Two days before International Workers Day, on April 29, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published its latest assessment, where it was said that 68 per cent of the global workforce was impacted by partial or complete lockdown measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We do not need any ILO statement to recognise the enormous impact of this crisis on society and people’s lives, especially for those more unprotected in the informal and gig economy. There is a great consensus that this impact is not merely short term, but long term.
In this situation, business leaders should do three things at once: 1) manage the so-called ‘return to work’ properly, 2) understand and leverage the activity put into practice during the crisis, and 3) redefine their strategy and way forward, with all the fluid information available.
Organisations have experienced and learned an amazing number of things in the past few months. In a way, the COVID situation was (and is) an unexpected catalyst for the ‘future of work’ in multiple ways… and organisations should learn from this and capitalise on all that they have experienced. Just preparing the ‘return to work’ properly and safely is not enough to succeed in the ‘new normal’.
First things first
The ILO assessment mentioned earlier estimates that in the second quarter of 2020, around 10 percent of working hours is expected to be lost compared to the fourth quarter of 2019 (the last quarter prior to the pandemic). This is equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs. The effect of this crisis is transnational and transversal. Immediate and urgent action is needed to protect jobs while parallely maintaining health and safety at the highest levels. For this, it is crucial to maintain links between employers and employees, keep large and small employers afloat and provide ways for income support and other safety nets, directly to workers and households of the less favoured.
In other words, we need to be sure about the present in order to think about the future. Therefore, proper management of ‘return to work’ should be the first priority.
Companies, and in particular, the HR service industry— specifically the staffing organisations — should play an important role in this urgency, together with the rest of the stakeholders who influence the job market. Among others, three areas will set the right foundation for a successful exit from this situation:
Re-employment: Active support to both at-risk and unemployed workers will be critical for businesses and governments. Staffing organisations can play a pivotal role in providing support in the short term to rapidly redeploy workers from low-demand roles to high-demand roles, across companies and industries.
Upskilling and reskilling: It is critical that employers understand the importance of retraining workers. Governments should also support upskilling and reskilling directly or via fiscal stimulus to best prepare workers for the post-pandemic economy.
Dialogue and collaboration: employers, governments and workers should do everything under the umbrella of dialogue and collaboration. Only their joint efforts, both nationally and globally, will ensure recovery. Initiatives in this direction will be fundamental to the creation of the right momentum, while keeping everyone included, laying the foundations of a more resilient labour market ahead.
While organisations have been busy dealing with the unprecedented crisis that COVID19 has created, managers and teams have creatively found ways to maintain business fundamentals and revenue streams, while simultaneously dealing with the health priorities of the moment. We are doing things, which, in January, would have been considered ‘impossible’, and this is not only about sending entire organisations of hundreds or thousands people to WFH without a prepared plan, in just a matter of days. Many organisations did this and at the same time speeded up projects with projected duration of years, finishing them in just months. They empowered team members to take decisions, flattened structures, engaged their teams and gathered feedback like never before!
It would take time to understand everything that happened, and most importantly, how these things happened the way they did. As said before, if you want to utilise this crisis and get catapulted into the array of possibilities available for the future, it is not enough to just prepare for a safe return to work.
It is essential to understand all the changes and adaptations that happened in this very short time and possess the capability (at the same time) to chart a new path forward, including all these new learnings. Only by keeping this in mind will we be able to lay the foundations for the ‘future of work’ for our business.
This learning will of course be different for each organisation, but from the experience with our clients at the Gi Group, we find some common experiences that a majority of our clients confirmed:
1. Work-from-home to flexible work
The definition of the word ‘office’ and ‘workday’ has changed a lot since the beginning of the year for the ones able to WFH. It has gone from the desk in the office to kitchen tables and couches; from nine-to-five to a highly fluid and flexible continuum – especially for parents – where ‘workday’ has become ‘whatever slot you can fit in’.
Many organisations embarked on a massive experiment of shifting their entire teams to WFH (when it was possible) mode, in most cases, without a security net of any advanced planning. Considering the conditions, the results for the majority do not look too bad:
First, the classic fear of some managers that this flexibility will lead to reduced productivity has been proved (in general) wrong. According to a recent study1 54 per cent of respondents said that working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a positive effect on workers’ productivity. The reasons for this, they said, were time saved in commuting (71 per cent), fewer distractions from co-workers (61 per cent) and fewer meetings (39 per cent).
Second, another research says that 48 per cent of employees will likely work remotely, at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30 per cent before the pandemic.
Managers need to understand their experiences with WFH, in terms of both benefits and potential risks, to improve their capabilities in managing their new remote employees in the best way possible. COVID has proved that WFH can potentially work. We simply need to find the right ‘flexible work’ balance for our organisation.
2. Relation-based to data-based metrics
One of the unwritten rules of most organisations is “try to always arrive before and leave after your boss”. This, despite most managers understanding rationally that the hours spent in the office cannot be a measure of success.
The recent WFH period showed clearly that to manage a remote workforce (and in general, to manage the workforce better, regardless their location) managers need measurable metrics of success for each employee and share them with the team clearly. More importantly, managers need to develop trust in their employees. They need to trust in their teams and believe that they will continue to do the work for which they are compensated. With metrics alone, and in the absence of this trust, it is not possible to develop a successful remote culture, during the pandemic and beyond.
3. Organisation culture
The exceptional situation in the last months created a defining moment to test the culture of organisations and managers. An array of primary emotions, mostly fear, was experienced by all. Naturally, eyes turn to the leaders of the organisation during such situations.
While some organisations have recognised the humanitarian crisis of the pandemic and prioritised the well-being of employees, treating them first as people rather than as workers, others have pushed employees to work in conditions that are high risk with little support — treating them merely as workers rather than human beings. This leaves a long- lasting impression on the organisational culture and values, stronger than any effort made by any business.
It is not an easy situation and many businesses are in extreme financial stress— sometimes there are not many choices. However, considering the long term, there is a need to be mindful of the effects of actions on employee experience. Employees may not remember their managers very well when they were 25, but surely they would remember the manager they had through the COVID crisis.
4. Communication. Communication. Communication.
Leaders should ensure that people feel safe, engaged, informed and useful. However, actions are just the first step. It is equally important for managers to communicate and connect with their teams and for teams to trust managers in a challenging situation, especially one where they are uncertain, scared and not in the office.
There is no magic formula for this, but the most successful organisations are those that are transparent and authentic.
Prior to COVID-19, organisations were already facing increased employee demands for transparency. The current situation — where employees are not only insecure about their jobs but also their own and their families’ health — is only making this demand stronger.
On the other hand, authenticity in relationships, especially with the younger members of the teams (and clients), has clearly proved to be very useful to bridge the communication gap that a WFH scenario creates. The term ‘business casual’ has taken on a new meaning, with people getting a peek into each other’s homes and getting to meet each other’s partners, pets and children. What used to be ‘unprofessional’ is now ‘just another day at the work’. This has led to workplace interactions that are more authentic and relaxed.
However, there is much more to transparency and authenticity than this. Without water coolers or lunch breaks, employees may feel as though they only hear from bosses and colleagues when something is required. Transparency and authenticity are also shown when managers encourage more meaningful connections, not only based on to-do lists, but genuine concern for the teams, their situation and challenges.
If the situation is managed in alignment with appropriate values and culture, and decisions are proactively communicated, the trust of the team in the managers/employers — and probably vice versa — will increase exponentially.
Jump into the future
The speed and depth with which this situation will impact organisational strategy and the way forward will depend on myriad elements— sector, size, location, investment capabilities, and so on. Every manager should smartly apply the learnings from the past few months to their vision to create their own ‘future of work’.
To create a clear plan for the organisation, strategic thinking, scenario planning—plans B, C, and D—and willingness to adapt quickly are essential. Remember, hope is not a strategy. This is a time to make a difference. Treat this COVID-19 crisis as a defining moment for the self, for the organisation and for the country. As the Japanese say, ‘Vision without action is only a dream, while action without vision is a nightmare’.
- Study from USA TODAY and LinkedIn