Workforce dynamics in changing times
Hybrid models of employment are here for good
Not everything is new in a changing world...
There is no denying that the world has unexpectedly witnessed unprecedented change owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. The only surety is that life as we have known it, will not be the same.
In the business world, COVID-19 has brought into focus workplace dynamics. The conventional wisdom of collaboration is unlikely to change regardless of whether we work together online or face to face. Similarly, employee experience has also been an area of focus for organizations for quite a few years. With employees working from home, the need for these initiatives has grown manifold, bringing them into the spotlight and leading to realignments for fast-tracking their implementation. While we see reduced attrition, it remains to be seen how much of it is due to reduced risk appetites. Similarly, we also see improved employee engagement metrics and productivity – chances are this could be due to multiple factors – work from home being one of them.
Acceleration, not origination, of digital initiatives - So, while it may seem tempting to attribute the large-scale digital transformation to this ‘black swan’ event, it is essential to remember that, one - this is certainly not an outright gloom and doom scenario for the world of work. Second, Covid-19 did not germinate the use of digital technology in the workplace but has accelerated the changes that were already set in motion prior to its onset.
What will change is the means to an end...
It is primarily the “how” of employee experience and collaboration that has changed.
Technology – from catalyst to enabler
Technology is playing a fantastic role in helping organizations concentrate more on areas that truly matter. From a robust network connection, to apps, tools and technical support, to using digital technology for various employee-focused initiatives, technology has the potential to improve workforce engagement, collaboration and productivity.
The entire environment of connectedness, created using technology, has two sides. On one, employees may view it as invasive, uncomfortable, micromanagement or policing, on the other they may find it to be enabling and empowering - an opportunity to reduce the burden in terms of the number of emails to be sent out, calls to participate in etc. The opportunity will manifest only if organizations are willing to trust their people and use technology as an enabler.
Also, the clocking of work hours is passé. Today, teams working in areas where work from home was never an option, are performing wonderfully, thanks to technology, backed by perseverance and spirit. The world is moving away from asking how many hours were put in, to has the work been completed in time with adequate quality? As that lens comes on, using technology to monitor clock-in and out will only remain for certain time-sensitive processes and will eventually fade out.
Analytics - from reporting to understanding
Organizations, today, are also leveraging predictive analytics to understand their employees like never before, evaluating employee engagement and performance, using solutions based on computing and machine learning (ML). These technologies have the potential to identify and segment the most and the least engaged employees; compute sentiment scores from textual feedback; use advanced text analytics for discovering conversation themes from employee feedback; indicate the impact of interventions, predict attrition rates and much more.
“It’s the manager” - from boss to coach
The responsibility of employers, leaders and managers is not just transactional. Leaders must play a more intrinsic role, not just in the delivery of quality work, but in ensuring employees’ well-being. A thoughtful and sensitive manager can help prevent burnout, loneliness, mental health concerns etc. The ability of leaders to recognize, understand, take cues and act upon them, or to seek help if they cannot act themselves, is the key. Organizations can play role of helping managers learn and appreciate these early signs and know what to do about it. With almost 90% of the global workforce now working remotely, there needs to be an active leadership outreach and transparent communication to employees, which can be through touch points like mailers, town halls, virtual meetings and offline connects. The next step is to provide social recognition and rewards for motivated behavior, to inspire long-term behavioral change and help improve employee engagement.
Policies – from letter to spirit
This pandemic has forced organizations to take a long hard look at policies and ways of working. Earlier, flexibility at the workplace regarding work from home, work timings, reduced work hours etc. was for a specific group of employees – new mothers, people needing to take care of aged parents etc. Now, workplace flexibility is a way of life. Similarly, a few years ago, no one would have heard about an employee assistance program. Today, it is commonplace. The successful running of an organization, more than policies, is more to do with a change in attitude and approach. Because a policy, at the end of the day, is a guideline. It is a sad day when we quote a policy to either do or not do something. Yes, a policy is written down for a reason and it needs to be adhered to, however, we need to first look at the spirit and then the letter. Pandemic or no-pandemic, providing flexibility to the workforce in terms of how they can perform the same things differently or even how they can do different things, is a given.
Wellness – from focus to priority
Any organization’s effort towards employee wellness is the quintessence of “Our People First” philosophy, making it an area of significant focus and investment. Organizations have launched new online programs to help employees de-stress, organize their days, indulge in peer to peer learning, and engage with family and colleagues. These programs include virtual sessions on mental health, nutrition, parenting, family and relationships, financial planning, effective time management, kids’ engagement etc.
Learning and development - from training to self-paced upskilling
This is a fantastic opportunity where a lot of virtual learning and reskilling/upskilling can take place. There are more and more learning tools available digitally and organizations are keeping employees informed about them. Time-permitting, employees must avail of them. However, for many, work from home has meant increased workload. The lines have become blurred and people don’t know where the brakes are. So before advocating embarking on a journey of learning, it is more important to tell employees across the board to take adequate breaks and make time for family and themselves.
Enduring culture – forever the backbone
When the lockdown was announced, organizations witnessed the unprecedented coming together of employees, to not only accommodate but to help with the massive shift and turn in the operating model. That is a manifestation of the strength of an organization’s culture. On the flip side, the element of bias – conscious and unconscious, is likely to be accentuated because of the nature of remote working. For leaders and managers, the acknowledgement that they need to do more in this environment – build rapport and trust, listen, hang on to some cues and understand the situation – becomes critical. Therefore, a United Culture, with a keen focus on inclusion and diversity, will continue to play a part and help organizations connect with their employees and help them do their life’s best work.
Change – when well managed – is worthwhile
Hybrid models of employment are here for good. As employees across organizations begin to return to work in a phased manner, in alignment with safety and social distancing protocols, a large proportion of employees will continue to work remotely. This entails working from disparate geographies. And that will result in democratization of opportunities, making them accessible to everyone regardless of their location, also making more talent available to enter and renter the workforce. The physical and digital models will co-exist.
Recalibrating workforce collaboration amidst changing times is not a novel concept. Business sustainability, a purpose-driven engagement model, and a resilient work culture are critical for business continuity. We need to remember that always the best way to engage employees is to develop them. Leadership was, is and will always be an extremely critical element in any organization’s people strategy. Technology will continue to play an extraordinary role. These are the elements where our focus must be instead of getting too caught-up with the crisis aspect. Let us always look at the bigger picture.