How the pandemic will impact the future of work and what can companies do about it?
Jennifer Ayres, Founding Partner
Lisa Insley, Partner
When the pandemic began, very few organizations had a crisis plan in place to address its magnitude. As such, leaders scrambled to accommodate an ever-fluctuating set of safety guidelines. There were immediate non-negotiables, most notably the need to close offices and support remote workforces at unprecedented scale. For most, the mode entered was reactionary. Even today, many organizations still feel as if they are simply trying to survive. As a result, leaders may believe they have missed time to make meaningful and effective changes to their business. In fact, organizations that do not implement meaningful and effective changes to their business, as a result of the growing trends observed, will find themselves even further behind than before the beginning of the pandemic.
Undeniably, remote work infrastructure or flexible working hours protocol, for example, could have been in place pre-pandemic to mitigate the business impact. However, it is important to realize the window of opportunity for transformation is far from closed. We don’t have to focus on surviving – there is a real opportunity to come through this pandemic thriving. Now is still the time to shift our mindset to be proactive and consider how our new reality presents ways in which we can create sustained growth.
Consider this - what we know now about the needs of people in the workforce far surpasses what we could have predicted or understood a year ago. The phrase “Future of Work” is not new and leaders have been ideating and envisioning the future work experience for their company. The pandemic has both accelerated previously nascent trends and further exposed existing realities making it the opportune and critical time to respond. By being proactive in responding to trends that have become hyper-relevant, leaders can display a new level of empathy and ownership when it comes to organizational and cultural development. With new information about workforce needs and employer perspectives, we are positioned to create a “Future of Work” that marries new ideas with tried-and-true organizational management practices to meet the moment.
Let’s review these key trends and highlight some of the organizational development opportunities organizations can put into action to thrive post-pandemic. These trends can empower companies to intentionally design a future of work experience that is more human at its core. This not only drives business forward but also will attract a more dynamic and diverse workforce than previously imagined.
Key Pandemic Trend #1: A new perception of remote work
In a survey by job listings site Flexjobs, 65% of pandemic remote workers said they wanted to keep working from home. 58% said they would look for a new job if they would have to return to the office. The reason for remote working preference is nuanced and companies can approach understanding and responding to these needs in a multitude of ways. As early as May 2020, major companies such as Nationwide announced plans to go remote-first, or adopt a partial or optional remote policy. In April 2021, HSBC announced they would be moving more than 1,200 staff in Britain to permanent working from home contracts, which is considered to be a strong indication of how banks are making changes to reduce costs.
It’s important to explore the mindset of employees on this topic and consider the different approaches that can be taken to create new, forward-thinking policies. Organizations should take a pulse check on employee sentiment regarding remote work as a long-term employment arrangement. This can be done in a neutral, anonymous manner or through management to ensure there is psychological safety in responding. Questions about remote work preferences should go beyond asking about how many days of the week are preferred but also the impact remote working has had in various aspects of their life. What has worked? What has not worked? It is also appropriate to survey middle management and senior leaders to identify how their perception has changed about the viability of their team working remotely – and to challenge some traditional conventions. While in the past it was standard practice to require a particular function or entire organization being in person, now is the time to connect with other leaders in similar types of work to identify if there is a different way to approach flexible working arrangements. Finding the right fit for your approach based on understanding the needs of both the employees and the company is key to creating a sustainably strong workforce.
Key Pandemic Trend #2: A new kind of burnout
At the start of the pandemic, the move to completely remote working and other surrounding impacts of the pandemic gave many leaders the impression that productivity would plummet. What became the new reality for many was actually working longer and more irregular hours. According to SHRM, nearly 70% of professionals who transitioned to remote work said they work weekends with 45% saying they regularly work more hours during the week. Not only are employees working longer but they are spending more time in meetings and keeping up with an increasing number of communication channels. Understanding what productivity means more deeply and the nuances of burnout are critical to unleashing the highest levels of value that your company and workforce can create. Company leaders need to set expectations that employees do not need to be ‘on’ 24/7. Some companies we’ve talked to have gone so far as to put in mandatory breaks or no communications after 6pm. Others are launching wellness programs and encouraging their teams to take meetings on a walk. Studies such as what was recently published by the Microsoft Human Factors lab prove the importance of even small breaks can help mitigate fatigue and reduce the effects of stress.
Key Pandemic Trend #3: The disproportionate impact of the pandemic
The benefits of embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion have been widely documented for years, yet we’ve made very slow progress. Back in 2018, McKinsey & Company reported that “companies in the top-quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability”. While this data has been available and known, the pandemics disproportionate effect on woman and especially woman of color has highlighted systemic issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. It is imperative that companies look holistically at fostering not only a diverse workforce but an inclusive workforce that nurtures diversity of thought and addresses this via not only a hiring strategy, but also by examining how the company culture can foster an environment which allows diversity and inclusion to thrive. It is not enough to achieve specific diversity numbers. A culture must embrace diversity in what individuals value in their work and what their day-to-day motivators are to realize a truly inclusive work environment.
Key Pandemic Trend #4: The finding of new – or “re-newed” purpose
When people are given a new window through which to view their world, it helps them see life, opportunities, and challenges from a different perspective. Though our natural inclination is to recognize the economic hardships being endured and assume it means employees are doing all they can to hold on to their jobs, the reality is much more nuanced. Recently, the New York Times has reported on what they are calling the “YOLO Economy” (“you only live once”). Millennials, finding themselves with in-demand skills, a financial cushion, and the harsh reality of pandemic resulting in deaths of people close to them, have been driven to completely re-prioritize their life. According to the Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, 1 in 4 workers are planning to look for opportunities once the threat of the pandemic has subsided. 80% are doing so because they are concerned about their career advancement and 72% said they pandemic caused them to rethink their skill sets. Whether you want to believe it or not, your workforce has had time, space, and a renewed perspective through which they are defining how they want to live their life moving forward. The challenge for organizations is whether a company’s vision is clear and that their employees understand how they fit into it. They also will need evidence that the company values its people and that leaders are coached on demonstrating behaviors that reinforce that value. We have all had the ‘jerk’ boss in our career we put up with in the past. However, research suggests (and our own conversations reinforce this), that people are more motivated now to go do something else, rather than tolerate a poor leader.
At the heart of these trends is a more complete understanding of the current state of human values. It’s time to put the human experience at the core of how we move forward.
In order to leverage this unique point in history to propel your organization forward, an organization has to consider an organizational development fundamental that too often is taken for granted: Companies must consider the different types of resources and shift the mindset of their employees being a cost versus an asset. Companies can shift the effectiveness of their workforce by investing in developing their leadership, examining the cultural behaviors they wish to reinforce, and ultimately considering what employee experience they desire to drive that behavior and hence, business results. We believe we are moving into a new era of work where companies that take a ‘people first’ mindset will exceed those who do not. The research is showing that Human Capital Management will become a key strategic lever and advantage for organizations. While the rise of AI and machines has given many the impression that machines will replace workers as we observed in during the industrial revolution, research shows the prevalent reality will be humans working alongside machines. Only people will have the capacity to bring human factors to the work whereas machines and AI will help drive efficiency in decision making through predictions and potential future courses of action. With these trends in mind, let’s look at key concepts that can help organization navigate and form plans that capitalize on these opportunities.
The Opportunity, Part 1: Aligning Future of Work planning goals with business outcomes.
The key to designing a thriving Future of Work environment for your company begins with the work to understand where you are heading first. What are your organizational goals and what are the outcomes and indicators along the way to help you stay on track or pivot? What is your company vision and mission and how does this translate into fostering a purpose-driven organization? This requires strategic planning, followed by creating your company’s goals and strategic pillars for your Future of Work initiative. Your strategic plan and Future of Work goals will set a foundation for successfully defining and implementing the key pillars of your workforce strategy.
The Opportunity, Part 2: Holistic Employee Experience & Culture Design
With an understanding of your Future of Work goals, you can set out on two interwoven and key exercises. The first is ensuring you have an end-to-end understanding of your workforce journey. Just like your brands, products and services have “customer journeys”, so to do you have a journey to understand and empathize with for the members of your workforce. Additionally, you will need to understand what type of culture you have today. Even if you have not purposely defined and fostered a culture – it exists! It is incumbent upon leaders of an organization to take the reins and intentionally foster the culture that will enable your company’s vision. To design an employee experience and culture to get where you need to go, you need to understand where you are starting from. You will need to map your current state and define your future state, creating a roadmap for making this a reality.
The Opportunity, Part 3: Meeting the Moment with Flexible Employment Opportunities
The pandemic has broken the mold in terms of what type of working environment is feasible and viable for a business. Given we have explored how to set up a roadmap to realize your Workforce of the Future, let's take a moment to explore new and creative ways you can tactically think about bringing that plan into reality. More than ever, there are new software tools and services that have cropped up to support flexible work policies and personalized employment. There are also real-life stories being told of creative approaches that both senior leaders and middle managers have brought to their teams, which can inspire you with new ways to think about making your Future of Work a reality. According to Jess Podgajny, CEO and Founder of LLUNA, a personalized employment platform, having a personalized employment experience makes it easier for managers to lead with empathy, reduces employee disengagement and creates more inclusive benefits which support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. It’s not just the policies you put in place but how you think about opening opportunities to new talent markets to build a sustainable future for your company.
The Opportunity, Part 4: Embedding and Executing a Change Management Approach
Change is hard and we have all been going through a high volume of change over the last year and a half. The prospect of the Future of Work can be an invigorating topic and we are here to help you understand how a solid change management approach can uplift, motivate, and accelerate your plan. Following change management best practices will be critical in putting your plan into action in a way that catalyzes your organization to propel itself along with leadership to realize a thriving future. The change management work to be done cannot be an afterthought or work that is done as a side project. It must be part of the central planning to bring along the various stakeholders in your organization who have varying levels of influence and power over how positively and sustainably your overall Future of Work plan is implemented.
We know these opportunities, though important, are deep topics and not straightforward to tackle. An organizations size, scale, history and culture play major factors in how bold the change needs to be. What is critical is mindfulness and the building of a proactive understanding of the trends that have been exacerbated or revealed during this pandemic. Leaders will need to have an organized, empathetic, and values-driven response. Organizations that intentionally link their vision, mission, and goals to a desired employee experience that supports not only fostering a sense of purpose, but offers flexibility on how the work gets done, will be on the path to developing a resilient and healthy workforce of the future. A helpful reminder for leaders in this pressing time is that getting it ‘right’ isn’t as critical as being reflective, responsive, and adaptable to foster a workforce that feels valued and is empowered to drive value.