Lessons From the Pandemic for the Future of Work

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

During the spring of 2020, while we were in the early grip of the pandemic, I pointed in an earlier blog to a possible silver lining. Perhaps what appeared then to be broad societal acceptance of the science around the coronavirus might leave us better able to also rally around the science on our other mega challenge — climate change.

Well, the broad consensus on pandemic science hasn’t exactly held. The prior administration downplayed the pandemic — and the science behind it — in an effort to rally the economy and stir up support for a reelection bid. Then, with the turnover at the White House and in the Senate, the politicization of pandemic science intensified, with some questioning whether a scourge that has disrupted lives everywhere and killed over four million people is actually an elaborate hoax.

But this doesn’t mean that we have nothing to learn from the pandemic. Our collective experience in shifting to the use of remote engagement tools, the quantum leap in the quality of those tools, and our discovery that we cannot only hold our own but in some cases increase our productivity, should mean something going forward. Indeed, if, when we reach the other side of the pandemic, we simply snap back to how things were done before, we will be missing a major opportunity to reshape our approach to work in ways that can enlarge our impact, improve quality of life, and contribute to our environmental objectives.

Laptop on DeskLet’s take ELI’s experience. We, like everyone, were quite concerned about whether our programming could survive a period of home sequestration. But we pivoted to virtual approaches, and experienced, to our amazement, dramatic bump-ups in most of our activity measures. So, for example, we saw through the use of virtual engagement tools a dramatic increase in the number of educational programs that we were able to bring forward and a near doubling of attendance at those programs. We were likewise able to increase the number of podcasts we produced and saw a near doubling in podcast listenership. Our video views also nearly doubled. Downloads of our research reports also saw a significant bump-up. These are dramatic increases in both productivity and reach.

As our staffing has not increased, the increases in productivity signal that virtual tools are making us more efficient at what we do. I’d like to think that the expanded reach reflects the ever-improving quality of our products, but there is clearly more going on than that alone. The increases in listenership, viewership, and participation also signal recovered bandwidth within our community.

There’s no doubt that for some, regular work has been down, which helped enlarge the space for engaging with ELI’s programs. But a current that cuts across organizations and sectors is the harvest of time that came from greatly limiting all forms of movement — travel, commuting, trips across town, and jaunts up and down the halls and stairs for meetings. From this collective experience, we have learned just how much time is consumed in moving about and what is possible when we put it to other use.

And, of course, it’s not just time that is saved — there is potential for reducing environmental impacts. There is considerably more study needed of the trade-offs between the energy demands connected to remote, distributed work, and the demands associated with office work performed in installations that are often oversized and inefficiently used.

But we do know for sure that less transportation means better local air quality and a smaller carbon footprint. It also means less traffic congestion, fewer mass-transit hassles, fewer airport and transit irritations — perhaps a net reduction in some of the more grinding aspects of modern life. This is no doubt why many surveyed employees don’t want to return to the way things were.

There are no panaceas when it comes to human systems, and an all-remote, all-the-time approach is not problem free. Inequities can emerge between those whose work is portable and those whose work is not. The cohesion of work teams can suffer. Networking and forming new relationships can take more effort. The spontaneous synergies and collective creativity that comes from inventive people being in proximity can be lost. There is also the problem of losing the physical separation between work and home and the tendency for many of us to just never stop working in the absence of such a seam. For these reasons, the work of the future will likely need to include some elements of the past. But the new normal should also carry forward with strength some of the learning and tools from this bizarre, abnormal period from which we are hoping to emerge. We can work differently — and should.

This blog originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of The Environmental Forum and is republished with permission.