While the pandemic is still unfolding, companies are wondering how COVID-19 will change their work and their team structures. Organizations that have already embraced “future of work” practices with an ecosystem of technology, and working norms are already more likely better positioned to maintain their operations and emerge stronger. Here, we summarize main takeaways from our recent whitepaper on how trends in the future of work, and specifically: the work we do, how teams work together, and how we learn to prepare for that future, are being accelerated by COVID-19.

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Will COVID Accelerate or Decelerate Automation?

The current uncharted economic territory might seem like the automation trends might slow down as firms become hesitant to increase technology capital spend during a crisis. “This is counter to economic literature, which shows that [automation] investments are made especially during a crisis,” said Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. For instance, researchers conducted analysis on 100 million online job postings before and after the Great Recession in 2008-2009 and found that firms in hard-hit metro areas in the U.S were steadily replacing workers who performed automatable “routine” tasks with a mix of technology and more skilled workers.

The automation surge is likely to disproportionately affect the most “routine” occupations — jobs in areas such as production, food service, and transportation, and create unprecedented opportunities to digitize other sectors. For instance, the SARS outbreak is often credited with ushering in online shopping in China and similarly, the COVID-19 can shift consumer behaviours and create new winners in retail. However, automation potential is not evenly distributed and the most automatable jobs are those that are most “routine-like”. Brookings Institute provides a glimpse of which industry groups are the most affected.

Work as a Thing We Do Together, and Not a Place We Go

With the changes in how teams work today, companies are already rethinking their work structure and culture. They are shifting from viewing their employees as interchangeable and focusing on efficiency to valuing what each person brings to the table and empowering them.

Companies want to become more flexible, agile, and resilient. Not only will companies automate more of their processes, changes in their work structure and culture will follow. Companies are already now shifting to project-based employment to augment critical skills needed in teams. The migration to remote work as a norm will encourage companies to onboard freelancers who can easily “plug and play” into tech-enabled distributed work teams.

alt Source: Freelancers Union and Upwork. Workers in the U.S as guidance.

How we will work together in this new distributed manner can be summarized as an agile setup that allows for quick adjustments in priorities, approaches, and even work itself. This will also accelerate the trend of companies moving from hierarchy-based to participation-based teams, and from power-led to purpose-led team cultures. However, for agile to work, it requires a communicative and collaborative environment in the organization. Justin Hale, a productivity expert and researcher at VitalSmarts, highlights that teams that can “hold candid and effective dialogue… experience higher morale and results.”

How to upskill the workforce

Companies are building transformation maps to organize a set of now, near-term, and longer-term investments and changes. Learning, as a piece of that puzzle is now moving from fringes to the center of that conversation.

The crisis provides companies the opportunity to assess people and technology capabilities needed to scale digital work. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2022, 42% of core skills required to perform existing jobs are expected to change, with over 133 million new jobs created in major economies. But as automation drives efficiency, humans will focus on creating and innovating ways of how we work with machines, building relationships and culture. What will remain timeless is the ability for complex problem solving and critical thinking, as seen through research from World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report.

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that can support remote working arrangements. In the long term, traits like agility and learnability will play a more important role.

  • Provide immediate resources during the crisis to do remote learning. Staff is no longer spending time commuting, but they may also have less time because they are balancing home and work responsibilities, however, what we are seeing is that people are prioritizing learning. For instance, Linkedin Learning reported that in March, 2020, it saw 46% increase in time spent learning by enterprise learners compared to the time they spent learning in February. Organizations will benefit from immediately providing learning resources for willing staff during the work-from-home period.

  • Curate learning pathways for staff to match organization needs. Instead of sending staff to one-off trainings, curate a series of content that can map out their learning journeys. For example, Linkedin found that the top reason employees spend more time learning is if they received specific course recommendations from the employer. This shows that becoming more involved in directing staff’s learning pathway is one of the most effective ways to drive learner engagement.

  • Increase effectiveness through different delivery methods. The world of learning has also been disrupted by COVID-19, but organizations can take note of innovative methods that have already proven to work to improve learner outcomes. For example, flipped classroom models help increase engagement by cutting down the time learners are passively listening to a facilitator or pre-recorded video and increase their active participation. And while we are physically distancing, we see that demand for social learning is on the rise. Learners are seeking for like-minded communities to navigate their journeys together, and this will have implications on whether self-paced asynchronous learning is replaced by more real-time virtual instructor-led training in a social group setting.

Interested to learn more about our research on how Covid-19 impacts the future of work? Email us at hello@eskwelabs.com to receive the whitepaper.

Eskwelabs is an education technology start-up. We inspire, equip, and connect individuals and companies to opportunities in the future of work through data science education.

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The future of work is data. Eskwelabs creates opportunities for people and teams to thrive in the future of work through data skills education.

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