The next set of strategic priorities that can transform the future of work.
In the era of COVID-19, organizations must continue to put people first in order to build long-term value.
How can organizations unleash this human power to do the extraordinary and create long-term value?
Simply put, prioritize people. As EY’s Global People Advisory Services Leader Mike Bertolino writes, “In the era of COVID-19, organizations must continue to put people first in order to build long-term value.”1 We call this putting “humans at the center,” and it’s one of our three fundamental drivers for transformation, along with technology at speed and innovation at scale.2
We’ve identified the following strategic priorities that will help organizations transform their future of work in a way that will unleash human power and, ultimately, generate long-term value.
Priority 1: The future of the workplace
As employees begin to return to the physical workplace, there are a number of considerations organizations will have to address.
Rethinking the real estate and the workplace
As a start, organizations will need to think about their future real estate footprint and use of space in the context of supporting collective collaboration, mentoring and happiness. This includes determining which geographies should be at the center of an organization’s “physical presence,” with connection points to customers and talent. It also involves rethinking how often and for what purpose employees should be in the workplace. Do they need to be there daily, weekly, monthly, or exclusively for networking, collaboration and learning?
Organizations will also want to take an integrated look at defining policies and approaches in terms of which employees can and should be onsite versus those who can work remotely. For example, an Indian multinational technology and consulting firm has announced that by 2025 only 25% of its employees will need physical office space at any given time. 3 Similarly, with 90% of their employees working from home successfully, a large US bank is considering downsizing their current real estate footprint.4
If organizations expect to have large portions of their workforce return to the office, they would need to increase their real estate footprint to account for physical distancing. For companies that will have more employees working remotely on a regular basis, their surplus office space could be repurposed for special events and project or team collaboration.
Reimagining the workspace for wellbeing
Organizations maintaining physical workplaces will need to consider reconfiguring the space to support employee wellbeing. This will include the spacing of desks, better air filtration, and fabrics and surfaces that are antimicrobial. Some organizations are looking to expand existing green standards to have a category for buildings that are “WELL” certified — a rating system that would focus exclusively on the impacts of buildings on health and wellbeing.5 Others will seek professional advice on optimal configuration and occupancy. For example, a global commercial real estate services company recently launched a physical distancing concept to help their clients prepare for employees to return to the office.6
Where physical distancing proves too difficult, such as hair salons, dental offices, mass transit and retail, organizations should provide personal protective equipment, including face masks and gloves, to their employees. One large US retailer is requiring both employees and customers to wear face masks in their stores.7 The state of New York in the US requires people to wear face masks wherever physical distancing isn’t possible.8 And London’s Mayor, Sadiq Kahn has publicly encouraged those who can’t physically distance to wear a facial covering.
Organizations will also have to increase the level of effort and frequency of their cleaning protocols. An online lodging marketplace company is recommending a 24-hour vacancy period between guests and specifying the types of disinfectants lodging providers should be using.9
Wellbeing is not just in the company office but also includes the home office. A global technology company is providing $1,000 per employee to purchase home office equipment, such as sit-stand desks and ergonomic chairs.
Keeping people and privacy safe
Health and security will go hand-in-hand when organizations begin to re-imagine the office for wellbeing. Many organizations will consider new security checks focused on health. For example, when employees arrive at an office or worksite, organizations may integrate health as part of their security protocols to promote health safety and reduce the risks of transmitting illness.
In China, officials have been working with a mobile payment service and messaging platform to create a virtual passport with a health code that denotes green for go and red for quarantine.10 In the US, a national hardware retailer is distributing thermometers to employees for temperature checks before work.11
Meanwhile, a global investment bank and investment firm is considering adding infrared body temperature scanners to some offices, along with virus and antibody testing kits.
Yet, even as organizations pursue policies and programs intended to help safeguard employee health, they will have do so while respecting employee privacy. Failure to do so will erode employee trust and stifle their pursuit of the extraordinary.
As the nature of remote work expands, companies will need to enhance remote access security and security awareness training. A laptop is stolen every 53 seconds and 93% of data breaches happen in less than a minute.12 Companies need to train employees in laptop security, whether they are in the office, their home office, a coffee shop or their vehicle.
Priority 2: The future of remote work
As shelter-in-place orders began around the world, organizations quickly had to adjust policies enable remote working. As employers consider the future and lessons learned, many employees will want to continue to avoid long commutes, have better balance of work and life, and will demand more flexible working schedules from employers.
As employers evaluate the new future around remote work, they will want to consider a more structured approach to measuring productivity and redefining work schedules. They will need to review and reconsider support for home office equipment such as headsets, office furniture, internet and phone service, and other expenses. It will trigger a review of child-care approaches and determine what types of referrals or back up services are needed.
There are also a number of tax and legal implications of remote work that require careful review, including state unemployment and payroll tax withholding and required subsidies for minimum-wage earners. Companies will also need to increase investments in tools, technology and skill-building to support remote work.
Organizations looking to unleash human power will put their employees at the center of their decision-making around remote work to promote employee wellbeing and flexibility. They will consider how their remote work plans impact their ability to innovate at scale, particularly given fears that innovation may suffer as more organizations move to remote work.13
However, when tied to the eight traits that enable humans to do the extraordinary, remote working and flexibility will have the potential to facilitate opportunities for collective cooperation, imagination and happiness.
As organizations develop their plans for the future of remote work, they will want to center their efforts on four key focus areas.
Assessing how many employees will work remotely in the future
During the pandemic, 47.5% of the UK workforce reported working remotely between 23 March and 4 April. Moreover, according to a Robert Half Work from Home Perception report, 63% of people realize their job is doable from home.
Organizations will want to determine which jobs and role levels are conducive for remote work and which are better performed on-premise. Finding the right balance between workplace and remote work will help organizations unleash the potential for resilience, collective cooperation and transformative practices.
of the UK workforce reported working remotely between 23 March and 4 April.
Addressing employee anxiety and wellbeing
Many employees forced to work remotely during the pandemic struggled to carve out the physical space, time and facilities to work sustainably at home. Employees who live alone have felt isolated and miss the live connections to coworkers. Further, many employees don’t necessarily have a dedicated and well-designed space to productively work without disruption from partners, pets, and other distractions. Some employees struggle with the psychological effects of endless days full of video calls as they adjust from in-person meetings to remote working. Others experience the stress of balancing remote work with childcare or eldercare.
New data from an on-demand mental health care provider indicates that 69% of US workers felt more stressed during the pandemic than the financial crisis in 2008.14 In response, organizations have been trying to do a better job of letting their employees know about available support programs, including employee assistance programs (EAPs) and telehealth for both physical and emotional wellbeing. A UK study by the Academy of Medical Sciences found an urgent need to tackle impacts on mental health and productivity.15
Organizations will need to reinvest some of the real estate savings to address the physical and emotional wellbeing of employees working from home. This may include providing the right equipment, such as sit-stand desk, high-speed internet, and ideas for improving layout and boundaries, as well as enhanced emotional wellbeing solutions.
Workers’ mental health69%
of US workers felt more stressed during the pandemic than the financial crisis in 2008.
As the boundaries between home and work dissolve, changes in behavior emerge both about how work is done, and how well it is done. In some areas, people feel more productive, with less wasted time for commuting and travel. In a two-year Stanford study, employees that worked from home averaged an extra productive day a week, took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and took less time off.
In the rapid shift to an all virtual workplace and 100% remote work, some research is finding that productivity has decreased as people continue to adjust to new working hours, the energy-cost use of video conferencing, and synchronous and asynchronous working. In a CNBC survey, 40% of US workers reported feeling less productive working from home as when they were in the office.16 Globally, there is variation in the productivity of remote work based on culture, available space and technology infrastructure.
As the percentage of remote work increases, organizations will need to find ways to better measure employee productivity, and provide tools to support enhanced productivity.
Supporting innovation and collaboration
Productivity doesn’t equal creativity. Many are still struggling to harness remote teams, digital tools, and shifting imperatives together into clear, structured work. Remote working doesn’t necessarily translate into remote creation. As a result, organizations will want to educate their teams in shifting their mindset from working from home to creating value from home using the right tools to collaborate in the right way. For example, for the development of its driverless car, a US auto manufacturer split their innovation teams between floors — one floor for thinkers, one floor for builders and one floor for scalers.
In addition to work location, there are several other dimensions to flexibility that could include compressed schedules, job sharing, and even unlimited vacation and personal time off. To retain talent, organizations should expect the need to offer work-life weaves that allow them to choose to work when and where they work best. Organizations will also need to develop and communicate consistent guidelines and policies for employees and managers that will reflect the roles requirements, the team needs and the skills of the individual.
Priority 3: The future of business travel and mobility
Post-pandemic, organizations are reconsidering the future of business travel, visits to customers, and how they will continue to use globally mobile employees. There are five drivers that will determine how business travel and mobility will change in the wake of COVID-19:
- Employee willingness to travel
- Employee safety and tracking
- Costs associated with business travel
- Complexity of health, safety and immigration regulations
- Adoption and accessibility of virtual technology
Throughout the pandemic, organizations have had to stay on top of some rapidly shifting rules in taxation and immigration, review policies for business travelers and assignees, enhance workforce planning to determine scenarios around return to work, improve global processes, and build stronger technology and vendor relationships.
The five drivers of change will likely lead to reduced business travel. This may be good news for organizations and employees alike as it reduces costs, lowers the organization’s environmental footprint and minimizes wear and tear on employees. In return, organizations will have to manage the risks of not having the right talent in the right place and retaining talent that want global roles.
Regardless of the choices organizations make, they will need to prioritize employee wellbeing, improve the clarity and transparency of communication, manage expenses and implement new virtual technology to keep employees informed of travel alerts and risks.
Priority 4: The future of learning
As the world rapidly changes, organizations will need to assess both how to train and build skills in their people, what the new and emerging skills are and where the gaps lie. Organizations are likely to pursue virtual, just-in-time training, while remaining flexible to allow for in-person training, where personal interaction, strategic development and specialized events are the best options.
Organizations will also need to consider developing particular skillsets for remote managers and leaders. Remote working is flattening hierarchies and softening authority. Managers and leaders will need new skills to enable change through these flatter structure versus top-down enforcement. Organizations will also need to coach managers and leaders on how to manage in remote environments, including the shifts in trust and transparency, and dynamic work patterns.
In a new virtual world, learning technologies will become essential tools. A recent market research report indicates that the corporate learning management system market is expected to grow by US$12.48b between 2020 and 2024.17 Organizations will need to rapidly adopt new technologies at scale to upskill their teams in a new remote environment.
At the same time, as organizations adopt technology at speed across the enterprise, they will need to evaluate their future competency requirements, determine the potential of their existing workforce and encourage employees to leverage digital learning technologies to upskill and adapt to new and changed roles.
Priority 5: The future of the employment relationship and the total cost of work
If there is anything the pandemic brought home, it’s the uncertainty of the future. Organizations need to build resilience into their business models. This includes ensuring that their labor cost structure and talent supports changing business needs.
In evaluating the total cost of work, organizations will want to consider a number of factors, including: employee composition (full-time, part-time, contract or contingent), intelligent automation, the effective use of outsourcing, alignment of compensation, benefits and personal time off programs, and simplifying organization structures. Alternative workforce models can provide the flexibility, continuity and scalability organizations need to be resilient.
Organizations will also need to revisit reward programs to address the gaps the pandemic has surfaced, from personal time off, to hazard pay to remote and flexible work arrangements. Although some options will yield cost savings, others will require investment to support higher performance.
Companies will also need to activate their blueprint using the following three enablers.
Enabler 1: Digital technology
Organizations had to rapidly accelerate the implementation and activation of a range of technologies. At the same time, activities employees had been doing offline were forced online. The experience has been mixed, with some employees digitally ready to adopt new technologies, while others became overwhelmed because of a lack of skills or access.
Organizations that can adopt technology at speed and have employees who can adapt to use it will prove more resilient post-pandemic. However, technology providers will need to offer better resources and capacity support as many organizations are finding that providers of digital services are unable to handle their very specific, complex and urgent needs.
Meanwhile, organizations need to recognize that while customers are willing to have machines and AI play a role in customer service, in crises technology needs to be able to replicate the human experience. Organizations are best served when they design experiences in the context of the customer journey, rather than single products or channels, because it enables an omnichannel experience that can pivot from self-service to human interaction as the need arises.
Enabler 2: Business continuity planning
Using lessons learned from the first wave of the pandemic, organizations will want to develop a workforce capability and capacity strategy, and undertake scenario modeling so that it can take quick actions should there be a resurgence of pandemic risk. Strategies and models should address workforce experience, health and safety, workplace and facilities, work productivity and costs.
This said, success in today’s uncertainty relies as much on being able to adapt to a constantly evolving status quo as having a clear strategy and being able to implement it. During the pandemic, organizations have had to rapidly experiment at strategic, tactical and operational levels, simultaneously. Five-year plans to become more agile or digital or customer-centric have been compressed into five-week timelines.
The pandemic has proven the adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Organizations that invested in transformation pre-pandemic are reaping the rewards now. They’re benefitting from agility not only in research and design, but also, more critically, in decision-making. They’re able to compress frontline-to-boardroom communication and shift from centralized command-and-control to distributed dialogue without losing control or compliance. Those who are less mature are struggling to adapt to the scale of change. Yet, they too are making progress in some surprising ways.
The key for all organizations is to focus on creating organizational agility by compressing the lines of dialogue between C-suite and the frontline, adjusting risk tolerances to assure compliance, empowering autonomy within squads of multiskilled colleagues tasked with solving clearly defined problems in sprints.
However, it’s important not to confuse agility with speed-at-all-costs. Agility needs to be sustainable for the organization and its employees. Longer-term, organizations will want to consider what lessons can be learned by the shift to agility during the pandemic — which responses they should keep through wider organizational changes, shifts in incentive models and alterations to organizational design.
The pandemic has proven the adage that “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Enabler 3: Culture
At the beginning of the article, we talk about the eight traits that enable humans to do the extraordinary — trust, meaningful purpose, collective cooperation, imagination, resilience, compassion, happiness and transformative practices. To embrace and apply these qualities at every level of business — employee, customer, community, financial — is to unleash our singular qualities as humans.
The pandemic has clarified for some organizations a collective sense of purpose and mission — to protect one another and save lives — and renewed their focus on society as part of long-term value creation.
As a result, there is more of a push for organizations to meaningfully put humans at the center of their recovery. Organizations will want to take a longer-term view of how they serve their customers, how their employees help one another in delivering exceptional customer experiences, and how they plan to renew their commitment to long-term value creation that looks beyond financials to include customers, employees and society as a whole. This will require looking beyond user-centered design or customer journey mapping to dive deeper into purpose-centered design.
Discard the old, accelerate what works, build a-new and keep the eight traits as constants
Companies were at different points in their transformation and readiness when the pandemic hit. As such, they need to make decisions that consider the unique needs of their employees and business leaders. Before making decisions, companies need to gather the right data from employees, peers, the sector and ecosystem partners, among others, to make choices that empower the eight human traits and ultimately drive long-term value.
In determining what comes next, companies will have to identify the models that no longer work, accelerate those that do and build the ones that have yet to exist to win in tomorrow’s world.
Discard the old models
Organizations will want to review and retire any organizational models that fail to drive human-centered, long-term performance. This may include organizational and management structures. Organizational structures may bring order to human capital economics. However, they were not designed to support dynamic teaming, continuous learning or cross-functional collaboration. Similarly, organizations will want to replace event-driven change with transformation that is dynamic and continuous.
Accelerate models that are working
Organizations will want to keep any models that offer strategic optionality that enable the pursuit of multiple courses of action, quick pivots into and out of markets, rapid adjustments of product and service mixes and maintains diverse sources of capital. Additionally, organizations will want to democratize decision-making to improve the speed at which decisions are made.
At the same time, organizations should place a renewed focus on listening to their employees. Any employee survey conducted prior to the pandemic is no longer relevant. This presents an opportunity for organizations to relearn and gain a new understanding of employee needs, attitudes, preferences and satisfaction levels. Listening is important, but so too is testing. This is how direct marketing programs test, in market, the reaction to different messages and offers. Each campaign has hundreds of different tests and the results are built into the next campaign. Organizations should do the same with their employees.
Build new models
Operational resilience isn’t just for business and the military. Governments at all levels need to join the modern technology ecosystem. This means new delivery channels, service delivery optimization, such as real-time capacity planning for public transit. In building resilience, organizations will need to prepare for and manage the long-term impacts of job displacement stemming from digitalization and automation.
Keep the constants
Within organizations there should always be constants. The eight traits should be consistently applied across the organization each and every day.
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Although the pandemic has produced one of the biggest humanitarian challenges in a century, it has also allowed human beings to unleash the potential to be their greatest selves — innovative, compassionate and purposeful. As we look beyond the pandemic, organizations have a great opportunity — and responsibility — to reimagine the way they work. The more organizations make thoughtful, data-driven decisions, putting humans at the center and being mindful of long-term value, the better off employees, customers and society will be.