“The future comes one day at a time,” statesman Dean Acheson, architect of the Cold War’s Truman Doctrine once said.
While the post-war issues of the 1940s and ’50s clearly carried their own unique set of global challenges, it could be argued that the fallout and aftermath from the post-pandemic era will be every bit as transformational. And long-lasting, despite our collective societal wishes that things return to the way they used to be.
Perhaps nowhere have the changes been more impactful than with the rise of remote work and the many knock-on implications that go with people doing their jobs from home.
Whether it’s wardrobe, diet, transportation, communications, office space, work hours or more, it’s widely acknowledged that work is going to a mix of the old and the new. It will reflect the work-from-home (WFH) changes that we made not only to slow down the spread of a deadly virus, but also those innovations that employers and employees liked the best.
Here’s a look at the future of connected work and five key areas that will be different in 2021.
1. The Digital Shift
There’s no question that the pandemic accelerated what had been a steady but orderly shift toward increased digitization over the past 20 years. And by most accounts, that’s not going to stop in 2021.
Where many individuals and industries had previously been slow or reluctant to take up new technologies or processes, they had no choice but to do so in 2020, and many things took on completely different forms.
Just like the old “try it, you’ll like it” Alka Seltzer ad from the 1970s, the frenetic uptake of all things digital during the pandemic attracted legions of converts to it rolls. That’s especially true of those who turned the occasional WFH phenomenon into a full-time lifestyle change.
To be sure, not all WFH’ers will carry on in their current capacity. But many clearly will — at least for 2021’s first half, given that several large employers have already punted their back-to-the-office dates till the summer. At the same time, companies like REI, Zillow, Square and Twitter have announced plans to extend remote work either indefinitely or permanently.
For example, PYMNTS’ Emerging Post-COVID Consumer study found in October that about 80 percent of respondents said they planned to keep some or all of their newfound traits after the virus threat subsides. That included 85 percent who plan to continue online grocery shopping, 84 percent who will stick with retail shopping, 80 percent doing online food ordering and 79 percent working from home.
With those kinds of expectations, it’s no surprise that businesses of all types and sizes are preparing for WFH and everything that goes with it to be a lasting shift rather than a passing trend.
2. CPGs’ Big Bet
If the huge multinational consumer-packaged goods (CPG) companies are good at one thing, predicting what consumers want and figuring out how to get it to them would likely top the list.
So, when The Wall Street Journal reported in December that these marketing mavens are “expanding factories and revamping production lines” and betting that “work-from-home habits … will outlast the coronavirus pandemic,” that’s probably noteworthy.
WSJ found that Conagra Brands and Kraft Heinz are buying and upgrading equipment to make more at-home lunch foods, while General Mills is adding an extra production line for Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Similarly, WSJ found that Kimberly-Clark is converting a plant to make toilet paper for homes instead of offices, while Procter & Gamble is adding more beard-care products.
Those types of capital expenditures and facility revampings are done with years in mind, not just to handle a trend that CPGs expect to last for a few quarters.
3. QSRs’ Big Pivot
Similar to their CPG cousins, the giant multinational quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains have financially committed themselves to a long-term future centered on the increased digital ordering, delivery and connectivity that the pandemic has boosted.
Add in the fact that any increase in people working from home should have a commensurate impact on weekday breakfast and lunch sales and it’s safe to say McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum Brands and other QSRs aren’t going to just wait to see what happens.
Although any restaurant with an existing drive-thru system had a head start on the restaurant industry’s new normal, the scale and scope of long-term investments being made in this sector to adapt are truly generational.
The sector is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to embracing the staying power of recent changes. For instance, McDonald’s has unveiled a “3D” focus — “Digital, Delivery and Drive Thru” — while Burger King’s revamped restaurant designs include five different points of service to provide an enhanced guest experience.
Restaurants will also be increasing their use of loyalty and rewards programs contained within their own in-house apps. That should help minimize the expense of third-party delivery services used by WFH consumers who are unable or unwilling to venture out for their meals and prefer delivery.
The same thing is happening with grocery stores. After scrambling to meet the surge in demand for delivered goods, many had no choice but to align with — and pay for — the services of big delivery apps.
While many consumers have grown to prefer the convenience of ordering groceries online, the stores are trying to bring that business and the customer relationship it entails back in-house, knowing that it’s not going away anytime soon.
4. Athleisure Tops Business Casual
The boom in remote working and the connected economy have had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on both the style and purchasing process of our everyday clothing.
Nowhere has this shift been more pronounced than at fashion subscription businesses such as Stitch Fix, where founder and CEO Katrina Lake said her company’s ability to leverage data and relentlessly adapt its inventory assortment led to its best-ever quarter.
At a time when brick-and-mortar stores continue to feel the effects of light traffic and reluctant shoppers, the business model of sending a box of hand-selected clothing and accessories straight to your door each month is working. It’s giving homebound workers the clothes they now need and want.
“In women’s, for example, we’ve grown our athleisure assortment as a percent of our women’s inventory by over 150 percent compared to pre-COVID levels, helping us to serve elevated demand for these products and meet our clients’ work-from-home needs,” Lake said in December.
Thanks to the continued impact of Amazon within the retail industry, as well as the advent of increasingly short delivery times, department stores and shoe/apparel makers are both committed to increasing their direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales. It’s a trend — and investment — that’s expected to grow in 2021 and beyond.
5. Reworking The Concept Of Work
As much as the majority of WFH employees say they’d like to continue in their current routine if given the choice, a subset of the labor force longs for a return to the office, business trips, team dinners and relatively predictable hours.
Given the pandemic’s unprecedented layoffs, there’s also been a significant rise in gig workers trying to make ends meet.
While California marked the frontline in the battle between gig workers’ rights and the Silicon Valley firms like Uber and Instacart that successfully fought to keep people as contractors rather than employees, that fight is far from over. Expect California’s recent AB 5/Prop 22 fight to be replayed in several other states in 2021, as well as at the federal level.
At stake are things like hourly wage guarantees, limits on shift length, health benefits, profit sharing and equity stakes in fast-growing public companies.
Taken together, the sweeping economic and lifestyle changes foisted upon us this past year have not only changed where and how we work within the increasingly connected economy, but they are set to impact labor practice and policy for years to come.