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What’s in Store for Leadership After the COVID Pandemic?

No one knows what the future holds, but leaders should prepare to contend with a new world of work.

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As the country slowly climbs out of the darkness, fear, and economic upheaval of the last year, it’s time to start thinking about what the future might look like. Vaccines are beginning to roll out all over the country, and here in the U.S., tentative plans indicate that we may be able to finally have a more “normal” summer than we’ve seen since 2019. While this gives all of us some hope, it also means that it’s high time business and thought leaders start seriously considering what the future of work might look like and how we can take the lessons of the darkness of 2020 and carry them forward into a new world of work. Here’s what I think is in store for business leaders once the COVID-19 pandemic has become more manageable.

Realize That COVID Is Here to Stay

First and foremost, leaders must recognize that COIVD-19 has upended the world in ways we haven’t yet comprehended and that the virus is here to stay—permanently. Even though vaccines are becoming more readily available to a broader population, that doesn’t mean we won’t have rolling shutdowns, future supply shortages, future shipping shortages, or even future lockdown orders to contend with.

There’s some indication that the coronavirus will become a lot more like the common flu in years to come. Every six months to a year, the entire population will likely need to get vaccinated once again to stave off the latest, more aggressive version of the bug. COVID-19 and all of its different strains are here to stay, and there’s no guarantee that the vaccines we have now will continue to work against potential new strains down the road. Scientists and vaccine makers are going to have to work overtime to keep up with the ever-changing virus and keep our population safe, something that business leaders must keep in mind as we think about the future.

Additionally, it’s essential to understand and recognize how the pandemic has changed the way we think about work. As McKinsey research points out, the COVID-19 pandemic will require “imminent restructuring of the global economic order.” That will have a vast impact on every field from healthcare to aerospace. Instead of referring to it as “normal,” McKinsey calls it the “next normal.” This modern era will be defined by “before COVID” and “after COVID.” What is clear about the next normal is that we will not go back to the way things were before. As business leaders, we need to recognize and understand a variety of things that will require us to rethink the way we work, manage, and build businesses well into the future.

The Office Won’t Be the Hub of Activity it Once Was

If we have all learned one thing over the last year, it’s that physical offices are relics of the past: memories from “before COVID.” The days of an office filled with a vast number of desks or cubicles and employees spending 8 to 10 hours occupying those office spaces seem quaint, if not a millennia ago.

Over the last year, we have proven that there are plenty of ways we can survive and even thrive with a remote workforce. Before COVID, we had to source the best talent we could within 50 miles of a physical office. The only proximity requirement that we’ll need to ensure all of our future workers have in the days after COVID will be a fast internet connection and a professional-looking Zoom backdrop.

All this means that we as leaders need to rethink a number of aspects of our business—everything from the security protocols we have in place for remote workers to whether or not we really need a permanent physical office space.

Perks Are Far More Than Just Office Yoga and Free Lunches

If the pandemic has taught us anything about relationships, it’s the value of human connection and how important it is to ensure that our people are safe and healthy. Before the pandemic, that probably meant offering a mid-tier health plan and some in-office perks like healthy snacks, free lunches, or in-office yoga. After the pandemic and a year of working, eating, and working out at home, we as business leaders need to truly consider what the future of wellness and health for work really looks like.

We’ve all come through a year-long crisis that continues to drag on. Collectively we are going through an incredibly transformative and traumatic event. In the U.S. alone, more than half a million people died as a result of COVID-19. Our businesses, family lives, and home lives have been profoundly changed, and trauma can have long-tail effects on employees’ mental health and well-being. Company leaders need to be prepared to offer ways for employees to take care of themselves and their loved ones as we all cope with the fallout from this past year. That means offering employees more robust tools and access to mental health support and offering healthcare that works for where your employees  are—not where your office is. It’s vital both to be able to support employees as they transition to the next normal and to help them manage the long period of recovery after all this is over.

Wellness offerings can also no longer be solely location-based. Over the last year, companies have begun to offer online exercise classes, meditation, and yoga classes. All of us have gotten used to staying healthy without exposing ourselves to those outside of our pandemic pods. Many people may never return to a gym, yoga studio, or Pilates space again. The risk is too significant—even after we reach a critical mass of vaccinations—for many people. That means we as business leaders need to consider how best to keep our wellness benefits relevant and accessible to all our employees, both those who come to the office and those who continue to remain remote.

While in-office yoga and free food were perks of the times before COVID, after COVID, employee expectations are going to change, too. We’ve spent a full year working remotely, and many good and valuable employees will continue to want the option to work remotely, at least part of the time. According to a recent survey by Office Depot, 64% of those companies surveyed support the idea of a dispersed and hybrid workforce. According to a Publicis Sapient survey from last August, 85% of people surveyed would prefer to continue working from home at least a few days per week in the future—even after we’re all inoculated. Those are significant numbers, and as business leaders, we need to consider what this means for retaining and hiring great employees.

As I mentioned above, the future of work will no longer be location-bound, which means we as business leaders are free to hire the most talented people from a much broader pool of people all over the world. That’s excellent news for our business’s future—but it means that we all really need to consider what it means to put our employees at the heart of our business. We need to understand that because the top talent will have plenty of opportunities, we will need to rethink the perks, offers, and healthcare offerings we use to hire and retain the best and the brightest.

Communication, in Any Form, Matters Even More

Another critical lesson the pandemic has taught us as business leaders is that communication—in any form—matters. What I mean by this is twofold. First, we have to understand that clear, regular communication (even if there is no new information to impart) has helped us all navigate the last year. It doesn’t matter how you choose to communicate: Crises require us to stay in constant contact with our employees. The more valuable communication we can provide, the more we can work together to navigate this new normal.

Secondly, the last year has driven home the idea that the internet never forgets—again, proof that communication, in any form, matters even more. Over the last few years, we’ve seen companies, actors, and politicians taken down for irresponsible, thoughtless, threatening, and racist behavior, tweets, photos, and social media posts. That’s not going to end. If anything, the scrutiny of business leaders and employees will be even higher. As business leaders, we need to realize that what we publish, say, post, or share will become a permanent part of the public record. We will be held to those words and actions well into the future. We are accountable for both the damage and the good that our words, work, social posts, and photos do. That means we must be empathetic and inclusive in whatever we write, share, or communicate, whether we are sending an internal memo or managing our social media page.

The internet will never forget. Company leaders have a social responsibility to thoughtfully manage their communication with full knowledge that their words and actions will live on for years to come.

The Bottom Line on the Future of Work

Whether we’re talking about our families or our employees, the one thing the last year has taught us is that people and connections matter. We, as leaders, need to do our very best to ensure that our actions support these people and those connections. Doing so means rethinking our offices, remote work policies, perks, and even our healthcare offerings. It means thoughtfully considering how we communicate, share, amplify, diversify, and encourage. Ultimately, it means the future of work will require leaders to reassess the balance between humans and profit. While it’s not easy work, it’s work that is necessary if we’re all going to come out the other side of this pandemic as a community. Human-centric work is the future—and leaders need to be ready to put people first.

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