The Future Of Work
February 3, 2022
Kweilin Ellingrud is a Senior Partner and the leader of the life insurance practice in North America at McKinsey & Company. She has broad experience designing and implementing global performance transformations.

She redesigns operating models, increases operational efficiency and effectiveness, and improves customer journeys by applying digital, analytics, and process-redesign principles. In addition to her client work, Kweilin is a McKinsey Global Institute Council member, which provides expert input for MGI's research on global economic, business, and technology trends. Other areas of focus include: women in STEM, accelerating gender equality through investment strategies, women in leadership, and the future of work. Here, she shares what to expect in a post-COVID-19 work environment.

What trends will persist beyond COVID-19?

During COVID-19 and beyond, we've identified three broad groups of trends that we think will persist. These trends existed before COVID-19, were accelerated by the pandemic, and will continue moving forward. The first is automation and AI. The second is working remotely. The third is e-commerce and virtual transactions. All three of those trends will change the future of how we work and live.

How will automation change the nature of work?

Automation is completely changing occupations and the skills underlying those occupations, and COVID-19 is accelerating those changes. COVID-19 takes on a unique angle by affecting jobs with high physical interactions much more than other jobs.

How are job opportunities going to shift as a result?

There will be a lot of growing and shrinking of jobs. Overall, the good news is that there will be more jobs in the future than there are now. But the occupations, the nature of those jobs, and the skills required to do those jobs will change dramatically.

We can see examples of that in the healthcare and food industries. Health care aides and professionals will gain about a million more jobs than we initially projected before COVID-19. As opposed to food services who will lose about a million jobs due to restaurants hiring fewer waiters and waitresses.

What skills will be most needed in the future?

Through McKinsey Global Institute, we did a very detailed model of 800 different occupations and the underlying skills within each of those occupations. We found that over the next 10 years we're going to need a lot less physical and manual skills, and a lot more technical, social, and emotional skills.

An example of a technical skill is coding and using technology to monitor a manufacturing line. Social and emotional skills involve reading human reactions and responding appropriately. Shifting to more intellectual and emotional skills from physical and basic cognitive skills will lead to a lot of displacement.

How has COVID-19 affected different groups differently?

In our research, COVID-19 affected three groups disproportionately.

  1. Mothers, especially mothers of young children, downshifted their careers or exited the workforce altogether when schools were forced into remote learning. 1.1 million people in the US left the workforce, 80% of those were women. Overall, 40% of mothers added 15 hours or more to their weekly work schedule because of COVID-19. As a result, one in four mothers worried that their performance at work would be negatively judged due to their parental duties and all that they're juggling.
  2. Black women were also disproportionately affected. They're 1.6 times more likely to hear demeaning remarks and are two and a half times almost three times more likely than other women to report the death of a loved one during COVID-19. At the same time, they were one and a half times less likely to feel comfortable sharing that at work or bringing their whole selves to the office. The racial inequities in the workplace compounded with the health impact of COVID-19, Black women are more likely than their white peers to think about downshifting their careers.
  3. Senior-level women felt more pressure on average to work longer hours during COVID-19. Almost half of them said they felt the need to always be on, which is higher than it was before. Over half felt exhausted. As a result, they were more likely than other women to plan to downshift for a period of time or step out.

What companies are good examples of rescaling their practices?

Walmart has invested $4 billion in upskilling $1 per day for those in college, making higher education accessible for all of their workers. We also see companies like Google, IBM, and Hilton saying they no longer require a college degree for their recruiting process. Google has also launched a six-month coding program that's quite affordable. Starbucks has expanded its care program and subsidized childcare. And many companies have started to invest much more deeply in mental health support.

Women are getting more educated and entering the workforce in ever-larger numbers. Are there choices we are making that predetermine our ability to succeed?

There are a few answers to this question.

  1. Socialization. Early Education and what we're exposed to from a young age socializes us. Those early interactions impact the choices we make early on, how we set expectations, and what we see as possible. Frankly, at some point, we're so socialized it's hard to shake it.
  2. Choice of study. As we get into college, what we study differs. For example, even within STEM, women have been the majority of biology degrees for a while, but less in computer science or electrical engineering. If you look at the average salary per graduate based on their major those are different pay grades.
  3. Spousal support and childcare. I would be remiss if I didn't mention how women and their significant others share unpaid care work. Those are things like caring for children, shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Women in the United States do about twice as much unpaid care work as men. The more we can equalize that over time, especially across the family unit, it frees up more time for women to pursue their careers much more proactively.
  4. Feedback. Lastly, we find that women get less candid and tough feedback than men. When asked why both men and women managers said they didn't want to appear mean and were afraid of an emotional reaction. When you compound that over a career, women who are not hearing the tough feedback needed to develop are not going to learn and grow as much as their male colleagues. Women have to proactively ask for that feedback.

What can companies do to better support women in their workforces?

I wish more companies would do a full review of benefits and think more holistically about care. Holistically expanding support, both in childcare and mental health, is a critical action. If you compare our family leave policies in the United States to any other developed country, we are woefully behind. We have a long way to go, it'd be ideal to have changes made at the federal or state level, but we can start at the employer level.



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