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6 ways the pandemic changed our idea of ‘work’ forever

A survey of 600 global IT leaders shows us what’s happened and what’s next.

Image of an empty, modern office with a desk and a computer on it. Bookshelves with files and folders appear in the background. Photo credit: SeventyFour
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Someday, after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided, many of us will return to an office. But how many employees will return — and to where, and to what kind of space — is yet to be determined. The future is hard to predict, especially during a global pandemic. But it’s clear that this year will usher in permanent changes in how we work.

In May 2020, Xerox conducted its Future of Work survey, speaking to 600 IT leaders across five nations — the U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, and France — who hail from a range of industries. The survey illuminated some unexpected insights on how we might conduct work in the years ahead. Here’s what we can expect.

Business people with face masks working indoors at a table in an office, back to work after quarantines. Photo credit: Halfpoint

Offices can move beyond the meeting.

What we expect from an office, its management, and our colleagues will be dramatically different when we return. It’s obvious that we’ll expect sanitizer stations and temp checks, but our workplace culture will also shift: smaller, fewer in-person meetings. What’s that cliché that usually rings true? This meeting could have been an email. Perhaps an emphasis on fewer meetings — you know, for safety — actually could lead to more focus and engagement, since employees will be able to concentrate on their real jobs instead of rushing from meeting to meeting. By keeping sessions smaller, whether in the office or remotely, maybe we’ll finally cull our calendars and get rid of the unnecessary meetings that have stayed around “just because.” Chances are, if your team hasn’t missed a specific meeting since quarantine started, you didn’t need it in the first place.

We’ll need new sources of inspiration.

Whether or not we see each other in person, we’ll still need to brainstorm projects. When we work from home, our ideas don’t come from the buzz of the office, but rather things (and loved ones) around us. Bookshelves filled with our favorite reads. Souvenirs from trips abroad. Family members and pets zipping by. Companies can tap into inspiration from their employees’ personality-driven spaces, and offer socially distanced group activities, both on and off the clock. It’s a chance for people to get a look at their coworkers’ spaces, and to trade the creative vibes by showing off their own. The key to these: make them optional, or they could feel invasive to camera-shy employees who need a break from screen time or who are working in cramped spaces.

Back view of an office worker wearing a face mask and working at a computer, reviewing a graph. Photo credit: Vichie81

We’ll need more robust, flexible tech setups.

Think of all the technology we rely on during WFH times: video conferencing software that allows us to call entire teams and departments. Tech support for the countless devices employees may have at home. Collaborative, cloud-based software that helps teams share sensitive data — plus analytics to streamline the latest priorities. According to Xerox’s study, 40 percent of IT leaders surveyed said they’re increasing tech budgets for hybrid or remote work. With employees increasingly struggling to find work/life balance, creating longer workdays due to clunky IT glitches seems less than ideal, and tech solutions seem more than worth any initial expense.

We still crave in-person connection.

Despite shutdowns, the pandemic doesn’t signal the death knell of the office. According to Xerox’s survey, 95 percent of respondents believe that face-to-face (not just screen-to-screen) communication is vital to work life. So most teams can expect a hybrid of remote and office work in the future. Before the pandemic, many major companies offered setups like this as a perk, but it seems more like a necessity now. That means companies should invest in things like manager training, teaching employees how to lead remote teams so that everyone’s heard and engaged, whether they’re using an office day or dialed in from their couch.

Image of four people in a modern office conference room, having a meeting wearing face masks and using plexiglass dividers. Photo credit: Andrey Popov

We need to make longer-term plans, and let IT teams lead.

When stay-at-home orders started rolling out across the world, many companies and their IT teams were caught off-guard. Among leaders at smaller brands, many didn’t have the resources to react, with some of the biggest challenges being lack of IT assistance and cloud-based services for employees suddenly working remotely. (A full 85 percent of survey respondents even said they miss the convenience of their office printers.) To better prepare, offices will need longer-term contingency plans, plus a renewed appreciation for IT: the department that makes everything run across the internet.

There’s more trust in remote work.

In the past, many major companies were hesitant about the idea of working remotely. It’s likely that the most reluctant offices were larger, more traditional companies versus start-ups. For years, traditional companies have needed to accelerate the pace of change to remain competitive against these smaller and more flexible newcomers — and in a way, the pandemic has forced their hand. The past seven months have proven that necessary meetings can happen remotely, creativity is still alive, and employees can still be “professional” when left to their own devices. (Translation: we’re not a country full of workers who are just sitting home and watching TV all day.) According to Xerox’s Future of Work survey, 58 percent of global businesses intend to change their work from home policies within the next year. Major attitude shifts in a number of months? That’s a big deal.

Given the whirlwind changes we’ve seen in the past few months, perhaps the most startling takeaway from this pandemic has been its speed, upturning our world in less than a year. When the pandemic gained full steam in the U.S. in March 2020, about three-quarters of leaders from surveyed companies said they weren’t technically prepared for remote work. But a virus waits for no corporate memos.

One thing is clear: a revolution in work has already happened. Companies that can give their employees more safety, flexibility, and connectivity will be the ones that come out ahead.

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