How the Pandemic Created a New Global Workforce

Posted: 03/12/2021 - 09:00
SYKES' Ian Barkin Explains How the COVID-19 Pandemic Created a More Mobile and Global Workforce.

This is How the COVID-19 Pandemic Created a More Mobile and Global Workforce

Companies everywhere have come to accept the impacts of the pandemic on the future of work in stages that are eerily similar to the stages of grief: First, there was the wait-and-see phase, in which business leaders cautiously monitored news of the growing COVID-19 threat; then recovery mode, when enterprises were forced to adopt work-at-home functionality to keep their employees safe. Next, there was the survival phase — where most companies are now — in which businesses have settled in, accepted that the world is in flux, continued to digitize and hold out hope that things get back to normal soon.

But, rest assured, this isn’t the final phase. There is a better normal ahead. And now that we’ve all had some time to get our bearings, many businesses have begun preparing for what’s next. In fact, there are signs that the pandemic has even accelerated some companies’ progress toward far-off goals — moonshot digital initiatives and futurism predictions that were originally reserved for 2030. 

There are plenty of indicators that this period has the potential to be a catalyst for a better future of work, you just have to know where to look. COVID-19 is already jump-starting the mobile, global workforce of the future — and that change has the potential to alter the outsourcing marketplace as we know it.

The Pandemic Created Demand for Digital Decentralization  

The pandemic has set the biggest work-at-home experiment ever witnessed into motion, and the results have already changed the entire business landscape. With COVID-19 affecting industries worldwide, posing a challenge to all in-person operations, the playing field has been quickly leveled. To stay ahead of the game, companies everywhere are racing to digitally decentralize to avoid further disruption.  

Nearly two-thirds (61.67%) of employees reported they were working from home due to the pandemic, according to a 2020 SYKES Institute survey. That’s a colossal conversion when you consider that, in March, only 7% of all U.S. workers reported having access to “flexible” work options like work at home, according to the 2020 National Compensation Survey (NCS). 

However, while rapidly converting to work at home was a necessity earlier last year due to COVID-19, now that companies have had a taste of remote, digital capabilities, many are now including it in their vision for the future of work. Massive tech companies like Twitter and Slack have already told employees they can work from home forever and, given the influence and market share of those companies, more will soon follow. In fact, just over 43% of survey respondents have already reported they’ve been given a permanent work-at-home option, according to the SYKES Institute survey noted earlier.

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With work at home quickly becoming a standard part of operations post-2020, the decentralization trend shows few signs of stopping. For the most part, this will be because of the potential that distributed workforces have to efficiently scale and solve problems regardless of scope or location. 

The COVID-19 Pause Ultimately Created Digital Acceleration for Many

While the pandemic has indeed been disruptive, it has also driven leaders to rethink, refocus and reform standard business processes through a lens of distributed digital capability — a crucial next phase in the future of work and outsourcing. Since each company has been forced to handle and accept the effects of our new shared reality all together, this has allowed for a much-needed time to reassess and rebuild.

In fact, according to a study by McKinsey, businesses have digitized so quickly during the pandemic that they’ve advanced by an estimated three to four years in both internal and supply chain digitization.

The sudden shutdown created acceleration for many automation initiatives as well. In part, this could be because many more employees are warming up to the technology now that it has failed to contribute to mass unemployment in 2020. Pre-COVID-19, nearly a third (31.93%) of workers reported that hearing words like “robots” or “automation” made them think of tools or machines that could take their jobs. Now, 78.4% of survey respondents indicated that working with automation actually interests them, according to the SYKES Institute Fall 2020 survey report.  

What Began With Distancing May End in an Outsourcing Revolution

So now that many of us have braved the initial conversion and companies are decentralizing to counteract COVID-19’s assault on the workforce, a big part of the next phase will be building toward even greater capability in 2021. Chiefly, distance is no longer a limiting variable in the newly formed remote reality — and that could mean wider global reach for companies. 

Since many employees are operating from home offices, entire departments and teams have become more modular than ever. Hiring on a new business unit doesn’t require a new office building or cubicle space anymore — all you need is a Wi-Fi connection. 

Entire business units will have the ability to move and restructure with unprecedented ease — trading teammates and management across towns or countries virtually without having to worry about business travel expenses or relocation costs. Additionally, the new, more modular model that will come as a byproduct of remote work will mean a benefit to mobility and general scalability, as well as easier partnerships with business process outsourcing (BPO) companies and contractors. In essence, expanding globally has never been easier, as long as you can find the talent. 

For outsourcing companies, this reset will likely mean new, increased demand for turnkey business process solutions simply due to the fact that departments and teams are not only becoming more modular — they’re also outsourcing to meet new needs and streamlining services to try to stay in the black. In fact, despite taking a revenue hit in 2020 as many businesses did, outsourcing, as an industry, is expected to grow well beyond even 2019 numbers in 2021, with an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7%, according to Statista.

Should the shift toward outsourcing and a more globally distributed workforce continue, it will likely mean we’re entering a period of unmatched capability, in which a company’s global reach will only be limited by its investment in its workforce. Now that businesses themselves are decentralizing and digitizing, there’s sure to be less friction and technical difficulty during the process of connecting and converting remote business units with the goal of expanding.

Next Steps for the New Mobile, Global Workforce

Though the negative effects of the pandemic are ongoing, it’s clear that this period has also created new capability for the global workforce through digital acceleration, decentralization, and a radical reimagination of the way we work. Everything’s different, but that just means there are opportunities for businesses to create new value through innovation.

Technology brings with it the chance to build toward a better world — and many companies are already forging ahead full-steam. So, as we rebuild, it will be important to recognize that the investment we place in the workforce now will pay dividends in the future. 



About The Author

Ian Barkin's picture

Ian Barkin is chief strategy and marketing officer for SYKES. Ian co-founded Symphony Ventures, a managed services firm specializing in intelligent automation (IA) and robotic process automation (RPA) acquired by SYKES in 2018. Ian hosts  OneTAKE, a series on emerging technology, the future of work, and more. He holds an MBA from MIT Sloan School of Management and a BA in Economics and Psychology from Middlebury College. Along with Pascal Bornet and Jochen Wirtz, Ian is the co-author of the best-selling book, Intelligent Automation: Welcome to the World of Hyperautomation.   

Connect with Ian on LinkedIn.