The coronavirus pandemic is now a dominant issue in our lives. Despite the sporadic flattening of the curve, disruption to all aspects of life continues. From March, we witnessed schools shutting down, offices embracing remote working, commerce getting affected, and thus far, a severe impact to businesses and economies worldwide. In this article, we will assess how workplaces have been affected and the approaches employers ought to adopt for workforce management in the future. In the end, we will also look into this pandemic’s effect on the education system.
COVID-19 has exposed the unpreparedness of our social infrastructure to fight a global level health crisis. Re-openings of commerce and other non-essential business activities seem to have caused renewed surges in infections. This suggests that the effects of the crisis may last a long time and a radical change may be needed in our approach to it.
Fundamentally, this crisis is centred around people – a large number of individuals are getting sick with dire consequences for business and society. With health, family well-being, job security, and remote work (tackling remote work technologies is a new battleground for some) at the forefront of employee concerns, businesses need to actively pursue a people-first response to the crisis.
This pandemic has also presented an opportunity for reset – a new way of thinking about work, life and relationships, business, and leadership. It has forced laggards to adopt technology and made business and people analytics more relevant than before. For HR departments, ‘EX’ – Employee Experience’ has become a key focus. While the immediate response by workplaces has been forced by the pandemic, realizing the potential of technology and integrating it with people and systems is vital for sustenance and success.
Changing Workplace: Remote Work and its Effects
Work from home comes with its benefits and challenges. Expectedly, people have had varied experiences, perspectives, and outcomes related to it. As per a recent LinkedIn study[i] which drew 1,351 responses, different generations of the workforce have varying concerns about working from home. While senior workers, aged between 40-54 years are keen on returning to office, Gen Z and Millennials are more comfortable working from home until they feel safe to work amongst other people.
The younger workforce is comfortable with technology and used to communicating and collaborating through digital media, but many people have voiced the need for social interaction. Physical isolation is monotonous for some, and interaction and brainstorming at work gives them more cohesive outcomes. The elder workforce may have better infrastructure at home – dedicated space, hardware, good wi-fi connections – however, hiring, learning, and managing performance of remote teams has been tough. For women and men responsible for housekeeping or school-age children at home, juggling between personal chores and work is stressful, and they miss the clear boundaries work-from-office provided.
The primary concern across the different cohorts for resuming work from office remains the exposure to other people not following safety guidelines properly. Working on this fundamental concern, many organizations are giving away physical office facilities and adopting a largely virtual workspace. We are witnessing a pivotal shift in how businesses operate as this move makes not just economic but also business sense. De-consolidation of office spaces provides a great opportunity to employers for maintaining a ‘liquid workforce’. Companies can now hire from and for anywhere. Women returning to workforce after maternity breaks, retired professionals, people who moved back to a tier II hometown, are all pockets of talent that can now be tapped into.
As employers plan the return to work, deploying empathy and trust with their teams is important. Steps like embedding employee well-being in design and delivery of work, and reconfiguring work environments towards outcomes can help provide provide the required resilience to employers. Organizations and employees should evolve their thinking about technology from taking an entirely substitutional view (replacing humans with technology) to using technology as a tool to maximize combined human-technology productivity.
Empathy and Trust
Cognitive empathy enables us with perspective, self-awareness, and the ability to truly understand human situations. When applied to work relationships, this results in a higher connect between team members assuring people that they are understood and valued. In times of uncertainty and looming fear, empathy can transform team dynamics and fetch intended work results.
A combination of Empathy, Competency, and Ethics results in Trust. These attributes play a key role in Employee Experience as well. If we focus on our people in an empathetic, competent, and ethical way and ensure their well-being, we drive trust, teamwork, and resilience. This translates in making decisions (like work from home, paid leaves, financial assistance/insurance cover for COVID-19, etc.) that help individuals feel safe, protected, and heard.
Renewed Focus on Organizational Values
The boundaries between ‘office space’ and ‘the place you work from’ are blurring. While most of us have been busy with issues like finding a dedicated space at home, internet connectivity and dressing for work, we must focus on ‘what work am I doing?’, ‘how does my work add value to the end customer?’. Creating value for the business’s stakeholders can be done from anywhere. Positive value-creation and meaningfulness of work are going to be the biggest drivers of work satisfaction and employee happiness.
Through this crisis, we witnessed the adaptability of our teams as members quickly adapted to new work conditions. Employers must recognize this fact and offer growth opportunities as per individual potential and not solely as per existing skills or role. With remote teams becoming the new norm, personalization of employee learning initiatives is vital.
EX, Employee Experience
The EX domain is a significant shift in people management. It brings HR, IT, Finance, and Facilities together encompassing not just employee engagement, but employee productivity, employee well-being, and employee safety and security. With well-defined EX workflows in place, employers can prepare themselves to be pandemic-proof.
Explosive growth in People Analytics
The current pandemic is proving that organizations with robust analytics strategy and data-based decision-making are preparing themselves to be truly future-ready. HR data, employee engagement data, and business data combined in an integrated way gives insights into the number of people to hire, where they are to be hired, what they are to be paid, why they are leaving, the bottlenecks that exist in hiring and onboarding, what drives high levels of customer service, and much more. Keeping People Analytics at the heart of HR management will ensure employers leverage the potential of people resources.
Tough times display the true values of a system. While an American firm conducted mass lay-offs over video conferencing, there are many other workplaces where leaders have foregone their entire year’s salary. Before going the route of downsizing the workforce, organizations can use the current opportunity to reconfigure company workflows – what needs to be done by whom, what can be automated, and what work requires people to share the same space. Some workers who at first appear redundant may have a chance to be redeployed. A knee-jerk reaction to retrench people may result in loss of valued skills, a probable loss of client relationships and deflated team morale to name a few. As far as adding new workforce is concerned, even if workplaces are not in a situation to hire immediately, this opportunity could be used to court talent and keep the pipeline healthy for future hiring.
Impact on School Education and Learning
In mid-march, state governments across India began shutting down schools to prevent the spread of the disease. This was the end of the academic year in many parts of the country. Examinations, and school admissions were suspended with no certainty about when they would resume. This has affected college admissions as well. The disruption to student learning combined with substantial financial impact on educational institutions has its ripple effects on communities and eventually on the economic future of the country.
The structure of learning as well has taken a shift towards digital methodologies. However, only a small number of private schools have the resources to subscribe to digital education. The low-income government schools are completely shut down and, at large, have no access to e-learning. The disruption to traditional education delivery has forced state governments to drive learning continuity and ensure inclusive e-learning. The initiatives including HRD ministry’s promotion of e-learning resources like National Digital Library, Diksha, NROER (National Repository of Open Educational Resources), Swayam Prabha, etc.; Maharashtra state education department’s adoption of radio and television media to reach rural students; Rajasthan state education department’s project SMILE (Social Media Interface for Learning Engagement); other state governments’ investment in IT infrastructure in schools for e-classes, are commendable. However, most of these address access – there is an increasing need of setting quality assurance mechanisms for schools as well as e-learning content. As the delivery of education transforms, some mechanism of regulating the quality of e-content may be crucial for the sustained development of students.
The changes in teaching methods have significantly affected educators as well. Teachers used to the old chalk-and-talk method are suddenly forced to navigate video-conferencing technologies and adopt online learning solutions while simultaneously engaging students in distance learning. While it is essential for governments and school administrators to ensure adoption of e-learning, sufficient investment needs to be given to the capability development of teachers to deliver quality education using technology. In the end, just like any other workplace, educational institutions need a dogged focus on its people resources to meet and overcome the present challenge.
‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’. Working on this premise, the most far-sighted leadership teams are going to build resilience through a deep focus on leveraging technology and on employee well-being and experience. While this pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges, it has also provided an opportunity to calibrate our capital-people-technology infrastructure for sustenance and growth. Irrespective of the sector and industry, workplaces have a chance to renew the way of looking at employee experience, technology resources, and revisiting their core organization values. With a holistic approach that measures and combines the elements of workforce management discussed here, workplaces will achieve a needed transformation to be prepared for sudden exigencies like the current pandemic.
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