5 minute read 20 May 2020
Close up of mechanical watch

How the future of work arrived in 100 tragic days

By David Storey

EY EMEIA Workforce Advisory Leader

Helps clients transition into the Future World of Work. Frequent speaker. Entrepreneur. Fascinated by politics. Family man.

5 minute read 20 May 2020
Related topics Workforce COVID-19

The last 100 days have changed the world. Like everything else, HR will never be the same again.

The emergence of COVID-19, and the response of governments across the world, have fundamentally changed the way we live and work. The scale of the impact is breath-taking; approximately half of the world’s population moved into some form of pandemic lockdown. The pace of change is incredible – scaled remote and flexible working, long-anticipated as a core component of the future of work, have arrived overnight.

Lockdown, shelter-in-place, self-isolation, quarantines – call them what you will – have drastically constrained our freedom of movement and action since the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency on 30 January. The traditional model of in-person/centralized-facility work has been suspended as billions of people adopt personal protective behaviors. Their front doors have become frontiers to a world which, per The Economist, “has closed.” Simultaneous supply-and-demand shocks have left millions of companies scrambling to sustain business continuity.

CHROs are making vital contributions to business continuity

Continuity challenges take many forms, but the need to protect employees and implement working practices that align to social distancing regimes have meant that workforce issues have often been the most pressing during COVID-19.

Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) and their teams have been in the thick of it. Their agenda started with crisis communication and employee safety, then quickly extended to enabling remote work and maintaining productivity; now, it incorporates everything from tactical workforce planning, to interpreting and leveraging state fiscal measures, to providing access to mindfulness opportunities.

Continuity challenges take many forms, but the need to protect employees and implement working practices that align to social distancing regimes have meant that workforce issues have often been the most pressing during COVID-19.

Hard decisions have been taken to reduce the size or remodel the shape of workforces and how they are remunerated, to match business and liquidity demands. Agile problem-solving has been the order of the day as compliance has become a moving target; entire rule books have been thrown out and replaced, with decisions that would normally take months actioned in hours.

Soon, hopefully, the CHRO agenda can switch to planning and facilitating the exit from current restrictions as cities and countries cautiously test a return to normality. HR has been the first line of enterprise response and will play a key role in leading the return to work and recovery, as well as working with other business leaders to navigate the aftermath.

How have HR leaders and functions have been navigating the immediate term?

The work has focused on 5 key risk areas:

  1. Understanding the people impact: Dynamically assessing people risks and then rapidly planning, deciding, actioning and communicating people strategies.
  2. Moving people: Protecting, relocating or repatriating global mobility assignees and addressing any immigration issues related to mobility and location.
  3. Protecting people: Working with the business to create a safe environment, ensure workforce wellbeing and support business continuity initiatives. 
  4. Enabling people: Developing alternative, inclusive and flexible work models and supporting policies that are human-centered and maintain business continuity and productivity.
  5. Maintaining capability and capacity: Understanding and leveraging the drivers of workforce costs to help executive teams navigate the impact of reduced revenues, increased costs and lower workforce productivity.

What lessons are we drawing from these experiences?

Of course, every challenge, every client and every sector is different. But here are some of the common lessons that we are beginning to draw from the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Ethics are essential
    HR professionals are having to make decisions that balance legal requirements with ethical choices, this crisis goes beyond livelihoods, and companies recognize their duty of care to employees and their wider societal role and impact.
  • Communication is key
    Communication is challenging without the right crisis response structures to filter and clarify information, and the right digital mechanisms to ensure rapid two-way feedback. Empathy and authenticity have become watchwords as companies seek to strike the right tone for employees who are dislocated, anxious and uncertain.
  • Leaders are made or broken by a crisis
    Effective leaders have made good early decisions, adjusted rapidly to virtual leadership and understood the need to adopt a human-centric approach. The future credibility of espoused purpose statements and culture frameworks are dependent on how leaders navigate this crisis.
  • Investment in HR pays off
    Cloud-based HR systems with comprehensive and accurate data, and agile digital HR channels, have paid dividends. They are key to rapid and effective planning to protect and enable workforces. Vital HR activities such as establishing contact and safety, tracking and predicting absenteeism, implementing crisis policies and modeling workforce economics all rely on good data and effective digital tools.
  • Remote and flexible work at scale is possible
    The relative (to expectations) ease of the switch to fully remote working for those roles that allow for it, the resilience of external providers supporting it, and the speed to adoption and collaboration of co-workers have all resulted in many positive lessons. In many instances, the urgency associated with work has resulted in improvements in productivity.
  • Lay-offs are not the only way to reduce labor costs
    In those countries where fiscal policies were introduced to support and prevent mass redundancies, organizations have been more creative in how they optimize talent and reward levers as a means to save jobs. 

A bigger question is, what comes next and beyond?

CHROs will be asked to contribute to organizational plans to move forward into an unknown future. No one has a crystal ball, but here are seven trends that are likely to influence their thinking:

1. “Second curve” preparation

Various forms of intermittent lock-downs may be required going forward. Firms will need to instill and reinforce agile execution, flexibility and better resilience into work arrangements to maintain productivity, irrespective of how employees are having to work. By investing in and realigning technology, processes, structures and workforce management policies, they will create sustainable new ways of working that may become the norm.

2. Behavioral shifts

People are shifting their values and motivations; protection is their top priority – family, employees, customers, communities. These shifts in values could create permanent behavioral shifts. Firms should prepare for a workforce that will be looking for more empathy, authenticity and transparency from their leaders, a skillset that leaders need to be able to execute virtually. Mental wellbeing will also become mainstream, built into productivity initiatives and influence expectations of duty of care.

3. Compliance and change

Firms have “broken the glass” during this time, slashing red tape and streamlining change management. Results have often been positive, and the wide-spread experience of working like this, along with the benefits achieved, will reset transformation expectations, leading to fundamental re-evaluations of what is necessary to get things done while ensuring adoption and keeping firms safe.

4. Greater degrees of remote and flexible work

One positive outcome from forced remote working has been conclusive evidence that flexibility need not come at the expense of productivity. This may have very constructive implications for diversity goals, particularly for those with caring responsibilities. At the same time, the tragic and anxiety-ridden context, and forced isolation, has highlighted the importance of regular face-to-face contact. Working out what is preferable, from what is now recognized as possible, will no doubt influence corporate policy and spending decisions post the crisis.

5. Investment in digital HR

HR professionals can also expect to see a shift in how they recruit, hire and retain employees. Many processes have already been digitized to improve speed and efficiency. However, HR will now be operating virtually throughout the talent lifecycle with new employees joining and working with colleagues without meeting anyone within the organization in person, possibly for months. This push, as well as the need to mitigate risk for possible future lock-downs means that investment in the journey to digital HR will accelerate.

6. Human-centered workforce strategies

During the 2008–2012 financial crisis, companies sought to cut costs through efficiencies, which often included large-scale massive layoffs and redundancies. Many public companies are aware that their behavior during this current crisis cannot be repeated, and employer brands will rise or fall depending on their response. HR functions may need to take a more human-centered approach to workforce strategy and explore alternatives to layoffs. This includes reskilling existing workers or maintaining close contact with those made redundant with a view to rehire, or even seconding workers to other organizations within the company’s ecosystem that have capacity or capability needs. Finally, the privacy implications of the blurring of work and home will need to be deftly managed to ensure workforces maintain confidence in their remote work platforms and tools.

7. Digital labor markets

To date, many governments have only tinkered with labor legislation in response to the rise of the digital age while the underlying conceptual frameworks have remained firmly rooted in a traditional, analog view of work. This is likely to change, and more fundamental reviews may see labor legislation finally aligning to and facilitating future work thinking. Impetus to do so will originate from a combination of the new prevalence of remote working and the unique policy adaptations and workforce initiatives precipitated by this crisis.

The COVID-19 crisis has induced tragic loss of life and wreaked economic devastation upon societies. There is reason to grieve and good cause for anxiety about the crisis and its aftermath. However, from a strictly HR and workplace perspective, it could be viewed as an enormous, synchronized organizational experiment, of which we have all become sudden participants.

While we cannot predict the outcomes – which of those trends will transpire or dominate; which others may emerge – we can be very certain that this will be a time of dramatic innovation. Like everything else, HR will never be the same again. It will be the job of CHROs and their HR teams to ensure that the “new normal” is an improved one, leading to a better working world.

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The abrupt changes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the way we work. But CHROs can use the lessons learned through the crisis to navigate the unknown future.

About this article

By David Storey

EY EMEIA Workforce Advisory Leader

Helps clients transition into the Future World of Work. Frequent speaker. Entrepreneur. Fascinated by politics. Family man.

Related topics Workforce COVID-19