The Future of Work: Navigating the Paradigm Shifts from Work-Life Balance to Life-Work Integration
“Companies have a responsibility, and a rare opportunity, to rethink their organizational and workplace structures [and] to invest in their workforces as core drivers of long-term resilience and future success.”
World Economic Forum. “Resetting the Future of Work Agenda: Disruption and Renewal in a Post-COVID World.” October 2020.
Integrating Workforces and Technology
HR professionals have demonstrated resiliency, tenacity, and creativity as workforce engagement shakes, rattles, and rolls from pandemic aftershocks. Most if not every person, organization, and government has been affected.1 2 Even the traditional start of the new year has been anything but the typical reboot for many. But according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, unfilled jobs jumped from 8 million in May 2021 to over 10 million by December 2021, as approximately 4 million workers quit monthly from April through November 2021, in what is now coined The Great Resignation.3 4
Yet, unemployment continues to drop to re- cord lows in the United States, returning to 3.9% in December 2021, approaching 3.5% observed in January and February 2020.5 According to Quantum Workplace Research Panel, with more jobs available than workers to fill them, employee confidence in finding or getting another job at the same or better pay has increased by 21%.6 However, Quantum reported that 88% of highly engaged employees believed they would be with the same employer in a year compared to just 49% of disengaged employees.7
Technologies intended for improving engagement have been tried but with mixed results, and none have genuinely reconciled or aligned business processes to the personal integration efforts of workers.8 For example, according to a Harvard Business School study,9 the overall time spent in meetings has increased during the pandemic. Citing the need for better communication during a crisis, workers have also reflected higher stress levels since they must focus on unrelated tasks in their employment and domestic lives. They concentrate on video screens for upwards of two hours and suffer screen sharing with no visibility of people and their associated non-verbal messages. Microsoft researchers found that online meeting fatigue can be minimized with shortened meeting times, i.e., fewer than 30 minutes, breaking subject matter into more presentations, and scheduling frequent, shorter breaks.10 One Scandinavian company embraced technologies and work-from-anywhere (WFA) principles six years before the pandemic. They found that the volume of video conferences added pressure for team members to demonstrate consistent energy and productivity levels, leading to the term “zoom fatigue,” feeling drained at the end of a day of video calls.11 Wieni’s adoption of asynchronous collaboration was more significant, i.e., using long-form text and pre-recorded videos instead of synchronous verbal meetings.12 The result was fewer meetings and video calls, better record-keeping of subject matter, and greater accuracy to stay on-point.13
As many companies confirmed during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning physical ways of working to online equivalents was not difficult.14 Working-from- anywhere (WFA), whether mandated, encouraged or voluntary, led many to less stressful lives while achieving the same or improved productivity, and employers have widely embraced it.15 16 The question is whether suspending or perhaps replacing the tug-of-war struggle that characterized work-life balancing for employees with self-managed life-work integration is durable or temporary.
Resignation, Integration, and the Return from Retirement
Employers have been unable to recruit and onboard new workers to keep up with retirements in recent years leading up to the pandemic, and the situation has worsened around the world as unemployment saw double-digit increases in 2020 from single-digit lows in 2018.17 What is perplexing to many is the stagnant, lower labor participation rate amid increased job openings. Meanwhile, the rate of “unretirement,” i.e., switching from retirement to employment, is accelerating.18 While the pandemic exacerbated pre-pandemic recruitment challenges with unplanned separations and ill-nesses, employers and their HR teams have diligently sought new solutions to the supply chain of human capital. Many required new business practices and technologies, even as employers viewed workers as temporarily dislocated from the traditional work environment rather than permanently relocated in remote roles.19 20
The Great Resignation is not as much an isolated event as it is a driver in a paradigm shift. Given the global pause in routine, workers en masse have had time to consider the disruption to balancing and compromising time struggles of work versus life.21 TrustRadius reports that the primary reason for company-related causes of resignation is stressful working conditions with 31%, or twice as high as the second and third causes, citing low pay and inflexibility, respectively.22 Dissatisfied workers have found an alternative approach of complementary integration, blending work habits with a more fulfilling lifestyle, settling traditional family-work conflicts altogether.23
The primary employee-related causes include a new perspective on what is personally important to the worker (30%) and reassessed career goals (18%).24 They are homeschooling and supervising remote learning of their children, shopping online and coping with product short- ages and store closures, and learning to accept frequent changes in nearly every daily task.25 After two years and several COVID-19 variants, people are growing anxious for the return of a stable status quo in their lives, even if it involves a job change.26 Unfortunately, continuing instability across society and demands from every- one for greater flexibility will continue to push workers to weigh changes that could lead to less stressful conditions. But no one can predict the catalysts or timing of a complete socio-economic recovery from COVID-19 or when the next global event might disrupt an emerging and fragile period of stability.27
Nevertheless, schools reopening in-person sessions reduce childcare demands. As businesses recover and restore their workforces, increasing job opportunities and wages are found throughout the United States and world- wide. Notwithstanding, the concurrent product supply chain crisis, higher costs and competitive wages are raising prices to consumers, driving some to seek greater compensation, better benefits, and compatible employment with the worker’s revised set of personal priorities.
While some retirees see these conditions as an invitation to return to the labor force, younger employees embrace early retirement or remote-only roles to better integrate work with life. These render the traditional ebb and flow of workforce tides unpredictable as the pandemic advances with no definitive end in sight. Hiring retirees who wish to return to the workforce seems a plausible sourcing option.28
Remote Location as Relocation
“Are you available for relocation?” had been a common prescreening question that is rarely asked today as businesses emerge from the pandemic in search of replacement workers and an expanded workforce. If work can be performed remotely, the job is posted as either remote or hybrid. According to Ladders, 18% of all professional jobs paying over $100,000 per year are now remote, starkly contrasted to 4% in 2019. Ladders CEO Marc Cenedella sees this trend continuing, noting that some companies insisting on an in-office return are based on “… their real estate interests. Large companies have invested trillions of dollars in real estate that they don’t want to see wasted.”29
Retailers and in-person businesses have had the most difficulty retaining former and recruit- ing new workers after furloughing millions for months, even years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an overall 57.3% turnover in 2020, compared to annual turnover rates in 2016- 2019 from 42 to 45% overall and much higher in retail businesses at more than 60% (National Retail Federation).30
Automation permitted companies and government agencies to meet emerging needs and greater demands of a distributed workforce, as last year saw an acceleration of new technology adoption exceeding pre-pandemic trends. HR departments found themselves leading revolutionary change in most organizations to ensure continuity of HR services despite working from anywhere and no-contact, distancing policies (see Table 1). TrustRadius reports that 55% of HR professionals say that their companies are spending more on HR technology.31 45% are paying more to upgrade their existing tech stack,
A 2020 survey by IBM’s Institute for Business Value of 54,000 US workers revealed that more than half (58%) wanted to primarily work-from-home after lifted restrictions.32 A survey of SAP-installed enterprises revealed that most were moving quickly to plan, prioritize, and optimize workforce engagement systems.33 Where many applications had been relegated to back-office processors before 2020, worker experience in remote locations became the top priority in 2021 for more than half of the companies surveyed. (Note: Systems implemented by respondents were equally distributed among SAP ERP HCM, SAP SuccessFactors Employee Central, and non-SAP core HR solutions.) Universally designed to support in-person contact processes, these systems met immediate challenges under new virtual conditions.34
HR departments worldwide faced an unceasing barrage of challenges, including three other drivers of experience adaptation: organizational change, increased talent competition, and extraordinary turnover. The World Economic Forum reported that remote working varied widely among nations, contrasting shifts of 24% pre-pandemically with 61% by June 2021.35 In an emerging economy where people can work from anywhere, many organizations are still contending with conventional management and assessment methods. The lack of off- the-shelf, proven solutions for unprecedented problems has led employers and employees to exercise more creative and critical thinking in developing new ways to manage and assess their businesses and careers.
Lifelong Learning from…Anywhere
Still, running a business is more than video conferences and interactive slideshows, and many pre-COVID-19 processes have suffered from premature and immature technology deployments and inadequate training. Many projects have been delayed or suspended.
Employers, faced with low or no budgets to address unprecedented circumstances, continue to struggle to train workers on new practices and technologies, retaining them and their interest in their existing jobs. Only 1 in 5 workers surveyed during the Summer of 2020 considered their employers as technology leaders capable of supporting their needs.36 Almost half believed their companies were failing, with nearly one-third dissatisfied with teleconferencing experiences.37
Learning occupies the attention and time of millions worldwide. For example, post-secondary enrollments in the United States rose from 15.25 million in 2000 to 19.8 in 2021, with these institutions embracing remote learning models.38 Coursera introduced a new program in the Fall of 2019 that allowed any university to make much of their catalog available to up to 5,000 students for free. Over 6,000 institutions enrolled. Enrollment in platforms offer- ing Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) has grown dramatically in the last decade, making them a viable alternative to traditional universities and colleges that have endorsed the MOOC approach.39 At the pandemic’s start, one MOOC, Coursera, reported 12 million U.S. registrants and more than 56 million worldwide.40 Over 2300 businesses and government agencies use Coursera for talent transformation, signaling widespread receptivity by employers. Universally, increased enrollments were ob- served at other prominent MOOCs, including edX, FutureLearn, Class Central, Federica, and MiriadaX.41
During the pandemic, MOOCs continue to innovate and offer single courses, certificate programs, and online degrees, offering discounts or free sessions to attract shuttered and furloughed workers. With higher completion rates and increasing attention from investors, MOOCs have become legitimate education delivery centers with growing support from universities like the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Louisiana System.42 43 MOOC enrollments and lower attrition rates suggest that many workers are pleased to take direct control over their career development through continuing education. Workers seem satisfied with and empowered by self-paced degrees, certificates, and short courses for little financial risk. With the two main objections to continuing education disarmed, i.e., time and cost, virtualized education has enabled workers to expand knowledge and improve skills apart from their employers, integrating a learn-from- anywhere process with lifelong benefits.44
One thing was and remains clear – no employer nor worker was prepared for what over- took the world in 2020, and its impact on organizations and individuals has varied widely. HR practitioners have worked hard to facilitate the change in leadership and worker mindset, values, and behavior while undergoing technological and transformational acceleration in the workplace. It was a significant change for millions of people to work from home for the first time. The pandemic shifted traditional paradigms dramatically to a relationship between employer and worker in months that was simultaneously real and virtual.
Yet, the issue for those standing in the multidisciplinary gap between traditional and digital human resources is not the technologies themselves that have been embraced positively in large part. The changing attitudes of organizational leaders and workers about the meaning of work – and how and where work gets done – have also changed. The blurring of the distinction between life and work in the home supplants the work-life balance struggle with the opportunities and challenges of life-work integration. There has rarely been an opportunity like this for HR to make a distinctive and positive difference in human capital. These shifts create significant opportunities – a “call to action” – for HR professionals to guide and lead their organizations through the inevitable changes that organizations and workers face today and into the future.
About the Authors
Dennis Hill, Ph.D. is Founder of Sagacity, LLC, and inaugural chair of Consortium DeHR. Dr. Hill is an expert C-Suite Change CatalyzerTM who “solves problems and makes measurements” and #1 International Bestselling Business Author. He is an award-winning software designer and engineering teacher. He has worked for four decades on creating integrated business systems involving workforce recruitment and human resources, traditional ERP, and CRM with a unique design focus on data ownership and privacy. He has served as a Board Member of more than 20 companies and organizations, including IHRIM where he is responsible for Partnerships and Alliances. His education includes degrees in Engineer- ing (Biomedical/Electrical/ Computer) from Marquette, Business from Sorbonne, and Law from Champlain, as well as memberships and certifications from SHRM, HRCI, and IHRIM, the Association for Change Management, and the Association for Conflict Resolution. He may be reached at Information@DeHR.org.
Patti Ippoliti is an accomplished business executive, consultant, executive coach, and graduate business professor with extensive experience in organizational transformation, leadership development, and human capital. She has been a guest speaker at several organizational events and conferences. You can reach Dr.Ippoliti at LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patti-ippoliti-phd-4107951/.
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