For many of us, work will never be the same. The COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on every aspect of our work life — from the daily commute to our physical environment to the way we communicate with colleagues and clients. Millions of people around the globe have become participants in the biggest remote work experiment in history.

The pandemic will eventually run its course, and the experiment will end. But what will the “new normal” look like? This article explores predictions for the future of work in a post-pandemic world and what they mean for learning and development (L&D) professionals.

The Evolution of the Virtual Workforce

The virtualization of work is not a recent phenomenon. It has gone through several phases, each driven by shifting employee priorities and evolving communication and collaboration technologies.

In the early days of the internet, freelance employees began setting up home offices to gain control over their work schedule and location. Despite the benefits of remote work, these early virtual workers had to give up formal connection to a company, the support of a team, job benefits and career advancement within a company.

As the technology improved, organizations began to extend the freedom to work anywhere to their full-time employees. More stable, secure communication and collaboration technologies enabled employees to work on team projects seamlessly from their home offices. Organizations began to see the benefits, including access to a larger talent pool, lower costs of work and the ability to scale labor to business conditions. L&D professionals, meanwhile, started providing remote workers with the skills they needed to succeed from home.

In more recent times, the need for a shared environment led to the development of coworking hubs with open workspaces, technology and creative environments. Some coworking spaces were organized around particular communities, where people could share ideas and techniques within a supportive and creative community. These communities eventually grew into hotbeds of talent and innovation.

But nothing prepared us for the COVID-19 pandemic and the immediate transformation of in-person workforces into virtual ones. One year ago, “zoom” was a word you used to describe the sound of a car to a toddler. Today, it’s an accepted verb that many of us use on a daily basis.

The Future for HR and Learning Professionals

In the future, human resources (HR) and L&D leaders will be dealing with a liquid workforce — a workforce of non-traditional workers like freelancers, consultants, contingent workers and part-time employees. The pandemic has changed the workforce structure, and the number of liquid professionals is projected to grow. Learning professionals are used to relating to their full-time workforce, but learning to train and motivate a liquid workforce will require a new strategy.

“Our research finds that 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure,” writes Brian Kropp, distinguished vice president at Gartner. The firm’s researchers have also found that “48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic.”

Going forward, maintaining a digitally ready workforce that can adapt to a changing landscape will be a priority for HR and L&D. Organizations must have rigorous contracting and onboarding processes in place for their liquid workers. These processes protect the company, help it meet compliance requirements and foster the fast on-ramp of liquid workers. Consistent onboarding processes also help liquid workers instantly feel like part of the team and hit the ground running on projects.

Worldwide remote work measures this year have caused the digital economy to grow more rapidly than ever before and increased the stresses of managing work-life balance. These challenges give new importance to worker health and wellness, and for HR and L&D professionals, the future of work will require a stronger focus and a more holistic view of employee well-being.

With our current spotlight on diversity, HR and L&D professionals will also have a mandate to ensure that people are treated fairly — from recruiting to off-boarding — regardless of race or ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, economic status, background, age, or culture. As a result, diversity and unconscious bias training will become more important.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of emergency preparedness training for employees, and the safety of the employees returning to work will require training. Learning professionals will also have to train managers on how to lead remote workers to ensure both productivity and employee engagement.

There will be new opportunities and challenges for learning professionals in the future, but the workforce will be depending on them to thrive and adapt.

Remote Work Models

Employees who work from home don’t need office space, and organizations have realized the savings on real estate and business travel costs. Here are a few models companies are exploring:

Model 1: Centralized Office + Home Office

In this model, employees work primarily from the office, with the occasional work-from-home option. This model works well for employees who work far from the office as well as for busy parents or caregivers.

Model 2: Centralized Office + Any Location

Organizations that adopt this model allow some of their employees to choose their work location, whether it’s the central office, their home, a coffee shop, a coworking hub or even a different country. This type of model enables organizations to save on office space and gives them access to a larger and more diverse talent pool.

Model 3: Fully Remote

This model is the most advanced remote work model. Companies that adopt it have no centralized office, and employees are distributed — even around the globe. With advances in technology, more and more companies may opt for this model.

Future workplaces will likely blend physical and virtual environments. Workforces will be diverse, multigenerational and located around the globe. Organizations will need integrated platforms and advanced technologies that can support dynamic work locations and team collaboration. Training professionals, then, will need to use those platforms to train a blended workforce with diverse needs.

Workplace Architecture

While the pre-pandemic trend in workplace architecture focused on creating collaborative coworking spaces, the pandemic is forcing organizations to reconfigure spaces to minimize social interaction and ensure employee health and safety. Some organizations may decide that returning to work using a centralized work model works best for them. They will need to reconfigure the workspace to minimize social interaction using physical distancing, cleaning, disinfection and hygiene protocols. Learning professionals will then need to find new ways to train staff in person and in groups. The shift to remote learning will ramp up even more, as in-person group training continues to be a safety concern.

These pandemic workplaces will be characterized by:

    • Workstations that are spaced far apart.
    • Wider hallways.
    • Signs on the floors and walls sharing health and safety protocols and reminders.
    • Modular furniture.
    • Room dividers.
    • Contactless access points and touch-free amenities.
    • Few or no communal spaces.

A Centralized Workday

What could a typical day at work look like as companies reorganize their staff and workplace to be safer?

    • Employees will log into a company app to say that they are coming into the office rather than working remotely.
    • Employees will wear face masks.
    • There will be staggered employee arrival times to avoid having too many people in the lobby and elevators.
    • Employees will have to have their temperatures checked upon entry.
    • Motion sensors will automatically open office doors.
    • Prominent signs will direct traffic flow and mark physical distance.
    • Office workstations will be at least six feet apart and partitioned by dividers.
    • All high-contact surfaces, including computer hardware and phones, will require regular disinfecting.
    • Meeting rooms will have a strict capacity limit and social distancing rules.
    • Break and lunch rooms could be temporarily closed to reduce the risk of transmission.

As organizations choose from a range of work models — centralized and remote — to meet the needs of their employees, learning and development professionals will need to adapt. Using remote learning and videoconferencing will enable them to train a more liquid workforce, and adapting topics for onboarding, health and safety training, and diversity training will enable them to prepare a workforce for wellness and success.