Did the Top 6 Workplace Trends Just Fly Out the Window?

In the past few years, the US economy was booming and boasted full employment, which meant that anyone who wanted a job could find a job. It also meant that businesses had to compete harder for talent, especially skilled professionals with hard to find expertise. To attract and retain employees, businesses were adapting the workplace to better match employee preferences with productivity needs, and also to prepare for the future. Executives and consultants keep a close eye on workplace trends, trying to predict which ones will win the day. More on these trends later.

In the meantime, Covid-19 came to town.

In the wake of the virus and the public health reaction to it, economic shutdowns have left millions unemployed (temporarily we hope). Many of those who are lucky enough to still be working are doing so remotely. Suddenly, the “workplace” has been turned on its head and trends are up in the air. The future is certainly hard to predict. Will people continue to work remotely even after the danger is gone? Will companies downsize the physical workplace permanently?

Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is clear. The workplace isn’t going away. It may change a bit or even a lot, but there are still many workplace trends that are still relevant and will remain so once businesses are allowed to operate normally again.

Workplace Trend #1: Work-Life Balance

On these pages, we’ve talked about work-life balance in terms of flexible scheduling and the ability for employees to set their weekly work schedules or to bid for preferred hours. In the past, this could be done with a personal request to the supervisor, but as the requests became too numerous and the schedules too complicated to manage, many companies implemented automated scheduling systems that are accessible via mobile apps. Likewise, 24/7 businesses started offering a variety of shifts and allowing different combination of weekly shifts, instead of rigid shift schedules. These work-life adjustments have met with great success and smart businesses will seek out more ways for employees to achieve the balance they desire.

Workplace Trend #2: Working from Home

Thanks to Covid-19, working from home has ceased being a “trend” and has become an enforced reality. But once the virus has gone and people are able to go back to the workplace, will they prefer to continue working remotely? Working from home is a concept that always rated high with employees. For example, companies like eBay established a program called “eBay@Home” which has hundreds of customer service reps working from home instead of in the call center. Not everyone wants to work from home, but the ability to do so full-time or a couple of days a week is an attractive option to many workers. Allowing people work remotely has been shown to reduce stress and to improve productivity as office distractions and socializing no longer steal precious time from the task at hand.

Workplace Trend #3: Working with Robots and/or Automation

One thing that the Covid-19 experience has made clear is that robots and automated processes don’t get sick. People working side by side with robots and automation is something we are seeing more of in the workplace. Initially, automation was feared by employees, but the benefits that workers gain from automation outweighs the drawbacks. Many companies are using applications based on AI and machine learning to help employees work more efficiently and productively. For example, automating repetitive but essential processes relieves workers from the “drudge” work and frees them up to handle tasks that truly require a human touch. Automation in the workplace will grow, and studies show that both employees and employers will benefit as a result. Which brings us to our next point.

Workplace Trend #4: Employee Experience and Satisfaction

Today, there are AI-driven systems that enable employees to receive immediate feedback on their performance, to compare their KPI “score” to others, and to self-evaluate. These tools are gaining traction because they result in a happier workforce. Rather than wait for that yearly evaluation, employees appreciate timely, transparent, and accurate feedback that helps them understand and adjust performance on the spot – not months later. Studies have shown that employees who feel they are fairly treated and objectively evaluated are more productive at work and have higher satisfaction with their jobs. It seems that this would hold true whether the employee works from home or on site.

Workplace Trend #5: Workforce Flexibility

The Intuit 2020 Report says, “Traditional employment will no longer be the norm, replaced by contingent workers such as freelancers and part-time workers.” According to Intuit, this trend will “continue to accelerate with more than 80% of large corporations planning to substantially increase their use of a flexible workforce.” Freelancers don’t require office space, benefits, or a health plan. Many work from home and collaborate online, which fits right in with the restrictions places on workforces since Covid-19 arrived. There is a freelancer for just about any specialization. When companies embrace workforce flexibility, they benefit by having access to a vast talent pool (literally worldwide) that can be hired only as needed. It’s a great way for employers to make the workplace more dynamic and increase productivity.

Workplace Trend #6: Going Back to Closed Office Space

What goes around comes around. Open workspaces with low or no walls and no ceilings (all the piping and electrical conduit are visible) were all the rage until recently. Rather than lead to a more collaborative culture, the open space led to more ambient noise, more distractions and less ability to concentrate. Recent studies found that problem solving often requires privacy and quiet spaces to think undisturbed. And when you need to collaborate, open work spaces actually reduce face-to-face communication. In open spaces, people feel less comfortable talking about work issues, brainstorming and discussing difficulties because everyone can hear. So they send email instead. Email communication skyrockets and productivity declines.

Now that Covid-19 has shown businesses how people can work from the privacy of their home and collaborate via Zoom, perhaps the move away from open office space will be delayed or become unnecessary.

It will be interesting to see how these and other workplace trends pan out as restrictions are lifted the working world resumes normal operations.