The Future of the Workforce is a “Better Normal”

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The world as we all knew it changed earlier this year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seemingly overnight, everything that we used to think was normal had changed, and things that once were deemed impossible for the workplace became the “new normal.” Now, seven months later, most of us have gotten used to this “new normal” — embracing the work-from-home lifestyle, using new technology, wearing masks, social distancing, and connecting virtually. But what comes next? Eventually this pandemic will end, a vaccine will be readily available, and we will attempt to return back to our “normal” lives. But what does this next “new normal” look like? Can our next “normal” be an even “better normal”?

Who will lead the way to a “better normal”?

The millennial generation is most commonly identified as people born between 1981 and 1996. Currently the largest living generation in the U.S., millennials will account for 75 percent of the American workforce by 2025. With such a powerful force in numbers, millennials are reshaping the way companies need to think about the future of work in a post-pandemic world.

The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020 revealed that despite the individual challenges that millennials are facing, they have remained focused on larger societal issues, both before and after the onset of the pandemic. The pandemic has reinforced millennials’ desire to help drive positive change and to continue to push for a world in which businesses mirror that same commitment to society, putting people ahead of profits and prioritizing environmental sustainability. According to Evelyn Orr, vice president and COO of the Korn Ferry Institute, the results mirror the movement for a new conception of capitalism that marries profits and social impact to create a virtuous cycle of prosperity. “There is a growing demand to connect business success with social progress. What differentiates CEOs now is being radically human,” says Orr.

Millennials aren’t just entry-level employees anymore; millions have now moved into management and our passions and beliefs will continue to shape branding and culture, all while our demands for societal change will keep impacting strategic decision-making for many years to come. The “better normal” has to be one in which we all care a little more. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?

What would a “better normal” in the workplace even look like?

The pandemic has given businesses the opportunity to reset and reexamine what we considered “normal” and to emerge as a better workplace. A major part of this emergence will be remodeling the workforce, creating efficient, productive, and engaged employees who will help organizations make the change.

The ideas about the future of the workplace are not entirely new; they are trends that we already saw happening before the pandemic began — only now the demand for change is happening much faster. The pandemic has really only expedited what was already on the horizon for a millennial workforce.

The Adecco Group’s CEO Alain Dehaze says, “The world of work will never return to the ‘normal’ we knew before the pandemic struck. The sudden and dramatic change in the workplace landscape has accelerated emerging trends such as flexible working, high-EQ leadership, and re-skilling, to the point where they are now fundamental to organizational success.”

So, what does it look like? We can begin by reflecting on the ways that millennials have already evolved the workforce. Normalizing mental health discussions, workplace flexibility, and more digital communication have become the new norm and have helped reshape today’s workplace to be more casual, open, and flexible. To begin our path to the “better normal,” we need to build off of what we have already changed to create an environment that works for all of us.

The “better normal” includes flexible hours and hybrid work.

For years, millennials have been striving for a more flexible work culture, where they are evaluated for the impact that they create rather than the amount of time they spend in office. The pandemic has finally forced the companies that were dragging their feet to fall in line. Now more than ever, we realize that working from home is possible for most office jobs and that productivity can increase when employees are allowed flexible work options. The future of work will lead us to a results-based workforce rather than an hours-based system. Everyone is different and work product cannot be based on time spent, but rather the quality of the work produced.

That being said, not everyone can or even wants to work from home all the time. The “better normal” in a post-pandemic world will allow employees to be more flexible and work in a way that is best for both them and their companies.

The “better normal” includes a strong, diverse, and purposeful culture.

The pandemic brought to light what most millennials already knew: businesses with strong cultures supported with clear values will change faster and emerge post-pandemic in better shape. Strong culture has always been a good predictor of success for organizations, but the importance of culture escalates in a world of historic change and massive uncertainty. All organizations are now seeing the power of culture in action — as well as the hinderance of a misaligned culture. Diversity and inclusivity in the current climate of social injustice and political unrest are finally getting the attention that they have deserved for so long, and the “better normal” of the workplace will depend on organizations focusing on these issues.

The “better normal” includes new technology.

The adoption of new technology was well under way long before the pandemic hit. But, the overnight switch to remote work forced many companies to adopt new technology much faster than they ever imagined. As the “digital natives” growing up during the turn of the new millennium and the dawn of the digital age, millennials have often led the adoption and use of technology. Relying on the ability to always access information, the millennial generation is accustomed to an on-demand lifestyle. The introduction of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, the iPhone, and just about every other social network and game-changing piece of technology marks a pivotal point in our “coming of age.” We are no longer willing to accept organizations dragging their feet on adopting new technologies. The pandemic has proven that — when forced — everyone can learn to keep up with new technology — just ask your grandma on your next family zoom call!

More is needed to create the foundation for a “better normal.”

While some of these adoptions will change what our workplaces will look like, millennials will need more from their employers for a truly “better normal” in the workplace. Humanity, company purpose, and empathetic leadership will create the foundation for the “better normal” that we all desperately need.

  • Humanity — The Pew Research Center conducted a survey exploring which lessons U.S. adults are taking away from the current pandemic: 86 percent of those surveyed said there are lessons for humankind to learn from the pandemic: lessons in society’s failure to face up to problems like racism, economic inequality, and climate change, as well as which workers are actually essential to the economy. A key takeaway is the need for humankind to come together with a common purpose, focusing not on what divides us, but what unites us, and to treat others well, with compassion and kindness.

    Chairman and CEO of Dell Technologies Michael Dell says there is a silver lining to the “new normal” we find ourselves in: “It could lead to a human transformation, where we have more empathy, more generosity, more gratefulness, more kindness, more selflessness, and maybe some more humility.”

  • Company purpose — Millennials want to understand how their contributions are making an impact on not only the company, but also society as a whole. We want our work to align with our values and a career path that gives us a sense of meaning and purpose on a larger scale. This is even more important now that work life and home life have become the same thing. People’s identities have long been tied to their jobs, but now more than ever those lines have blurred, and we can no longer accept a disconnect between the two.

    This pandemic has reminded us that people are the most motivated when they can connect to their work and feel that they are making contributions to a greater purpose. Workers at some companies have found meaning and inspiration in their jobs as their companies started producing disinfectants, hand sanitizers, face masks, and other equipment in high demand during the pandemic.

  • Empathetic leadership — Before the pandemic began, top leaders already knew that empathy was an important part of leadership. A BusinessSolver State of Workplace Empathy Study found that 80 percent of CEOs believe empathy to be a key to success, but only 48 percent of employees believe companies as a whole are empathetic. Now, with the onset of the pandemic, empathy in the workplace is even more critical than ever before.

    Empathetic leaders are also more likely to view diversity and inclusion as a key part of a business’ success. In inclusion-focused workplaces, it is easier to acquire and retain talent, increase performance and innovation, and boost employee engagement. Our future workplaces should reflect the diverse nature of our society.
In Sum

Every organization has experienced a forced push toward the future of work in ways that have tested their ability to adapt. While this has led to some exceptional actions, the sustainability of those actions is where the path towards a “better normal” will begin — a path that must not only be paved with good intentions, but with meaningful change. Organizations face a choice between returning to a world that is just a version of the old — or building a “better normal” that is viable for the future. The risk is more than just being left behind — it’s the possibility of never being able to catch up to those who have already figured this out.

As the pandemic continues to drive massive societal and organizational changes, we have the opportunity to redesign the future of work, building on the lessons learned throughout this pandemic. Eventually, the pandemic will end, but the significance of the way we interact will carry into the post-pandemic world, shaping the way that we work and hopefully creating a “better normal” for us all.