On 30th January 2020 a public health emergency of international concern was declared after an unknown strain of Coronavirus was discovered in China. In the coming weeks across Europe, whole populations were advised to self-isolate and stay home in a bid to slow down it’s spread. Several weeks on and the global pandemic continues to have an unprecedented impact one the lives and workplaces of our global population. How long this will last and the extent of the impact to business and the economy remains unclear, but we can say with confidence that the world of work has been profoundly affected.
As many companies start plan how to safeguard their workforce when they return to work, we explore the challenges that COVID-19 has presented employers, as well as the potential opportunities that could arise in a post-pandemic world of work.
In a very short space of time, well embedded operating rhythms have been upended and companies forced to react quickly in order to respond to local government guidelines on COVID-19 and continue to do business where possible. Crisis management teams have been deployed in force to strategise and execute contingency plans; with biggest operational challenge being the coordination, communication and deployment of IT for ‘non-essential’ office workers to work remotely.
For those who can work from home, teams have been forced to engage virtually using video conferencing technology and all meetings, training and onboarding of new staff conducted in a fully virtual environment. For those who can’t work or where companies are unable to support their workers many have been asked to join a furlough scheme in the short term. And those on the front line that have previously received little credit or acknowledgement, have overnight become our most important key workers, putting themselves at risk for the health and safety of the population.
As the impact of COVID-19 continues, employers will likely be faced with more short-term challenges to respond and adapt to. However, many of these new ways of working could provide opportunity to evolve and make positive changes to the workplaces of the future.
Phasing workforces of any size back to work will bring about considerable challenge to employers. Driven by local government guidelines and managed by business leaders, companies must start thinking now about how, when and what they communicate and how to operationalise and prepare the physical environment for workers to return. For many companies, the pandemic has proven that despite initial logistical challenges, working from home can still be productive. In the future, what was initially an operational dilemma could encourage new levels of workplace flexibility for staff and create an opportunity to reduce expensive real estate costs. If so, considerable savings could be made to reinvest elsewhere or offset against some of the financial impact that COVID-19 has imposed.
With many employees used to new levels of flexibility and home working, the challenge for employers now becomes how to address these changing expectations moving forward. Simply reverting back to ‘normal’ operating practice could be faced with some resistance, but for employers who embrace this ‘new normal’ and provide greater flexibility there could be rewards to reap. When choosing an employer many candidates, particularly of the Gen Z and Millennial generation, are already looking for workplaces who offer greater levels of flexibility. Companies that continue to embrace homeworking and flexibility after lockdown, could find better levels of engagement amongst exiting staff and further support their talent attraction strategies in the future.
Whatever policy employers decide on, it will be key to be strike a balance in approach that acknowledges those workers who desire a continuation of this new-found flexibility with those who have missed the social interaction of an office or don’t have the ability or desire to work from home.
With large populations successfully set up to work from home and the IT and infrastructure in place to do so, leaders across many businesses have become acutely aware of the challenges of maintaining team motivation and engagement remotely. Unable to meet face to face, many managers have been forced to deal with sensitive communications around how their people are coping or in the worst cases that jobs are at risk of redundancy and are having to learn new skills in order to manage their teams virtually. As the workplace becomes more remote in time, these new skills learned in times of adversity will position managers well to thrive longer term.
Digital adoption has been well underway for many companies for some time, but recent advances in remote working has no doubt sped this up. Whole teams have been forced to operate virtually almost overnight connecting only via calls, emails and video technology and all business conducted remotely. Large scale digital adoption has come at a cost and investment to businesses, but successful adoption during the pandemic could position workplaces well in the future; providing more flexibility to employees, finding innovative new ways to engage with customers and saving in unnecessary meeting expenses and travel or in physical real estate costs.
Many businesses have pressed pause on recruitment in recent months due to economic uncertainty, but for companies, where hiring has remained a priority adapting a virtual screening, selection and onboarding process has become the new norm. It can prove challenging to sell your company culture remotely, virtual assess talent and onboard new candidates who have never met their team but managing parts of the recruitment and selection process virtually in future could become a quicker and more cost-effective solution for businesses long term.
There’s no hiding from the fact that companies across the world have been placed under significant strain in recent months with business demand dropping and, in many cases, profitability sliding backwords. Smaller companies have struggled to stay afloat with furloughing and redundancy have become common in most organisations. But these unprecedented times and challenges have inspired new attitudes, mind sets, ways of working and business needs and imposed an evolution that could improve the workforce of the future or at least speed up a transformation that had already started. There is little doubt that the future will be rewritten for good as a result of COVID-19 but now it is down to employers to consider their attitude and responses and seize the opportunity to implement strategic change over responding with tactical solutions.