Has 2020 changed workplace culture for good?

Expert reflects on his 2020 future-of-work predictions and forecasts what’s ahead for the workforce

By Molly Gluck

Image credit: Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Disruption has always been a constant in the workplace — but the COVID-19 pandemic brought on more change than anyone could have expected (or predicted).

For example, before the pandemic only 17 percent of Americans were working remotely 5+ days per week. Now, almost half of the U.S. workforce (44 percent) is fully remote, according to Statista Research Department. Remote or not, over seven million employees have seen their wages drop since March — and many others have had their pay frozen. Unfortunately, the economic fallout from the pandemic did not stop with wage decreases and freezes: in April 2020, the unemployment rate jumped to a level not seen since the 1930s. Everyone felt the changes and challenges that the pandemic unexpectedly thrust on businesses of all sizes, structures and industries.

Prior to the pandemic, we asked global business expert Gregory Stoller to share his future-of-work predictions for 2020. Now that one of the most difficult and unexpected years has come to a close, we tapped Stoller to look back and reflect on his pre-pandemic predictions. See below for his pre-COVID predictions — and what his new perspectives look like after living through a year shaped by the pandemic.

Side Hustles

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Pre-pandemic predictions for 2020

Side hustles are great, and definitely something that many people are pursuing today — and will increasingly explore. There are both advantages and disadvantages that correspond with freelance and gig positions. The advantage is it allows you to provide yourself with career and thought diversification. Instead of doing the same thing day in and day out, or solely concentrating on the same industry, having a side hustle enables you to apply different skillsets across new industries and professional experiences. The downside, of course, is taking focus and precious time away from your primary work activity. We all think we can seamlessly multitask, but the downfall emerges in attention to detail.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

Side hustles have continued en masse due to two factors: economic issues and remote work.

Economic issues: Many people have lost their jobs or had to take a salary cut. As a result, side hustles in some cases are not just additional income, and instead have become direct contributions to rent or mortgage payments.

Remote work: Because so many of us are working from home, there are blurred lines as to when the workday begins and ends on a de facto or actual basis. It’s been easier now than ever to multitask.

Burnout

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Pre-pandemic predictions for 2020

Gone are the days of simply checking email and voicemail through a mobile device. In addition to professional emails and calls, we are constantly receiving updates, notifications and texts from LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the other news and social media channels we follow. As productive as these notifications on our phones, wearables and work devices may make us feel, it can become exhausting and distracting to keep up. In 2020 I recommend adopting the mentality that not replying to an email or a text within minutes doesn’t indicate a lack of support for your company’s mission, your job, or your boss.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

My prediction for burnout this year is probably the opposite of my projection for 2020. A lot of people I’ve spoken with are having difficulty keeping track of the days — one day just blends into another. I recently went walking with somebody who mentioned that our afternoon stroll was the first time that they had left the house all day. With this in mind, I certainly wouldn’t say that people are bored, but, rather, they are overcome by monotony. In many cases, being able to work at home has actually produced a little bit more free time as there is no traffic to fight, a dearth of commuting woes, trips to the dry cleaner, or (live) work events.

Productivity

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Pre-pandemic predictions for 2020

Productivity used to be defined as 1) working longer hours than the people seated to your left and to your right, 2) being the one to always raise your hand for a new project or 3) trying to mind more details than someone else. I believe that productivity is now defined as actually executing what you say you’re going to do — and doing it well. For example, over the next month, be mindful of the number of people who say things like “I will finalize that by tomorrow” or “reviewing now,” compared with those who actually follow through. Whether technology can assist with productivity is always a consideration, but I think technology should be viewed as a means rather than an end.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

I’ve been pleasantly surprised how productive people have been this year. Several years ago, working from home, say, one day a week, seemed like a euphemism for getting a pass to only work a half-day. People have been remarkably efficient and productive in getting their jobs done, and then some— even in remote environments where almost everything has to be done over Zoom and or the phone.

Skillsets that will come to the forefront

Pre-pandemic future-of-work predictions for 2020

In three words, big picture thinking. We seem to have adopted a short-term mindset by focusing on individual projects, individual clients, and the here and now. It’s important to take a step back and look at trends, lifetime value of a customer, goal, or initiative — and bigger-picture perspectives.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

I think the new skillset we need to acquire in 2021 lies in a phrase often repeated by our Questrom School of Business Dean, Susan Fournier: “against all odds.” Unfortunately, despite how high the COVID-19 positivity rates have become, the globe continues to spin, the sun rises and sets, and we need to work in order to put food on the table. Obviously, sitting on Zoom for something like six hours at a time continuously is anything but enjoyable, but what choice do we have?

Policies

Pre-pandemic predictions for 2020

It’s important to view a relationship with your employer as being a marathon not a sprint. I recognize that it is far easier to recommend this than to suffer through it individually, but ju­st because you knocked it out of the park professionally yet only received a 2.5% raise doesn’t necessarily mean that you are tethered to that number for the rest of your career. Companies go through ups and downs, just like we do personally. If you are concerned about equality in your work group, my advice would be to avoid taking a reactionary approach, but rather start with an informal conversation with your supervisor about the future.

Image credit: Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Reflections on last year’s predictions

I think the name of the game in 2021 is going to be flexibility. I’ve frequently said that to be successful in certain international cultures it’s more the intent of what you’re doing rather than the actual results at least on a day-to-day basis. In the global workforce, people know whether you’re truly making an effort or not. The same is true with the pandemic. Supervisors know whether their employees are still trying to get their job done appropriately, with the understanding that stuff comes up unexpectedly. In the past three weeks I’ve heard of entire families getting infected all at once, and there’s no policy on the books to deal with something like that — nor should there be. We are all in this together.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Greg Stoller at @GregoryStoller and Questrom School of Business at @BUQuestrom on Twitter.

Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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