Out of the many predictions about the lasting impacts of the pandemic, which ones will come true?
Even as it feels the world is beginning to get a grip on the immediate effects of the pandemic, we are still staring down a health and economic crisis of unprecedented scale. No-one is preparing for work life to return to what it was. But that doesn’t mean they know what’s coming next.
There have been more than a few predictions about what the future might hold. But which ones will come to pass? And more importantly, which ones would we like to see come true? Change can be negative. And even when it’s positive, it often presents challenges we don’t expect.
For example, COVID-19 has fast-tracked work flexibility. Will this continue as many are predicting? And if it does, how will we sustain and promote wellbeing and innovation among an increasingly dispersed workforce?
HRM has taken a look at some of the more prominent predictions and asked the experts to share their thoughts.
1. Remote work for all?
Prediction: Remote working goes mainstream and becomes a work expectation, not a privilege
Confidence it will happen: High
As COVID-19 swept the globe in the early months of 2020, whole workforces left offices and began working from home.
Gartner HR reveals that 88 per cent of organisations have encouraged or required employees to work from home during the crisis. Other research from Gartner shows that 74% intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently.
The main benefit of flexible working are well documented. A recent global survey of 5000 workers by intelligent workspace provider Citrix shows that two-thirds of workers say they are more productive working at home than in an office.
That flexible work will become a norm rather than a privilege is probably the most common prediction for the post-COVID world. But if it does become a norm, will increased individual productivity come at the cost of collaboration and innovation? Will some workplaces seek to wind it back?
This wouldn’t be unprecedented. In 2009, IBM, a pioneer of the practice, had 40 per cent of its 386,000 global employees working remotely. But In 2017 it began to call many of them back to the office. The shift coincided with IBM’s move to agile working practices, where small teams focus on collaborative, iterative projects.
Lauren Jackson, partner, people & change at KPMG, says there will still be a place for office work post-COVID-19, but people will make the commute for a specific purpose.
“When we come together in an office, it will be for creative thinking – for strategy and for solving clients’ problems,” she says. “I think there will be a greater element of remote working, and industries will do things differently. We won’t see all organisations swing all the way to having that hyper-virtualised environments.”
2. No more nine-to-five
Prediction: Organisations allow greater leeway for staff to choose their own hours
Confidence it will happen: Moderately high
With more people working from home, organisations may begin to measure performance by output rather than input. While this may promote flexibility and productivity, it may also jeopardise work-life balance and lead to burnout.
According to a recent international Citrix Systems survey, 38 per cent of respondents said they were working longer hours while at home.
“I think the challenge is for large organisations and for HR leaders to think about how they help to put the structures and guidelines in place for workforces to thrive in this [remote working] environment,” says Pip Dexter, a partner in Deloitte Australia’s Human Capital Consulting Practice.
What makes this prediction a little less likely than remote work is that, structurally, it might be more of a challenge. Many organisations require staff to be available at certain hours in order to be available to customers or clients.
“We will need to equip team leaders to have conversations with their teams and to design the work week around what is best for the individual and the team as a whole,” says Dexter.
3. Hot-desking freeze
Prediction: Trends in safe, collaborative office designs will mean the death of hot-desking
Confidence it will happen: Uncertain
The benefits of hot-desking have been hotly debated for years. It may save employers money by requiring less office space, but does it produce a less collegial working environment? COVID-19 has definitely added weight to those who’d prefer to see hot-desking end.
Lisa Mhaya, director of workplace solutions occupier services at global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, says employers will have to rethink everything from lunchroom setups to hot-desking policies.
Cushman & Wakefield estimates that a typical worker comes into contact with about 40 different ‘touchpoints’ that could potentially transmit COVID-19 throughout the day.
“Social distancing is going to have a huge impact on the way offices are designed,” she says. “In a highly flexible environment, we generally shared everything between employees – from keyboards and stationery to crockery and cutlery. But offices will become much more personalised to give people more comfort, and perhaps safety.”
Mhaya predicts that residential environments will increasingly inspire office design because more people have become comfortable working from home.
“Desks won’t disappear, but we’ll see much more soft, sofa-like seating and spaces that mirror what we have at home. Not everyone has a home office. Some people live in share houses and work from their laptop on the couch. Office design will start to reflect that more relaxed feeling.”
Offices will also be designed for greater flexibility, says Mhaya.
“I’ve also been seeing more furniture being designed with wheels – whether it’s desks or wall panels – so that spaces can be really agile and the actual office elements can move around, depending on how people need to work.”
Making this prediction less likely to come true is that it describes a trend more than a new reality. Office design may adapt to COVID-19, but how uniform will those adaptions be?
Regardless of how it looks, HR professionals will need to ensure that office design fits with the workplace culture and vice versa. A new office fit-out alone will not encourage new behaviours.
4. Big Brother will be watching more closely
Prediction: Organisations will introduce more thorough workplace surveillance
Confidence it will happen: Uncertain
With remote working as the new normal, some organisations look set to increase the passive tracking of employees.
Data from Gartner shows it’s already happening. Sixteen per cent of organisations were tracking employees in April via methods like virtual clocking in and out, tracking work computer usage, and monitoring employee emails or internal communications or chats.
There is a positive side to this. Technology may be more effective than managers in picking up on signs of distress among remote workers, says Aaron McEwan, VP research & advisory at Gartner.
“Now that more people are working remotely, the evidence is saying that many start earlier, finish later, don’t take breaks and are trying to home-school their kids,” he says. “We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in mental health issues, and this will accelerate the adoption of employee monitoring, mostly to ensure we can monitor people’s health and wellbeing, with things like smart watches to measure heart rate.”
However, technology tends to move faster than regulations, and monitoring employees has ethical implications for employers.
“It’s tricky to gauge,” says McEwan. “While a lot of people are worried about the government’s COVID-19 tracing app, for example, they’re talking about it on Facebook, which already has so much of their data. There is often a blasé attitude to privacy from consumers, but whether that extends to employers is another matter.”
McEwan says employers should prepare for a backlash to data collection. He recommends that they clearly articulate the purpose for employee monitoring.
“My gut feeling is that we’re about to see a backlash to the collection of data.. If organisations use monitoring and data collection to control their people, then employees will push back really hard. But if employers use it to improve the employee experience and to support their employees through difficult times, then they’ll probably be okay.”
The legal aspect of this prediction makes it difficult to have confidence in it. And that’s before you take into account that Gartner’s research shows less than a fifth of organisations have implemented surveillance.
5. More empathetic leaders
Prediction: Wellbeing has been front of mind for leaders during COVID-19 and will remain so
Confidence it will happen: Uncertain
Political leaders across the globe took decisive measures to safeguard health and wellbeing during the onset of COVID-19. In a post-pandemic work, people may come to expect this of their business leaders too.
KPMG’s Our New Reality: Predictions after COVID-19 report forecasts that leaders will play a more active role in measuring mental health and connection as employees continue to navigate changes to their work and personal lives.
“Organisations are feeling that there needs to be more emotional and mental health support in place than previously,” says KPMG’s Jackson. “HR is going to need to lead the organisation around these requirements, not just by law, but by best practice. Our leaders will need to be equipped to deal with this.”
Playing an active role in wellbeing represents new territory for many leaders.
“They aren’t necessarily experts in identifying mental health concerns or responding to them,” says Jackson.
However, many leaders have gained greater insight into the private lives of employees in recent months, and this may be a positive thing, says Jackson.
“With so much teleconferencing, we’ve seen our colleagues’ homes, we’ve met their pets and we’ve met their children. I think this has provided a real opportunity for leaders to be able to connect in ways where perhaps we’ve papered over in the past. Again, it’s an opportunity for HR to support them.”
Human behaviour is very shaped by context and learned experience. Will leaders continue to focus on wellbeing when there is not a shared health crisis, or will the temptation to return to an authoritative style reassert itself in the face of more typical business challenges? And even if current leaders continue to care about wellbeing, will the next generation, who haven’t been shaped by COVID-19, follow suit?
In many ways this is a positive prediction, but it’s too soon to know if it will last until a vaccine is created, let alone long into the future.
6. Robots and humans: the ultimate team?
Prediction: AI will change our workplaces for the better by complementing humans’ skills
Confidence it will happen: Hopeful more than certain
Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends shows 70 per cent of organisations are exploring or using artificial intelligence at some level. Dexter predicts organisations will begin to redesign work, and their workforces, to seamlessly integrate human intelligence with AI. This will result in ‘super teams’ and a faster, smarter, leaner and more agile workforce.
“Technology has largely been used to automate tasks and improve our own efficiency and effectiveness. Super teams are combinations of people and machines leveraging their complementary capabilities to solve problems, gain insights and create value,” says Dexter.
She believes that with greater understanding of technology, people will deconstruct their work more effectively and focus on outcomes.
“My firm belief is that HR teams that do the best in the future will be both people and tech savvy. They will deeply understand human behaviours and how to get the best from people, but they’ll also understand technology and how to get the best from that.”
Super teams will also increase engagement levels. “People will be using technology to get rid of some of the drudgery. They will have more time to apply their human skills, which are around problem-solving, social connection, influencing. Technology will enable us to play to our strengths and be better as humans.”
But she warns that organisations that view the shift to super teams as just another tech implementation will see only moderate gains.
“These organisations are likely to automate certain processes, but they won’t pause to redesign work. Organisations get the most from this when they integrate the technology to redesign and rethink how and where work gets done, and by whom.
“HR leaders should be working with other leaders to get them thinking about how they can reimagine their work to deliver the best outcomes for all.”
This is not really a COVID-19-specific prediction, but a prediction for the future of work in general. How automation will play out in the long run is anything but certain, but Dexter describes the optimal scenario.
7. Resilience will be valued over efficiency
Prediction: Just as companies learned the dangers of just-in-time production, they have learned the risk in prioritising efficiency over everything else.
Confidence it will happen: Moderate
Prior to COVID-19, businesses were generally structured for maximum efficiency. Roles were streamlined, and organisational fat was trimmed to the bone. The pandemic has shown the risk of the hyper-efficient model. For example, US livestock were gassed or shot in the millions because meat-processing plants were out of action. As soon as cows and pigs grew even a gram heavier than abattoir workers could legally handle, they became unusable.
The business of tomorrow will be designed for resilience, says McEwan. And this will extend to employee skills.
“In the GFC, Australia lost about 10 per cent of our workforce and it’s never been replaced, despite the economy and companies growing at a minimum of 2.5 per cent. We can’t continue to have businesses that operate on a knife-edge.”
Prioritising resilience presents an opportunity to ‘declutter’ our organisations, says McEwan.
“The answer is not simply rolling out resilience training or hiring more people. It’s about building more capacity by removing the unnecessary. Such as meetings about things that could have been covered in an email.”
Resilience can also result from agile work practices.
“The world went agile almost overnight when COVID-19 hit,” says McEwan. “A resilient organisation not only provides capacity, it provides permission to experiment, to fail, to try things, and to do what needs to be done to achieve the organisation’s goals.”
Resilience represents a new way of structuring a business, so it may also require some tough decisions and difficult conversations for HR professionals. McEwan says some redundancies may be necessary.
“I suspect there will be a delayering, and generally it will be of managers. Given the state of the economy, I don’t expect that organisations will wake up tomorrow and say, ‘We need to be more resilient, so let’s hire a bunch of people.’ How do you get there? By removing layers of unnecessary command and control to free people up to make better decisions.”
This article first appeared in the July 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
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