What the COVID-19 workplace can teach us about the work of the future
Human Work and Learning

What the COVID-19 workplace can teach us about the work of the future

Black female IT worker, stock photo.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to millions of workers who have been furloughed from their jobs—or even worse, are now facing permanent job loss. The effects have been worst on those with the misfortune to work in travel, hospitality and leisure, and food service, but every American worker has been affected.

A previously unknown distinction—essential vs. non-essential—suddenly determined the fortunes of millions of workers. Grocery store workers got additional hours and take-home pay while those working at the card shop next door found themselves unemployed.

Some workers are holding their own or even thriving, yet others are struggling. Not least among the massive changes that are transforming the workplace is that millions of people are working remotely. This will have far-reaching consequences that we still don’t fully understand or appreciate.

Many assumptions that we held just a few months ago about effective work environments have flown out the window—that offices contribute to productivity, that face-to-face interactions are necessary to build teamwork and camaraderie, that it’s impossible to onboard new employees who work remotely, that business travel is essential in spite of the cost, and many more.

In my new book, Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines, I describe the situation of Marcus Dodson, who was displaced in the last recession from a career in manufacturing. He reinvented himself to become an information services professional in Tennessee state government. Recently I had a chance to learn about what’s happened to Marcus since the coronavirus began spreading, and it offers insight into what lies ahead.

When the pandemic abruptly forced the Tennessee Treasury Department’s 275 employees to work remotely, Marcus and his information technology team immediately became even more valuable to the functioning of the agency. Laptops had to be dispatched to aid remote work, but without compromising security. New processes were developed to accept applications and other data electronically.

But what really impressed me is the way Dodson’s team members have become teachers, helping members of his agency solve—and even prevent—problems associated with working from home.

“Verbal communication and creative thinking have become two very desirable skills,” Dodson said. “The situation has forced us to stop, listen, and think in completely different ways.”

As sweeping as workplace changes have been, they are almost certainly just a hint of what is to come. Leaders of many enterprises are realizing that they don’t have—or want—to go back to the way things were before. No one can predict the long-term influence of this transformation of work on our cities, on specific industries, or on the way our careers evolve.

But the pandemic-forced changes to work have produced surprising—even paradoxical—results. Working from home has put a whole new spin on the concept of work-life balance. Personal interactions are actually more important when we are not forced into a routine of meetings and conferences. Granted, life by videoconference brings its own set of challenges, and all of us are learning as we go.

And, frankly, that’s the point.

The brave new world of work that COVID-19 has propelled us toward is one of constant change, adaptation, and learning. This shift has been underway for years as automation and artificial intelligence sweep through industry after industry. But the pandemic has been a giant accelerator. Shifts that might have taken years or decades are happening in weeks or months.

What we’re now living through is the emergence of human work—the work only people can do and the work that brings meaning and purpose to our lives. Human work is all about change because any task that is repetitive and predictable can be reduced to an algorithm and performed by a smart machine.

In human work, skills and knowledge still matter, but workers need to be able to apply them to solve problems in ever-changing environments. It’s no surprise that more and more jobs involve working in the most unpredictable environment of all—around other people.

Think about IT professionals like Dodson, who regularly apply their technical knowledge to help people solve problems in real-world situations. What they have to offer will be in greater demand, and we will have to adapt the nation’s education and training systems to meet their needs.

Perhaps it’s surprising, but Dodson says working remotely has brought his team and their clients closer together. The experiences of people such as Marcus are showing us there are four skills that people need to thrive in the human workplace of the future. These are: thinking critically, reasoning ethically, interacting interpersonally, and serving others with empathy.

COVID-19 has been an unmitigated disaster for millions of people throughout the world. But this emerging landscape of work should impel us to create a new world of human work with workplaces that are more fulfilling, less stressful yet more productive, and, in a word, more humane.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His new book will be out Oct. 6.

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