Since the COVID-19 pandemic raised its ugly head, the cliché response is that we will never be the same. I believe that among the lasting changes will be how we work and how we view work.
While some observations seem obvious (e.g., there will be more telework and home deliveries), I would like to offer a few strong personal opinions.
We have seen a vast shift in how people view occupations once denigrated as lower class. A few years ago, I chaired a panel discussion about the truck driver shortage at an industry meeting. At the start, I asked the carrier and shipper executives in the audience to raise their hands if they would be happy for their sons or daughters to become truck drivers. Not a single hand went up.
In early and mid-20th Century America, truck drivers were seen as “The Knights of the Highway” and were well known for their professionalism and acts of kindness shown to stranded motorists. Just a few years later, the popular image promoted heavily in movies and TV was of irresponsible cowboys speeding down the highway, chased by “Smokey.” We can argue about who bears more blame—trucking companies putting pressure on truckers to cut legal corners or Hollywood irresponsibly promoting myths—but the damage was lasting.
I predict the recent gratitude and respect bestowed truckers and other essential workers—ranging from nurses to supermarket cashiers—will continue. (On the other hand, celebrities and members of the news media—not so much). Also lasting will be awareness of the vital role played by unglamorous industries like warehousing and freight transportation. If you told me four months ago that the words “supply chain” and “personal protective equipment” would be appearing on the TV news almost every night, I would have thought you were nuts.
Attitudes held by employees regarding jobs will change, too. Managers had complained for years about Millennials who were bored and restless by any work they did not perceive as exciting, while members of Generation Z, whose formative years followed the 2008 crash, valued work stability more. Awareness of the importance of having a job (and benefits like health insurance) will intensify for the generation coming of age now, especially if the recovery is long and rocky.
I also predict a thinning of the serried ranks of middle management, which began the “jobless recovery” following the Internet bust 20 years ago, and it will continue as teleworking grows. Yes, middle managers have a vital role to play in many operations, but in some office environments they can slow things down. When I started working from home 10 years ago, I was shocked at how much more productive I was because I no longer had to attend endless meetings. Formerly fretful about remote workers being out of their sight, companies are quickly learning how to manage them effectively.
I also believe the future of unions rests on a knife’s edge. In the end, if employers treat their workers fairly and pay them well, there is no reason for them to join unions.
The persisting need for social distancing and a roiling economy will bolster reliance on independent contractors and gig workers. Giving gig workers unemployment and other benefits while they continue to be independent contractors, promoted by rideshare companies last year in California, should gain purchase in the new economic environment, and would seriously undercut the unions’ war on independent contractor status.
The pandemic also should weld into place an ironclad commitment by employers to maintaining healthy and safe workplaces. Massive potential legal liabilities, public pressure and good sense will make sure they can no longer regard “Safety Is Job One” as just a slogan.