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Why the Future of Work May Not Be What You Think

Martin Belton examines Talent Transformation’s latest survey results and concludes that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be what you are expecting.

I was recently re-reading the 2020 forecasts for business, originally published at the turn of the year. Most specifically, the predictions for ‘most important issues for HR’ in 2020. I found only one that specifies remote working. I shall spare the author’s blushes by not naming him. That’s because he spends most of his copy cautioning against rushing into the experience.

I mention this because it is worth pointing how easily world changing events through history can make fools of us all. Our forecasts are always based on snapshots of the world at that moment. And, of course, dramatic changes can cause dramatic shifts in points of view and actions.

Our latest survey is, of course, just such a snapshot. Conducted in June, it represents a viewpoint based on over three months of experience of the pandemic. But it covers little of a return to what might be called normality. I believe this timing makes it even more important. It may be unlikely that we will see similar conditions prevailing soon. Even more reason to gauge opinions and attitudes under these conditions. Though how likely the views expressed will be valid in another six months’ time remains to be seen.

Surprising results

There are some surprising results. For instance, there were only slight variations between the different generations’ attitudes to work and their ability to react to change. That was true, both when respondents spoke of their own generation, and when they considered others. Similarly, when we focused on different countries, again only minor variations were recorded. The survey focused primarily on the USA, UK and Brazil, three areas with superficially different attitudes towards the virus. But it seems we adapted to pandemic working in pretty much the same way, wherever we were and however old.

But where the survey gets really interesting is when we compare its results with another survey we conducted in January 2020. Here, we find out just how quickly attitudes can change. For instance, interest in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has more than tripled in less than six months. In January, only 14% of respondents felt that AI and automation may be important to them during 2020. Now, 35% of respondents are keen to extend their use of AI as soon as possible.

HR/C-Suite disconnected

Our earlier survey also revealed a major disconnect between HR and the other organization’s leaders. They viewed the future of work very differently on most of the subjects we identified. The advent of COVID-19 has helped to realign these views, especially when it comes to technology. Today, a remarkably consistent 69.8% of HR staff and 70.2% of C-Suite agree that increasing use of technology will help to protect against future pandemics.

This obvious shift prompted us to crunch the numbers a little harder. The more questions we examined the more evidence it provided about the challenges. It consistently backed up our earlier supposition that there is now a far greater alignment between C-Suite and HR. It seems a common enemy provides a uniting purpose! Both are now concerned and starting initiatives related to employee safety, employee emotional wellbeing, and planning for

Of course, the standout and overwhelming business change issue in our latest survey is ‘working from home’. Our respondents’ viewpoints were strong and widely positive on the issue. For instance, 70% told us that their working from home technology performed extremely well. More troubling though were emotional and personal issues. One of the real standout findings of our survey was that 44% of our sample reported that they had to deal with these disturbing problems. 5% of these were especially distressing. Security and data protection issues were also challenging in around 20% of cases.

But let’s revisit our earlier contention that these views may change in six months. It is widely accepted that homeworking will become much more commonplace, now we’ve properly experienced it. We have already shown can easily we can overcome technology challenges with just a little more training and implementation. No trouble there then.

But delving deeper, we may discover that security and data protection issues are tougher to deal with. They carry more danger and are harder to predict. Likewise, dealing with personal and emotional problems can also be real showstoppers for some. These issues could become the real ‘fly in the ointment’ for wholesale working from home adoption. That is not to say that working from home will not become more prevalent. It’s just that these are embedded issues that will not easily disappear. And that can change our views again.

Long term effects

In which case, let us turn to another change flagged by the survey. That is, the dramatic increase in interest in AI and robotics. Let’s also couple this with the other highlighted desire to use technology to ‘future-proof’ organizations. As non-urgent issues, they have not been a source of pain during and immediately after the pandemic. But this new surge of interest could lead to important long-term effects. Implementing new robotics and AI is, after all, just that – an implementation challenge. And we have just seen, when push comes to shove, how easily we can deal with that.

The wider adoption of AI and robotics can therefore become a key consequence of the pandemic outbreak. That could also mitigate against more working from home. History confirms that business, in times of change, creates many new roles. It seems reasonable to assume that generating new roles will demand working closely together in tight-knit teams. The robots will be workin