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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption to our workforce in the short term and is likely to change the way that we work in the long term. To understand these changes, McKinsey commissioned a survey of business executives around the world in June 2020. The results suggest that the crisis may accelerate some workforce trends already underway, such as the adoption of automation and digitization, increased demand for contractors and gig workers, and more remote work.

Unprecedented restrictions on travel, physical interactions, and changes in consumer behaviour since COVID-19 took hold has forced companies and consumers to change the way they operate. This has spurred digital transformations in a matter of weeks rather than months or years. As nonessential workers shifted to working from home, 85 per cent of respondents in the McKinsey survey said their businesses have somewhat or greatly accelerated the implementation of technologies that digitally enable employee interaction and collaboration, such as videoconferencing and filesharing. Roughly half of those surveyed reported increasing digitization of customer channels, for example, via e-commerce, mobile apps, or chatbots. Some 35 per cent have further digitized their supply chains, for example, by connecting their suppliers with digital platforms in supply chain management.

Adoption of automation technologies—including robotics, autonomous vehicles, and AI-driven software that can perform processing workflows—has also accelerated during the pandemic, although to a lesser extent than digitization. These trends reflect automation’s ability to facilitate contactless interactions at a time of social distancing and heightened awareness of hygiene, as well as cost pressures that may arise from the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19. Another plus: robots do not get sick.

Before the pandemic, remote work had struggled to establish much of a beachhead, as companies worried about its impact on productivity and corporate culture. With the advent of COVID-19, however, tens of millions of employees were sent home, armed with laptops and other digital technologies, to start work. Now, some employers intend to increase their workforce working remotely at least some of the time, although at far lower levels than seen during lockdowns and quarantines.

COVID-19 already has dramatically changed the way many jobs are done, and employers are now planning how best to extract benefits from those changes as they prepare for business after the pandemic subsides. Greater digitization and automation, more demand for independent contractors, and increased reliance on remote work have the potential to deliver better productivity, lower costs, and enhance resilience. Innovation historically has driven changes beneficial to workers and humanity at large, and new workplace trends hold the promise of greater productivity that will fuel broader well-being. The trick will be in reducing the risk of unequal outcomes, ensuring companies of all sizes can benefit and preparing workers for these shifts.