The Future American Workplace: Changes and Challenges

  By Dr. Frank Burtnett  |    Thursday August 26, 2021

Category: Education, Expert Advice

As the nation moves toward the final quarter of 2021, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the future American workplace remain in a state of experimentation and testing. Steps taken during 2020 and earlier this year to identify operational mechanisms that would sustain the employer’s business model are now under scrutiny by employers to determine which are worthy of becoming a part of the “new normal.”

The employer’s goal is to restore or exceed performance and production levels that were disturbed by the coronavirus pandemic and then further interrupted by the delta variant once adjustments were created and put into action. Most notable among these was the explosive expansion of remote work that was forced to occur to keep operations flowing during these catastrophic times. 

When the pandemic slows and eventually ends, businesses, firms, organizations, institutions and other employers are going to have to determine what lessons were learned during 2020 and 2021 and which of those work protocols and practices are valuable enough to be made permanent. Employees will then be required to make any adjustments required by these modifications in order to have normalcy once again.


Impact Assessment is the First Step

A new study released by Leadership IQ, a leadership training and engagement employee engagement survey firm, has found that only a quarter of business leaders feel their workforce is thriving emotionally and mentally at the present time. Further examination of the report cited in a recent edition of Forbes, suggests that the layoffs, furloughs and dismissals caused by the pandemic have been stress and anxiety producing for both the unemployed victims and the workers fearful for their career status and security. 

Working from home or any other remote location, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, isolation from managers, supervisors and colleagues and  adjusting to an entirely new set of reporting and communications exchanges (i.e. zoom meetings, etc.) are just a handful of the circumstances that have heightened “burnout” among the total workforce, but most notably among high performers. Emotional and mental challenges of this nature and magnitude demand continued employee assessment and engagement studies as the pandemic subsides and any changes become permanent. 

Since the delta variant has interrupted plan to the return of employees, the additional time is going to extend all opportunities for employers to engage in pulse taking and employees to assess where they are in respect to their individual career plan. The Washington Post recently reported that Apple has delayed a planned return of its employees until January of next year. This action follows postponed openings set for September and later in the fall. Other employing giants are facing adjustments in their return-to-work plans now have an extended opportunity to engage the workforce and allow them to help shape how their workplace is going to look.

Before leaving the impact of the coronavirus on the future, it is worth noting that employers and human resource professionals are placing a new premium on the impressions, attitudes and feelings of their workers by asking them the 4Ws --- what is working, what is not, what can be fixed and what should be made permanent in the post COVID workplace. Such engagement is recognized as a key contributor to employee retention.


Questions Requiring Answers

As the American workplace heads late into a second year of COVID19 challenges, employer and employees are asking many questions and seeking to determine how their answers will change the way work is conducted in the future. The following five groupings, not exhaustive in any fashion, are representative of those requiring answers: 

Is the pre pandemic work model salvageable as it is or with modification? If yes, those adjustments should be considered, finalized and up and running when the doors swing open again. What factors must be present to return to full on-site work (or some variation) again. What factors must be present for a full return to occur? 

Should a full return occur what protocols and practices were used over the pandemic that resulted in positive outcomes worthy of permanent adoption? Remote work, whether full or of a hybrid (partially in and partially remote) or in some other form is here to stay and both employees and employers must recognize, prepare for and accept it. Most affected, and likely the most resistant to change, will be experienced and senior workers who see little reward for the adjustments they will need to make this late in their career.

If a mix of remote and hybrid work, flexible scheduling and other practices are determined to be the best course of action, what in-service training and staff development experiences will be required to bring the entire workforce up to a level of competence needed to meet this challenge? Any “best practices” that have sustained or improved performance and production should be incorporated in any training, mentoring or team development activities in order for them to be comprehended and treated as the “new normal.”

Have the coronavirus pandemic and the innovations that had to be inserted in the remote work model altered the manner in which employees view their specific employment and personal career development? Correspondingly, are employers more open to innovation and change resulting in a different workplace culture and environment? 

When the COVID19 threat is in the rear view mirror, will high performers be satisfied to simply return to a “business as usual” or any of the new models being offered by their current employer? Or will they have monitored their career sector changes to a point that they recognize that the “grass is greener” elsewhere and wish to relocate for career growth opportunities found elsewhere? Will they be active or passive candidates for such a move?



If there is a “silver lining” to be found anywhere in the workplace disruption that has occurred, it would be that increasing numbers of people are using the pandemic as an incentive for career examination and reflection. Some human resources observers have even suggested that the pandemic period has caused some to work harder, take the security of their careers more seriously and use what has been an emotional and traumatic period as a catalyst for improving both their competencies and their work ethic. 

In the next Career Mechanic, (EMinfo November 2021) I  will delve deeper into the changes and challenges the coronavirus pandemic has required for individual career  survival, with emphasis on how any or all of these factors are going to affect occupational  knowledge and skillset acquisition  and require future workers to possess different traits and characteristics. These adjustments will have a profound effect on how schools, colleges and other training providers, as well as on the search and staffing professionals wishing to guide then toward their “right fit” employment. 


© Education Now, 2021 

The Career Mechanic is a treatment of a career development issue or problem by Frank Burtnett, Ed.D, an educator, counselor, author, and consultant.  Dr. Burtnett has served as the Certification and Education Consultant to the National Association of Personnel Services (NAPS) since 1995.  Topics are drawn from his popular book, Career Errors: Straight Talk About the Steps and Missteps of Career Development, Second Edition (2019). Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield and other writings.

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