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Prepare for the next normal

The pandemic will end, but work will never be the same

In a few short months, the COVID-19 virus has infected millions around the world. Nobody knows when the pandemic will end, or what its true economic impact will be. I’m certain, however, that work will never be the same.

By now, more than one-third of all U.S. workers (34.1%) have responded to the pandemic by shifting to remote work, according to a new MIT study. When you add the 14.6% of workers who were already telecommuting before the pandemic, it appears that nearly half the U.S. labor force is now working remotely. In a sign of things to come, younger workers are more likely than older people to switch from commuting to remote work.

Going forward, learnings from this experience will cause new employee behaviors and business practices. For many employees, the traditional office and desktop workspace will become a pre-COVID artifact. For these employees, their new office will be wherever they need it to be. Employees will replace their assigned cubicle with their choice, deciding for themselves when, where and how they want to work and stay productive.

How to keep your workforce safe, confident, and satisfied in the post-pandemic world

I’ve seen this play out at my own company. ServiceNow has 11,000 employees worldwide. We’ve all been working from home since mid-March. Former road warriors are calling on clients via Zoom while their children and pets wander past in the background. And the concept of the work day has changed drastically. Many of us are logging on and off work throughout the day and night, as childcare, elder care, and other domestic responsibilities permit. We’re spending a lot less on travel, even while employee productivity and customer engagement remain high. This frees up resources to invest in other areas that support our strategy.

As the company CIO, it’s my job to make sure we all have the technology needed to stay productive and serve our customers in these trying times. Our employees are using digital workflows on the Now Platform to get work done remotely. For example, employee use of our Virtual Agent chatbot rose by 12% from February to March 2020, and use of our Now Mobile app grew by 10%.

One day, the pandemic will end and workplaces will reopen. But work will be different. Agile, distributed, “anywhere, anytime” workplaces will become the norm rather than the exception. In this next normal, managing complex digital workflows will be critical to providing employees the services and experiences needed to do their jobs seamlessly and efficiently.

Here are 5 themes for CIOs to consider as they help their workforce adapt to the next normal:

  • Leaders will work together in new ways. I predict we’ll see HR, IT, facilities, and security leaders collaborating much more. These functions may even merge into employee experience teams led by a chief experience officer.
  • Your mileage may vary. There will not be a consistent employee experience across industries and geographies. The digital infrastructure needed to keep employees safe and productive in an office building is different from that of an oil rig, a factory, or a hospital. In communities where domestic privacy is at a premium, knowledge workers may be more reluctant to give up their office space.
  • AI & mobile will be key. Workers will expect to access anything and everything via mobile devices. AI will help leaders make smarter decisions about workforce management. Use cases include AI for smart badges and managing physical space so that appropriate social distancing can be maintained.
  • Office life will change. Open-plan offices will disappear. New cubicle layouts and staggered occupancy plans will emerge, optimized for social distance and employee health. There will be less business travel, which is good news for families. And thanks to advanced digital workflows, even C-level executives will be able to troubleshoot their own IT issues.
  • Emergency measures will become permanent. More companies will be willing to accommodate remote work arrangements. Many will continue to hire, onboard, transfer, and offboard employees remotely.

All these trends were in motion before the pandemic, but they are now accelerating. Companies that had already deployed digital strategies and operating models are weathering the crisis more successfully than digital laggards. Many laggards are stuck on old technology, with too much tech debt, yesterday’s software, and slow, outdated processes.

[Read also: How COVID-19 offers a glimpse into the future of AI]

Digital workflows have made it possible for ServiceNow and many other companies to maintain business continuity during the pandemic. We continue to hire, onboard, and serve customers from home. We’re putting mobile to work in the enterprise with apps that digitize new employee workflows and make it easy to join or leave a company.

The companies that survive this pandemic and thrive in the next normal will be technology-enabled and digitally transformed.