Challenges and chances, the impact of COVID-19 on the future workforce

Nearly half of jobs in the United States can feasibly be performed from home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 45% of employment in the United States is in an occupation in which telework is feasible. Despite that, only around 10% of people did work from home prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.


While some companies were beginning to allow more flexibility for employees to work from home, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that. By May of 2020, about 35% of those over the age of 16 who were employed had teleworked or worked at home during the last 4 weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that number has steadily declined over the past months. As of November, 21.8% of those over the age of 16 who were employed had teleworked or worked at home during the last 4 weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


So, what does the future of the workforce hold? Will employers continue to offer the opportunity for their employees to work from home, when feasible? Will employees want to continue working from home? How are soon-to-be college graduates preparing for employment?


How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted job-seekers


For those entering the workforce or seeking employment, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented its fair share of challenges, but it has also presented some new opportunities.

Misty Bennett, Assistant Dean of the College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University and leader of the Challenge Management Peer Group of Supply Chain Executives.


“They have a lot more options than they did before,” says Misty Bennett, Assistant Dean of the College of Business Administration at Central Michigan University and leader of the Challenge Management Peer Group of Supply Chain Executives. “There are companies who are probably willing to hire them to work from home who would not have thought about that before.”


However, employers are now able to cast a wider net in their search for job candidates which has increased the talent pool beyond what is available locally.


“What I'm seeing is that for some companies who are having hiring challenges, their hiring pools have opened,” Bennett says. “What that means for the job candidate is you might be competing against people now that you might not have been before and it might be a little bit more challenging.”


In order to set themselves up for success, those on the job market are needing to learn new soft skills. While knowing how to give a firm handshake and look someone in the eye used to be important soft skills for an interview, those skills are evolving into knowing how to project charisma virtually, set up a visually appealing background for Zoom meetings, and connect with co-workers via e-mail.


“I've been telling our students to be prepared for a virtual interview, for a virtual start to work, and trying to get acclimated to a new culture where you may not be able to walk down the hall and meet someone,” says Bennett. “You may have to start making connections online or through emails; and, I think that's a different skill set and that's a challenge.”


Bennett adds that having a year of online schooling under their belt has helped prepare college students for entering the workforce in the current environment. While the question of whether people will continue to work from home remains unanswered, Bennett says research shows younger generations are more likely to want flexible work schedules.

Douglas Wallace, President and CEO of the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce.

If people are going to continue to work from home or have the option to do so, Douglas Wallace, President and CEO of the Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber of Commerce, says he feels students will be at the forefront of that effort.


“I think students are going to be the leading force,” says Wallace. “I think those students can say, ‘Look, we are just as productive if we work three days or four days in the office and two days at home.’ I think that process will be something that will happen more so in the future, which would give a nice balance of environment because then you can still go into the office, you can still meet people for lunch at places, and you can keep things going.”


How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted employees


For many people working from home during 2020, the benefits of working from home were countered by the challenges of working from home during a pandemic.


For example, employees were able to re-purpose the time they would have spent getting ready for work and commuting by instead spending the saved time focusing on work-related projects. However, with children also being homeschooled, the ability to find a work-life balance was difficult and had employees working during off-hours, late into the night.


“The challenge I think for students and for employees who are working from home is that there's been this huge blur of work and home,” says Bennett.


Aware of this challenge and uncertain of what the future holds for the workforce, space for a home office has become more important than ever for homebuyers, says Krystal Campbell, Associate Broker with Weichert, Realtors Broadway Realty.


It has become something that almost every person mentions when they are looking for a home and it is more important that it be kind of a private space, because they may have children doing school from home and we don't know how long that will be for either,” says Campbell.
Krystal Campbell, Associate Broker at Weichert, Realtors Broadway Realty.

Campbell adds that for homebuyers who have two adults living and working from home, there is the need for two separate spaces so they aren’t interruptive to each other. Many homes are open concept, so buyers are needing to get creative to make spaces work for the new environment they find themselves in.


“The price of building has gone up and resources are limited, so that's a little bit challenging,” says Campbell. “Remodeling has also come into the picture for people who are looking at home. They are looking at, ‘How can I change this home to fit what I need?’ With interest rates still being low, it does present opportunities for that. We hope to see more people putting their homes on the market soon so we can get in and see what people can do creatively to make the space work for our new environment going forward.”


One of the other challenges people have discovered while working from home is the lack of connection to their co-workers.


“A lot of times we overlook the fact that work is one of your greatest sources of social connections,” says Bennett.


However, Marjo Jaroch, Community Manager at City Office in Bay City, thinks there’s a way to help solve that problem if people continue working from home in the future: coworking spaces.


“The coworking industry has only seen significant growth over the last 15 years, and we predict that this year's monumental shift in the way we work will only fuel that growth moving forward,” Jaroch says.


Offering a variety of opportunities for business professionals – from lockable office suites to dedicated desks to conference rooms and more – City Office and similar coworking spaces provide the opportunity for people to work independently, yet still connect with others. Jaroch says that if people continue working from home, she feels City Office’s conference rooms will become even more popular since occasional meetings are often necessary for business operations and in-person meetings can be more efficient than virtual ones.

Marjo Jaroch, Community Manager at City Office in Bay City.

“Right now our conference rooms are used most often by outside businesses that need a place to meet for training sessions, strategy meetings, and depositions. I wouldn't be surprised to see a higher jump in the need to reserve conference rooms in the years to come than we had initially thought,” says Jaroch.


“Most people I speak to about working mention their coworkers as being one of the best parts of their job. In my opinion, coworking's biggest asset is that they give entrepreneurs and business professionals coworkers to chat with over coffee before they get to work.”


How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted employers


The option to work from home has been desirable among employees for years. Some companies were beginning to allow more flexibility in that area; however, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that.


Bennett says that in the past many employers have been reluctant to allow employees to work from home due to a lack of trust and difficulties being able to monitor productivity. She says that since the pandemic, she’s heard many employers say they’ve seen an increase in productivity.


“They've been surprised to find that people are actually getting more done in some cases and they're working harder and putting in longer hours,” says Bennett. “So, I think from the employer’s perspective it's opened their eyes a bit to realize that we can allow people that work from home, they'll still be productive, and some people are certainly going to want that.”


The challenge now for employers, says Bennett, is finding a balance so they can meet the needs of both employees who want to work from home, as well as those who would prefer to go back to work in the office.


For now, only time will tell what the future will look like at businesses across the country.


Bennett says, “There's a mixed feeling amongst companies of some saying, “there will be a return to ‘normal’” and some saying ‘we're never going back.’”

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Read more articles by Gabrielle Haiderer.

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities - interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets - from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.