursuing affordable housing goals, expanding access to financial resources, and ensuring a diverse workforce, organizations have the opportunity to directly provide what individuals need most, i.e., good-paying jobs in their neighborhoods. We’ll need to overcome the natural resistance that arises when an organizational change, in this case, hybrid work, is extended beyond its original intent and experience base. While design, infrastructure, and training challenges need to be addressed, employers can reach well beyond their traditional labor markets.
As we look forward to 2021, we can’t let this opportunity slip by as we return to normalcy. We anticipate the recent period of pandemic-driven austerity will be followed by a splurge of spending as cash comes off the sidelines. While we’ll have the desire to make up for lost time, we need to take advantage of the lessons learned and capabilities that were built during the Covid-19 public health emergency. It has been said “you never [let] a serious crisis to go to waste … it is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” In this case, the hybrid model can become an important tool in our nation’s toolbox as we seek a more inclusive, prosperous, and equitable society.
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Over the past nine months, the U.S workplace has undergone the most sudden transformation since the mobilization of the U.S. home front to support the WW2 war effort. History reminds us that it’s full of surprises. Rather than retarding progress, the pandemic sped up the inevitable. The degree of innovation we achieved in 2020 looks like what was projected for two or three years hence. While some may view it as “barstool theorizing”, we have reached a tipping point. Now, we need to strive for a better outcome for all.
As we push forward, the agenda is full. Onward to a hopeful 2021.
December 21, 2020
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