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COVID-19: Game Changer for the World of Work

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to radically alter work and the workplace — while keeping IT professionals busy.
Covid-19: Game Changer For The World Of Work

Nicole Coughlin Raimundo, chief information officer for the city of Cary, North Carolina, remembers when the IT department she runs there had, for all practical purposes, become invisible. “In our organization,” she said, “no one talked about IT or noticed IT, unless the email was down, or the network was down — or something was wrong.” In other words, the city of Cary, like so many organizations, had begun to think of its IT department as an operational resource, rather than as a strategic asset.

That has all changed since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Friday, March 27, North Carolina announced a statewide lockdown designed to slow the spread of the often-deadly disease. All nonessential businesses would close, and their employees would go home and stay there until further notice. 

The lockdown was scheduled to start the following business day: a Monday. But that meant Cary’s nearly 1,400-person workforce would need to head home that Friday evening equipped with whatever tools they would need to effectively work from home (WFH).

None of the Cary employees had ever worked remotely, so they had no idea of what lay ahead, but fortunately for them, the city already had a “work from anywhere” plan in place. Coughlin Raimundo had developed it five years earlier, shortly after she accepted her position as CIO. The plan called for moving most of Cary’s digital assets and resources to the cloud, and for “getting everyone up and running on laptops” as soon as possible. Both of those goals already had been accomplished.

The city employees were told to take their laptops home, turn them on, and connect to the internet. They would find the same resources they used at the office waiting for them online. Cloud services would make working from home look and feel identical to working at the office.

They didn’t even need internet service at home to make the connections because their laptops came equipped with internal long-term evolution (LTE) cards. The cards, which access the internet via cellphone networks, can bypass home Wi-Fi systems entirely to achieve strong, high-speed internet access from virtually anywhere.

Covid-19: Game Changer For The World Of Work

With the IT department’s help, Cary’s municipal workforce made a surprisingly smooth transition to WFH — and did it in just one afternoon. That experience “really highlighted the importance of technology and of putting strategies in place that allow for cloud services,” Coughlin Raimundo said. “It also highlighted the smart decisions that we had made. I don’t know that everybody, at the time, recognized how smart those decisions were.”

Coughlin Raimundo’s “work from anywhere” plan preserved Cary’s business continuity when it had been severely challenged.

Cary’s transformation is only one example of how rapidly IT departments everywhere came to the aid of employees who were about to be idled at home by lockdowns. Collectively, their efforts preserved business continuity while achieving something else that was truly remarkable: They moved the center of work — worldwide — from the office to the home, and they did it in many cases, literally, overnight.

Globally, most of the lockdowns occurred between mid-March and the end of the first week in April, approximately the same time 43 states and the District of Columbia used lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.

Months later, Kate Johnson, president of Microsoft U.S., would marvel at the size and speed of that effort. “I think we’ve seen probably two years of digital transformation in two months,” she told a virtual meeting of top women executives in June.

“Things we’ve been talking about for decades with our customers — about driving the modern workplace, pushing workloads to the clouds for greater agility in your business, things they were aspiring to, they suddenly made happen in very short order.”

From India to Indiana: a global accomplishment

The speed with which IT departments turned office workers into highly productive workers from home (WFH) raised the stature of CIOs and IT departments. Employers soon began to see them as valued strategic partners. They also gained a new appreciation for the value of IT investments.

In India, the IT industry helped 90% of the workforce make a smooth transition to WFH during a nationwide lockdown that began in late March. IT achieved those results without a significant loss in the quality of the work or worker productivity.

Roughly two-thirds of Indian workers who now WFH were located in major metro areas; the rest lived and worked in small towns. The availability of quality IT infrastructure and talent in those towns gave Indian employers a third option to add to the typically binary choice of either WFH or working from the office (WFO). Now, they also could consider working from small towns (WFST).

Some Indian business leaders already are considering making WFH a permanent option. Most say they prefer a 25/25 approach. A model in which no more than 25% of workers can be in the office at the same time, and no employees can spend more than 25% of their total work hours at the office.

Sandy Smith, VP of IT and CIO for Indiana-based Kimball Electronics, got an up-close look at COVID-19’s global reach and the transformative power of remote access technology when combined with an effective collaborative platform. 

“Things we’ve been talking about for decades with our customers — about driving the modern workplace, pushing workloads to the clouds for greater agility in your business, things they were aspiring to, they suddenly made happen in very short order.”  

– Kate Johnson, president, Microsoft U.S.

Kimball, a global electronics manufacturing services company with facilities in six countries, had never broadly offered a full-time, WFH option to employees. In fact, the only group of Kimball employees that exclusively worked off-site was its business development team. The rest of the firm’s more than 6,300 employees — spread across facilities in China, Thailand, Poland, Romania, Mexico, and the United States — may have worked remotely on occasion, but they had jobs that generally kept them on or near the factory floor.

In the months following the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, much of that changed. As the developing pandemic spread around the globe, a swarm of government-ordered lockdowns followed. Eventually, those lockdowns would put Kimball’s office workers in immediate risk of being stranded, indefinitely, at home, without remote access to company resources — or to one another.

Smith’s group provided online access to Microsoft® Teams® software — the same package Kimball’s business development team, and others, had been slowly adopting since 2018.

“The surprise,” Smith said, “was the speed at which we needed to scale [up] the use of the tools for a much larger employee base and how quickly we had to prepare users to successfully make the transition.” 

By early April, the number of Kimball employees under lockdown had mushroomed to include nearly every Kimball office worker in all six countries. IT expanded its Microsoft training and support to keep pace with soaring software utilization rates. The new WFH employees had been immersed in MS Teams “all day, every day” Smith said, and they were on track to continue that way, uninterrupted, for the next eight to 10 weeks.

“Days are now dominated by collaborative technology used to conduct business,” she noted. The rest of Kimball’s leadership team was paying attention. They watched as the newly remote workers, steeped in MS Teams for weeks at a time, quickly became highly proficient users — enough so that, according to Smith, the software had noticeably “increased their effectiveness and productivity.” 

The upshot to all of this, Smith said, was permanent companywide change. “The use of these tools likely will carry over post-COVID-19 and change the way we work in the office,” she explained.

Covid-19: Game Changer For The World Of Work

An essential resource

Julie Ouska, vice president of IT and CIO for the Colorado Community College System (CCCS), the administrative hub at the center of a sprawling 13-college higher-education conglomerate, said the lockdown “gave IT a chance to shine.” And, she said, leadership clearly had shown a deeper appreciation for IT’s role ever since.

Ouska manages a staff of 50 technology professionals who serve as the central IT department for a network of community colleges serving 137,000 students and employing 14,000 faculty and staff. They create, maintain, and plan for the expansion of the system’s IT infrastructure.

Colorado announced its lockdown on the cusp of spring break. “It was wild,” Ouska said. “We basically had a day’s notice to start moving everyone and everything online.” Two weeks later, after IT skipped its spring break, everything was done — including sourcing, inspecting, servicing, and distributing hundreds of second-hand laptops to staff members who didn’t have access to computers at home.

Colorado, Ouska said, has been hard hit by the COVID-19 recession’s impact on sales tax revenues, and most state-supported entities — CCCS among them — now face significant budget cuts. But the system’s IT budget has been spared. “IT was ‘sheltered’ from the current round of budget cuts,” she explained, “because IT is now seen as an essential resource for everyone.”

Back in Cary, Coughlin Raimundo and her team began playing a greater strategic role for the city. She assigned members of her team to advise various city departments on how best to use cloud-based technology to reinvent, repackage, and redeploy their sidelined public services. (Cary’s departments were being brought back to the office based on when their services would be ready to be deployed.) Everything from online billing and payment systems to queuing technology and the feasibility of virtualizing previously live, in-person events was being considered. Meanwhile, Coughlin Raimundo had helped create a 2020 strategic plan for the city that leveraged new IT technology to further improve business continuity.

The big picture

On March 26, 1.7 billion people worldwide were under COVID-19 lockdowns. By the end of the first week in April, that number had more than doubled to 3.9 billion people — or half the world’s population.

At that time, Gallup surveyed a panel of 3,000-plus working adults and discovered that, for the first time, a majority of Americans – 52% — were full-time WFH while 70% said they were WFH at least some of the time. WFH had officially become the new normal and the dominant worker experience in the U.S.

The situation was even more intense globally. According to the “Work from Home Experience Survey” — a global survey that gathered responses from nearly 3,000 employees between March 30 and April 24 — 88% of respondents reported that they had been WFH at least one day a week during the pandemic. Seventy-seven percent of the participants said they wanted to continue WFH at least one day a week in the future; 17% (or one in six) said they never wanted to work from the office again; and 6% (or one in 17) were equally opposed to WFH.

While a lockdown was not the ideal setting in which to experience WFH, the researchers concluded that an overall positive impression had been achieved. WFH was here to stay. “The genie is out of the bottle,” they wrote, “and is not likely to go back in.”

Meanwhile, back at the office … 

Deborah Danik, P.E., deputy department civil engineering manager and senior project manager at Boston-based Nitsch Engineering, had been looking forward to returning to the office for some time, but, she conceded, she was a bit anxious about what she would find there or how she would react to it. As part of the Nitsch management team, Danik already had a good idea of what the office would look like reimagined as a COVID-19-safe environment.  

It was early June, and Danik and her husband, a cloud infrastructure expert, had been struggling for months to both live and work in their tiny, thin-walled, downtown condo. (They bought it, Danik said, because it was in easy walking distance of both their offices. They probably would have settled on something else — somewhere else — if she had known her commute would eventually end 2 feet away from the side of her bed, and if he had known his would end a dozen or so strides later in an adjoining room.)

What Danik said she missed the most about the office were the “small touches” — the chance encounters she might have had at the coffee maker or in the hallway passing a co-worker from another department headed her way, someone she rarely saw. “At least that gives me a chance to say, ‘Hey,’” she said.

“I think it’ll be nice to have a little bit of a relief valve, a change of scenery, but,” she added, “it’s definitely not going to be the same.”

“IT was ‘sheltered’ from the current round of budget cuts because IT is now seen as an essential resource for everyone.”  

– Julie Ouska, vice president of IT and CIO, Colorado Community College System

Like most reimagined offices, Nitsch’s will be a far more regimented, much less social, and a bit more isolated place than Danik remembers. To provide for social distancing, employees may be required to work on shifts or to come in on alternating days of the week. In some places, they may have to wear masks all day — or at least when traveling the halls. The latter will be the case at Nitsch.

Places where employees used to congregate and socialize will either become off-limits or get physically carted off to storage. Kitchenettes will be cordoned off or locked down. No more watercoolers, refrigerators, microwaves, silverware, reusable coffee mugs, or communal coffee pots. Vending machines will disappear, and touch-free technology will open and shut doors, dispense soap, turn lights on and off, and so forth.

Meanwhile, available common space will be plastered with signage on walls and floors, directing traffic flow along one-way corridors and one-way stairwells and reminding all, incessantly, to practice good coronavirus hygiene.

Upon arrival, employees may be photographed and have their temperatures taken automatically and remotely. They also may be required to complete self-administered health questionnaires.

The face-to-face meetings of old may soon become remote or mask-to-mask events at best. Trash cans may be placed outside bathrooms so that people who use paper towels to protect their hands from dirty door handles on the way out will be able to chuck them. Teams will still collaborate via computer. Elevators may be limited to two passengers at a time — traveling in opposite corners, like prize fighters. Conference rooms may either be roped off or commandeered to serve as office space. All desks and cubicles will be spread out, leaving at least 6 feet of open space to every side. And some people may have to work behind plexiglass shields. 

How will Danik react? What about front-line employees everywhere? Will they keep coming back for more, or will they just finally check out and go home? “That’s the billion-dollar question,” Coughlin Raimundo said.

This constricted work environment will prevail until someone develops an effective treatment, or cure, for COVID-19. While some scientists and public officials have said they hope to have a vaccine available by year’s end, many in the know have serious reservations. 

Joyce Gioia, a futurist, best-selling author, and workplace specialist we consulted, pointed out that the average time required to develop a vaccine for a new type of virus — such as the corona family of viruses — is four years, and that doesn’t include the time required to manufacture, distribute, and administer the doses.

Virus manufacturing capacity currently is so limited that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently pledged $250 million toward the construction of seven new factories to be developed in tandem with the vaccine initiative. 

Meanwhile, the HIV-AIDS retrovirus is still without a vaccine after four decades of trying.

Tomorrow’s workplace

Some organizations, including big tech companies like IBM, are betting their futures on the premise that people will continue to work from home most of the time. Ginni Rometty, IBM’s executive chairman and former CEO, shared a glimpse into what she and her fellow IBM executives think the future world of work might look like, during a June meeting of prominent women executives.

“I think — very clearly — that it will be a hybrid work model in the future,” she said, meaning that it will combine work from home with periodic team visits to a new type of business center that she called an “innovation hub.” These hubs, it appears, will be scaled-down office facilities reformatted to support in-person, group design innovation meetings. Their goal, she said, will be to deliver stimulating innovation environments that inspire high-quality results, while also conveying and reinforcing organizational culture.

The visits will be brief, intermittent, and highly productive — or, as Rometty put it: “You come in, work on something, and then you leave.”

While Rometty didn’t go into detail about what an “innovation hub” might look like or precisely how one would work, she did share her belief that the quality of innovation suffers and organizational culture erodes when people don’t occasionally come together to interact in person. 

IBM employs hundreds of thousands of mobile workers, she said, many of whom management must still occasionally corral in for meetings or special events. “At times, you [just] have to come together to get things done,” she explained.

Rometty urged her fellow executives to get “ahead of” planning for this new work model. When IBM reviewed its real-estate assumptions, in light of the planned shift to innovation hubs, she said, they found their numbers would “profoundly change. It’s less [real estate]. It’s a consolidation, and it’s a reformat to become a hub.”

Another byproduct of the hybrid work model, Rometty said, will be a flatter overall organizational structure — one that promotes faster decision-making.

While much about the future nature of work and the workplace remains unknown and subject to change, there is at least one constant we all should be able to count on in our immediate future: people. Robots — or an artificial super-intelligence — may one day take over, but until that happens: Where there’s work, there will be humans. And virtual, remote communication and collaboration, currently in their infancy, will continue to gain in both popularity and power. In all of this, the personal touch should be preserved.

Ouska and her colleagues at the CCCS understand the “glue” that holds large virtual communities together, and it isn’t just collaborative technology. It’s how we use it that counts.

“There’s something nice about being able to walk down the hallway and talk to someone, rather than sending them an email,” Ouska said.

“I tell my staff all the time: We need to remember that, even if it’s through Webex or FaceTime or a phone call, talk to people. Don’t just email them. It’s really important that we stay connected and make sure that we are talking to each other and pushing each other, as it gets harder [to connect] in an ever-more virtual environment.”

Beyond the Crisis: Where Are We Headed?

Covid-19: Game Changer For The World Of Work
Quantitative futurist Amy Webb. Credit: Elena Siebert

We asked Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist — her term — bestselling author, speaker, and professor of strategic foresight at New York University’s Stern School of Business, what she thinks the future of work and the workplace will look like. She mentioned three potentially influential trends to watch: far-faster adoption rates for artificial intelligence (AI) and digital transformation (aka/cloud computing); a significant drop, from current levels, in the number of people working full time or most of the time from home; and, finally, a general loss of freedom and privacy as we agree to be monitored, tracked, and traced in order to stay healthy and to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Webb said that AI will continue to be a creator and destroyer of jobs — only more so — as a consequence of its ginned-up adoption rate, caused, in no small part, by the COVID-19 virus. Initially, she said, those most at risk of losing their jobs to precocious algorithms are people who do what she calls “entry-level cognitive tasks” for a living. She defines this as work that involves reading and summarizing documents. Think legal assistant or mortgage processor, for instance. AI, she said, can already match or outperform humans in this kind of work.

Contrary to popular belief, robots will not be invading the skilled trades — plumbing, carpentry, masonry, and electrical work — anytime soon. Instead, demand for these jobs, which already are experiencing shortages, will continue to grow. Why won’t automatons be taking over these skilled manual trades in the foreseeable future? Faulty assumptions.

The general belief, Webb said, was that robots would soon master this type of work, but those assumptions were wrong. “The truth of the matter is, they can’t. Robotics has come a long way, but fine articulation movements and things like that are still pretty challenging,” she said.

Webb used as an example a bathroom in need of plumbing work. The variation in bathroom floor plans, equipment, and plumbing parts and fixtures, she explained, is just too great. “The data that would be required for a robot to come in and service that equipment, in that space, is just not there. And,” she added, “you can’t build a general-purpose learning model for something like that.” (Score one for the skilled manual laborers of the world.)

Webb had good news for data scientists and engineers. Both fields, she said, will continue to flourish. In fact, the perennial shortages in these categories will likely continue for some time. As proof, she mentioned having recently read a Popular Mechanics magazine article, which she found on the internet. The article, published in the 1960s, was about a shortage of engineers. “The images clearly looked like they were from the ’60s,” she said, “but you could have published that exact same story in 1950, 1960, 1970 — all the way up to today — because it’s always been true: We’ve never had enough engineers. So, there will be a need for more engineers.”

AI will exert an influence on the technical positions of tomorrow, Webb said. Most likely, applicants will be required to have expertise in multiple disciplines. “AI is being used to speed up scientific processes, so that means there will be an intersection between AI and biology or AI and chemistry,” she said. “There are all these organic science areas that are waiting to be unlocked. So, there are a tremendous number of jobs that will be created. They’re just not jobs that exist today.”

Some of these jobs, she said, may require combined degrees in such subjects as computer science and pharmacy, robotics and medicine, or computer vision and urban planning.

“AI is in the cloud now,” Webb added, “so there’s an entire ecosystem of jobs waiting to be born. Many of these jobs will demand more of us: more critical thinking, more logic, more reasoning, and, also, much more creativity and flexibility in how we think.”

As far as privacy goes, Webb sees that being sacrificed in the short run. Workers returning to an office environment after a COVID-19 lockdown will be required to consent to being monitored in multiple ways. “Things like biometric surveillance and persistence monitoring, algorithmic scoring, using our personal data or location data, predictive analytics, using search for behavioral insights — all of these things are under the domain of big tech companies, and the virus is accelerating all of that work, in part, out of necessity.”

Webb contends that one of the most dramatic results of digital transformation so far — the migration of work from the office to the home — will probably not be a full-time, all-the-time proposition. She thinks the luster will fade. “There’s a cognitive bias that I call the ‘paradox of the present,’” she explained, “where we use our experience and the signals that we have in the present, and project them out into the future. So, we assume that the future will be like today, only more so.” 

“When people think about the future of work,” she said, “there’s a lot of, I think, speculation that we will choose to work from home more often, that we will Zoom all the time, and it’s just improbable.”

“First of all,” she explained, “we are social creatures. Most people are not satisfied or fulfilled by being by themselves all day long in their apartments or their houses, right? And there are also efficiencies to be gained by having people work next to each other.”