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Ten reflections on how COVID-19 will impact how we work

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I visited a pub with my family this weekend, for the first time in four months! I have to say it hammered home how uncertain the ‘new normal’ is going to be. I mean it was great…to be around others, to not have to cook for ourselves but it also felt a little strange, a bit like rediscovering old habits. It actually got me thinking about how often I am now talking to organisations about not rediscovering old habits and what it takes to ‘bottle the brilliance’ from our collective response to COVID-19. I’ve reflected back on the first series of our CHRO Virtual Forum (if you’ve missed these you can watch them here) and the conversations I’ve been having with HR Leaders. I’ve tried to distil my thinking into 10 reflections for organisations as they aim to Thrive across Work, Workforce and Workplace.

1. The social enterprise will be the increasing norm

We’ve heard a lot about Purpose over the last few years but never has the concept been so important than in the response to COVID-19. In some cases, organisations have fundamentally pivoted their organisational purpose to support the wider response, think Brewdog and hand sanitiser, whilst others have reinforced their mission, think Sainsbury’s and ‘Feeding the Nation’. Even before COVID-19, we observed that a record two thirds of proposals for upcoming Annual General Meetings were on social issues. The response to COVID-19 has accelerated this trend of businesses taking a larger role in society, not just because the workforce or shareholders demand it but because it’s the right thing to do – it’s a trend towards placing the human back into work and the workforce.

2. The transformation standard will be redefined

COVID-19 has enabled organisations to crash through barriers to deliver projects and make big changes in weeks rather than years. Organisations have had to respond rapidly to government guidelines and regulations, adapt to changing customer behaviours and support employee mental and physical wellbeing. If we look at how quickly organisations had to move their workforce from on-premises to remote working, ramp up collaboration technology and the massive implications this has had on how we work, it’s truly shown how quickly transformation can happen. In the future, leaders and teams will ask: “how would we have handled this in the pandemic?”

3. Flexibility will be part of the organisational DNA

Before COVID-19, leaders often asked me questions along the lines of: ‘how do I build flexibility into my workforce, with agile and multi-skilled teams?’ Over the last three months, we have seen so many examples of adaptability in the workforce, such as ecosystems extending to include competitor collaboration. Human tenacity and flexibility has been clear and the boundaries of the workforce have extended more than ever. The hard part is about maintaining this. Organisations can redefine what they mean by workforce – extending their perspective to include partners and the gig economy. Adaptability is about establishing the right culture – reinforcing the concept of the ‘team’, with team objectives and joint accountability to embed a mindset of agility.

4. Excess capacity will be repurposed

The last ten years have seen slower economic growth and this has led organisations to focus efforts on efficiency. What we have learned through COVID-19 is that this drive for efficiency may have hampered resilience…it’s harder to pivot rapidly if you don’t have flex in the organisation. In the short-term, I suspect we will see ‘efficiency’ interpreted the same way as ever, particularly given the near-term economic outlook, and I would certainly advocate for organisations to think carefully about the work they want to retain as part of COVID-19 recovery planning, focusing on value creation. In the medium-term, though, we may finally see a move away from ‘efficiency’ programmes and more towards ‘resilience’ programmes. A rebalancing towards harnessing excess capacity for a different purpose. Perhaps a purpose focused on innovation and growth.

5. Technology and work will integrate even quicker

We have seen a rapid and mass adoption of remote working technology across organisations as they shifted employees to work from home. Remember when ‘Zoom’ was just a word for a speeding car? Since the start of lockdown, 75 per cent of office workers have used at least two new types of technology for work, according to Deloitte’s Working during lockdown survey, and we expect this trend to continue. Remote working applications and tools will continue to undergo mass innovation, and automation and AI will be accelerated in the pursuit of organisational resilience. The objective is clear - enabling workers to work more efficiently and productively whilst they are remote.

6. Physical meetings will demand outcomes

After working from homefor months, and all meetings being virtual,the cost, risk, time and travel required for physical meetings will be under scrutiny. Physical meetings will still be important but they will demand outcomes. Deloitte’s Working during lockdown survey revealed that when people work in their usual workplace environment, they rate social interaction (45 per cent), being more collaborative (31 per cent) and networking more easily (25 per cent) as the top benefits. Given productivity has held up through extended remote working, it could mean the role of the workplace will fundamentally pivot towards a place for collaboration and social interaction. Yes, the end of distance will mean a lot of work can be done remotely, but physical meetings still hold value, they will just need to be more justified.

7. Wellbeing will become a strategic advantage

Lockdown has been hard! We’ve all experienced our ups and downs. Having tried for years to avoid ‘taking work home’, work is now home. Given we were all in this together, it was the human thing to do for organisations to significantly ramp-up wellbeing support. Interestingly, Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report found that 96 per cent of respondents felt wellbeing was an organisational responsibility, but only 26 per cent said their leaders were consistently practicing or promoting wellbeing. This survey was carried out pre-COVID-19, I wonder what that second stat would be now? Much higher, I suspect. What is now clear is that individual resilience and organisational resilience are inextricably linked. What that means is that employees are increasingly seeking out “wellbeing orientated” employers.

8. The value of front line workers will increase

The role of front-line employees and gig workers has been hugely enhanced through this period. I, like so many, stood outside my house for ten consecutive Thursdays to celebrate the heroics of the workforce on the very front-line of the COVID-19 response. As leaders continue to embrace the concept of the social enterprise at work, one of the implications will be rebalancing away from “pursuit of profit” towards promoting the value of the worker and workforce. We have seen this rebalancing play out in practice, with companies celebrating and paying tribute to their front-line workers (in TV ads, in magazines, on social media – everywhere). What might this mean for the pounds and pence in the pockets of the workforce? Morgan Stanley predicts a 15 per cent rise in low paid worker wages. The current economic landscape makes the financial implications uncertain; however, value is measured in more than financial reward and I believe we will see more creative examples of organisations celebrating the value and performance of front line workers.

9. Diversity and inclusion will have a new supporting infrastructure

The structure of work has changed dramatically. The traditional “9-5/5 days per week” is no longer the basis for work and there is now a greater integration of work and life. COVID-19 has proven we can deliver work effectively and flexibly away from the office, and it has challenged organisations with more traditional presenteeism cultures. This has hugely broadened how we interpret diversity and inclusion within an organisation. “The invisible is now visible”, as I’m sure everyone has experienced during lockdown – seeing your colleague’s children, pets and homes on Zoom calls. Deloitte’s Working during lockdown survey, found that 61% of desk-based workers stated that they would prefer to work from home more often after lockdown. The opportunity is there to embed inclusivity across all parts of the organisation…to make Work work for the Workforce!

10. Lifelong learning will be a worker’s right

COVID-19 has changed the nature of work. Sadly, some roles will disappear, whilst others become more prominent. Combine this trend with technology innovation and you can understand why the half-life of skills continues to shorten. This rapid evolution emphasises the importance of enterprise reskilling, with the organisation taking accountability for equipping their workforce with the skills for the future, rather than rehiring. According to our Human Capital Trends report, 53 per cent of respondents believe that between half and all of their workforce will require new skills and capabilities within the next three years. “Learning how to learn” will be a key goal to enable organisational agility. Organisations who can harness the transferrable skills of their workforce, whilst enabling the re-learning of technical skills, will be ahead of their competition.

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