The “winter” of the COVID-19 pandemic is coming, but how do we prepare for spring? The “winter” of the COVID-19 pandemic is coming, but how do we prepare for spring?

Mass. executives at ACSC event discuss what the workplace will look like, post-pandemic Mass. executives at ACSC event discuss what the workplace will look like, post-pandemic

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November 17, 2020

The famous warning from the Game of Thrones fantasy series, “Winter is coming,” is about preparing for unavoidable difficult times to come. It’s also a metaphor for the challenges ahead as COVID-19 cases rise before the New England winter, said Prabal Chakrabarti of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

But as Chakrabarti kicked off a discussion Thursday about the future of work after COVID-19, he noted news of a potentially effective vaccine shows that trouble is not the only thing ahead.

“We know that while winter is coming, spring is coming, too,” he said. “And this discussion is really about what happens after that spring. … What are the lasting effects of COVID-19 on the workplace, on the ways in which we work?”

The discussion Thursday was the last of a series of virtual events in the Advanced Cyber Security Center’s annual conference. The panel discussion wrapped up the multi-week event and brought together three local CEOs and Massachusetts State Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy.

Among their forecasts for a post-COVID-19 future: A permanently changed workplace, where hybrid remote/office arrangements are the norm, people live further from company headquarters, and cybersecurity is more important than ever.

State Street CEO Ron O’Hanley said the pandemic has actually benefitted the workplace by forcing employees at all levels to become more skilled with digital tools.

“It's hard to think about the tragedy of a pandemic as having silver linings, but the advancement in the use of digital tools, it has been truly at a breathtaking pace,” he said.

Keneally agreed COVID-19 was “sort of fast forwarding the future here in Massachusetts.”

“There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

More digitally connected, more dependent on cybersecurity

In remarks to open the discussion, Boston Fed First Vice President Ken Montgomery said cybersecurity has become more important than ever as cyber criminals seize new opportunities for attack in our expanding digital world, he said.

“Cyberattacks have become more systematic, and firms are being maliciously targeted for maximum effect,” Montgomery said. “Creative solutions like those driven by the ACSC must be found to address cyber risks.”

The high demand for “a healthy cybersecurity environment” has indeed increased the need for skilled technology workers, said Corey Thomas, CEO of the cybersecurity company Rapid7. He added that he’s noticed COVID-19 has also changed those employees’ expectations about where they can do their jobs.

“They're just like, you know, I kind of like this aspect of living wherever I want to, so maybe I'm going to go to … a lower cost of living area and improve my quality of life,” he said.

But it’s not just about where people live, they’re also changing where they work. Cindy Perettie, CEO of Foundation Medicine, Inc., said that for many workers, the daily commute to an office seems to have ended with COVID-19 because they’re able to work at home effectively.

“We know people aren't going to be going back to work (in an office) five days a week, and so we've been spending a lot of time thinking about what does that look like in the future world?” she said.

Companies shouldn’t go all-in remote work just because they can

O’Hanley cautioned that as companies migrate to a hybrid of remote and in-person work, they shouldn’t over-rely on remote work just because technology supports it. For instance, in-person interaction is critical when onboarding employees, innovating, or getting new people working on new problems.

Panelists also worried about keeping training and career pathways for people in marginalized communities intact as the work world evolves.

“We’ve got to find brand new pathways for people,” Kennealy said.

And though this pandemic isn’t over, they emphasized preparing for the next one, so the response can be more dynamic, data-driven, and attuned to employee needs.

“If we end up in a pandemic again, how do we work in this always connected world?” Perettie said. “How do we carry on? How do we have our children sitting next to us doing school while we're working? I think looking at some of those subtleties will make us an even higher-performing society, and probably a lower-stress society.”

The Fed’s Montgomery said people and organizationsneed to continue to prepare for and embrace new workstyles, new cybersecurity issues, and other operational changes.

“It's also clear that the need for public-private collaboration, like the kind developed and supported by the ACSC, is more important than ever,” he said. 

 

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