Office Hours: Jason Schloetzer on the Future of Work as a Result of COVID-19

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Companies and employees have made significant investments in digital technologies in just a few months in order to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many parts of the country start to reopen, companies are carefully evaluating what the environment will look like for employees going back to work. These reopening plans raise many questions about trends towards greater global competition for white-collar jobs due to the increasing use of remote work and the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can automate routine office tasks. Jason Schloetzer, William and Karen Sonneborn Term Associate Professor of Business Administration at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, highlights the potential ramifications on the future of work.

What changes should we expect to see when we return to work as a result of COVID-19?

For nearly all employees, the nature and meaning of work has changed rapidly in just a few months. Millions of workers have become unemployed, and a meaningful number of those who remain employed have seen their paychecks and retirement contributions reduced due to cost-savings initiatives. By some estimates, as many as 70 percent of employees are working remotely full-time, often for the first time in their careers, and an increasing number of companies are allowing employees to work remotely for the foreseeable future or even permanently. Additionally, social distancing requirements have increased office space costs by requiring additional investment in workspace configurations to add more square footage per person. The confluence of these forces will change how we work for years to come.

What is it about these forces that you see leading to changes in the way we work?

Companies have started to realize that remote work can be productive for many areas of their businesses. Digital meeting platforms like Zoom and Slack foster a new way to organize interactions among employees that executives have long believed can only happen with face-to-face communication in an office setting.

The factor that perhaps has the most significant potential impact on the future of work is whether remote work will cause a sudden burst in the globalization of white-collar jobs. As companies become accustomed to supporting and integrating remote workers into business processes, and the need for physical presence in the office declines, it seems only a matter of time until remote work goes global. Large companies can easily move many types of corporate positions abroad to reduce cost and it would seem local immigration policy becomes less relevant in a world in which remote workers can be located in any country.

Is there a concern that companies will begin to automate more jobs?

The decision to hire someone is not an easy one. By some estimates, over half of companies that shed employees over the past few months did not intend to rehire the same workers they furloughed. Some companies will pause their hiring process to assess options that seemed too costly when the economy was operating smoothly, but now seem more worthwhile, such as accelerating and deepening their digital transformation efforts. For instance, we could see a proliferation of ordering kiosks at restaurants and an uptick in the use of virtual assistants for customer interactions.

Remote work might have shed light on areas of the business that could be automated, leading some companies to automate white collar tasks with, for example, robotic process automation systems or higher-end AI systems. It can seem more appealing to automate processes when you have already laid off the employees that would be replaced.

In the context of business, what about the current situation concerns you the most? What gives you the most hope?

What concerns me the most is that COVID-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of large companies by creating a dynamic in which both remote work and the use of automation/AI-based systems will increase. These factors will have a meaningful impact on employees and the dignity of work itself. The prominent view of AI in the workplace is that the future of work will require human skills: discernment, judgement, empathy, intuition, creativity, curiosity, ethics, reasoning, and the comprehension of complex interactions among people. However, there has been much less discussion regarding the implications of widespread remote work.

At first blush, a global pool of remote workers also can possess the human skills that an algorithm is unable to do well, so we might need to add to those skills if the future of work involves into a combination of automation and remote work. It is probably a good time to think hard about the value of in-person interactions and the skills required to excel in such settings.

What gives me the most hope is that the rise of remote work does not diminish the importance of humanity. Rather, we may now become more aware of what we truly value about being together in the same room.