The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has triggered a global change in how people work and interact with their employers. In many ways, the infrastructural seams have started to show, as companies face gaps in their remote working capabilities, and struggle to keep their employees engaged, during a prolonged work-from-home period. Unfortunately, there are signs that these impacts may have a longer lifespan than originally expected.
Governments are already looking at long-term legislation. For example in the UK, the Coronavirus Bill outlines measures that will be in place for the next two years. The Bill seeks to increase the availability of the healthcare workforce, reduce admin workloads, and support employees across the value chain.
Right now, most organizations are still facing a slightly short-sighted response mechanism to COVID-19. So far, they are still dealing with the 2-6 month impact period. Employee safety comes first, which is why WFH was among the earliest measures put in place. Next, remote working tools are coming into action (aided by free offerings for coronavirus) in a bid to maintain productivity. Finally, organizations are looking at economic relief for those badly hit by the outbreak, as well as positive mental health for those restricted to their homes.
Changes and challenges
A survey found that general anxiety is the number one challenge, plaguing 63 percent of employees. 60 percent aren’t able to work from home, and 53 percent are unable to stay productive, as school closures mean that employees’ children demand additional attention. These are short-term challenges that are likely to alleviate with time, as the number of confirmed cases starts to plateau across the world.
What will take longer to change is the attitudinal and structural shift brought on by COVID-19.
Telecommuting is the new normal. Gartner reports that 88% of organizations have encouraged/mandated employees to work from home. This includes companies that were quite comfortable with WFH to begin with, as well as companies like IBM who typically view remote working with suspicion. These policies are likely to alter employee expectations for good.
- Hierarchical barriers are getting blurred. In a 9-to-5 office scenario, employees would be governed by corporate protocols such as timelines, dress codes, etc. The COVID-19 outbreak has opened up a different approach to workplace interactions, bringing in a highly personal touch. A conversation could be interrupted by a child calling their parent, a ring on the doorbell, or a pet walking across the room—and one’s colleagues are now perfectly comfortable in this less-protocol-driven scenario. In the months following the lift of mandatory work-from-home, this level of interpersonal connectivity and comfort could carry on.
Gauging the impact and preparing for the next bend on the road
A future viewpoint must consider returning to business as usual (BAU) while factoring in the unique changes introduced by COVID-19.
Performance evaluation could be a major challenge, as thousands of employees come back to the office after a prolonged period of remote work. This means that remote productivity measurement tools must be in place so that evaluations and appraisal cycles due for year-end go on without a hitch.
Hiring and onboarding is another area of concern, as several sectors like retail, hospitality, and transportation could witness a slump. On the other hand, industries such as healthcare and tech could see a steady rise in demand, calling for a busy hiring schedule. Sudden and unexpected demand spikes could also be on the anvil (like China’s 250% uptick in bookings for domestic flights), which means hiring capacities must become more agile.
And, of course, there is the risk of disengagement among temporarily remote workforces. Organizations will need to run a workforce health check at the start of BAU, analyzing how different drivers of employee engagement are impacting the workforce now vs. before the COVID-19 outbreak. This will inevitably reveal certain gaps, which need to be addressed at the earliest to maintain employee loyalty.
Companies with low engagement scores could run the risk of attrition, losing talent to the gig economy as their employees become more familiar with remote working.
Where do we go from here?
For now, the best way forward is a combination of vigilance and optimism. Stay vigilant—keep monitoring the key indicators of organizational health to ensure success in the months and years following COVID-19. And stay optimistic—reinforce relationships with technology vendors, gig workers, care providers, and other essential partners who played a role during this critical period.