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The Future (and possibilities) of Work? by Tom Langer

The impact on the country’s workforce due to the COVID pandemic has been substantial.

With telework, furloughs, the collapse of the ‘gig economy’ and layoffs, the current employment model landscape in the U.S. is forever changed. After almost every great recession, depression, or downturn, the nature of work is reimagined and reshaped. Frequently automation replaces workers, yet we find ourselves surprised by the permanence of the job loss. Often our political leaders frantically react to find a scapegoat. The pandemic and our collective fight against it still have a way to go for sure. However, these last (long) months did tell us something about the future and work possibilities.
Many of us have stories of how we managed to stay connected during the pandemic and how so many of us had to partition our homes to accommodate for our children’s academics as well as our own workspaces. It could be argued that children are more adaptive than parents in this situation and have seen the future of work and schooling in ways many adults have not. More than likely they will carry that model forward into their careers. Companies, real estate firms, and higher education are rethinking what is genuinely necessary for floor space. In contrast, cybersecurity firms and high-speed internet providers forecast new business models taking into account threats, vulnerabilities, and the need for increased bandwidth and speed. Of course, first responders, patient-facing medical personnel, manufacturing, construction, farming, and similar career fields will still require a place to perform that work. Still, other support roles in those fields will remain agnostic to a building. Likely the answer to the ‘new normal’ will be somewhere between the best – or worst–case scenario (depending on your perspective) and the old normal – but change, it will. So, to that end, have we also seen the opening to new opportunities for those of us who have been historically excluded from the workforce?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 26% (1 in 4) of all adults in the U.S. have a disability, with 13.7% of those having severe mobility issues. A separate 5.9% have a severe hearing issue, and 4.6% have a severe vision issue. In many cases, the opportunities for fulfilling employment opportunities for these adults are limited. Many employers embrace diversity and inclusion wholeheartedly and make the required reasonable accommodations to facilitate a worker with a disability. That said, has the workplace dynamics from this pandemic shattered a paradigm when it comes to employing the disabled? As we have seen, there are new ways of thinking about the development and networking of teams, just as we have seen in the explosive growth of online learning.

Thinking about the possibility for a more diverse and inclusive workforce in the future means rethinking what onboarding actually means. Can we develop a workplace environment where the focus is on bringing the work to the employee, regardless of location, using high-speed connectivity and capital outlay to create a workspace in the home? Companies could use technology to foster the same sense of collaboration and teamwork in a virtual world by tapping into an underutilized pool of educated workers eager to contribute and be part of a larger purpose despite limited mobility or other disabilities. This will mean rethinking the workforce’s management with supervisors and HR personnel disbursed regionally to accommodate employees to focus on the vital role of being the adhesive that keeps the team together.

Of course, this paradigm shift will require the support of our elected leaders. Many fellow citizens who are disabled are supported by our federal and state governments via programs that have severe consequences if full or part-time employment is accepted. We have to create a safety net for all of those currently supported by these programs while seeing if this new remote work environment works for eligible workers. Clearly, some reasonable timeframe would allow a beneficiary to retain benefits – or the right to benefits – while accepting this new work model. The tradeoff to helping someone find that new role and sense of fulfillment is well worth the cost. We need to advocate at the highest levels in the U.S. and state governments for offering incentives and retraining in emerging markets where workers can be reengaged.

Slowly but surely, we have pushed aside the old managerial stereotype of “if I can’t see you working, you can’t be working.” If anything, family and friends have told me they are working harder and longer from home through some kind of perverse guilt that working in sweatpants causes you to feel. We have made it work through proprietary corporate tools and free apps and designed the new order of things on the fly. But now is the time to formalize what we are learning and apply it to new opportunities by tapping into ready workers and rethinking our vision of the workforce of the future.

If change is the only constant in life, let’s make a change in our workforce’s diversity a priority and capitalize on the experiment we were all forced into this year. ◙

About Tom Langer

Tom Langer is the Principal of Atlantic Security Advisors, LLC, a consultancy in the broad spectrum of industrial security, risk mitigation, and leadership development. Specific areas of expertise are insider threat, crisis and incident management, security training, and security assessments across diverse business areas.
Tom was the Vice President of Security for BAE Systems, Inc., headquartered in Arlington, VA., until his retirement in July 2019. BAE Systems, Inc. is the U.S.-based arm of BAE Systems plc, headquartered in London, England. During his 40-year career with the company, he held site, program, and leadership roles in all aspects of security operations. Before BAE Systems, Tom was a sworn officer of the Manchester, NH Police Department. Tom received his Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Tom served as a member of the Board of Directors and President of ASIS International and was previously chairperson of the Aerospace Industries Association’s Industrial Security Committee and a member of the National Industrial Security Program Policy Advisory Committee Information Security Oversight Office within the National Archives. Tom was one of the four-panel members of Secretary Gates’ 2008 Defense Security Service Future Study Group that recommended modernization to the agency’s structure, landscape and mission.

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