The virus’ unexpected consequence was forcing us to create less rigid work environments.

The COVID-19 crisis has tested us all. Across the country and around the world, “business as usual” suddenly wasn’t — revealing how fragile our work routines really were. But the pandemic has also shown us something else: our ability to adapt and innovate is stronger than we thought. 

Many of the changes that have been forced upon us were long overdue — especially changes in how we work. Some of these changes were accommodations for which workers had been pushing prior to the pandemic. But when the crisis abates, making these accommodations universal will have given businesses the footing to emerge with a stronger framework for the future.

“Amid that disruption, almost quietly, we’ve laid the groundwork for what could be some of the greatest advancements we have ever seen for diversity,” wrote Fast Company’s Arthur Woods. ”Notice new discussions we’re having around personal needs and challenges… Look at the new workplace policies that have shifted to adapt to human needs.”

Before the crisis, millions of Americans who didn’t have paid sick leave still had to come to work even when they were ill if they wanted their paycheck. But to cope with COVID-19 and contain the pandemic, many large companies implemented a temporary paid sick leave policy. Darden Restaurants made the policy permanent, saying it had been working on implementing paid sick leave even before the pandemic —  and others may follow suit. 

Another change is more fundamental: COVID-19 has transformed how and where we work. In just a few weeks, the percentage of employees who work from home jumped from  31% to 62%, Gallup reported. 

Implementing these new policies on a large scale has led to an unexpected outcome: a broad swathe of employees are becoming more productive, such as: 

    • Workers with disabilities, and those who are neurodivergent, who are able to tailor their work environment to their specific needs, rather than those of their able-bodied colleagues. 
    •  Workers caring for children or elders, who are able to arrange their schedules so they can achieve on their work tasks while still meeting family obligations
    • Older workers, who may also be in the two categories above or divide their time between work and other activities such as volunteering

Taken together, almost all workers fall into at least one of these categories. Paid sick, remote work and flexible schedules are all policies that enable more kinds of people to participate in the workplace, regardless of age, home life, or health status. 

That means these policies foster diversity. Organizations that have embraced diversity and inclusive workforce practices often have a competitive advantage: They have access to lived experience and insights from many different perspectives, therefore they are able to be more nimble and resilient when faced with a challenge. 

AARP’s collaboration “Living, Learning and Earning Longer,” in partnership with the World Economic Forum and OECD, provides more evidence. Diverse companies, the AARP found, can …

    • CREATE: “An organization’s diversity practices contribute directly to greater employee engagement.1 American business units in the top quartile of engagement realize 21% higher profitability than those in the bottom quartile.” 
    • PROSPER: “The multigenerational workforce can offer benefits to countries, employers, and employees. Countries can gain greater economic output, vibrant communities, and societies that are resilient to demographic shifts. Employers can benefit from the retention of intellectual capital, a more stable, productive and engaged workforce, and closer alignment to market needs. Employees can obtain greater self-fulfillment, financial security, and skill revitalization.” 
    • INVEST: “Mature workers around the world may have social, cultural, and human knowledge that is essential to an organization’s institutional memory. The loss of institutional knowledge can lead to a lower capacity for innovation and growth, reduced efficiency, and the loss of competitive advantage.” 

In the era of COVID-19, companies have a unique opportunity: a chance to redesign work in a way that will make them more resilient to the next crisis, by adapting policies and practices to meet the needs of employees. These are changes that can create a better normal – one that employees are craving.

“More than half of at-home workers say they would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible once restrictions on businesses and school closures are lifted,” Gallup reported. And management is catching on, too: of managers who oversaw remote employees, “55% say that once government restrictions are lifted and kids are back in school, the experience of COVID-19 will change their remote work policy.”

When employers invest in employees — specifically in ways that signal that to the employee that they’re valued as human beings and as contributors to the bottom line — it creates a culture of adaptive innovation. 

COVID-19 has made work more intimate: “You can now see your LGBTQIA+ colleague is also a working parent balancing teaching her daughter at home,” wrote Woods. “While on a call, you now are aware your Latinx colleague has a preexisting medical condition and is also caring for an elderly parent.”

Everyone, it turns out, has special needs.

In order to continue this, companies have to be intentional: No company has done this perfectly before, but now there’s an open door for companies to redefine how they do business — and to make business both more successful and more human.

“We have an opportunity to consider this as a social experiment at scale, taking the time to identify any benefits that we have not previously considered,” wrote Sean Gilroy and Leena Haque for the World Economic Forum

“If we want to introduce new ideas to society that might offer us a more desirable means of living,” they concluded, “this is a good time to discuss not just the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ and ‘how’.”

This article was produced in partnership with AARP. You can learn more here about how AARP is shaping the Future of Work.