Hindsight from 2020 can be 20/20 with the right clues

COVID-19 has been an accelerant for both the future of work and economic upheaval. We’ve had to adjust to a world that should have been at least 10 years in the making. Instead it’s happening all at once. But what if it was stretched out over a decade? We actually have a 10-year period we could look to: 2003-2013. While there was no pandemic, we experienced unprecedented technological advances followed by major economic upheaval.  

To take you back, 2003 was the year we first read about the “opt out revolution” where highly educated women were leaving the workforce. For many, it was a push not a pull, but it was clear there were obstacles for many in corporate life. At the same time, LinkedIn had just launched in 2002, followed by WordPress in 2003, Facebook and Shopify in 2004, Etsy in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. Blogging and ecommerce emerged as viable business platforms just as the financial markets began melting down.

While 2003-2013 was a slow burn in retrospect, there are definitely some clues as to what we should consider for 2020.

1. Women “opting out” had challenges returning to the workforce. Many left before the internet became mainstream. When they attempted to return, they lacked the skills. Today, technology is changing at an equally fast pace and with millions out of work due to COVID-19, many will lack skills needed for re-entry. Future Proof Research Collaborative (FPRC) 2020 takeaway:  We need skill-training, not job training. We need to entice businesses and others to provide affordable microlearning in a variety of formats with transferable skills for those returning to the workforce.

2. People did not believe that it was possible to network online, but we did it. This seems antiquated, but the technology was new. And, there was a reluctance by many because (1) their companies prohibited participation; (2) they didn’t want to learn new technology; and/or (3) they believed face-to-face was the only way. While we have accepted online networking, due to COVID-19, we need to now accept virtual business models across the board. The good news – all the tools are readily available and have been for a while. FPRC 2020 takeaway: Most businesses can have a virtual component, but will need to train employees, and adapt to clients who do their research and purchasing online. Your sales strategy will need to rethink in person, tradeshows and client entertainment, and your online presence has to be less about image building and more about providing the easiest and most direct path to assisted online sales.

3. We ignored childcare. Back in 2003-2013, the mantra for most female employees was “work like you aren’t a parent; and parent like you don’t work.” A tough feat, especially for single parents. Not much has changed, and COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges for all families with children at home. FPRC 2020 takeaway: Schools and companies need to work together to find the most productive solutions. It’s likely that reduced workloads or variable schedules for kids and parents might ultimately be more productive, but we have yet to see resources dedicated to understanding the ramifications of the current trajectory.

4. Millennials rejected the default, because the default did not work for them. As we came out of the Great Recession, many of the advantages of the middle class and corporate America no longer existed: pensions, unions, retirement at 65, manageable student loans, employee training, home ownership as a path to wealth, 40-hour workweeks and raising a family on a single income. While many Baby Boomers took these for granted, Millennials and Gen X’ers faced an entirely different set of circumstances. Other than for a subset of privileged youth, their reality was not that of the Boomers, nor could it ever be. Today, we are even another generation further away from what previous ones experienced. FPRC 2020 takeaway: Due to COVID-19, it’s time to rethink everything about the future of work. There are more differences than there are similarities in how businesses and our economy run today versus 2003. The default is not there to reject, it doesn’t even exist.

Diane Danielson is the founder of the Future Proof Research Collaborative.