“One of the secret benefits of using remote workers is that the work itself becomes the yardstick to judge someone’s performance.”

— Jason Fried, Basecamp

“People are more productive working at home than people would have expected. Some people thought that everything was just going to fall apart, and it hasn’t. And a lot of people are actually saying that they’re more productive now.”

— Mark Zuckerberg, CEO Facebook

“I can’t tell you the number of CEOs I talked to who are thinking, ‘I have to solve the diversity challenge in my business, and remote work is one of the key tools… We have to let go of this very office-centric culture and incorporate people who are in a lot of geographies.”

— Hayden Brown, CEO Upwork

“Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” 

—  Stephen Covey

“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it.”

— Stephen Hawking

“Remote work is the future of work.”

— Alexis Ohanian, Reddit

As disruptive and nasty as COVID days have been (so far, for sure), this black swan event and its consequent situations have greatly accelerated many major changes that were underway but moving rather slowly:

  • Work independent of location (remote work)
  • Less commuting
  • Less business travel
  • Heavy investment in labor-replacing solutions (automation and AI)
  • Decreased importance of centralized big-city offices
  • Integration of workspace and living space
  • Remote learning and teaching
  • Telemedicine
  • Critical importance of internet-based communications
  • And much, much more …

The initial impact has been on office-based workers but this impact is going to affect everyone to some degree within a few years. Tectonic changes occurring that are fragmenting our world and rearranging it in entirely new patterns.

Zoom! New work and workplace structures appearing

COVID impacts were nothing if not immediate and huge. No warning. Global impacts. Unpredictable future. Change itself is the new normal.

Lockdowns and occupancy restrictions forced many workers out of work and many of the rest to work from remote locations as much as possible. Internet-based technology facilitated most of this transition. Lots of rocky spots here but most of us adapted pretty well. And are still adapting.

A recent post on big changes in buyer behavior and another one on the fate of the office itself looked rather broadly at what is going on in our new world. In this post I’ll take a closer look at work and workplace changes.

Commuting is an integral part of your work

You will not be surprised to hear that commuting is actually work. Some of it a very nasty part. If you don’t work, you probably don’t commute anymore either.

Commuting is of course determined by your home location and its proximity to your work location. Although you don’t have much control over your work location, you do have control of your commute through your choice of home location.

Nick Colas writing in ZeroHedge recently had a nice story about “The Death of Commuting”:

“Many of you know I grew up in New York City (Upper West Side Manhattan, to be precise) in the 1960s and 1970s. Since my parents both worked, I was on my own getting to and from school and any after-school activities. I learned at a very early age (8-9 years old) how to read people on the street, look for trouble and avoid it, and generally navigate what was then a not very safe city.”

“The families of many childhood friends moved to the suburbs during this period and, when we visited them, I always wondered why we couldn’t live that way. It seemed a lot nicer. Trees, outdoor activities, backyards … It was like another world.”

“When I asked my mom why we couldn’t live in a house too, her reply was always “Your father refuses to commute”. He worked in midtown Manhattan and wanted to be able to wake up at 8am but still be at his desk by 9am, even if he had to walk. Nothing would sway him from that point of view. In truth, my mother had her own reasons for staying put. She wanted her children to have a cosmopolitan upbringing. Long story short, we never moved.”

“Copious amounts of psychological research has since validated my father’s seeming stubbornness: commuting is an unalloyed negative for mental health. Because it is inherently unpredictable, it creates stress. The longer the commute time, the more stress there is. This affects both job performance and general life satisfaction. Commuting is also expensive. Assuming a typical American commute of 40 miles/day and $3/gallon gas prices, that works out to $1,500/year. Mass transit into a major US city like NY can cost several hundred dollars/month.”

Predicting the “death” of commuting seems a bit much to me but it does point to a drastic reduction in the amount of commuting that most folks will do in future. Hybrid work arrangements involving flexible hours, remote work from home, and even four-day workweeks are here to stay. No doubt about this.

Some folks will relocate to minimize commuting but the majority will use hybrid work arrangements for this purpose. What is actually dying is the system of formerly inflexible work arrangements. Good riddance, yes?

The joys of commuting no more?

Zoom to work is big

Thanks to amazing advances in communications technology, many of us can work very productively from almost any location. Even beside a beach or from a comfortable lawn chair by the pool. How productive you are depends today more on your personal abilities and initiative. Some still need an office regimen to be fully productive but so many are finding that they can Zoom to full productivity.

What used to require face-to-face interactions can often be handled just as well by video-based interactions. Sometimes even better. This allows us to take the lead in restructuring our remote work to achieve at least an essential degree of productivity. No more chats around the coffee machine or water cooler, which many people do miss, but much of this time is largely wasted.

Zoom (and its many alternatives) do require scheduling and synchronization of interactions but participant locations are generally irrelevant or easily faked via green screen backgrounds to hide the beach or pool.

What is disappearing at a fairly rapid pace are face-to-face interactions that people used to do frequently. Some folks enjoy these greatly while others tolerate them at best. Communication practices themselves are changing as a result, something I touched on quite a while back in “The Missing Smile”.

Ad hoc watercooler meetings no more?

The joys of business travel are disappearing

Like the joys of a daily commute, the similar joys of business travel are taking a serious COVID hit. Lockdowns and travel restrictions hammered business travel in 2020 and the now-somewhat-voluntary restrictions are keeping such travel greatly diminished. Personal travel seems to have bounced back, however.

Offsite business meetings are probably going to stay minimized for the unforeseeable future. Much of what was once done between golfing sessions can now mostly be done Zoom-wise. Without the fun of course.

Even sales calls, customer training, and service calls are moving as much as possible to the web. Technology continues to make these more effective and flexible. What is happening here is a redesign of this kind of work to a remote workplace. This is unlikely to go away ever because of the substantial investments and changes that are required in many cases.

Airlines and business hotels are taking serious hits because business travelers and meeters generate much of the hospitality industry’s profits. This in turn will restructure their employees work and workspaces.

Redesigning work to eliminate unnecessary tasks

Another of the former joys of 8-5 office presence was the too-common request for “fill-in” tasks simply because you are present and available. I read quite often about dissatisfied workers who are frequently distracted by such peripheral tasks and chores.

Simply “being present” is not a productive way to “design” a job. Today, with being-present no longer available (or less often available), people can avoid peripheral tasks and concentrate on their main responsibilities. This alone can significantly improve productivity.

Most people are pretty good at structuring their own particular work. If left on their own to do so, of course. Slackers will always be around but dealing with them as a separate issue can save your most productive people many headaches and hassles.

Zoom meetings are easier to schedule

Using “Zoom” as a generic term for the very many alternatives out there, it seems obvious that meeting scheduling can be done much more easily in many cases. Setting up face-to-face meetings and conference room scheduling are often complex and time-consuming. How much easier it is to just message those you want to participate and not have to worry at all about locations.

This is another significant productivity enhancer if your business is meeting-intensive.

Multi-tasking is much easier, Zoom-wise

Zoom meeting participants can shift to other tasks more easily when they are not actively engaged in the current topic – hard to do in a face-to-face situation. Reading and replying to emails and messages can often be done mostly unnoticed, which is yet another productivity enhancer.

Many meeting leaders, aka bosses, do not take kindly to participants obviously clicking away on phones and computers during their meeting-inactive breaks. Some leaders, as you may have noticed, are serious control-freaks.

Products can be redesigned to include work components

Your products may be able to be redesigned to include a web-based learning and even coaching component that was handled previously ex-product by your onsite people. Even many kinds of product troubleshooting can be handled this way.

Hands-on (physical presence) training, coaching, and many other interactions can be replaced to at least some extent by applications and web-based interactions. This can save substantial amounts of travel time and expense.

Remote troubleshooting and user support

Almost everyone today has considerable experience with web-based help and support interactions. Chat has become ubiquitous. Worse yet, robochat – where a robot chatbot imitates human conversations through voice commands, text chats, or both. It’s a virtual conversation in which one party is an online talking robot.

This does not work so well in quite a few cases but where it does work acceptably, it replaces a huge amount of customer service and support employee time.

Selling via podcasts and videos

Work that involves selling has changed dramatically in recent years. Websites now carry answers to many common customers questions and concerns. They also have customer reviews that are unavailable in most cases with face-to-face selling.

Podcasts and videos can distribute helpful information more broadly and at far less cost than any sales force.

Web-based team coordination interactions

Team coordination used to involve many phone calls, emails, and especially personal contacts that became almost invisible productivity-killers. Today, much or even all of this coordination can be done via messaging, email, and similar fully-remote interactions.

Centralized workplaces breed boring work

“Being-there” availability and visibility simply attracts some amount of fill-in or busy-work for most people. It’s just what people and organizations do naturally. Fill-in and busy-work are often just plain boring. Work and workplace boredom generate turnover, frequently among your most valuable people who refuse to be bored by work.

Ted Bauer writing in Medium.com had an interesting take on workplace and work maladies: “Burnout? Nope. Bore-Out.”:

“Aside from working at ESPN, which was also boring at points, and teaching in the inner-city (which is almost never boring, but very hard), most white-collar jobs I’ve had are boring as sin. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait, and/or you adjust tracking documents that no one cares about (did that for a few years) or write blog posts very few care about (same). People love to talk about how “slammed” and “busy” they are, but a lot of that is a virtue-signaling coping mechanism. Many are very bored and flexing; many still have a boss who denotes everything as urgent. Both are, sadly, common.”

“Giving meaning to the job is not just up to the employee,” he says. Instead, it’s up to management to create an office culture that makes people feel valuable. Make minor changes to the job or tasks. Whatever makes work boring, make it enjoyable. Organizations need to learn what bore-out is, he says, and have resources available.”

Remote work gives many people much greater control over their work and workplace structure. They do not have to be-there or visible unless they want to be. Greater productivity is a common result. Turnover among your best people should therefore decrease.

Gig work for the masses

Most companies are shifting toward greater use of non-employees – gig, free-agent, or independent, workers. A growing number of workers will move through a succession of jobs over their lives rather than the one-job-for-life recent past. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a worker in the U.S. has an organizational life expectancy today of about 3.5 years.

This means that your gig workers will have a high turnover, which in turn will require a much greater, continuing investment in recruiting and training resources. For gig workers themselves, it means regular updating and extending their current skills set, probably for life.

Time- and location-independence of work is growing

Today, increasing amounts of work can be done anywhere, anytime. There is a blurring of personal life and work life as a result. Worker engagement is also suffering, a major concern of nearly every organization these days.

Worker skill requirements are increasing due to technology

Skills required in most kinds of work today involve a much greater amount of technological knowledge. Houston.org in a review of report “Navigating the Changing Nature of Work” highlighted the worker skills problem:

“The report illustrates that most middle-skill occupational segments in Greater Houston currently require at least a medium level of proficiency in digital skills, and the trend toward increased digital skills likely will continue to rise as employers further integrate digital technologies into their operations. Already six regional middle-skill occupational segments require higher (i.e., medium and high) levels of digital skills. Workers will need continual education and upskilling to achieve the  level of digital skills critical to success across occupational segments today and into the future.”

Bottom line:

One of the greatest COVID-driven changes has been a major restructuring of both the workplace and work itself. Not for everybody of course but for a very substantial portion of the working population. The full impact has not yet been felt. It is going to get much more pervasive, extensive, and permanent. Everyone will be affected to some degree. We looked here at just a few of the changes and their ramifications.

Related Reading

The World Bank in 2019 published a report on “The Changing Nature of Work”:

“The World Development Report (WDR) 2019: The Changing Nature of Work studies how the nature of work is changing as a result of advances in technology today. Fears that robots will take away jobs from people have dominated the discussion over the future of work, but the World Development Report 2019 finds that on balance this appears to be unfounded. Work is constantly reshaped by technological progress. Firms adopt new ways of production, markets expand, and societies evolve. Overall, technology brings opportunity, paving the way to create new jobs, increase productivity, and deliver effective public services. Firms can grow rapidly thanks to digital transformation, expanding their boundaries and reshaping traditional production patterns. The rise of the digital platform firm means that technological effects reach more people faster than ever before. Technology is changing the skills that employers seek. Workers need to be better at complex problem-solving, teamwork and adaptability. Digital technology is also changing how people work and the terms on which they work. Even in advanced economies, short-term work, often found through online platforms, is posing similar challenges to those faced by the world’s informal workers. The Report analyzes these changes and considers how governments can best respond. Investing in human capital must be a priority for governments in order for workers to build the skills in demand in the labor market. In addition, governments need to enhance social protection and extend it to all people in society, irrespective of the terms on which they work. To fund these investments in human capital and social protection, the Report offers some suggestions as to how governments can mobilize additional revenues by increasing the tax base.”

The Institute for Research on Public Policy early in 2021 addressed the way in which technology is changing the nature of work: “Are New Technologies Changing the Nature of Work? The Evidence So Far”:

“According to the authors, nonroutine cognitive tasks (analytical or interpersonal) did become more important between 2011 and 2018. However, the changes were relatively modest, ranging from a 1.5 percent increase in the average importance of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships, to a 3.7 percent increase in analyzing data or information. Routine cognitive tasks — such as data entry — also gained importance, but these gains were even smaller. The picture is less clear for routine manual tasks, as the importance of tasks for which the pace is determined by the speed of equipment declined by close to 3 percent, whereas other tasks in that category became slightly more important.”

“Looking at longer-term shifts in overall employment, between 1987 and 2018, the authors find a gradual increase in the share of workers employed in occupations associated with nonroutine tasks, and a decline in routine-task-related occupations. The most pronounced shift in employment was away from production, craft, repair and operative occupations toward managerial, professional and technical occupations. However, they note that this shift to nonroutine occupations was not more pronounced between 2011 and 2018 than it was in the preceding decades. For instance, the share of employment in managerial, professional and technical occupations increased by 1.8 percentage points between 2011 and 2018, compared with a 6 percentage point increase between 1987 and 2010.”

“Most sociodemographic groups experienced the shift toward nonroutine jobs, although there were some exceptions. For instance, the employment share of workers in managerial, professional and technical occupations increased for all workers, but much more so for women than for men. Interestingly, there was a decline in the employment shares of workers in these occupations among those with a post-­secondary education. The explanation for this lies in the major increase over the past three decades in the proportion of workers with post-secondary education, which led some of them to move into jobs for which they are overqualified.”

The Rand Corporation in mid-2020 released a Research Report on “The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Changing Nature of Work”:

“Which Jobs Allow Telecommuting?
Although the ability to telecommute protected against job loss, not all jobs are conducive to telecommuting. At one end of the spectrum are jobs that, even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, allow no telecommuting; these types of jobs are more prevalent in certain occupations, such as protective services, production, construction, food preparation, transportation, building and grounds maintenance, installation, and health care (Table 1).”

“At the other end of the spectrum are jobs that allow for exclusive telecommuting (i.e., never having to leave home to do work); these types of jobs are more prevalent in legal, computer, scientific, architecture and engineering, and business and finance occupations. In keeping with the switch to remote learning, those providing educational instruction also were predominantly telecommuting.”

“A fair number of jobs occupy a middle ground, allowing workers to work from home but also requiring them to leave home occasionally (at least once per week) to do their work. These jobs are most prevalent in life, physical, and social sciences; management; and office and administrative support occupations.”

Jobs vs. remote work feasibility