The Collapse of Legacy Thinking About the Workplace
In my last column, I explained why one of the forecasts from “A Look Into 2022 – A Split Screen Year” – the ascendent strength of Labor and employees this decade -was, in fact happening. I mentioned in that column that what has been called “the Great Resignation” would be looked back upon as the clear demarcation of the beginning of this trend.
The numerical reality of the changing workplace and the changing employment marketplace is truly unprecedented. Since April 2021, through the fourth quarter of 2021 there have regularly been 400-500,000 resignations in the U.S. on a monthly basis. When this happened last April, it was a huge historical milestone. That milestone has been surpassed many times since then.
The pandemic has clearly affected us in many ways. One of the most noticeable ways is how much people have changed how they think about work. After one has spent months working from home, being more productive, having more time with loved ones, having more personal time, it becomes difficult to go back to the pre-COVID workplace.
The last full year pre-COVID was 2019. That year was the record year in U.S. history for length of commute time. The average commute distance for Americans that year was 27.6 minutes one way, or almost an hour a day! Five hours a week. In addition, the cost of gas, auto maintenance, parking to do this average commute can be more than $100 a week.
The world has changed. The view of work has been transformed. The old, 20th century model of commuting to an office five days a week is not coming back as the norm, rather the exception.
There is not one person I have interacted with since the first lockdown who has not had some significant change in how they view work, their life, how they work, where they can work remotely from, and how work and personal and family have been rebalanced. When death has been at the door, the pleasures of one’s home become ever more important
A fundamental change has occurred, and the sooner employers and companies understand this, the better off they will be.
I dare forecast that the decade of the 2020s will see a complete reinvention of work. One where the workers, the employees will gain more power and that will alter the power dynamic relating to the employers. This power will only partially be gained in the old ways of union strikes and stop work actions. It will be gained as ever more people work from home, chose to become independent contractors and indeed become digital nomads. Talent will have increasing leverage in the area of employment negotiations.
For the last decade, I have consistently spoken and written about how, in the Shift Age, the Physical Reality will give way to the Screen Reality. Since March 2020, it has. We are all on screens ever more. We like to be working on our screens, living in a nice place, with family nearby. All of this had taken root, not to fully change back in the near future.
Companies going forward will have fewer employees, more technology and more training. In addition, the corporate world will start to more fully embrace the dynamic of the creative class, and will increase the number of contract workers, the number of which will ebb and flow. The creative class will become ever more important as Technological Intelligence [often maligned as AI] begins to rapidly eviscerate high percentages of repetitive jobs. By their very nature, creatives will be more independent and will demand flexibility in the workplace. Employees will continue to have ever more power in the classic worker/employer dynamic. How we “did” it in the past will have declining power of argument as we move forward in the 2020s.
Women are lagging men in returning to the workplace. Women have taken on more of the home schooling, childcare aspect of the lockdown, so until they have new, affordable, safe childcare, pre-approved Pre-K and the certainty that the children will be going back to the physical school, they will not return to the workforce.
It is estimated that by 2030 there may well be one billion people working as digital nomads globally. This entire movement of “have laptop and phone, work from nice places” really went into high gear during the time of the pandemic.
This in fact is significant for Sarasota County in particular, where I live. Since the beginning of COVID two years ago, the county has been one of the top counties in Florida, and therefore in the entire country, to move to for digital nomads. There is more than anecdotal evidence that people have left congested cities where they had to live to be close to work, to move to nicer places to live such as Sarasota and Manatee Counties where they now work remotely.
This is an entirely new economic development strategy for areas in the country that have nice weather, proximity to outdoors and a good quality of life; to invite people who can work remotely to do so and move here. Clearly the booming residential real estate market locally is evidence that this is happening. The economic development model from the last century is to lure companies to move and bring all their employees with them. This usually meant that some special tax incentives had to be offered to lure a company to relocate. Now, such locations can avoid giving out any tax incentives and reap the benefit of the increase in wealth and population.
The workplace has dramatically changed in the last two years, never to return to the old, CO2 intensive, political, costly daily commute and old office models of 2019. These changes will only lead to more changes, in such a way that the workplace of 2025 will be vastly different that in 2019.