Reimagining Work After the Pandemic

home office toyParody home office toy for kids watching their parents working from home - see actual toy below

 

As we move towards the winter of 2020, the pandemic is still the most dominant factor affecting work and school in America. In March of this year, the rise of COVID-19 cases forced a reimagining of work and school. I'll leave school for future posts and focus here on work. 

I could have used the title "Reimagining Work" as a title on a post in any of the 14 years that I have been writing here because we are always reimagining work and the workplace. But 2020 has also been the year of social and cultural uprisings throughout the world, a record number of hurricanes, catastrophic fires in California, dire warning about climate change, and an increasingly divided American political system. 

I saw a panel on this topic focused on reimagining the office and work-life after COVID-19. I think it's too early to say what the results will be, but it is clear that some things have been forced to change. The question is how many of those things will remain or will we return to some of what we were doing in 2019? 

Before the pandemic, it would have been safe to say that having offices were critical to productivity and creating a company culture. Estimates I found vary on how much work has moved out of offices. In April, I found that it was estimated that about 62 percent of employed Americans were working from home. Work from home was already a trend before 2020 but the number was closer to 25 percent. Prior to the pandemic, just 3.4 percent of Americans worked from home, but at the peak of the shutdown, an Upwork report in partnership with MIT found that nearly half of the U.S. workforce was working remotely

Will there still be competition for prime office space in major urban centers? Will companies be maintaining but downsizing their workspaces?

around the world, and many focused on solutions that were seen to promote collaboration. Densification, open-office designs, hoteling, and co-working were the battle cries. a couple of years ago. During the pandemic, many people have been surprised by how quickly and effectively technologies for videoconferencing and other forms of digital collaboration were adopted. For many, the results have been better than imagined.

According to McKinsey research, 80 percent of people questioned report that they enjoy working from home and 41 percent say that they are more productive than they had been before.

As I said, this reimagining was happening before the pandemic. In the 2017 book, Reimagining Work, the focus is on the business leader working in what the author calls a "new on-demand economy" positing that "traditional management strategies are becoming obsolete."

That obsolescence is driven from the bottom up. A skilled workforce wants much greater flexibility and more control over their work. That is not something major corporations really ever considered offering in the last century.

That flexibility began in this century with many startups and smaller companies. It's easier to turn around a small boat than it is to turn a large ship.  Some of those smaller companies - Uber, Lyft, Handy, Airbnb, Task Rabbit - have become big and the flexibility was built into their culture. Changes have already happened more broadly in the way companies recruit, develop, and train talent. As the book says, growth for a company is more than just expansion. It also means maturation, adaptation, and evolution. 

During the pandemic, employees were freed from commuting and work travel. That has given them more personal time and greater flexibility in balancing the work-life balance that has been part of attracting new employees for the past twenty years.

For employers, this shift means they can access new pools of talent without considerations of the location while saving on their real-estate costs.

I have had several jobs that were done virtually with only a few visits to the actual company offices. One of my sons started a new job during the COVID-19 summer and he has never been to the company offices. He did his interviews by videoconferencing and has met his co-workers only online and on phone calls.

I don't think total isolation from the office and co-workers is ideal, and there has been speculation about the effect these shifts will ultimately have on "office culture" - morale, company loyalty, camaraderie and other difficult to assess elements.

Almost everyone is looking to return to some reopening and return to whatever the new normal turns out to be. Though President Trump had predicted it would be "by Easter" or "when it gets warmer," no one really knows when we will return. Before a vaccine is available, the office experience of January 2020 will not return. those few offices (and schools) that have reopened require masks and have redesigned workspaces to ensure physical distancing. Companies are restricting movement to avoid typically congested areas (like elevators, break rooms, dining areas, conference rooms). The classic "hanging out at the water cooler" of the 20th century may be gone forever.

But we know that there is value in the social capital that comes from those informal conversations, meetings, and social engagements, not only with co-workers but with clients.

That panel I referenced asked questions that we don't have answers to at this time. Will corporate cultures and communities erode over time without physical interaction? Will planned and unplanned moments of collaboration become impaired? Will there be less mentorship and talent development? Has working from home succeeded only because it is viewed as temporary, not permanent?

Important questions. No answers yet.

 

MORE 

Another webinar on "Reimagining Work in the Pandemic and Beyond" from Harvard Business 

A report on "Reimagining work in the era of COVID-19"




* I used a parody home office toy as an illustration above but Fisher-Price does actually offer such a toy - but no crying baby or wine included.

Lots of Flexibility in Reopening Colleges

The decisions to reopen schools K-12 and colleges have been difficult ones.
 
As the spring 2020 semester was ending, two-thirds of colleges had announced that they would hold in-person classes this fall. That was according to data presented by The Chronicle who teamed up with Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i) to present the reopening models of nearly 3,000 institutions.

As of their latest data, there are only 3.9% of the reporting schools fully in-person. Another 23% are the rather confusingly termed "Primarily In-Person" - which sounds like hybrid but that's another category taking up 21%. 

chart

chart via chronicle.com

Clearly, the 66% of schools last May who expected to be in-person in some form haven't reopened in that form. In fact, I'd call almost every category shown here hybrid/blended/HyFlex (the terms are getting blurred) in some form.  34% selected "primarily online" as their status which does not mean hybrid. Many schools are putting some courses back in labs, lecture halls, or classrooms with some restrictions, while other courses are fully online and others are meeting half in-person and half online (the classic hybrid). So, a school's approach to reopening might be a hybrid of several totally different approaches.

Flexibility - a key element these days.

Higher Education Responds to COVID-19

empty lecture hallThe coronavirus has been an unexpected disruptor to education around the globe. In March 2020, most institutions K-20 started canceling in-person classes and moving to online-only instruction. The pandemic is also disrupting things on campuses outside classrooms and labs. Admissions and enrollment, athletics, and many social and campus community activities have been halted or severely altered. Financial instability from unexpected costs and reductions in revenue touch on all aspects of school operations.  

This summer the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) began posting information about what it is seeing happening in higher education in response to COVID-19.  (There is also a K-12 responses page.)

Many responses from the spring no longer apply to this fall. The situation continues to develop. The immediate problems in March and the short-term solutions implemented have become long-term challenges. NCSL is obviously concerned with legislation enacted because of the pandemic. Bills to ensure students receive refunds for room and board expenses, pause the collection of payments on state held student loans, and in some cases to require higher education institutions to develop and expand emergency preparedness and response plans. Like the colleges, legislators must have strategies to address funding and appropriations for public colleges and universities.  

The NCSL site has a lot of information and I will summarize some that seem pertinent here. Any report from the spring semester or summer plans is likely to have been changed. Every school probably had several possible plans for fall 2020 but there was hope early on that we might return to something like normal classes or at least a hybrid approach. But we saw reversals in in-person classes almost immediately in September with some schools switching back to being almost completely or completely online.

The 3 plans that almost every school were preparing:
In-Person Instruction (with social distancing and precautions)
Hybrid-HyFlex Model or Limiting Students on Campus
Moving to Online-Only Instruction

A good number of colleges planned one of those things over the summer, perhaps even implemented the plan, but have already moved to another option.

Concerns and Issues:

  • The quality of online-only classes for instruction, particularly for students who are already academically struggling
  • Helping students who might lack access to an internet connection, including opening university libraries on a limited basis and distributing mobile hotspots to students.
  • Reconsidering grading systems to try and accommodate and support students in transition.
  • Under "unexpected expenses" we find pro-rated refunds issued to students for room and board (tuition refunds demanded by many students have not materialized)
  • Sanitizing dormitories, classroom, and facilities
  • A variety of technology costs associated with moving to online courses. 
  • Hiring freezes for faculty and pay cuts or furloughs for staff.
  • Adjunct and part-time faculty make up more than 40% of faculty nationwide have issues with generally lacking paid sick leave and health insurance from their college.  
  • Postponed campus tours and admissions events and a decline in admissions visit requests.
  • Limited access to college dorms, dining halls, and work-study programs
  • Closures impact current and future students’ ability to receive and manage financial aid.  
  • Dealing with more than 1 million international students studying in the U.S. (2019, who make up about 6% of the total higher education student population.
  • Collegiate athletics is not at the top of most faculty concerns but it affects college budgets (including income) and student financial aid through scholarships.

Many of these issues were thought to be (or hoped to be) short-term concerns but have become long-term items.

The MOOC Revival

online learner
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

I have been writing a lot about MOOCs since 2012. (Do I still need to explain that a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course?) That was (as dubbed by The New York Times) the “year of the MOOC.” 

This year, the Times was saying that though MOOCs were "near-death" the COVID-19 crisis has put them back into the "trending" category. Their article is headlined "Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming."

Though MOOCs existed prior to 2012, the emergence of online learning networks was something new. While many colleges initially viewed these free online courses as a threat to their tuition systems, within a year many of the most elite colleges began to offer them. It was more than "if you can't beat the, join them." Schools, faculty and students (often on their own) discovered the value of not only MOOCs but online learning in general.

The Times article is negative on the impact of that MOOC revolution saying that "the reality didn’t live up to the dizzying hype." I agree that the hype was truly hype. It was too much. My wife and I wrote a chapter for the book Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future and we titled it "Evolution and Revolution." The title was not meant as a question. Much of the discussion in 2012 was about the revolutionary nature of MOOCs, but we viewed them through the lens of 2015 and saw them as more evolutionary.  

Fast forward to 2020 - the "year of the pandemic" - and we see schools from kindergarten to graduate schools forced to use online learning in some way. A revolution? No. Again, an evolution that should have started for schools a decade ago but clearly has not for many of them who fond themselves unprepared in march 2020 to go fully online.

MOOCs have changed. My many posts here have shown that the open part of mOoc has become far less open both in the ability to reuse the materials and in the no-cost aspect. Companies have been formed around offering MOOC-like courses, certificates and degrees. 

The biggest criticism of MOOCs was probably that most learners (not always traditional students) never completed the courses. Completion rates in free courses of about 10% certainly sounded like a failure. Making students pay even a small fee or offering credit improved that percentage but not enough to make observers feel the revolution had succeeded.

I never worried about the completion rates because my research and my own experiences teaching and as a learner in these courses made it clear than the majority of students in them never intended to complete all of the coursework. They were there to get what they wanted to learn and get out. They didn't need to take a freshman year of requirements and prerequisites or gain admission to Stanford in order to take a course on artificial intelligence from Stanford. 

Of course, as the Times article points out, MOOCs kept going without all the hype. They evolved, and in some ways so did online learning because of them. Platforms and for-profit companies emerged and certificates, fully online MOOCish degrees, and nanodegress were offered. 

With the spotlight off them, MOOCs were able to evolve into different species - free, for-profit, accredited, for lifelong learning, massive, small, skills training, corporate, for K-12, etc. 

Sheltering and working and learning from home has given another boost to that second "O" in moOc. The providers like Coursera have signed up 10 million new users since mid-March, and edX and Udacity have seen similar surges. And that doesn't even take into account the less-visible use of big (such as Khan Academy) and small grassroots use of these courses by teachers and students.

My wife and I are now writing a journal article for this fall about online learning as a solution for some crises in higher education. 2020 has definitely a time of both crisis and opportunity for online learning. I hope the hype doesn't return to the MOOC. It did not serve it well in the past.

If you have any thoughts on the current state of MOOCs and online learning, contact me.