8 minute read 15 Sep 2020
Woman working from home in her garden

How to reimagine employment, work and well-being post COVID-19

By Mona Bitar

UK&I Consumer Leader, Ernst & Young LLP

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.

8 minute read 15 Sep 2020

We have an opportunity to restructure work as a more human and purposeful experience. What role will purpose play?

In brief
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has caused businesses to reassess strategies and drive towards a more purpose led culture.
  • Agility and resilience must be embedded into the workforce as we enter an era where retaining will become the norm.
  • Long-term value is only created when we stay true to our organization’s purpose and meet our responsibilities to society as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the world of work.

Millions of us have become accustomed to working from home and will be wondering when – and if – we will return to the office.

Many people have found themselves taking on new and unfamiliar roles, often supporting the vulnerable and our local communities.

And working relationships have suddenly become more personal, as our domestic world becomes a constant backdrop to our daily work life.

As we tentatively seek to reopen our offices, factories and shops, we have an opportunity to reimagine work – and the workplace – as a much more human and purposeful experience, building on our efforts over the past few months. As employers, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink our position in the world, by reaffirming our commitment to society and the environment, and giving our employees’ work greater meaning.

In the latest of a series of webcasts devoted to business purpose, EY gathered a distinguished panel of CEOs and CHROs from the world’s leading companies. The panelists discussed shifting expectations of work and what this means for society and business.

The Leaders’ perspective: How the new world of work impacts business

In this webcast, business leaders discuss what role purpose will play in the world of work after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch the replay

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Chapter 1

Toward a purpose-led culture

Let’s make lockdown behavior mainstream.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a platform for business to make a bigger contribution and why should this generosity of spirit end when we return to “normal”?

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re capable of creating a kinder world. And, having seen what’s possible, current and future employees expect and demand this behavior to continue. 

Kerry Dryburgh, Executive Vice President, People and Culture (CHRO), bp Plc, reflected on this saying, “I’ve found it inspiring and humbling in many ways, to see how our colleagues have really rallied around, taking care of one another, and also the communities in which we live and work.”

It’s not just employees who are watching how businesses react. According to the EY Future Consumer Index survey, 60% of consumers say they’ll positively reward organizations that actively support their community.

To add to this, although many companies have made good progress in other areas such as climate change and sustainability, we can’t take our foot off the pedal. Indeed, Nick Beighton, ASOS CEO, explained that we must “double down on being more sustainable and greener, because customers will demand such.”

I’ve found it inspiring and humbling in many ways, to see how our colleagues have really rallied around, taking care of one another, and also the communities in which we live and work.
Kerry Dryburgh
Executive Vice President, People and Culture (CHRO), bp Plc

These are important considerations for businesses as they look to reassess strategy and business plans for the post COVID-19 pandemic world. 

  • Purpose must be authentic. Leaders need to show complete commitment to their values, in order to satisfy increasing demands of stakeholders, as Debbie Crosbie, CEO of TSB Bank, explains: “In the current climate, there’s nowhere to hide. If you’re going to say you’re a purpose-led business, you’ve got to lead by example and walk the walk.”
  • Profit is not a dirty word. There is, now more than ever, a strong link between purpose and profit. In the midst of a severe recession, recovery is dependent upon thriving businesses. Several of the panelists remarked that, by satisfying customers, their companies are performing a valuable service to society at large. We should encourage innovation and productivity and not be afraid to recognize success.

John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, echoed these sentiments by saying: “We pay dividends to shareholders: hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose pensions depend on them. We pay tax. We pay for public services and the National Health Service and infrastructure. Then we reinvest everything that’s left in R&D for new products and services, which hopefully have an even more positive contribution to society.”

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Chapter 2

Narrowing the skills gap across society

Organizations have a duty to upskill workers of all ages.

Technology has been a crutch for the global population through this crisis, and with swift advances in AI and automation, the world is only becoming more digital, fundamentally changing the future of work.

For individuals and especially the younger generation, gone are the days when you left school and embarked on a career until retirement. We’re entering an era where retraining will become second nature, as new jobs emerge and old ones disappear at an ever-increasing rate. 

We have to find systemic solutions for the economies we operate in, to skill at pace, reinvent education, and ensure there’s a supply of talent in the right sectors.
Leena Nair
CHRO, Unilever Plc

And for those just about to leave school and university, they face the possibility of the deepest recession in living memory, bringing widespread unemployment.

The panelists unanimously feel their companies have a duty to upskill workers of all ages to address immediate and longer-term skills gaps. This involves working with governments and academic institutions, as Leena Nair, CHRO of Unilever, comments: “Unemployment is the defining challenge of our time. We have to find systemic solutions for the economies we operate in, to skill at pace, reinvent education, and ensure there’s a supply of talent in the right sectors.”

  • Bridging the digital divide. Digital skills are essential, and we’re in danger of creating a two-tier world of digital haves and have-nots. Again, companies need to work on digital literacy for workers of all ages, to give them the tools to compete for future jobs. But we must also address inequal access to technology; it must be seen as a basic utility that none of us can do without.
  • Don’t forget soft skills. In the midst of a technological revolution, it’s easy to neglect the human touch, something that John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, is passionate about:  “What we often call soft skills are actually the hardest skills of all – and they’re the ones that machines struggle to replicate. So we must continue to place an emphasis on team building, empathy, nurturing and, crucially, the ability to learn.” 
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Chapter 3

Empathy as a key leadership skill

Lockdown has emphasized the need for a greater personal understanding of others.

Lockdown may have forced us to be physically distant, but, paradoxically, it has also brought us closer together emotionally, and highlighted the need for a greater personal understanding of others.

In the recent EY Future Consumer Index survey, respondents’ core desires were shown to have shifted from material pleasures toward more basic physical and emotional needs like “quality” and “health.”

Lockdown has enabled us to make more personal connections. With children, partners and elderly parents walking in and out of video calls, against a backdrop of domesticity, we’ve all had a glimpse into the lives of our colleagues. In future, we need to maintain and build on this understanding, bringing greater empathy into our working relationships. However, as Debbie Crosbie, CEO of TSB Bank Plc, emphasizes, “with the home environment and the office environment becoming almost one and the same, it’s critical to support people, and give them sufficient space and privacy.”

Kerry Dryburgh, bp’s Executive Vice President for People and Culture, reminds us that “Staying connected is about how we treat each other. It’s about knowing the person. It’s about knowing not just their name but their children’s names, and the environments in which they live and work, to understand the challenges they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis.”

Increasingly, more are opening up about mental health. In a recent EY article, How do you ensure wellbeing is at the core of workforce resilience, 44.4% of people working from home during the pandemic say they’ve experienced a decline in their mental health.

With the home environment and the office environment becoming almost one and the same, it’s critical to support people, and give them sufficient space and privacy.
Debbie Crosbie
CEO, TSB Bank Plc

Many organizations are starting to take mental health more seriously, providing platforms for discussions and offering wellbeing services to employees. According to Leena Nair, Unilever’s CHRO, some people have become overwhelmed by recent events: “How do you take care of isolated employees? How do you take care of immune-compromised employees? How do you take care of employees who themselves have care-giving responsibilities. It’s up to us to give them the support they need to cope with these difficult times.”

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Chapter 4

Instilling agility and resilience into the workforce

Resilience should become a core capability in an unpredictable world.

Organizations of all types and size have proved remarkably adaptable during the pandemic, shifting to remote working, reassigning roles and switching production to medical and other essential supplies. They’ve also managed to maintain customer interfaces in the absence of face-to-face contact.

John Fallon, CEO, Pearson Plc, reflected: “If you’d said to me that, at three days’ notice, we had to get 24,000 people working from home, and it would have gone as well and as smoothly as it had, I think I would have been very surprised. Maybe some big companies have learned that we can move quicker and be much leaner and more agile than we thought.”

It is important to keep up the momentum. The speed with which businesses have reacted has surprised everyone, but this shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off, as ASOS CEO Nick Beighton explains: “We’ve seen 10 years of disruption in 10 weeks. As global events continue to affect our customers and our people, we need to embed flexibility, agile ways of working and fast decision-making.”

If you’d said to me that, at three days’ notice, we had to get 24,000 people working from home, and it would have gone as well and as smoothly as it had, I think I would have been very surprised. Maybe some big companies have learned that we can move quicker and be much leaner and more agile than we thought.
John Fallon
CEO, Pearson Plc

In the article Restarting and building a resilient recovery, EY argues that resilience should become a core capability in an ever-changing and unpredictable world.

Organizations need to continue to empower change. EDF’s CEO Simone Rossi urges leaders not to underestimate their people’s potential: “We should never forget what we’re capable of. If we could only inject a fraction of the clarity of our recent purpose and empowerment, then change programs would become far more effective.”

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Chapter 5

Increasing trust in your people

Organizations should use purpose to create long-term value and build a better world.

Working outside the usual confines of the office has unleashed a new spirit of independence and flexible working.

People are demanding greater autonomy. The move toward a more fluid work environment was already underway, but, like many things, the lockdown has accelerated this shift. As ASOS CEO Nick Beighton says, “We’ve transitioned some 10,000 employees to working from home. I guess I had no choice, as a leader – and the rest of our leaders had no choice – but to trust. That’s been a big lesson for me.”

Employers will increasingly have to adapt to the needs and desires of their people. When offices and other sites do re-open, we’re likely to see a continuation of home working, to avoid lengthy and costly commutes, and to fit in with employees’ personal commitments. Simon Rossi, CEO, EDF suggests that in the new normal, “working at the office will no longer be a duty, but a right.” As organizational structures become more fluid, employees will gain a bigger say in the type of work they do and how they do it, with greater collaboration and less top-down decision-making.

Working at the office will no longer be a duty, but a right.
Simone Rossi
CEO, EDF

Doors could be opened for women and carers. Caring, whether for children, partners or parents, has for too long been an invisible activity that one has to juggle against work commitments and doing so can impact career advancement.

Having seen the tremendous productivity and creativity that remote working can bring, employers should recognize the value of flexible hours. TSB CEO Debbie Crosbie believes this presents “a great opportunity to really redefine what we mean by flexible working. It’s not just the odd instance of a few hours; it’s about building a whole new flexible working environment.”

Such a move can help place all those with additional caring responsibilities – on a more level career footing. 

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Chapter 6

Re-appraising our role as employers

Long-term value is only created when organizations stay true to their overall purpose.

The lockdown has kick-started the debate over the future of work, opening up questions about location, skills, management, mental health and, above all, business purpose.

We can only create long term value if we stay true to our organizational purpose and as employers, we need a workforce that can help us meet our responsibilities toward our customers, our shareholders, and society as a whole.

But employees also require us to match up to the expectations they have, and it’s clear from the last few months that people’s expectations of meaningful work have risen. Having had a glimpse of what it means to be purpose-driven and community-minded, they won’t want to go back.

We must continue to collaborate with other businesses, government and academia to create fulfilling working lives for current and the next generations.

  • Key questions for employers

    • How can we balance the flexibility of remote working with the camaraderie of the workplace?
    • How can we align purpose with success and profitability?
    • How can we better manage our people’s wellbeing?
    • How can we improve our re-skilling and adaptability?
    • How can we balance employee trust with operational responsibilities and risk management?

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an extraordinary impact on the world of work. As workplaces tentatively start to reopen, organizations should take the opportunity to reimagine work and the workplace as a much more human and purposeful experience.

About this article

By Mona Bitar

UK&I Consumer Leader, Ernst & Young LLP

Experienced business advisor for over 25 years. Amateur poet and historian. Brings multi-cultural perspectives as a proud Palestinian Brit.