The Future of Work After COVID-19

Pam Sornson, JD

The COVID-19 concern has already disrupted thousands of companies and millions of lives in California. In the short-term, that means many workers are now seeking unemployment insurance (UI) as work stops while the country struggles to contain the pandemic. In the mid-term, getting back to a ‘new normal’ means adopting new processes and procedures in some or all of our work-related activities. In the long-term, the COVID-19 virus will almost certainly usher in a new way of working in general, demand new ways of performing traditional labor and services, and compel the development of a more complex and agile workforce.


The Short-Term View is … Distressing

For workers, it’s been a challenging past few weeks, with millions losing their jobs. In California, as of April 9, the state’s Employment Development Department (EDD) had processed approximately 2.3 million Unemployment Insurance (UI) claims over the previous four weeks; in just the one week ending April 4, the EDD processed over 925,000 individual claims.

In response, the state is working with the federal government to implement the opportunities contained in the new “Corona Aid, Relief and Economic Security” Act (CARES Act). That Act provides a new 13-week extension of regular unemployment benefits and a new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which offers unemployment support for workers who don’t usually qualify for unemployment benefits, such as the self-employed. The state also has several services available to help workers access benefits and obtain other assistance, including directions to set up unemployment insurance accounts, and the contacts for community resources available for food, housing, and transportation concerns.

The coronavirus is also impacting employers by forcing them to make decisions without the opportunity to comply with state law. Consequently, the Governor has temporarily suspended the 60-day notice requirement for those who’ve had to lay off or terminate their whole staff because of the pandemic. Companies can also request a 60-day extension to file payroll taxes (note the virus as the reason for submitting the extension request) and may be able to find additional financial support through local workforce development boards. Not all rules are suspended, however, and companies are still required to follow most of the protections in place for workers who lose their jobs.


The Mid-Term View is … Chaotic

Because of the virus, the vast majority of workers who still have their jobs are now encouraged to or are actually Working From Home (WFH) – 88%, according to Gartner. The shift has had an enormous impact on business and industry and is revealing where societal systems are weak, and where they are surprisingly strong.

Those companies that can transition their workforce into a ‘distributed’ resource are the most likely to hold their ground during the crisis, but the change isn’t without challenge. The capacities of home-based technology are rarely comparable to those of work-based systems, especially when it comes to security concerns. Workers may require additional training to ensure they are capturing the full nuance of their new ‘virtual’ job expectations. The company may have to invest in additional technology resources to ensure the WFH requirement doesn’t unnecessarily erode its capabilities or expose new vulnerabilities.

The employment realities are dire in those industries that are not compatible with a WFH initiative. Thousands of businesses that require face-to-face interactions with customers have closed, including retailers, restaurants, and service providers. For many of those establishments, the closures will be permanent. When the COVID-19 crisis subsides (which it will), the return to work will be equally chaotic, as corporate leaders take stock of their legacy systems and retool their organizations to be more flexible in the face of future, similar events.


The Long-term View is … Optimistic

As with every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic also provides an opportunity to seek a fresh perspective on foundational corporate operations. With a few exceptions, ‘business as usual’ simply won’t exist when the company doors are open again and those legacy parameters won’t be returning. The situation can provide today’s business leaders with lessons arising from the fall-out of COVID-19, and how they might reframe their strategizing to both capture new opportunities while protecting against a similar disaster in the future.


Rethinking Fundamentals

Even if most companies were already utilizing technology to manage a percentage of their operational capacity, the COVID-19 concern escalated that demand, as well as the organization’s reliance on it. Technology was able to provide the connection between business+worker+customer that the virus had eliminated. It’s reasonable to assume, then, that that new symbiosis – the new ‘virtual venture’ – is also the new foundation for future operational success. Business leaders can now assess the core elements of their company to determine how they can improve its productivity from that newly empowered digital perspective.


Revising Systems for Future Success

Many industries have already adapted to a temporary system overhaul as their participants scrambled to manage their COVID-19 experience. Looking forward, the vulnerabilities revealed in that scramble remain but can be used to direct remedial efforts:

Supply chains took a significant hit from the virus, and many businesses lost their capacity to maintain continuity as parts, materials, and other resources went missing.

Fundamental business intelligence was lost, too, as connections were dropped when workers went home, or contracted partners were shuttered.

Financial management also churned through the pandemic. Some companies lost access to needed revenues, while others struggled to manage a surge in transactions as consumers connected through digital portals.

Understanding how these disruptions impacted the organization in the short term can help direct its efforts to avoid those disruptions in the long run.


Supporting Concerned Consumers

At the heart of every company is its relationship with its customers, and those consumers are now very aware that even casual interactions can pose serious health threats. For strictly online companies, face-to-face interactions are unnecessary, and consumer confidence in those systems probably won’t change. Those companies that do interact either face-to-face or through product shipments should be working to regain their customer’s trust and confidence. Actively demonstrating and talking about the actions they’ve taken/are taking to mitigate that risk will assure their consumers that they are taking the concern seriously and managing it appropriately.


Re-envisioning the Developing Workforce

It’s almost certain that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the culture of virtually every company, and leaders can assess those cultural lessons to build a more robust, agile, and productive workforce. At the least, now is an opportune time to celebrate the value of employees, regardless of the nature of the business. Those who work from home assumed that obligation and continue to provide valuable effort while distanced from colleagues. Those who were laid off were obviously the foundation upon which the business was built. Now is an excellent time to actively recognize both employee classes for the value they offered – and will continue to offer – their employers.


Looking ahead, the new phrase describing tomorrow’s labor population is ‘elastic digital workforce,‘ a workforce that can quickly and nimbly adapt to social, technical, and environmental changes. These workers are now comfortable with working from home and may provide better service because they have that option. The opportunity to maintain a ‘distributed workforce’ can also save money for the organization, if it doesn’t need to provide a brick-and-mortar office site for its staff. Further, as the average age of the workforce drops (by 2025, three in four of all workers will be under the age of 50), so does the definition of the word, ‘work.’ For these generations, the fluidity of a work-life balance is as important as the pay rate. The newly agile enterprise will recognize that fact and provide responsive accommodations that will attract and keep the best talent on their rosters. Businesses that can adapt their practices to harness the possibility of this new, fluid labor force should see an opportunity to thrive long into the future.


The COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve, and how society will look in its aftermath remains to be seen. However, it is already compelling significant changes in how the world works. Companies that seek out and learn from those changes can position themselves to be ahead of the curve and prepared to commence operations when the crisis passes.


The Economic and Workforce Development department at Pasadena City College is tracking the changes that are occurring in the businesses and industries that make up its community. The School is looking forward to partnering with each of its corporate neighbors to provide the workforce they need to tackle tomorrow’s challenges.




Entrepreneurs: Foundational. Inspirational.
Entrepreneurs: Innovative. Creative. Increasingly Female.
Apprenticeships – What, Why, & How