How COVID-19 has shaped the future of work

Dr Michael Rosemann is the Director of the Centre for Future Enterprise and a Professor for Innovation Systems at QUT Business School. Here, he discusses how COVID-19 has both shaped and accelerated the future of work, and what the ‘new normal’ might actually look like. 

Companies and people change because of urgency or ambition. 

When COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, it imbued everybody with a sense of urgency. It forced organisations to accelerate their adoption of teleconferencing and remote working technology. However, it also made existing opportunities more tangible. 

Local businesses had the chance to become global, omnichannel businesses. If they taught dance classes, for instance, they no longer had to concentrate solely on the market between, say, Indooroopilly and Chermside. There was a global market for what they had to offer, and that global market quickly developed the capability to take part in such offers from their living room using web conferencing solutions such as Zoom. 

Now COVID restrictions have largely been lifted in Australia, and that sense of urgency is fading away. I fear that organisations who were motivated solely by urgency will want the new normal to look a lot like the old normal. 

On the other hand, those who are motivated by ambition will say, ‘Hang on, we don’t have to go back to how things were – there’s so much potential here.’

Is the office dead? 

When we look ahead to the future, we often inflate our assumptions. When computers emerged, we talked about the disappearance of paper, which hasn’t happened, and we imagined all kinds of scenarios that haven’t come to pass, for the most part. Certainly, we expected more automation and digitisation than we’ve seen. 

What COVID has driven is more optionality. Parts of the old world will survive, but those who are comfortable with the options offered by the digital world will thrive in this new environment.

In that vein, the reports of the death of the office have been greatly exaggerated. I think the office will survive as a popular mode of working because people need physical face-to-face interactions. I, myself, spend most of my time in my office to have the type of conversations with my colleagues that we cannot have online. We interact differently, ideate differently, challenge each other differently. Even more, the emotional side of empathy and leadership is constrained. However, remote working practices and virtual collaboration are definitely on the rise, and come with a variety of new possibilities such as quick engagement and low cost presence of stakeholders independent of their location.  

What COVID has driven is more optionality. Parts of the old world will survive, but those who are comfortable with the options offered by the digital world will thrive in this new environment. 

What will most likely happen is that things that are done purely out of habit – the 40-hour work week, the 9-to-5 day, the expectation that you must work at a dedicated office – will disappear. The future of work will be more outcome-driven. If you finish in 30 hours, that’s great, and that’s more important to me than making sure you work for 37 hours. That comes from people working at home – employers are learning to trust employees, and they’re seeing that outcomes matter more than mere physical presence. 

I think we’ll see more dedicated support for the home office. I wouldn’t be surprised if new businesses are already emerging that do nothing other than home office set-ups, and organisations will subsidise this for their employees. We’re going to see a higher degree of professionalisation of the working environment at home, because the initial tolerance for randomness is wearing thin. 

It’s cute to see cats and kids on conference calls for a while, but if I’m your employer, I don’t want to see them when you do your big presentation for the Board of Directors. We need to figure out how to create professional environments at home, because the period when it was obvious that you were working at your kitchen table is coming to an end. 

Things to come 

Corporate innovation has always appealed to me because it’s a field that is so rich with opportunity. It’s not about fixing what’s broken today, it’s about figuring out what’s possible tomorrow. What can we do with a well-connected and digitally literate society, contemporary technologies and entirely new business models? 

When you work with a strong sense of ambition, you want to create entirely new futures, and organisations are coming to understand that you need dedicated resources for that.

When you work with a strong sense of ambition, you want to create entirely new futures, and organisations are coming to understand that you need dedicated resources for that. For example, Urban Utilities have a Chief Opportunity Officer dedicated solely to innovation. It’s one of the few companies in the world that has such a role, and they’re based here in Brisbane. 

I am hopeful that more and more organisations will appreciate such an outward focus, and, for example, extend their risk appetite statements with opportunity appetite statements.

When we talk about the future of work, we usually talk about the existing jobs that will disappear due to automation, but we can’t envision the jobs that will come. We need to be more proactive and imaginative and consider the possibilities. Are you considering hiring a trust designer or a data economist? Most urgency-driven organisations don’t understand how these roles could be relevant. They don’t see the opportunities yet. 

These are jobs that do not exist, for the most part – but it’s fascinating to imagine a world in which they do.

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Brisbane Business Hub

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