The COVID-19 crisis of 2020 is already writing itself into the books as a major event in our time. A former US Treasury secretary and current Harvard professor wrote in The Financial Times that the COVID-19 crisis will rank alongside the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the 1929 stock market crash, and the 1938 Munich Conference as seminal events in modern-day world history.
Not only is COVID-19 felt at nearly every level and throughout every area of society, its ripple effect is long and far-reaching.
And of particular interest to us at Workable is how the world of work was impacted, and how it will be impacted going forward.
We conducted a survey to try and understand what happened during the crisis, what changed as a result, and what the new world of work will look like.
The major takeaways from our survey results include the following:
Perhaps most obviously, the shift to remote work was sudden. Many businesses were underprepared, and future plans are in place to remain or go even more remote. Plus, COVID-19 was either an underlying trigger or the direct catalyst of that shift.
Whether it’s in communications, processes, collaboration, or otherwise, the utilization of technology is a key enabler in a successful shift to remote work. For those companies looking to permanently move to remote, technology is a significant focus in ensuring a seamless migration.
Respondents are increasingly uncertain or concerned about maintaining employee engagement. They predict significant changes in what can attract a candidate to a new job.
Lead author: Keith MacKenzie
Editing: Alexandra Marinaki, Zinovia Panagopoulou
Data analysis: Dimosthenis Giannigiotis
Design: Rennie Abraham, Stella Papantou
— Business response
— Impact on hiring
— Shift to remote work
— Shift to remote is permanent
— Numbers differ across industries
— Shift to remote is doable - to a degree
— Challenges to remote work
Not only was the impact palpable, it was also very tangible, and it forced action in many aspects of business. Let’s look at what our respondents did when COVID-19 became a reality for them.
As is now known, a significant impact of COVID-19 on business was that it triggered a sudden transition to a fully remote working environment where all employees worked from home. Our survey confirmed this – nearly two-thirds (62.6%) of respondents cited going fully remote as one of the actions their business took.
A third (32.3%) of respondents said they moved part of their operations to a remote environment. It bears noting that nearly a third of all respondents work in IT/technology – considered to be one of the most remote-friendly sectors.
A sizable percentage of businesses introduced precautionary measures at their working location (37.9%) and/or reduced capacity at work, if remote was not an option for all workers (18%).
“It's going to look very different without a doubt … Personally, I think it will be good for us, we were starting to lose focus of who we were, it was becoming less important to talk to people face to face and more important to stare at phones … Yes, we will be using technology more in our day-to-day lives due to COVID-19, but now we are focusing more on what's actually important.”
The economic impact of COVID-19 is also significant in our dataset. A full 12% shut down business altogether – albeit temporarily in most cases. All but one in hospitality and 26.1% of those in education shut down. In terms of company size, 21.7% of those in the 1-9 employee-size bracket opted to shut down temporarily, a far higher rate than any of the other size categories.
More than a fifth of our respondents reported that their businesses laid off or furloughed employees. When breaking down by company size, we found those in the 50-99 and 100-499 employee-size brackets were statistically more likely to lay off workers, with percentages choosing this option being 12.3 and 10.6 percentage points more than the percentages of total respondents in those brackets. The opposite was true for those with 10-49 employees, with just 17.1% in that category choosing to lay off or furlough workers, compared with 26.1% of total respondents falling into that size bracket.
And by industry, those in hospitality (62.5%) and manufacturing (50%) were more likely to turn to layoffs and furloughs as an option, whereas those in healthcare (7.4%) and education (4.3%) were far less likely to choose that route.
When asked about the changes businesses are planning going forward, the response was comprehensive, with all listed options being selected widely. The most popularly selected moves are travel reduction (59.3%) and a shift to remote (56.5%). Closely following are plans to switch to staggered/flexible work schedules (44.9%) and a redesign of the physical working environment (44.1%).
Many of those in the “Other” category stated they aren’t entirely sure yet, with one indicating they want to see how other businesses fared before taking action of their own. Others plan to increase personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation protocols, and overall employee safety either in the field or in the workplace. One respondent in the business/consulting sector plans to require clients to be tested beforehand.
Most striking is that just 6.2% of respondents stated that nothing is being planned going forward.
Whether it’s layoffs, a shift to remote, or redesigning workplaces, this response tells us that COVID-19 impacted the majority of businesses in our survey, and drastically altered their planning.
“I think that it will change a lot in the world. Adapting as we have gave us knowledge to be more flexible and change to remote working. I think many people will adapt more wellness programs and education.”
COVID-19 was also readily felt in the hiring space. Two-thirds of respondents (65.2%) said they were hiring less during the crisis or had frozen hiring altogether. Just 8.1% said they increased their hiring in response. Although our own survey results don’t reflect it in terms of healthcare hiring, it’s well documented that healthcare, supply chains, telecommunications, and the mortgage industry are sectors that aggressively ramped hiring in the early days of the crisis.
Company size also dictated responses: smaller companies (1-49 employees) and larger, enterprise-sized companies (>1,000 employees) were the most likely to report that they’ve frozen hiring completely, while a full half of companies with 500-999 employees said they were hiring less than planned.
None of the six size categories saw more than 10% of respondents hiring more than planned.
COVID-19 isn’t just a health pandemic – it’s also a social and economic pandemic in that it has significantly impacted how people and businesses operate.
The majority of respondents (68%) reported that, prior to the COVID-19 crisis, a quarter or less of their employees worked remotely. Just 11.2% of businesses reported that three quarters or more of their workers operated in a virtual environment before the crisis hit.
And now? A significant portion of respondents (nearly 60%) said at least three quarters of their staff currently operate in a remote working environment.
The stark difference between these two graphs (pre-COVID and current COVID environment) indicates that COVID is a major catalyst in moving to remote, and that this change was very sudden. It also tells us that many companies hit the ground running in that shift – in many cases, literally one day to the next.
When asked about a permanent shift to remote work, 41.3% of respondents said they will move at least some positions to a virtual environment, and an additional 9% said they will be fully remote after COVID. Just over one-fifth (21.9%) said they will not permanently move any positions to remote.
“Remote jobs will increase. Companies will adapt to remote working patterns; this will be the new normal even with the invention of a vaccine. As people become used to working from home, meeting physically will be only a matter of necessity.”
Remote work and distributed teams led by and far in a list of predicted paradigm shifts post-COVID, with a full 71.1% of respondents citing that shift as a new standard. This is well ahead of other options including rules around physical distancing, more tech adoption, and updated workplace design.
Of those businesses considering a more permanent shift, one-third (33.3%) of respondents said that they plan to move half or more of their workforce to remote going forward. Another 40.8% said they will move 26% to 50% of their workforce to a remote environment.
The difference in the pre-COVID remote work numbers and post-COVID plans – and the large number of businesses who moved some or all their workforce to remote during the crisis itself – tells us that COVID-19 not only is a significant catalyst in shifting to remote, but also heavily impacts future plans around remote work.
Of course, each business has their own unique experience in this shift. Three potential stories are:
Although remote work was the most popularly predicted paradigm shift across all respondents in our survey, those in the healthcare sector say rules around physical distancing (63%) and tech/digital adoption (59.3%) will be as significant as remote work (also 59.3%) as major changes going forward. And those in education tagged changes in the physical workplace as their second-most popular choice after remote work.
Still, remote work is the clear leader in terms of paradigm shift. This tells us that, regardless of industry, remote work is here to stay.
We’ve established remote work as the number-one disruption going forward. But what will that new remote work world look like, and how feasible is it? We asked those questions in our survey as well.
Two thirds of respondents (64.3%) reported that, of their workforce not already working remote, more than a quarter can move to a virtual environment without disruption. And 15.2% said they’d be able to move their entire workforce to remote.
But that’s just one side of the same coin. The other side is that more than a third (35.7%) of respondents can only move at most one quarter of their current non-remote workforce to a virtual environment without disruption. In other words, a full three quarters or more of their workforce cannot go virtual.
So, what’s stopping them? We asked that, too.
Predictably, the need to be physically present for work was a dominant challenge in shifting to a remote-first environment, particularly for those in healthcare (81.5%) and education (73.9%). Yet, those same sectors didn’t consider adaptability/resilience/readiness of workers to be a major issue when transitioning to remote-first.
In the “Other” category, respondents cited logistics, the value of physically being in the same space, and lack of management buy-in as leading factors.
“There is still value in being present. We are a route-based business and some staff must still report to the physical location. We want to avoid creating a disparity between job roles.”
When asked about what does enable them to go remote, a full 69.6% of education workers said they didn’t need to be physically present at work, tops across our four major sectors, while at the same time trailing all other sectors in terms of technological readiness.
One could dive deeper into the “why” of this, but one potential takeaway is that those in education feel they can work remotely if they have the technology to do so. There are myriad reasons for not having the technology, for instance, a digital divide among students, budgetary challenges, or lack of buy-in or support from key stakeholders and users.
What we do know is that many major schools from K-12 to college/university – including in California and at Harvard – are moving to a digital-first curriculum and may even remain so for the foreseeable future. Technology has enabled that to happen. Perhaps that’s a permanent shift and a major change in a sector that traditionally has required physical presence. We may see similar trends in other sectors.
So – the paradigm shift continues to be remote, and technology helps that shift to happen – but some sectors are not as ready as others.
When operating remotely, unique issues surface particularly in recruitment. Finding the right people to fill those much-needed roles is crucial to business success and survival; imagine doing that entirely via your laptop. So, we asked respondents about that.
For those continuing to hire during COVID-19, a whole new set of challenges surfaced. Remote onboarding/training challenges (37.4%) and hiring in a remote environment (33.1%) are top of mind among respondents, with uncertainty among candidates about job security (31.7%) and economic anxiety within the business (30.6%) also listed as major concerns.
In terms of remote hiring/onboarding/training, perhaps the lack of remote experience indicated in the previous graphs is a factor. The recruitment process – so familiar to entry-level and veteran recruiters alike – looks very different in a remote environment. For recruiters and hiring managers, this can be a steep learning curve.
So, we asked respondents what they thought the biggest challenges in hiring remotely would be going forward. The top responses were candidate engagement (51.7%), candidate onboarding (49.7%), and candidate evaluation (42.4%), easily doubling and even tripling any tech-focused concerns such as insufficient tech stacks and lack of buy-in/adoption.
“I think it will be vastly different depending upon the sector. My company is in the technology sector so I expect there will be minimal disruption to productivity and team engagement (if the past few months are any indication) but other sectors that are not so conversant with technology may have a much more challenging experience in shifting to new models of work.”
So, evidently, the problem isn’t technology itself – also shown in previous graphs where tech adoption or availability lagged behind other challenges in shifting to remote. Rather, the problem may be worker know-how in conducting standard recruitment/HR practices in a virtual world. As above, recruiters need to relearn large parts of their work. This places a greater value on soft skills around adaptability and willingness to take on new skills.
In fact, our respondents highlighted these soft skills when asked about what the most valuable traits they would be looking for in new hires. Adaptability and resilience (67.4%) and self-motivated/self-starter (54.2%) led the way as sought-after traits.
One custom response in the “Other” category succinctly put it: “Ability to work remotely with limited supervision”.
This suggests that respondents see an uncertain road ahead, that requires plenty of pivoting for businesses and their employees – in a remote environment, no less – and so, they will look for candidates who thrive in that new world.
Recruiters are themselves also operating in that ambiguous, fast-changing environment. But there are many tools available that empower hiring teams to find, evaluate, and hire candidates in the new world of work.
Digital transformation is a long-time buzzword that now means the digitization of information, industries, organizations, and operations. And if remote work is the biggest paradigm shift prompted by COVID-19, digital tools are the vehicle to make that a smoother transition.
When we asked respondents what made them able to move to a remote workflow without disruption, more than two thirds (68%) reported it was because they already had the technology in place to do so.
“... industries and businesses are going to adapt to using digital platforms to deliver their work and product. People are adjusting to social distancing and embracing the technology to meet people and make their daily earnings.”
Of those planning to move to remote operations or distributed teams, nearly half plan to introduce or increase digital capabilities in that transition.
Those in senior-level management prioritized tech adoption in the post-COVID work environment, much more so than those at entry/mid-level. Perhaps executives see tech adoption as a company-wide, internal digital transformation while entry/mid-level employees see it as tools to assist their daily work.
“COVID-19 has shown … that weak link [in] being penny wise but pound foolish when it comes to technology adoption. During the shutdown, those who spent on technology were able to be ‘business as usual’ where workforce worked 100% remotely.”
“There will be a greater need for technology and its various intents and purposes so that operations can still continue despite physical limitations. What humans or live personnel cannot do, technology should cover.”
Those in entry/mid-level employee positions are more concerned about the readiness of their business than those in senior-level management. Also, several custom entries from our respondents indicate the lack of senior-level buy-in.
Some of these differences may indicate potential issues around employee engagement.
“The world of work will be focusing on new technology to make work efficient and boost collaboration in virtual ways, [and] more adaptive to remote working style. The expenses for office rental and travelling will be cut as well, [and] more creative ways in employee engagement events.”
Understandably, the current climate marked significant upheaval in many forms – economic, health (mental and physical), social, political, and many others. The shift to remote work is just one of those new developments, but a significant one nonetheless. Everyone’s affected – including in the workplace.
When asked what they think will be significant challenges in a remote-first environment, 73.2% of respondents highlighted individual employee engagement and motivation. Team-building and morale (54.7%) are next, followed by by team collaboration and logistics (41.1%).
What makes engagement a major concern? Is it that our respondents are worried that if employees cannot physically see each other at work, can’t have lunch together, or work together in the same space, they’ll start tuning out? Maybe.
In a follow-up question, we asked about the top focal points to ensure employee engagement. The responses were predominantly focused on communications and getting synced, with 54.5% of respondents planning more team meetings (virtually) and 52.8% planning to incorporate more communications technologies (chat, video, etc.).
About a third (33.7%) said they plan regular all-hands from top management as one of their top three major focal points going forward. Just 27.8% said they plan remote-work trainings and seminars.
It’s striking that given the overall worries about working remotely, there’s less emphasis placed on upskilling and retraining employees for remote work than there is on connectivity and synchronous work in that same environment.
So, we broke down survey responses to see if there was a difference between remote-work challenges for senior-level management and for those in entry/mid-level positions. Concerns around team collaboration and team building were relatively similar, but we found that productivity is a much bigger concern for senior-level executives (a 15.3-point difference). Individual employee engagement is a greater issue for those in entry/mid-level roles (a 14.5-point difference).
This makes sense. The bottom line (and therefore, productivity) is what keeps senior-level management up at night. Individual employees and managers, on the other hand, are perhaps more concerned about staying motivated in a new, unfamiliar work world. Given that work is often collaborative, it does make sense that increased virtual communications are highlighted as ways to maintain engagement.
But now that we’re operating in a socially, politically, and economically volatile landscape, there’s more emphasis on engagement than remote-work performance.
Employee disengagement is a dominant concern in a post-COVID world for many in our survey – with a full 54.8% including it in their list of top challenges going forward. New logistics (i.e. staggered schedules, virtual meetings, etc.) comes in at a distant second (32.3%).
Respondents who picked “Other” listed lower budgets for financial stability, maintaining company culture, and employee mental health as additional challenges.
We then asked respondents what they felt would become more important or less important in terms of candidate attraction going into the new world of work. They predicted that remote work, flexibility, and work-life balance (81.8%) will become more important in the eyes of candidates than before COVID-19, closely followed by job security (79.8%)
Just a third of respondents thought compensation (33.3%) and career opportunity (34.6%) would become more important going forward – although it bears noting that compensation and career opportunity are traditionally high in value, possibly making “more important” a moot point.
Also: these are the opinions of employers and professionals. If one were to ask candidates themselves, the numbers may differ.
“There will be more focus on the person rather than on what the person produces. Companies will start asking why people do what they do before asking them to just do their job.”
A potential insight is that candidates – and employees – will be more concerned about their physical and mental health now more than previously. The ability to determine one’s own hours and workspace is a huge benefit for many in that regard.
The uncertain economic climate also means job security is predicted to be a huge, huge deal for candidates. Most of our respondents are aware of this going forward – and they’ll need to include assurance of job security in their communications with candidates to attract them.
The COVID-19 crisis is unpredictable and volatile, making it hard to plan for. However, our respondents do have to make projections so they’re not operating fully in a vacuum.
So when do we return to normal or at least return to some semblance of stability? We asked that question as it applies to business operations and to the overall industry.
There was no clear consensus – only that 4-6 months was the most popular answer for both own business operations and for industry. The differences between “business return” and “industry return” were quite marked in the 0-3 month category, with 21.9% of businesses saying they’d return to “normal” within three months compared with 13.5% saying their industry would return to “normal” in the same time frame.
The opposite was true for a return to “normal” within 1-2 years – with just under 10% of respondents seeing their business returning, compared with 16.9% for their industry returning.
“In our industry, it will never return to before COVID-19. We will need to change our focus to marketing to consumers within our own country, province or within driving distance. The visitors from around the world will be minimal.”
When we dissect the “business return to normal” responses by senior-level positions versus entry/mid-level positions, senior-level workers projected a longer road to recovery than their entry/mid-level counterparts. They were also more likely to say their business had already gone back to normal or hadn’t been affected in any way.
But it’s interesting to note that nearly twice as many senior-level as entry/mid-level employees think their business has already returned to normal.
Overall, a very small percentage of respondents across the board think it won’t return to “normal” or take longer than two years to do so. The short interpretation of this is that most respondents do think there’s an end date to the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on business and industry. It’s just a matter of when.
“This time shall pass. Social distancing will end. We will all be back to being regular humans again.”
“I have been amazed at how well our team have adapted to working from home. We have all acknowledged that we miss the team interaction, but I really feel we've got to know each other more, we've had daily calls since the lockdown, which has helped our split-site company. I think it will take time to accept the new normal, but we will get there. ... I hope that we take all the learnings we've acquired during this lockdown and bring these forward. Our air is clearer, our seas are cleaner, we recognise the importance of being connected after being so isolated for so long, we appreciate the small exercise time we've had outdoors. The world will be different, but so much potential to be better too.”
Our initial goal in the survey was to identify when businesses thought they would return to some kind of “normal” after COVID-19. That part of the survey, however, resulted in the most inconclusive findings.
What we learned, instead, is that remote work is clearly the way forward, digitization of processes is the way to enable that shift, and employee engagement is – understandably – a mounting concern.
Also, most of our respondents either have the tech tools to operate in a remote world of work, or are at least aware of or plan to introduce more tools to support that new work environment. The basic know-how of work has not changed; recruiters and hiring teams, for instance, still know how to source, evaluate, hire, and onboard candidates – but they aren’t fully versed on how to do all that in a remote environment.
Finally, the emphasis on the solutions of more meetings, more “coffee dates”, and all-hands to maintain employee engagement in a virtual work world as opposed to new trainings for a new world echoes Einstein’s famous quote: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
The remote world of work is here to stay, and there’s a clear willingness to adapt to that new world – at least in the adoption of new technology. But in order to really succeed in this new model of work, we need to loosen up on the traditional operational practices, and start thinking about different solutions and practices so we continue to set ourselves for success. In short: the new world of work requires a new way of thinking.
The survey was sent out to HR professionals, talent acquisition professionals, and business leaders in early June 2020. A total of 366 around the world completed the 30-question survey, representing a broad cross section of company sizes, industries, regions, functions, and job levels.
The majority of respondents were from companies in the 100-499 employee range, in IT/Technology, operating in the United States or Canada, in HR, and at the manager/director level.