6 minute read 18 Mar 2021
Young businessman sitting outdoors at a wall working on laptop

365 days on – what does this mean for the world of work?

By Kirsten Vasey

Associate Partner, Transformation Leader, PAS | Switzerland

Global citizen, mother, friend, coach, mentor & triathlete, passionate about enabling people, teams and organizations to be the best they can be.

6 minute read 18 Mar 2021

One year on from the first coronavirus lockdowns, the world of work has and continues to experience fundamental transformation.

In brief:
  • The pandemic has accelerated megatrends already observed before coronavirus
  • An agile approach combined with courageous, empathic leadership is good for people and business
  • To continue to attract and retain top talent, organizations need to offer exceptional experience, tailored to the individual

Change was already abound pre pandemic: at the macro level in society; at the organizational level, and at the level of the individual. Amid a growing collective understanding of how equity contributes to long-term value, business leaders were acknowledging Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) as an enabler. Organizations were already beginning to embrace trends around digital and tech, exploring how to combine the best of human skills and knowledge with emerging data-driven tools. At the latest when Gen Z started entering the workforce hot on the heels of purpose-seeking millennials, the people function realized that a raison d’être was a major reason to choose – or reject – an employer. And with talent often in short supply, embedding purpose in the corporate culture and strategy is essential.

Then came Covid. 

Existing trends accelerated by circumstances took on a new momentum to become unstoppable transformational forces. Entire companies switched to remote working, almost overnight. Entire industries, factories and retailers stood silent as the economy ground to a halt. People juggled their individual living situations and scrambled to adapt to an unprecedented level of uncertainty.

Fast-forward one year. Boundaries between work and home became blurred in an environment of lockdown, restrictions and social distancing, and it seems unlikely that those lines will be redrawn any time soon. As temporary measures transformed into permanent practices, the spotlight on people’s individual lifestyles and working needs has intensified.

A human experience

Coronavirus has accelerated the need for humans to be front and center in the workplace. During the acute phase of the crisis, many companies rallied around their people, acknowledging the trials of business as usual in a world that was anything but normal. Many organizations offered relief, flexibility and support to enable those working from the kitchen table with the distraction of partners, children and pets for some, or crushing isolation and silence for others. 

As we start to emerge from the Covid-induced fog, what now? We’re entering a new normal that’s nothing like before. How can organizations put their people at the center when there’s no one-size-fits-all solution? Those (still) working from home have discovered by now whether they thrive in a remote work environment, or miss the discipline and routine of office life. Those in roles or jobs requiring a workplace presence have learnt to operate in much more isolation than the rest of their organization. 

Time to think

1

year since Covid forced many countries to lock down

People have had many months to think about how they want their lives to be, or not be. They know which aspects of old they miss, and what they’d prefer to change about the new situation.

With telecommuting working so well, many organizations are questioning the role of the office per se. While it may be tempting to radically cut costs by downsizing permanently, organizational leaders and people functions are starting to acknowledge that the real question is not whether they need premises, but how they use them. To ensure the continued organizational success and effectiveness, organizations should be looking to do this at the micro and individual level, reaching out to their people and asking them what they need, to develop the physical shared workplace of the future. Just as each individual’s life situation is unique, so too are their demands of the workplace. Some will crave a place for quiet reflection and concentration. Others will want a hub for conversation and collaboration. And few now relish a long daily commute. Bringing these different aspects together into a cohesive concept will require companies to embrace different working and workplace models. The physical infrastructure of shared space for connecting, collaborating or concentrating could take the form of hub-and-spoke models at central and other locations, complemented by flexible working week options that empower people to make work work for them.

Redesigning benefits

Benefits and experience will remain important in attracting and retaining talent (in)to an organization. As we move toward a hybrid work force, it will be interesting to see how organizations tackle the potential for inequality in terms of benefits and experience. What counts as a benefit and how – or where – do you provide it? Leading organizations are putting people in the driving seat and enabling them to choose the benefits and approaches that work for them. Customer experience concepts are now being reflected in the employee experience, with naturally some degree of segmentation, but with individuals ultimately choosing the options that suit their lifestyle and needs best. The significance of corporate purpose has grown as the act of work has shifted from something most people go out to do, to an activity that starts and ends seamlessly in the home or other locations. Giving people a sense of purpose, empowering them to fit work seamlessly into life, giving them freedom and flexibility to choose their benefits: this is true equity.

Listen, then act – an agile approach

Responding to people’s changing needs and expectations means listening first – and then putting insights into action. Truly agile and transformative organizations are regularly checking in with their people, through the use of both active and passive listening activities. Then they’re adopting approaches – rather than procedures – that can be adapted as situations and sentiments shift. Real agility comes from flexible approaches that consistently and constantly align people’s needs and behaviors with business needs.

An agile approach has the added advantage of enabling leaders to change course rapidly. As the onus shifted from duty of care in the (external) workplace to duty of care for a throng of remote workers, organizations and leaders needed to adjust to a new role. If anything, the pandemic has shown employees that leadership cannot and do not always have all the answers all of the time. Despite this, the workforce has shown that they will always respond positively to leaders who are clear on principles, make decisions based on data, communicate regularly, seek dialogue and show empathy.

In today’s new world of work, strong leaders are those that show humanity and courage and focus on well-being. They share their own experience to build trust, empathy and a culture of bottom-up dialogue. 

True inclusion, equity and agility improves when you empower people to create their own exceptional experiences.
Kirsten Vasey
HR and Workforce Transformation Leader, EY Switzerland

During the crisis, many organizations found themselves concerned on an unprecedented scale with their people’s health and well-being. In some ways, it even makes good business sense.

Employees are happiest when they’re most productive and efficient, and they’re most productive and efficient when they enjoy good mental and physical health in and beyond the workplace. In remote and hybrid working scenarios, employers will have to work harder and be more disciplined about establishing cultural behaviors that were more automatic in an office environment. For example, team leaders may have to find new ways to encourage people to take breaks, work efficiently and feel they have “permission” to take time away from the screen.

Three key recommendations

Right now, the only certainty is change. As agility, resilience and purpose shapes the future of work, business leaders should focus on these aspects:

  • Be courageous – stand up, take bold decisions and be empathetic, acknowledging that nobody has all the right answers all of the time
  • See your people as the real asset that they are –tap into and learn from your biggest asset and their experience as a way to attract, develop and retain the best talent
  •  Ensure the right infrastructure, tools, data and organizational processes are implemented to drive and enable a truly agile approach to ways of working

Summary

A crisis is often a turning point, especially if transformational pressure was already building. The coronavirus pandemic has given people and organizations the chance to try agile new ways of working and to reflect on how to create exceptional experience and equality in the workplace. It’s also accelerated the role of courageous, empathic and open leadership. As we emerge from the crisis, we can use lessons learned to move closer toward true equity.

About this article

By Kirsten Vasey

Associate Partner, Transformation Leader, PAS | Switzerland

Global citizen, mother, friend, coach, mentor & triathlete, passionate about enabling people, teams and organizations to be the best they can be.