The 8 Ways That COVID-19 Will Transform Businesses, Jobs and Our Working Lives

From essential workers to remote offices, USC business and policy experts take stock.

August 19, 2021 Daniel P. Smith

Long before COVID-19 upended the daily routines of our work lives, businesses were already undoing long-established rules of how, when and where we work. As the pandemic’s arrival poured accelerant on some of these work trends and forced others to a pause, its aftermath underscores just how much the world of work is shifting.

Traditional 9-to-5 employment has undergone a shakeup with the rise of the gig economy and the pandemic-spurred demaznd for food delivery services like Postmates and Instacart. These “gig companies” — which include Uber, Fiverr and TaskRabbit — have long promised to unshackle workers from inflexible office jobs, letting them pick their own hours to ferry food and fares around town, design websites and assemble Ikea furniture.

To make office life more appealing, talent-chasing companies introduced trendy downtown spaces with vast, open floorplans, often tossing in perks like bars, fitness centers and flexible work options like unlimited vacation.

In a recent survey of CEOs at companies with more than $500 million in annual revenue, 1 in 5 said business is changed forever.

Businesses in virtually every sector of the workforce also tapped into a different kind of talent: automation. In restaurants, robots precisely prepare hamburger patties, sushi and coffee; chatbots “man” desks and phone lines; and complex algorithms scour hundreds of job applicants in minutes to pluck out qualified candidates.

Post-pandemic, it’s unclear which industries will return to the status quo. In fact, according to a recent KPMG survey of 140 CEOs of companies with more than $500 million in annual revenue, 1 in 5 said business is changed forever.

Here are eight predictions from USC experts about how the future of work after COVID-19 might look in our increasingly global, tech-infused and pandemic-shaken world.

Women will need to reestablish themselves in the workforce following COVID-era departures.

From the 1960s into the 21st century, the number of women in the labor force increased dramatically. Entering 2020, women held the majority of U.S. jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Amid the pandemic’s tumult, many women — nearly 3 million by some estimates — left the workforce to assume family duties as the scaffolding they relied on, notably child care and schooling, crumbled. McKinsey and Oxford Economics predict that employment among women may not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, two years later than for their male counterparts. The setback could have far-ranging consequences.

“Think of the lost wages, the lost promotions for women,” says Christine Beckman, a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and author of Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working and Parenting in the Digital Age. “It will come back, but how quickly and with what level of stress?”

Workers will function more as facilitators, not decision-makers.

Once upon a time, business leaders romanticized making decisions based on their “gut feeling.” But today, in the age of big data and artificial intelligence, that gut instinct is becoming less relevant.

This could start to remove the organic free will of knowledge workers.

Marlon Twyman

Marlon Twyman, an assistant professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who studies how people engage with technology, calls this the “automation of thought” — the process whereby individuals function more as facilitators of technology rather than decision-makers. And it’s already mainstream: Consider Uber drivers, who are told where to turn rather than relying on their knowledge of a given area.

Twyman suspects workers across different sectors, including traditional white-collar jobs, will become more beholden to the commands of technology or, at a minimum, see their choices reduced to a fractional range of possibilities.

“This could start to remove the organic free will of knowledge workers,” he says.

The service and care economy will grow but continue to be undervalued.

Not that long ago, working-class Americans in the service and care economy — health care technicians, truck drivers and factory workers, to name a few — could secure a stable middle-class life, says Manuel Pastor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity and director of USC’s Equity Research Institute. That, however, has become a more challenging reality to achieve amid the fall of unions and collective bargaining, a minimum wage that fails to prop up the labor market and the rampant devaluing of such essential work. “Lots of us want Mercedes salaries and Walmart prices,” Pastor says.

COVID-19 showed just how important these essential workers are to the stability of American life. Although discussions of the future of work after COVID-19 often veer toward technology and remote work, Pastor says logistics, service and care are equally important. And that work, he says, needs to be “rewarded with dignity, respect and pay” — a turnaround from the direction it’s been going.

Companies will create internal talent marketplaces to better engage their workforce.

As businesses streamline costs by offloading tasks to external contractors or better technology, John Boudreau, professor emeritus of management and organization at the USC Marshall School of Business and a senior research scientist with USC’s Center for Effective Organizations, expects them to reevaluate the capabilities of their employees.

Boudreau foresees more companies creating internal talent marketplaces akin to Upwork or Fiverr, online marketplaces for freelance writers, programmers, designers and more. This, he says, allows companies to invigorate their own workforce, tapping skills beyond those used in current roles while also providing workers with appealing professional opportunities.

In an encouraging sign, Boudreau says early reports of these internal marketplaces are not only championing the economic value to the business but also touting worker empowerment and systems that reflect both worker and organizational interests.

Workers will increasingly ditch the traditional 9-to-5 life — though they might not like what they find.

Growing up in the age of self-made success stories, from Shark Tank to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, many new workers see entrepreneurship as a way to control their career path. More than half of Generation Z respondents to a recent Nielsen study, in fact, said they wanted to start their own company.

Traditional work offers stability, feedback, mentorship and upward mobility potential — all things young people say they want.

Eric Anicich

It’s true some reject the trappings of corporate life or gravitate to the entrepreneurial life’s promises of self-determination and purpose. But Eric Anicich, assistant professor of management and organization at USC Marshall, senses others might be pushed into entrepreneurship or gig work by broader market forces. More companies hoping to trim their bottom line opt for “renting” talent rather than employing full-time specialists who come with costly benefits like health insurance. So, although Anicich predicts more workers will pursue nontraditional employment, side gigs and freelancing, he isn’t necessarily convinced it’s what they want long term.

“Traditional work offers stability, feedback, mentorship and upward mobility potential — all things young people say they want,” he says. “Add to that the stress associated with unpredictable income and student debt, and entrepreneurial or gig work might be less rosy than it initially seems.”

The demise of downtown as a work center is overblown.

In recent decades, young people hustled to live in expensive cities — and corporations followed, setting up offices in marquee American metropolises like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago to be near top talent. The shift to remote work during the pandemic made many question the appeal of major urban areas, specifically the commute, cost of living and housing prices that come with them. As commercial real estate companies began cutting loose their downtown lease commitments and businesses like Dropbox and Twitter announced a fully remote workforce, many predicted the end of downtown business centers.

Not so fast, says Richard Green, a professor at USC Price and director of USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate.

Executives want their employees back in the office, Green says, and many — particularly younger ones — are itching to get back as well. Even more, he says cities provide specialized amenities that workers value, including restaurants, active social scenes and sporting events.

“Special cities will continue to be special cities as it relates to work,” Green predicts. “Memories are short, and people will return to their office buildings downtown.”

With growing acceptance of work-from-home, labor will gain the upper hand.

COVID-19 forced many companies to take work online. For some businesses that had been long resistant to remote work, it was an eye-opener. Many found that productivity and performance didn’t plummet as feared. As a result, companies are now more open than ever to the idea of work-from-home arrangements. Job sites like Glassdoor and staffing firms like Manpower have reported a sizable uptick in remote job openings.

The rise in work-from-home opens up more employment opportunities and that gives more power to employees.

Andrii Parkhomenko

With working from home becoming more widely accepted by employers, Andrii Parkhomenko, an assistant professor in the Department of Finance and Business Economics at USC Marshall, says workers stand to benefit in the future. They’ll gain access to employment opportunities far beyond their local market — and some clout in the process.

“The rise in work-from-home opens up more employment opportunities and that gives more power to employees, including more leverage in negotiations and more freedom to determine what job works best for them,” Parkhomenko says.

Companies will use work-from-home perks as recruiting and retention tools.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, only 20% of employed adults worked from home, according to Pew Research Center data. By October 2020, that number soared to 71%. And people like it: A Microsoft survey released in March 2021 found that 73% of workers hoped remote work options would continue.

If companies accommodate the growing preference for remote work and flexible work schedules, it stands to reason that many will downsize office capacity to collect real estate savings. But what will they do with that capital? Beckman, the USC Price researcher, suspects some enterprising, forward-thinking companies will reallocate those funds to bring perks closer to home. Amenities already offered onsite to attract and retain talent— housekeeping, meal delivery or in-house technological upgrades, for instance — could be offered to remote employees as well.

“It is perhaps a naïve idea,” she says, “but there’s no reason it couldn’t happen.”