When the virus first came to the U.S. in the spring, it pushed the unemployment rate to 14.7%, a level not seen since the Great Depression. Moreover, much of white collar America entered a massive remote work experiment that many initially thought would last just a few weeks.
The pandemic has also exposed cracks in the economy, deepening the divide between the haves and have-nots as much of white collar America worked from home while many low-paid service workers in jobs requiring human contact were laid off. Essential workers such as grocery store employees continued working but risked exposure to the virus in order to do their jobs.
As the economy claws towards a recovery, here is what some experts believe are changes that can be expected to stay and how workers can best prepare for jobs in the new year and "new normal."
From remote work to 'hybrid' model
The pandemic propelled most of those fortunate enough to be able to work from home into a colossal, collective, experiment that has lasted for months -- and in some cases appears to be permanent.
As the virus raged and many continued to stay home from the office throughout the summer, some companies signaled the end of commuting for good. In May, social media giant Twitter said it would allow employees to work-from-home "forever."
Environmental advocates have also lauded the impact on carbon emissions that has occurred as a result of swaths of commuters staying home. In 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions fell by 7%, the biggest drop recorded, according to a study published earlier this month in the journal Earth System Science Data.
The home office, however, has had its drawbacks. Women bore the brunt of much of the housework and childcare duties during the pandemic, data indicates. An alarming number of manager-level women also said they were thinking about leaving the workforce or downshifting due to the pandemic, according to a September report, with the majority of those citing "burnout" as the main reason.
"Both workers and companies have seen the advantages of but also the limitations of this kind of an arrangement," Mauro Guillen, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told ABC News. "I don't think we're going back to where we were before the pandemic, I think we're going to come up with hybrid models whereby maybe I will go to the office three days a week."
Remote work, Guillen said, should be a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself.
"I think what we should be aiming at is smart work,” he added. "So, how can we make work more productive, more creative?"
While business leaders in the pandemic may have been forced to scramble to figure out remote work arrangements, now they can think about how remote work can best support their business.
Erica Volini, the global human capital leader at Deloitte echoed Guillen, telling ABC News that some version of working from home appears to be here to stay.
"The hybrid way of working, which enables some flexibility, and accepts the fact that remote and virtual work can still be highly effective, will be something that we see does stay across industries" as we enter 2021, Volini said.
"I haven't heard a single organization say they are going to mandate a permanent return back to the workplace,” she added. “But we're seeing much more of a shift towards hybrid working models being the norm.”
As remote work continues, Volini said another trend she sees continuing in 2021 is a "focus on teams."
Volini noted that especially during the pandemic crisis, traditional processes fell to the wayside as people focused on just trying to get work done in the "most natural way possible." This translated into people working in teams with high degrees of collaboration and across organizational silos and traditional hierarchies more effectively, and she predicts this will continue on.
"The idea that you need to have teams has to be the primary vehicle for how work gets done, I think we are going to have a little heavy adoption of that," she said.
Automation and job skills of the future
Another change is that the pandemic has brought "new incentives for automation," according to Guillen, especially in the service sector.
Even as vaccines roll out around the world in record time, health officials have warned it could be well into 2021 before enough of the population has received the jab and social distancing is still being encouraged.
Guillen cited hotels as an example, saying many are automating room service in order to make guests feel safer. He said he thinks companies will continue to invest in anything that can help automate, "especially interactions between the customer and employee."
He predicts that an important national debate will emerge over the next few years dealing with ways to lessen the impact of automation on workers, whether that’s a guaranteed minimum income or having "the robots also pay taxes." Guillen said similar to the way gasoline taxes help with road repairs, taxing companies for robots and using the funds to help workers displaced by automation is one idea gaining traction.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Task Force on the Work of the Future issued a report in November, warning that automation is slowly taking over the workplace and more efforts are needed to address the impact this will have for middle- and low-wage workers.
The MIT report found that while technology is taking jobs, it is also creating them, noting that more than 60% of jobs in 2018 did not exist in 1940. The researchers also noted that low-wage workers whose jobs tend to be compromised by technology have not reaped the wealth gains of the new productivity.
Aggregate U.S. productivity has risen by 66% since 1978, the report found, but compensation for production and nonsupervisory workers has only risen by 10% in that same time period. The report noted that the adjusted gross hourly earnings of lower-skill workers in the U.S. in 2015 averaged $10.33, compared to $24.28 in Denmark, $18.18 in Germany, and $17.61 in Australia. The MIT report stressed the need, especially amid a pandemic recovery, for policy innovation on behalf of workers to address these issues, such as raising the federal minimum wage.
An October report from the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs warned that automation could displace 85 million jobs in the next five years globally, but said the "robot revolution" could also create 97 million new jobs. The WEF report forecast that in 2025, analytical thinking, creativity and flexibility are some of the top skills needed by workers.
Guillen said as most jobs may end up being automated in the near future, the demand for specialists will decline and the demand for team players will rise.
The workforce will always need surgeons, plumbers, lawyers, and certain kinds of specialists, Guillen said, but "that’s at most 15%, if you push me 20%, of the labor force of the future."
"The rest will be people who are able to connect the dots, people who can work in teams who know how to negotiate with people, who essentially have a mix of social skills and technical skills,” he said. "Those are the kinds of jobs that are going to be plentiful in the future."
Volini said that in Deloitte's 2021 Global Human Capital Trends report, only 15% of the 3,600 senior executives who responded felt that they were prepared for the pandemic. Those same business leaders cited the ability for their workers to adapt, re-skill and assume new roles as the top factors in being able to navigate futures disruptions, chosen even above access to capital, according to Volini.
For workers, Volini said this means a "shift from focus on skills-first, to a focus on capability-first, skills-second, recognizing that there are certain capabilities that cut across many jobs."
Capabilities include customer relationship management skills, empathy, listening skills, the ability to synthesize lots of data and produce insights quickly, and the ability to manage complex and diverse teams.
"These are capabilities that don't tie to a specific skill set, but will really help workers transcend roles and jobs," she said.
Renewed push for diversity, transparency from business leaders
The police killing of George Floyd in May galvanized the U.S. and put a new spotlight on longstanding issues of racial inequity, especially in the private sector.
New consumer and public pressure was put on companies to respond and address these issues, and a racial reckoning similar to the Me Too movement in media took over much of the business world.
"It's undeniable that there are structural problems with inequality with discrimination," Guillen told ABC News. "Since late May, what we've seen is enhanced awareness about in particular racial discrimination in this country. And it's structural, it's systemic, there's no question about it."
Guillen said he thinks "change is possible," especially with the sustained pressure on businesses to be held accountable.
A slew of major U.S. companies made new diversity pledges over the past year, as well as new ways to hold business leaders accountable.
In October, California's governor signed a bill into law that requires publicly-traded companies headquartered in the state to have at least one board member from an "underrepresented community" by the end of 2021. In December, Nasdaq unveiled new proposed rules that would also mandate diversity in the boardroom for companies listed on its stock exchange.
Volini told ABC News that heading into 2021, "We're going to see this significantly increased level of transparency from organizations that we have not seen before."
Many companies have faced new public pressure to release their diversity data, including information on racial pay gaps within a firm.
"I see this moment that we're experiencing right now as a moment of worker empowerment," Volini said. "The reason why is because what we have seen over the past eight or so months, the rules and orthodoxies around the way that work has happened and had to happen completely broke down."
"There is a huge opportunity for workers to take advantage of that, to help be at the table using their voice indicate how they believe work should get done," she added.