2021 – A Tale of Two Workforces
By Mary Jo Spiekerman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
Vice President Human Resources, Hausmann-Johnson Insurance
Prior to the pandemic, whether you were an office worker, a healthcare delivery worker, a retail service worker or a manufacturing worker, in almost all instances you “went to work” every day to a company owned facility. Going forward we will increasingly see workers divided into two categories – those whose work can be done remotely / anywhere and those who have to commute to a facility due to the nature of their work.
During the pandemic, office workers largely moved to remote work. They have now worked remotely for months and some statistics would indicate remote workers make up over 25% of the workforce. The protracted period of remote work has caused some employers to re-think the housing of workers in offices and in some instances there will be no office facilities for workers to ever return to. Even for employers who plan to retain their office spaces, it is widely anticipated that higher percentages of workers will work remotely on a permanent basis.
Conversely, many workers in industries such as first response, healthcare delivery, food supply chain and essential construction and manufacturing operations continued working on jobsites / facilities just as they did before the pandemic. Some such as first responders and healthcare workers have been acutely impacted by the pandemic. Others in manufacturing or construction may have seen very limited impact.
The pandemic added stress and challenges to both facility based and remote workers. Some remote workers deeply dislike the isolation of working from home. Some facility based workers have struggled with the fear of contracting COVID themselves or bringing COVID home to their families. And both remote and facility based work arrangements have been complicated when child care resources are unavailable or remote schooling is added to the mix.
When the dust settles and the pandemic is behind us, what will be the impact of these two distinct workforce designs on employment? Looking into my crystal ball, here are my predictions:
Increased turnover: I believe that for a period of time after the pandemic is over, we will see the migration of employees from working environments they no longer like and employers they felt treated them badly, to companies where they feel they will get the working environment they prefer and the respect they want. If it is permanent remote work they want, they can market themselves nationally or internationally for that. If their employer has converted their job to full time remote and they prefer facility based, they will seek out an employer that provides a facility for them to commute to. Employees who have been working significant amounts of overtime in critical industries may be burned out and have a big enough nest egg saved allowing them to leave the workforce for a few years to travel, try out a new career or engage in volunteer work. Those individuals typically are in such demand by employers that they know they can always find work when and if they are ready to return to their original profession.
Compensation confusion: There will be multiple conflicting impacts on compensation. On one hand, if you can recruit nationwide for a remote worker, you may be able to pay less than you have been as your compensation levels still may be attractive to workers in low cost of living geographies. Whole categories of jobs may see flat or reduced compensation levels as a result. On the other hand, mass burnout and years of overtime compensation banked by critical infrastructure employees may cause a significant number to drop out of the workforce for a time, demand part time work, take early retirement or change careers. Those factors could push wages for those positions higher as the geographically available pool of those workers shrinks.
Technological skills divide: Remote workers have had to adapt to new technologies at an accelerated rate in order to meet the demands of customers, successfully perform their jobs and work as a cohesive team. Facility based workers may have had less exposure during the pandemic to these technologies making them less confident in taking the leap to facility based office work or a remote working arrangement either inside or outside of their current employer. And adding to the mix are displaced retail or hospitality workers who have been unemployed during the pandemic and who missed out on learning new technologies. Facility based and displaced workers could emerge post pandemic with a significant technology “language barrier” that employers may need to address as they hire them.
Recognition that “one size fits all” workplace arrangements don’t work.
Before the pandemic, it was assumed that the way most work was done was in a facility. If you wanted to work for an employer, you went to their facility to do it, whether you liked it or not. Now, some number of employers have decided there will be no facility and their employees will forever work remotely. Remote work is not for everyone and in facility work is not for everyone. Working remotely during the pandemic has allowed workers – many of them for the first time – to try a different mode of work. Some hate it and some love it. I believe that employers should be very cautious about demanding all remote or all facility based workplaces in the future. Beyond triggering a lot of turnover, it will set back diversity efforts and move the employee base to a more homogenous group who happen to like the workplace design. Ideally, offering choices to employees regarding the amount of time they spend remote and in facility will result in the best outcomes and maintain a more diverse work group.
I believe that a mix of remote based and facility based workplace designs are here to stay. HR professionals and company leaders will need to strategically navigate the use of them in the years to come.