The world after covid-19 – Adam Grant on how jobs, bosses and firms may improve after the crisis

A legacy of the coronavirus may be more work satisfaction, more ethical leadership and a deeper sense of trust

IN 1993 THE management guru Peter Drucker argued that “commuting to office work is obsolete.” As of last year, his vision hadn’t quite come true: nearly half of global companies in one survey still prohibited remote working. Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly millions of people started doing their jobs from home. Work will never be the same.

Yet the changes to where we work are only a small part of the story. The experiences from past recessions and crises suggest that covid-19 is likely to transform three features of our work lives: job satisfaction, ethical leadership and trust.

Start with our attitudes towards work. It turns out that the higher the unemployment rate when we enter the workforce, the more satisfied we end up being with our jobs—even ten to 15 years later, according to multiple studies. This is true even after accounting for income, industry, occupation and experience. Why? Having begun our careers during a recession, we are grateful to have a job at all.

That sense of appreciation will not just be felt by students graduating this year. Millions of people have lost their jobs and countless more have taken pay cuts or furloughs. Even those fortunate enough to have a secure job may be more thankful for aspects of work that were once taken for granted. One is having a place to go without toddlers raiding our Zoom calls. Another is interaction with colleagues. Even a sad desk lunch is nicer when we no longer live in fear of infection from take-away meals.

Heightened gratitude is good news for job satisfaction but potentially bad news for job quality. It could lead bosses to take advantage of those willing to tolerate low pay, poor conditions and so-called “bullshit jobs” (ie, work without actual purpose). It is true that some people will find their work imbued with new meaning. From grocery shops to Lysol factories, people see how much worse-off communities would be without them. But that sense of purpose can come at a cost: studies of zookeepers show that those who see their work as a calling are more willing to sacrifice money, time and comfort. People who love their jobs often pay a “passion tax”.

The behaviour of managers points to a second trend: how leadership will change. During times of stress, humans often revert to their basic instincts. Amid the crises, we’ve seen some executives forgo lucrative pay. But we’ve also seen spectacular fails—notably at the electric-scooter company Bird, where more than 400 employees had signed-in for a “covid-19 update” videoconference, only to hear a disembodied voice announce that they were being let go.

Many companies dumped their employees in a nanosecond. When these firms want to hire again, they’re likely to have a hard time—and not just in attracting talent. Firms that are quick to slash jobs tend to perform worse than those that find alternatives such as pay cuts. Yes, layoffs reduce costs, but they also hurt productivity and innovation as people with valuable skills are sent packing. Those who remain are distracted by survivor’s guilt, anxiety and searching for more secure jobs.

The covid-19 crisis may inspire a movement towards more ethical, compassionate leadership. Employees will demand it. Corporate stars always have choices about where to work, and they won’t have much reason to join or stay at companies where leaders fail to put people first. Firms may shift toward the Japanese model of protecting jobs or the Scandinavian model of providing a safety-net for those who lose their jobs.

Labour-market pressures aren’t the only reason why the next generation of leaders may be more caring. In a study of more than 2,000 chief executives of public companies, those who entered adulthood when the unemployment rate was higher overpaid themselves less. Moreover, surviving tough times appears to reduce narcissism and feelings of entitlement—at least among men. If this pattern holds in the coming decades, we can expect leaders to have a stronger sense of noblesse oblige.

The role of leadership leads to a third trend: the importance of trust. The level of trust that we feel towards our colleagues and our companies is likely to become more extreme—in both directions. On the one hand, the teams and firms that stuck together during the crisis should be even tighter-knit on the other side of it. As an extreme example, research suggests that veterans of the second world war who lost close friends in battle were more likely to maintain strong bonds four decades later.

On the other hand, we’ve seen too many managers respond to covid-19 with distrust. Some companies are monitoring keystrokes and tracking behaviour as people work remotely. We don’t need micromanagers; we need “macromanagers” who create clarity amid chaos with meaningful goals and purposeful roles. Surveillance doesn’t just undermine employee loyalty, it can actually make managers more suspicious, creating a vicious cycle. Given the pandemic, employers may impose mandatory coronavirus tests in the same way that they require badges to be worn in the office. Employees may appreciate the workplace protection, but the tracking has to be handled carefully.

Many people have realised that you don’t need a workplace to work. Some may give up on employers altogether and decide that they don’t have to belong to an organisation at all. Instead, they can belong to an occupation. There may be a renaissance of guilds: groups that share occupational skills. They could be employee-owned or structured as partnerships with job security and benefits. They would rent their skills to the highest bidder or the most meaningful mission. This is how professional-services firms operate.

As for salarymen and salarywomen, they still need to do face-time—literally. Research suggests that if people aren’t in the office at least half the week, relationships with fellow workers suffer, as does collaboration. There is also evidence that a lack of personal interaction can hurt employees’ odds of being promoted. Instead of going fully remote, companies might start by experimenting with one or two remote days a week.

If more of us end up working remotely after the pandemic, there is one change that could make work better: ending the misalignment between the school day and the work day. The gapbetween 3pm and 5pm in many countries is grossly unfair to working parents. Some propose making school days longer, but I advocate shorter work days.

During covid-19, the working day seems to haveexpanded: by two hours in Britain, France and Spain, and three hours longer in America. Take it from someone who studies work for a living: we can be every bit as creative and productive in six focused hours a day as in twice as many distracted hours. A shorter work day would be a healthy legacy of covid-19—though it wouldn’t prevent our kids from raiding our Zoom meetings.

Yet the changes to where we work are only a small part of the story. The experiences from past recessions and crises suggest that covid-19 is likely to transform three features of our work lives: job satisfaction, ethical leadership and trust.Jun 1st 2020

Reference: The Economist by Adam Grant

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