Explainers

The State of Work 2020: Looking Back to Look Ahead

A collection of data and reporting from credible third-parties that paints the picture of the most tumultuous year of work in recent U.S. history

Uncertain, unprecedented: every week in 2020 forced organizations to adapt—in many cases overnight—to a remote workforce, changing consumer demands, fluctuating government restrictions, employee struggles. We wanted to look beyond the headlines to help leaders navigate this unique moment in history, and assess whether responses were quick fixes to immediate problems, or more permanent shifts in how business is done.

What we found was that 2020 accelerated deep inequities at work and in American life. Early sentiments of unity and solidarity (i.e. “We’re all in this together”) rang hollow within weeks of the first pandemic lockdowns and fell to pieces after social unrest exploded in May. Instead, the dominant American experience of 2020 was that of a super-sized “Matthew Effect” (widely characterized by the aphorism, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer”):

  • Shareholders, generally, and Tech IPOs, specifically, flourished
  • Job losses came predominantly from lower income groups
  • Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and caregivers experienced acute pains, likely with lasting effects
  • The wealthy purchased new homes and relocated, while lower income groups could not due to a lack of affordable housing

As for the much-hyped transition to remote work and geographic relocation, while those trends did increase, the longevity and benefit of these trends are far less certain (based on actual data) than mainstream reporting and thought-leadership have expressed. Both topics deserve further observation and more nuanced discussion. Read the final report below, or here:

Key Questions for Leaders

Leaders at organizations that want to “build back better” in light of these challenges must ask themselves the following questions:

How can you set realistic performance expectations for employees in a pandemic? According to a McKinsey and LeanIn survey, “fewer than 40 percent [of organizations surveyed] have paused performance reviews or adjusted their performance-evaluation criteria to account for the challenges of the pandemic. Only about half of companies have provided employees with information about what their productivity expectations are during the pandemic.” This is the time to re-evaluate both what goals are possible, and how to fairly and equitably assess individual employees who may have divergent experiences at work and beyond.

How can you reduce uncertainty for folks wondering if they are returning to the office, working from home, or a mix of the two?  As the uptick in geographic moves and home purchases demonstrate, workers are weighing major lifestyle changes as a result of COVID-19, yet few organizations have so far communicated clear guidelines of who does and does not qualify for post-COVID remote work, and why. Organizations will also need to spell out work-from-home benefits and expectations. For reference, see Computerworld’s work-from-home employee’s bill of rights.

How will you train managers to lead and coach a hybrid workforce? A 2020 study featured in Harvard Business Review found that “a large number of managers are struggling with the effective management of people working from home, with this translating into many workers feeling untrusted and micromanaged by their bosses.” Managing-at-a-distance is a unique skill that requires training and reinforcement.

How will you recruit women back to work? More than 2 million women left the workforce in 2020, the majority citing overwhelming caregiving duties, leaving companies less diverse and less competitive. Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta suggests that companies 1) offer a pandemic leave of absence, 2) remove pandemic gap year bias, 3) implement diverse slates of candidates, 4) scale return-to-work programs, and 5) focus on reskilling women for new roles.

What does the physical workplace of the future look like, and how does it serve organizational outcomes? Unilever CEO Alan Jope was reported noting, “We anticipate never going back to five days a week in the office, that seems very old-fashioned now.” However, he still added that Unilever was keen to return to offices after seeing a “slow erosion of social capital” as working from home prevents colleagues from meeting in person. As physical spaces are slow and complicated to change, leaders should start experimenting now with new uses, layouts, and goals for their physical offices.

What shared rituals and habits will best knit together a hybrid virtual and co-located workforce? Designing an onboarding process and cultural norms—especially essential ones like psychological safety—that work equally well for remote and in-person employees will be a challenge. Remote employees may struggle to stay engaged when return to the office and wonder if their physical absence will negatively impact promotions, while physically present employees may feel jealous of their remote co-workers. Even time zones may become more an issue. For inspiration, heycollab published their 5 golden rules for working in an office with remote teammates.

How do you design fair and equitable compensation models that allow for in-person, remote-only, and hybrid workforce models? Do you adjust compensation based on local cost-of-living like Buffer, or will you pay top rates regardless of location like Spotify? How will you balance in-person vs remote perks? Given the diversity of experiences, is now the time to embrace greater transparency, as does Chewse?

How do you plan tactical work and lead teams amid rampant uncertainty in the short-term? Even with an increase in vaccine distribution, knowing exactly when consumption will change and how is still uncertain. This year, in particular, companies will need to adopt an agile mindset when it comes to defining objectives and plans. For many of our clients, including some of the fastest growing U.S. public companies, we have developed a more agile approach to traditional yearly planning that we call “Adaptive Planning.” Our clients have so far claimed gains in accountability, transparency, learning, and profitability.

Not knowing which COVID-19 consumer behaviors will stick and which will fade over the long-term, how do you plan for multiple possible futures 2021 and beyond? Long before COVID, it had become fashionable to poo-poo long-term planning. Yet even in an era of constant change, planning has timeless benefits: it creates a venue for us to discuss the future, it helps us align goals across our teams and divisions, and it rallies us together behind a set of competitive ambitions. Planning isn’t dead, but it must evolve as reality continues to evade our best efforts to map, react, or even comprehend it. And many companies (including our clients) are turning to scenario planning for that evolution.

For further inquires about the report or to learn how NOBL can help your company adapt, please get in touch.

Published February 16, 2021