Working life has been turned upside down during the coronavirus pandemic, but the countless memes about children invading videoconferences hide a striking truth: organisations and their employees have adapted remarkably quickly to the status quo, and many are quite comfortable with this new way of working.
Organisations have shown themselves to be flexible before, most recently in dealing with the 2007-08 financial crisis and its aftermath. One difference between the two events is that, whereas boardrooms mainly turned to the finance department for help during the financial crisis, they are now just as likely to look to their HR team for guidance.
For companies that have been able to operate through the pandemic, HR has had to support radical change and implement new measures to keep employees healthy and operating effectively. In many cases, this has happened within the context of a vast, and often unplanned for, remote-working experiment. The vast learnings and experiences of this crisis mean that, when we come out of the pandemic, it is highly likely that businesses and employees will seek to maintain, and even extend, new working practices along with the associated benefits that have emerged. Twitter is among the first, but will not be the last, organisation to tell its employees that they can keep working from home forever if they choose.
The truth is that some of the changes implemented at great speed during this crisis reflect initiatives that many employers were already considering in the context of the future of work – or, as it now becomes apparent, that they should have been considering. Home working is a classic example. Businesses are discovering what studies have shown for years: employees can be more, rather than less, productive in a home working environment (undoubtedly that would be even truer if childcare and schooling returned). Flexibility around working hours is another example of something many employers were examining, and we are all now practising – because we have to.
Travel bans, self-quarantines, corporate lock-downs and related implications for child- and elder care are likely to lead to protracted periods where business continuity and productivity will depend on alternative, inclusive and flexible ways of working. Slow trends have become immediate necessities with regard to both remote and flexible working including remote meetings with clients, suppliers and colleagues, and the elimination of unnecessary business travel.
Forward-thinking leaders will not look simply to reboot their operating model: they will seize the opportunity to reinvent it. Many will proceed with business change that goes beyond the steps forced by the crisis, accelerating plans that were previously longer-term in nature. The bottom line is that businesses will squander a great opportunity if, once the crisis is over, they simply return to the pre-crisis status quo.
Accelerated transformation is, however, not without dangers. The most common cause of failure when a business is transforming is a lack of the right skills and capabilities within the workforce. According to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2020 study, over half of HR leaders say quantifying the skills gap in their business is a challenge. Organisations need to identify the training that is required to address the reskilling issue.
The current crisis is prompting much soul-searching among organisations about the shape of their future workforces. Before the crisis, 77% of executives globally believed that freelance and gig workers would be used to a significantly greater degree within the next five years. Now the crisis is leading to the jettisoning of workforce methodologies that absolutely require on-site location and physical team togetherness. The issue of the gig economy is a divisive one – but it could represent a route back to employment for those whose previous jobs and professions do not survive the crisis.
Even before Covid-19, most employers believed the pace of workforce change was fast and accelerating. The crisis has had an enormously destructive effect on many businesses and on broader society, but we must take the few positives that we can. For businesses, there is scope to use some of this forced change to help bring about the permanent change that was sought before the crisis. Whether it is remote working, flexible working hours, flexible labour forces, the skills challenge or HR transformation –there is opportunity to be found here amidst the awfulness of the pandemic. Businesses owe it to themselves, to their employees and to their clients to seize it.
Published in the Irish Independent 25 May 2020