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Can You Say ‘Adaptability Matters’?

The noted motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar was quoted as saying, “When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal; you do not change your decision to get there.” This sentiment rings truer today than ever. In the past 21 months, companies across every industry have had to alter their “go-to-market” strategies to simply survive. For the local diner, this may have initially meant relying on take-out orders, then finding ways to create outdoor seating areas, and later dealing with the weather inconveniently imposing itself on outdoor patrons. For much of corporate America, changing their company’s direction to reach their goals has meant converting traditional workforces to remote employees.

Just as the generation that survived the Great Depression was changed forever, this generation has been altered by COVID-19. Many employees have experienced a taste of working from home and will not easily go back into the office 5 days a week. This is in direct conflict to the wishes of many organizations that will demand their workers come back to corporate offices. The metaphorical lines are already being drawn on Wall Street. In May 2021, Goldman Sachs’ CEO David Solomon was quoted in Forbes as referring to remote work as “an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”

Competing Demands

It is possible that companies that are not willing to adapt may see a “brain drain” of highly skilled employees at a pace never before experienced. To a certain extent, this pending clash is generational. Sociologists have noted that the Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) is much more insistent on quality-of-life benefits than their predecessors. More paid time off, parental leave, and sick days—as a matter of legal consequence as opposed to a work benefit—are all issues that were previously considered the province of the “high-maintenance,” overly self-indulgent individuals but have now become de facto human rights questions.

The obvious question is one of financial arithmetic. One of the reasons that the U.S. is so rich is that previous generations of Americans have spent so much of their lives working at their professions. Will subsequent generations be willing to accumulate less wealth to enjoy the benefits of working less? Or will the reality of diminished affluence assert itself as the primary motivating factor again in the future?

As COVID-19 emerged as a dire health threat, the U.S. government ordered businesses to close and people to stay at home. This resulted in tens of millions of Americans becoming unemployed. In direct response to the rise in unemployment, Congress provided an extra $600 per week to many of the unemployed to augment state unemployment benefits. For many workers, they then realized more income when unemployed than they did while working. It has been suggested that this contributed to a reluctance in many workers to return to their old jobs.

The proverbial one-size-fits-all approach is flawed. For example, $600 has a different value depending on where you live in the U.S. While the higher unemployment benefits have ended, the resilience of COVID-19 and its bevy of variants and sub-variants is being proven every day, suggesting that the government will need to rethink its approach to providing a “safety net” to those in need against the private sector’s needs to have access to a willing workforce. When combined with some employees’ concern for catching the virus, vaccine hesitancy, day care limitations for children, the range of stances among teachers’ unions on schools reopening, and the possibility of net-positive government-provided income, the decision to not return to work appears to have been quite rational.

Automation to the Rescue

Now, with wages continuing to rise, the respective economic inflation reaching levels not seen since the early 1980s, and a lack of government clarity regarding future plans, uncertainty remains. Regardless, companies need to fill positions—so they will turn to technology and automation to protect themselves. Years ago, the use of a telephone required an operator. Today, each employee does the job of the operator by dialing phone numbers individually. Some restaurants have already begun requiring customers to place their own orders via phone apps or kiosks?leveraging technology while minimizing the need for workers. In the back of the kitchen, fast-food restaurants will turn to robots to flip burgers and fulfill customers’ orders.

Many of these jobs are repetitive and can therefore be systematized, and modern-day robots need less programming to be productive. Added benefits include the fact that robots never call in sick, don’t require overtime, and have planned maintenance windows. Of course, science fiction would warn us that, eventually, robots will revolt or become sufficiently intelligent to overcome human domination. But, until real-world Arnold Schwarzenegger characters show that they are as capable as the Terminator (as opposed to the “Governator”), the world is probably safe from harm by robots and they may well be able to increase profit margins faster than Stephen King can write a new horror novel. (We discussed this in a previous article, “The Coming Tsunami of Automation,”

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