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Commentary: Reimagining Work and Our Workforce: What Comes Next

Areas of opportunity abound for partnerships, digital innovation, and community engagement and advocacy.

By Niles Friedman and Autumn McDonald

The only constant, and indeed also with the nature of work, is change. It was not that long ago that switchboard operators manually connected calls. Yet despite continual and rapid technological advances, the idea of commuting to a job for an eight-hour day in an office has been the status quo for decades. Thinking on the definition of work and how one engages with it has evolved with changing views on productivity, what is required to effectively manage teams, demand from younger generations to improve the work environment, and economic incentives to evolve. However, the collective ability to change how we work has been hamstrung by institutional barriers and entrenched ideology — until March 2020, when this was all turned upside down.

COVID-19 has permeated our economy and rewritten how we will invest in businesses, public-sector supports, and public- and private-sector collaboration. Collaborative work, business, and equitable economy-related efforts were underway before the pandemic but are far more important as communities endeavor to ensure that the opportunity created by this crisis is not squandered and that we move forward toward a future — post-COVID-19 — with a more inclusive economy and improved ways of integrating work into life and having it provide for a more ubiquitous thrivable wage.

During a recent New America CA webinar with key policy, economic, public-sector, and technology leaders, we explored how work could be reimagined, what the future of our workforce could look like in a post-COVID-19 world, and how digital innovation can enable this future. A few areas of focus arose which present opportunities for innovative solutions and investments. Those interested in optimizing "what comes next” should:

Maintain a Lens of Possibility — There has been rapid turnaround among some local and county governments in remote setup and delivery of services to residents.

Hone in on the mammoth Digital Divide and Inclusion challenge — COVID-era gaps and lack of continuity across communities make timely, innovative solutions to increasing access essential.

Prioritize strategies to alleviate the economic impact on communities — As the impact of economic stress continues, we must address the impact, across industries, on the workforce and redefine how work is done.  

Encourage and provide opportunities for community advocacy — Community groups, volunteers, and other organizations can shape the future of what work becomes at the local and state level.

Where do digital solutions fit into this equation? Digital innovation can transform services and how we connect to work. There are internal efficiencies and improvements in accessibility that can occur with digital investments and data, which can play a big role in informing resource allocation, investments, and decision-making that support this reimagined future. As an example, Los Angeles County has a technology strategic plan for mobility, aimed at increasing digital engagement with residents, and helping the workforce grow and be more adaptive to future changes. Changes like accelerated use of hoteling, reduced facility footprints, and more opportunities for the public to receive digital resources and engage over the Web.

In cities around the state like Los Angeles, the public sector — often the city’s largest employer — needs to rethink more than space and footprints. They must re-envision work travel, convenings, and also the larger issue of inclusion for both the cities' workers and residents. A priority focus at this time includes digital inclusion. In response to COVID-19, libraries and other public resources, on which so many rely for connectivity and accessibility, have been closed. Investments across Los Angeles public-sector programming are looking to create a 360 degree-view of government services being delivered for any individual, as well as the effectiveness of services being delivered. This could to be a useful model for other cities around the state.   

The employer element is relevant here, as well. The private sector and technology industry partners have been helpful when they have aided in overcoming elements of the digital divide and when they consider reskilling before layoffs and attempt to support laid off employees through job loss. Perhaps this is indicative of a rethinking of the nature and responsibility of a business. The social contracts of the past few decades between workers and businesses have been shattered. In response to this shift, there are primary questions that will need to be addressed:

  • What industries will survive and be able to hire large numbers of people?
  • How will people be met across the digital divide?
  • How will people who want and/or need new skills be mobilized?
Whether employee, employer, public-sector or cross-sector supporter, we all must recognize what’s at stake. This is a watershed moment. Our response to this health crisis will dictate what the economic landscape will look like in our immediate and long-term future. The five-year horizon depends on the six-month horizon, and with many historical workplace norms being uprooted in a matter of months, the focus on a long-term strategy will be imperative, as it’s important to recognize that we are not going back to pre-COVID-19. It’s incumbent upon us to direct that change it positive ways.

As part of a larger call to action, governments, policy leaders, and technology industry partners will create the results of recovery. In the past, costs have been largely borne by low-wage workers and workers of color. We now have an opportunity to advocate at state and local levels to ensure that recovery is a vision of what we want it to be. It is a daunting and overwhelming time.

Partnerships between public and private sectors for greater innovation and willingness to break the mold are essential. Setting aside prior self interests will be needed to come together in new ways; with some existing examples already happening, this has tremendous power to not only re-imagine but truly re-create — to build anew a future with a more accessible, inclusive, innovative way of incorporating work into a new paradigm of living.

Niles Friedman has more than 15 years’ executive management and advisory experience in the private and public sectors across the U.S., the European Union and Africa. He has worked for 10 years to increase innovation capacity and enhance technology capabilities across the federal government, the state of California, Los Angeles County, and international health ministries. He is an executive adviser with Star Insights.

Autumn McDonald is a New America senior fellow and head of New America CA, where her work focuses on economic equity, income, and the changing nature of work. McDonald has two decades of experience working with foundations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies on strategy, advocacy, and civic innovation.