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Sumser: 4 big questions about work after COVID

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John Sumser
Emerging Intelligence columnist John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer. He researches the impact of data, analytics, AI and associated ethical issues on the workplace. John works with vendors and HR departments to identify problems, define solutions and clarify the narrative. He can be emailed at [email protected].

After 16 months of quarantine, we are emerging into a world that may look somewhat the same–but isn’t. During the pandemic, the world of work split in two: those who had to physically go to work and those who didn’t.

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And now, we’re trying to figure out what’s next.

I’d love to offer clear and certain instructions about post-pandemic life. Instead, I have a bucket of questions because the world I inhabit is very different now, no matter how much I wish it were not. I bet you’re in the same boat.

In some ways, the pandemic just amplified something that was already happening. There is a big difference between management in the 20th century and 21st. The old school thrived on having answers. The new way depends on asking good questions.

The 21st century manager thrives in times of uncertainty.

That’s worth underscoring. Today’s basic challenge involves making decisions in an unfamiliar environment. It looks disturbingly familiar, but risks, priorities and the way we do things are all still shifting. Acting as if nothing changed guarantees bigger mistakes. Minimizing the hard work ahead makes failure more likely.

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The questions that emerged from the pandemic will evolve with their answers. The only way to approach it is to learn what you can and make an educated guess about the rest. Things clarify over time.

Here are some of my biggest questions:

1. How much social capital did we lose?

Before the pandemic, an average employee had four strong ties and 48 weak ties. Strong ties are relationships that take more than an hour a week to maintain. Weak ties take 15 minutes or less per month.

As a result of remote work and social distancing, many of the weak ties in the workforce atrophied. One study found that the average worker now has seven strong ties and a dozen weak ties. Think of it as the Zoomification of work.

We don’t yet understand how changing human relationships affects the organization and the work. What is the minimum level of social capital required by an organization? How do we rebuild it?

Did we need everyone to have those 48 weak ties? How are we going to reduce the micromanagement that became the pandemic norm? How much time and energy does it take to rebuild ties? How do we get new employees (hired since January 2020) to build networks if they have never met anyone they work with in person?

All we know for sure is that, in the absence of adequate weak ties and the addition of stress, burnout is a bigger problem. Are stress and lack of human ties connected?

What if we didn’t really understand how our organizations work to begin with?

2. What is the impact of the decisions we made during the pandemic?

There is a lot of talk about going back to normal, but nobody really understands what that is. Which decisions made quickly with limited data are going to become the monsters in the closet?

In spring 2020, we all made huge decisions on shortened timelines. Whether the organization acknowledges it or not, we made more mistakes than usual. As a result, those decisions pose some of the greatest risks.

Mistakes in financing, errors in judgment about people, assuming the labor market would remain the same and misunderstanding the future of product demand are a few of the places where errors happened. Whether the organization sustained a mortal wound remains unclear. Covid mortality for companies will take years.

3. When will our data begin to support decision-making again?

Data-driven decision-making depends on repeatability. Historical data and trends are the heart of the discipline. We saw how poorly the past prepares us for the unexpected.

Now, our last two years of data depend on what we hope was a unique circumstance. Confidence in the past is the basis for data as a predictor of what will happen. We’ve lost that through the disruption of the pandemic and many things changing drastically in a very short time. It will take many years to find stable, new baselines.

4. What new skills did the workforce acquire?

With all the current buzz about skills, skills definitions and upskilling, no one seems to be looking at skills acquired during the pandemic. It would be nice if workers developed skills by reading about them and passing a test. It doesn’t happen that way.

Most people in the workforce learned a broad array of new skills by doing them. The further down the status ladder, the more skills acquired. Everyone who survived in healthcare, hospitality, retail, transportation and other consumer services learned a second job. Surges drove workforce utilization. Layoffs drove skills transfer.

In short, we lost what little grasp of our workforce’s capabilities we had.

Making decisions with this degree of fundamental clarity is not for the faint of heart. We just entered the early rebuilding phase. If we avoid additional damage from the virus, every company will be more like a start-up than it ever wanted to be.

Hear John Sumser and other HR and tech leaders explore the post-pandemic workplace at the HR Tech Conference. Click here to register.