6 minute read 25 Mar 2020
empty passenger train

Coping with an upset routine is about more than just tech capabilities


EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

6 minute read 25 Mar 2020
Related topics COVID-19 Workforce

Remote work might be easier for consultants, or contractors, or those who juggle multiple priorities. But for many others the upheaval isolation brings is real, and a serious challenge for leaders looking to manage workforce wellbeing. 

It is already starkly apparent that no organisation’s workforce will avoid being affected by COVID-19. As Sonia Sharp, EY Oceania Partner, says: “The virus represents one hundred percent global workforce exposure.”

How it affects different businesses and different organsations and different sectors will vary markedly, depending on demographics, geography, exposure, and the nature of the business. Some businesses, for example in the airline sector, have already shed significant numbers of their workforces, while others in essential service provision have needed to rapidly increase their workforce capacity. The virus will roll through an organisation with varying intensity, impacting different teams and sites at different times and different rates.

For businesses, their major workforce concerns need to zero in on these three questions:

  • what are the most important elements of their business that can be delivered;
  • who in their workforce do they need to ensure is healthy so the essential elements of the business can continue; and
  • what alternative non-contact methods of delivery could be used?

With global and domestic border closures happening apace, this can be an extremely complex scenario. “We’ve got people in some industries who are stranded overseas,” says Sharp, “We’ve got other businesses who are moving their workforce to be totally resident and in house.”

Critical people issues for organisations to assess and address

Critical people issues for organisations to assess and address. Source: EY

At a basic level, organisations need to work hard to ensure the physical and psychological wellbeing of employees. “Those that can do this will optimise individual and organisational growth opportunities that emerge from significant disruption.”

“Taking ourselves as an example of protecting people, EY implemented mandatory work from home arrangements in mid-March to protect the workforce and community from spread of COVID-19. We’ve moved quickly, but sensibly, with time to prepare and help people translate their projects into remote working. We are helped by access to good technology to do that.”

“We’ve deployed cluster-based models and extended use of Microsoft Teams to maintain connectedness and sense of teaming. In all of my projects, we have used the some of the time we would normally have used commuting to connect socially and engage in some light-hearted initiatives as well as checking in on wellbeing. We are encouraging each other to use our commute time for promoting wellbeing – singing, exercise, reading, meditation, gardening.

“We have regular ‘virtual coffee catch-ups’ where we share our top tips for working at home and see if anyone needs any help. For example, when some shop shelves were empty recently, we had one team member with a new baby who couldn’t source nappies so we all went to our local shop to see what we could find.”

“Initially we found that remote working made us more sedentary, so we are now scheduling meetings so we allow 10 minute gaps for movement and have some meetings where we engage over the phone so we can walk and talk. We know that this connectivity is really important, especially during periods of self-isolation.”

“We have become very adept at running everything we need to do remotely, and are supporting our clients to do the same. We have now run training sessions for most of our clients to help them transition to remote working – starting with the basics and moving through to highly sophisticated use. For example, yesterday we ran a highly interactive workshop with an entirely remote team. It is quite amazing what can be achieved from home.”

We use the commute time to connect on a daily basis as well as shared team singing and other light-hearted initiatives.

Understanding and maintaining critical capability and capacity is crucial in the COVID-19 environment. Organisations that are able to remain open need to think about how they build capability in critical skills, transfer skills across the workforce, optimise resource deployment and establish conditions to maintain productivity. In essential workforces where face-to-face contact is unavoidable, such as health care and human services, this might mean staggered teams so at any one time there is a reserve team who can step in. We would also encourage exploration of alternative local workforces who can be trained up to supplement the existing workforce.

“There are some great examples already emerging – from the rapid retraining of Scandinavian Airways staff as a COVID-19 health task force through to The Society of Hospital Pharmacists in Australia who have immediately accelerated their training offer for pharmacy students. As some businesses are forced to close their doors, there are some incredibly talented staff becoming available. For example, the staff in our recently closed sports and recreation centres are usually highly vetted, trained in first aid and skilled in working with people of all ages. A readily available talent pool!”

“Along with contingency planning for critical roles and backup resources, organisations need to plan for five or six layers of criticality,” says Sharp. “Strict schedules are crucial so that key staff do not become overwhelmed or exhausted. This is essential at all levels – from C-suite through to front-line.”

“We know many of our clients are really genuinely worried about their workforce. They don’t want to lay them off, but they know that they cannot maintain viability unless they do something about that. Understanding your workforce profile, modelling workforce and resource scenarios and adjusting labour costs is an essential first step.”

Finding a nuanced solution

With swift-moving workforce planning decisions being made in many organisations, the HR and personnel departments need to keep an eye on ensuring any changes are consistent with employer obligations and also with requirements of any enterprise bargaining agreements or the Fair Work Act.

At the other end of the decision-tree, many organisations have quite significant benefits schemes that they offer employees as part of their value proposition. “It is a good time to re-evaluate some of those benefits given that many of them cannot be acted on right now,” says Matt Lovegrove, EY Oceania Partner.

“A key now to future success is protecting your best, critical people. This may be counterintuitive, but there is a window and a time here to consider how you will adjust some roles, the critical roles, in terms of reward and remuneration.

“Finally, how will you measure performance in the future, what will happen to existing schemes and how do I look forward?”

For workforces that rely on skilled visas, this is a particularly complex moment, especially for organisations that may be thinking about standing down Australian workers. “It has impacts both on the individual but also on the employer's obligations,” says Lovegrove. 

“It’s potentially quite costly for businesses to shut down and then ramp that back up when they enter the recovery phase. So understanding how that can play out and what the available redeployment options are is really critical as well.”

As organisations navigate the multiple government relief and support initiatives to assist business through this disruption, it’s easy to forget that existing requirements and regulations that are applicable to employers still need to be met or at least considered. 

"This once-in-a-generation global event means difficult decisions will, and are, being made when it comes to jobs and people. To best navigate this so as to be ready for the recovery phase - and it will come - it's important to have a clear plan of action that addresses the immediate business viability issues while recognising the skills needed for that 'new normal'. And, to take any action in a compassionate and people-centred way."  


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EY Oceania

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

Related topics COVID-19 Workforce