Workplace changes may not be good for everyone
This has been a year like none in living memory. From the economy to education, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of society in 2020. Governments scrambled to contain the virus, while health-care systems were swamped by the sick. On an individual level, billions of people suffered mentally, physically and financially as they coped with lockdowns and loneliness.
As this annus horribilis draws to a close, futurists are busy predicting its fallout. Which changes will stick? Which ones will pass? And could there be a silver lining in this misery?
One area that may never be the same is the workplace. Around the world, office towers sit empty while employees toil in their spare room, bedroom, or converted closet. Zoom is the new boardroom, Teams the new cafeteria. This has provoked a shift in everything from clothing (sweats over suits) to home design (open concept is out, walls are in).
The biggest shift, however, is where people are choosing to live. Real estate reports are rife with stories of city dwellers ditching cramped condos for open space in smaller towns. For less than the price of a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto, you can sprawl out in an 1,800-square-foot house in Niagara! A study this summer by Remax Realty found that 32 per cent of Canadians wish to relocate from urban centres to suburban or exurban communities.
Sounds like paradise? Careful what you wish for. Yes, you can apply for that dream position in Calgary from your acreage near Canmore. But so can thousands of other candidates from anywhere in the country — or the world. Already, HR experts are advising candidates to “get creative in how they present themselves,” schedule networking coffees over Facetime, and set up their own websites to “stand out from the crowd.”
But that may be irrelevant when that crowd is increasingly triaged by artificial intelligence. For most major companies, algorithms now determine who gets the interview — and sometimes the job itself. While some may applaud the end of the “old boys' network,” AI can be just as biased as the humans who designed it, to the point where jurisdictions, including New York state, are considering regulations that would require employers to notify candidates of any algorithms used to evaluate them, and the qualifications or characteristics they considered.
Expect salaries to change as well. With a greater supply of potential workers, employers can pay lower prices for labour. Employees may also work for less because they can afford to: you don't need a six-figure salary to live well in a small town. Just as cheaper labour costs enticed companies to offshore manufacturing from developed to less-developed economies, work-from-home may shift white-collar workforces to less pricey places.
Employers have already realized this. Starting in January 2021, Facebook will adjust employee compensation to the cost of living where workers choose to live. CEO Mark Zuckerberg crowed that more remote work would allow Facebook to “broaden its recruitment, retain valuable employees, reduce the climate impact caused by commutes and expand the diversity of its workforce.” He didn't dwell on the savings if half the company's 48,000 employees took an overnight pay cut.
So who wins in this work-from-home world? The best and brightest workers will thrive, as they always do. Late-career professionals with established networks will probably do just fine, too. Small towns may see a renaissance, while many companies cut labour costs (hopefully passing those savings on to customers).
Who loses? Recent graduates and younger workers with less experience and fewer contacts. Instead of moving out to the burbs, they may end up spending years in their parents' basements. Meanwhile, urban service workers may have to find new jobs as food courts, coffee shops, downtown malls and entertainment see fewer customers.
So before you get too comfortable, take a hard look at the workplace of tomorrow. Depending on where you sit, you may want to get out of your sweats — and back to the office.