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December 15, 2021

The Future Of Work: Time To Focus On Those (Hint: The Vast Majority) Who Can’t Work Remotely

I hate to speculate about the number of words written about “remote” or “hybrid” work since the pandemic took root in early 2020, but a Google search of the terms a couple of weeks ago produced more than 177 million entries. This fixation on remote and hybrid work (and I’m as guilty as anyone) ignores the […]

I hate to speculate about the number of words written about “remote” or “hybrid” work since the pandemic took root in early 2020, but a Google search of the terms a couple of weeks ago produced more than 177 million entries.

This fixation on remote and hybrid work (and I’m as guilty as anyone) ignores the vast majority of workers for whom remote work isn’t an option—those employed in agriculture, construction, delivery, fishing, food service, health care, maintenance, manufacturing, mining, public safety, on-site retail sales, transportation and everything else requiring public interaction or hands-on operations.

I owe all these workers an apology. The future of work we’ve been talking about doesn’t work for them.

Here are the numbers: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Employment Situation News Release” for November 2021, just 11.3% of employed persons teleworked or worked at home “specifically because of the pandemic” in the four weeks preceding the monthly survey, down from 13.4% in August. If you add to that the 6% or so who were working primarily from home prior to the pandemic, you see that more than 80% of workers don’t have a remote work option.

If we’re being honest, we’ve known this all along. During the early days of the pandemic when I was working from my dining room table, worrying about my husband (who, like most physicians, was on the job throughout the pandemic), I took time out one day to say “thank you” to the UPS delivery man, who I had never met before. He must have sensed my stress and, as casually and confidently as possible, told me, “We’re going to be okay. We’ll get through this. Don’t be afraid.” The kindness and impact of his words was immense.

He made me look at every cashier, delivery person, first responder and repairman with profound respect and gratitude. I’m now embarrassed this hasn’t adequately been expressed in my professional work.

We need to look hard at the concerns and interests of those whose jobs tie them to a location or routine that’s incompatible with flex in where they work. These are the very people who have kept our lives and economy on track these past 21-plus months—and they deserve better.

So, what should we do?

First, we need to recognize that the future of work is not just about the two or three days per week knowledge workers may get to work from home. Everyone values more flexibility, agency, financial reward, trust and accountability. While the percentage of workers tied to location will eventually go down with more automation, remote sensors and other new technology, we must start identifying ways to reimagine work for them now. 

Here are some ideas to get us started:

Immediate actions

·        Enhance compensation. While some white-collar professionals may “live from paycheck to paycheck,” this is a reality for many blue-collar and service employees. So, organizations that can afford to do so should increase employee pay, and the frequency of paydays, especially for hourly employees and those at the lower end of the salary scale. They should also consider other financial benefits, such as tuition reimbursement, on-the-job upskilling courses, wellness and child care. Recent BCG research has shown caregivers are feeling more stressed than ever, especially U.S. hourly workers, nearly half of whom (47%) worry about their wellbeing and future in their company, compared to 33% of hourly workers without care-giving responsibilities.

·        Experiment with flex time. Research shows that many more people want flexibility in when they work than where they work. This is the time to rethink shift work and job sharing. Why not tailor shifts to coincide with school hours, allow employees to switch shifts with peers, or divide the workweek into more, shorter shifts, rather than longer, fixed shifts, if desirable for employees? Several startups are already are trying to address these needs, demonstrating how technology and artificial intelligence can enable flex.

·        Make better line managers. The quality of most employees’ day-to-day work experience is driven by their direct managers, with whom they spend much of their workdays. The best managers coach, mentor, guide and assist with deep caring and camaraderie, like great teachers or even parents. But such gems are too few and far between. Enhancing the knowledge, skills, attitudes, routines and rhythms of managers at all levels—but especially the front line—should, therefore, be a priority. And, as I have written before, the most effective way to do this is not with “training,” but by having your best managers share their practices with and coach their peers.

Medium term actions

·        Improve the work environment. Employers can do more to enhance the work environment than provide coffee and free food from time to time. Employees may be concerned about safety, cleanliness, or other amenities. Ask them what’s most important and help them make it happen. In addition to making the workplace better, it gets people engaged and gives them a voice in the process and pride in the results. And, as my colleague Samir Pendse reminds me, don’t overlook the importance of communication and recognition, two easy ways to encourage outstanding performance and loyalty, big pluses in a tight labor market. In the area of communication, he suggests regular feedback sessions, perhaps weekly or monthly. “They show that managers and the company care.” As for recognition, he says it’s important to acknowledge even small wins and successes, an acknowledged “big driver of retention.” My rule of thumb is: Whenever I think ‘that person did a really nice job’ (which is more frequent than ever these days), I take the time to call them or drop them a note.  

·        Help outside of work. I’ve heard from many leaders during the pandemic about helping employees beyond the workplace and outside the normal work week. If we broaden our lenses accordingly, what else might an employer do? How about offering housing support, tutors for children having difficulty with schoolwork, or creating a network of subsidized babysitters—perhaps training and matching workers’ teenage babysitters with younger families?

·        Enhance their skills. As automation and AI change the landscape of work, upskilling workers, perhaps in conjunction with local community colleges, should be a win-win. Workers could become eligible for new jobs just as their companies need talent with those added capabilities. 

Longer term actions

·        Revise your talent model and career paths. At the beginning of the pandemic people had to ignore what their “jobs” were and do whatever was needed to get the most important work done. We see now how that enhanced worker skills, broke down silos and built broader personal networks and connections. All good things! So, let’s think about how to lock that in with much-more fluid job definitions and career paths. Several startups, such as Gloat and eightfold.ai, are building platforms and apps to support this.

·        Implement lean, agile ways of working. Working during the pandemic has showed with great clarity that the old, slow, people- and paper-driven processes would benefit from modernization. As Martin Danoesastro, another colleague, told me, “As more and more of the repetitive and operational processes are being automated and digitized, the work that is left will increasingly be work that requires judgment, creativity, ethics and teamwork. We need to unlock the full potential of human talent by changing our ways of working.” So, now is the time to embrace and accelerate those efforts by changing the way we work—embracing lean production systems and agile working processes—and embedding these changes in our companies’ cultures.

Creating a more flexible, productive and compassionate work environment for those who can’t work from home—an environment, in Danoesastro’s words, built on a foundation of “purpose, mastery, autonomy, fluidity and trust”—should be a top priority for all of us in 2022.

In the meantime, I wish you all a restful time with family over the next few weeks—and good health and continued success in the New Year.

Article written by:  Orville Lynch, Jr.
Mr. Lynch, a member of the legendary two-time Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame Award winning Lynch Family. Mr. Lynch is a nationally recognized urban media executive with over 20+ years of diversity recruitment and serial entrepreneur with numerous multi-million dollar exits.

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