Future of work trends for a post COVID-19 world

future of work

The unique living and working situations we find ourselves in as a result of the pandemic have thrust employee mental health and wellness into the spotlight. Essential workers such as hospital staff, food-service workers and delivery drivers may struggle with depression or PTSD. Those required to work from home may be dealing with stress of looking after children as well as working at home with a spouse and feeling isolated from colleagues, writes Aaron McEwan.

As we returned to the office in the new year, it would have been hard to imagine that within a few months so many of us would be working from home; that discussing our mental health with colleagues would be not just accepted but expected; and that cleaners would receive long-overdue recognition of the critical role they play in ensuring a safe workplace.

For HR leaders, the “future of work” has shifted from a distant concept to an immediate priority. I’ve spent the past two months talking with clients about the lasting impact that COVID-19 will have on their organisations and helping them evaluate how key trends will play out.

The humanitarian nature of the COVID-19 crisis means that company decisions are being evaluated through an increasingly ethical lens.

Some of the changes we’re seeing are entirely new, and in some cases the pandemic has forced a long-observed pattern to swing to the extreme. Others, like the shift to remote work, are accelerations of existing trends.

Prior to the pandemic, Gartner predicted that demand for remote work would increase by 30 percent by 2030, largely due to stronger preference for remote work by Generation Z.

Post-COVID-19, many employees will want to work remotely more than they did before. Seventy-four percent of CFOs are interested in continuing remote work after the pandemic for cost reasons. As a result of these two forces, we expect 48 percent of employees globally will work remotely at least some of the time after the pandemic, a significant increase over pre-pandemic levels.

In Australia, the shift is even more pronounced. Many organisations I’ve spoken with expect 80-90 percent of their employees to work remotely at least some of the time from now on.

The employer as a social safety net
The pandemic has also expanded the role employers play in society. Many offered enhanced sick leave, financial counselling, adjusted hours and child-care support. Some organisations shifted operations to manufacture goods or provide services to help combat the pandemic, set up relief funds and offered services for free.

As the crisis subsides, most employers will continue their involvement in the lives of their employees by increasing healthcare, financial well-being and mental health support.

The unique living and working situations we find ourselves in as a result of the pandemic have thrust employee mental health and wellness into the spotlight. Essential workers such as hospital staff, food-service workers and delivery drivers may struggle with depression or PTSD. Those required to work from home may be dealing with stress of looking after children as well as working at home with a spouse and feeling isolated from colleagues. A family member relied upon for income may lose their job. In Australia, Google reported a 75 percent spike in searches for help with domestic violence.

Over the next couple of years, we are likely to see the appointment of more chief well-being officers or chief mental health officers as additional C-suite roles, or the CHRO role evolving to fit these roles.

HR leaders will need to develop succession plans for new types of critical roles and strategic workforce plans that pay much closer attention to the workflows that will drive future success.

The emergence of new top-tier employers
How organisations support their employees through this period will not only define their employer brands, but also their consumer brands well beyond the crisis.

Candidates (and customers) will ask, “How did you treat your workforce during the time of coronavirus?” Recruiters will need to explain the decisions their organisations made during the pandemic.

HR leaders can help their CEOs and boards understand the lasting impact of decisions made regarding the workforce, such as staff cuts, benefits changes, hiring freezes and pay decisions, including the balance between financial impact absorbed by senior executives versus the broader employee base. Organisations will have to make difficult decisions, but how they are handled can help mitigate bad press and increase employee engagement.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, organisations were already facing increased employee demands for transparency. Now it is expected, with many organisations providing weekly updates directly from senior leaders. The humanitarian nature of the COVID-19 crisis means that company decisions are being evaluated through an increasingly ethical lens.

Those that demonstrate their commitment to employees and their communities will be viewed as top-tier employers for the foreseeable future. Struggling companies and those lacking social commitment will be stigmatised long after the crisis.

Post-COVID-19, many employees will want to work remotely more than they did before. Seventy-four percent of CFOs are interested in continuing remote work after the pandemic for cost reasons.

Critical roles vs. critical skills
Before COVID-19, critical roles were viewed as roles with critical skills, or the capabilities an organisation needed to meet its strategic goals. Employers now realise that there is another category of critical roles — roles that are critical to the success of essential workflows. For example, IT administration skills may not be central to your organisation’s core business, but critical to supporting a remote workforce.

Separating critical skills from critical roles shifts the focus to coaching employees to develop skills that potentially open multiple avenues for them, rather than preparing for a specific next role.  HR leaders will need to develop succession plans for new types of critical roles and strategic workforce plans that pay much closer attention to the workflows that will drive future success.

As we move past immediate crisis response and recovery into the renewal phase, employers need to use the lessons learned and trends that emerged from the pandemic to create a new foundation for the long term. Wise leaders will take the opportunity to “reset” their business models and operations for a new reality. As the saying goes, don’t let a good crisis go to waste.

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