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How the pandemic has rewired the world of work

23 March, 2021

It’s just over one year since the first COVID-19 case in Ireland. Since then we have been living a once-in-a-generation case study, an overnight and overwhelming disruption to established ways of working. This is a moment in time, offering critical insights into how work will transform in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Ireland undertake a national ‘work from home’ experiment. Workers learned to juggle professional and personal obligations and collaborate with colleagues virtually. The way we work has changed and brought the future of work to right now.

As a business community, across industries and geographies, we’ve proven we can dramatically change the way we get work done. The pandemic has shown us where we can be successful, but also put a spotlight on what was broken. And it’s shown us we are ready for change, that we should continue the momentum and make our future better.

A photo of a technician examining a microchip up close.

From the rise of manufacturing in the 18th century to a Fourth Industrial Revolution driven by automation and smart technology, shifts in the workplace have always sparked opportunities and uncertainties.

As we came into 2020, the future of work was being driven by globalisation and digital adoption. But it turns out the machines weren’t taking over the world. Instead, a microscopic invader in the form of the coronavirus disrupted economies, organisations and the lives of everyone, changing the way we work for good.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, we are still facing a high level of uncertainty about what the future of work looks like. The remote working experiment has shown organisations and employees exactly what’s possible. It’s given rise to a shift in employee behaviours, as well as sweeping changes to the ways we relate to work and each other. And, now, there’s no going back.

According to PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 survey, 42% of respondents believe that changing worker preferences will drive transformation in the way people work over the next three to five years. But this transformation calls for complete commitment, a focus on innovation rather than iteration. The future of work is complex and we can’t afford to think about the defining issues in a piecemeal manner.

Rather than adding expectations, we need to let go of the old ideas that defined the workplace. From our attachment to the 9-to-5 working week to organisational hierarchies and the notion of the employee-for-life model, our ability to move forward hinges on our willingness to unlearn. The future of work can feel out of our control but it is important to grasp the learnings present in this moment and draw a clear line in the sand. 

Back to basics

Work has fundamentally changed forever. And for organisations, this means going back to basics – revisiting the organisational ambition, the work we do, how it gets done, and the people, processes and infrastructure needed to deliver it. It’s about understanding precisely what is changing and the steps your business must take to evolve.

We must answer a series of questions. How do we define and measure output in this new, post-pandemic era? How do we negotiate the tension between wellbeing and productivity? How do we cultivate a sense of certainty, drive innovation and forge new capabilities in a world shaped by factors we can’t predict or control?

Now is the time to be brave and define a new path. To make a conscious decision to embrace experimentation. It doesn’t just happen. It requires you to make some deliberate decisions and take deliberate actions.

The opportunity now is to translate what we’ve learned during the pandemic into a cohesive workplace strategy that’s fit for the future. The key to getting it right is to avoid the temptation to zero in on individual problems. Instead, take a step back and consider the entire ecosystem of your organisation. It sounds complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. 

The future of work

We frame the future of work around work type, workforce and workplace, with the experience of work at its core. This approach lets us see how they all combine to form the macro opportunity as well as breaking down the vision for each part of the ecosystem. That way we can understand their individual importance and how they intersect with, or impact, the others. No element is fully independent of the others. They all influence, and in turn are influenced by, the experience of work.

An illustrative graphic showing the experience of work.
  • Work Type - What kind of work do we do?

This relates to new ways of working, from macro and systems-level trends, such as labour market trends and related policies – to legal and compliance requirements.

  • Workforce - What kind of workforce do we need?

This refers to the resources including people and technology – needed to do the work. It’s all about having the right capabilities and the right skills in the right place at the right time.

  • Workplace - How do our workplaces enable our people?

These are the physical and digital environments where work is structured and undertaken. This includes everything from an organisation’s real-estate strategy to the layout of office space and the way work gets done.

  • Experience of Work - How will we energise and inspire our people?

This is the way in which workers experience the purpose, values and culture of the organisation, as demonstrated by their behaviours and engagement.

Five key actions to take now

For organisations looking to embrace the future of work as we navigate the new normal, we recommend taking the following steps.

Think critically about your ambition and involve your people in clarifying your purpose

Our research shows that people want to work for an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society. Given their desire to work for purpose-driven organisations, now is the time to reflect on where your business is heading. You need to embed flexibility and plan for multiple future scenarios, so that you’re prepared to tackle an uncertain future. Ask questions like “what do we want to be known for?” and “what might cause us to change course?” Have these conversations with your people and customers, communicate transparently and let your employees know they have a role in achieving this ambition.

Redefine what work is and how it gets done

Next, consider the sort of people and technology you need and how the work gets done. Identify what is core to your organisation, the types of workers you need and the size and skills of your workforce. With 77% of respondents in PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 survey indicating that they are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain, this will be key to attracting and retaining key talent in your organisation. You also need to consider where work gets done. In the new world of work, we need to say goodbye to the notion of a single workplace. Good work can be carried out in different ways across multiple workplaces. Getting clear on your definition of work is the first step towards nurturing the motivation, performance and engagement levels of your people.

Co-create the future

The future of work is human, so engage them. While top-down, directive leadership can be useful in times of crisis, you now need to involve and engage your people more than ever as you plan for the post-pandemic world of work. Doing so will energise and inspire your people so they play an active part in your organisation, while also developing a compelling Employee Value Proposition for what will continue to be a competitive and transient labour market. The crisis has forced us into restrictive repetitive routines. As the crisis eases, we can expect to see an increase in the movement of talent, with employees looking for something new and different. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for organisations to find new ways to engage, retain and attract key talent.

Don't be afraid to adopt a 'test and learn' mindset

We are at a crossroads. And when faced with change, we tend to live in a state of fight or flight. We can either go back to the way things were, and what is comfortable, or use this opportunity to innovate and iterate, and define a new path. Now is the time to make a conscious decision to embrace experimentation. It’s vital to test, learn and experiment, and be prepared to act on your findings. It doesn’t just happen. It requires you to make some deliberate decisions and actions.

Lead consciously

As the art of leadership becomes shaped by a new kind of complexity, we need to support leaders in their role as mentors, coaches and navigators, so they can chart a course through this new paradigm of work. The future of work must be leadership-led, and leadership-lived.

The future of work is also about teams. It is about the collective efforts of individuals coming together rather than singular achievements. Leaders play a crucial role in sustaining these communal bonds. Ensuring that your people feel needed and have a sense of belonging will be a defining focus for leaders moving forward.

Ultimately, the future of work isn’t just about the physical walls of an office. It’s about employees’ connection to their work and each other and how collaboration and creativity can flourish in both offline and online contexts. And to do this, you need to rethink your ambition, redefine work, engage your people, experiment, and invest in leadership. The opportunity for Irish businesses now is to co-create a future of work that works for all.

We are here to help you

This is a pivotal moment for leaders who must move from crisis response to ensuring that their organisations reset in a way that leverages the knowledge gained from the experiences of the past year. The most successful will make 2021 a year of renewed, purposeful, everyday commitment to investing in people, and to making an inclusive workplace reality, not rhetoric. If you’d find it helpful to have a conversation about any of the above, please get in touch with us today.

Contact us

Gerard McDonough

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 6170

Ciara Fallon

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8857

David Keane

Director, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8253

Natasha Finn

Manager, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 87 189 4861

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