The economic fallout of COVID-19 has been devastating around the world. But the negative impact on industries that are not digital has been significantly greater than the impact on those that are. Talent interventions required for each category vary significantly. Let’s explore some ways in which organisations can at least endure, if not thrive in, this difficult period.
None of us has a crystal ball to see the future. My recommendations focus on the formal sector and assume that the social distancing requirements engendered by the pandemic will prevail for at least 12-18 months, ie., till the end of 2021. This assumption applies even in the event a vaccine becomes available next year. As to the informal sector, a great deal more needs to be addressed on a government level; that can be covered in a separate article.
The worst impacted sectors & their struggles
First, the bad news: let’s look at industries that are either not digital or likely to find it challenging to pivot to digital mode. The airlines industry, tourism/hospitality, and retail come to mind, right off the bat. Travelling by air forces a high level of physical closeness in a confined space with ample opportunities for potential virus transmission. While taking safety precautions (sanitisation, wearing masks, gloves, etc.) can reduce the dangers, avoiding travel that is non-essential (which covers almost all leisure and most business travel) is more expedient. Add to that the availability of an effective alternative, namely, online meetings in lieu of face-to-face ones, and an emergency short term omission now becomes a medium-term plan. The tourism & hospitality industries use ‘moments of truth’ to measure customer delight. But the pandemic has forced us to minimize touchpoints with the ‘other’ (at the front desk, the concierge, room service). Likewise, retail – especially the brick & mortar variety – is facing both reduced footfall and reduced demand for non-essentials, as customers hunker down in fear of an uncertain future.
We see organizations in these industries struggling to stay afloat. Many have imposed salary cuts, employee furloughs and straight out firing. When a company is struggling to remain solvent, a talent strategy seems superfluous. But a sensitive outplacement service for staff whose jobs become redundant, is a bare minimum companies must offer. Staff need support with financial, career, perhaps even life coaching advice, as well as some means to learn new, preferably digitally relevant, skills. Handled well, this service, while delivering an unwelcome message, will not leave its recipients in the lurch. And, perhaps, when this too shall pass (for, surely it must?), they may return to the organization with an even greater sense of commitment. In any case, a post-COVID-19 world will likely see companies restructure their workforces, introducing a larger percentage of gig workers: freelancers & contractors. A comprehensive outplacement service will anticipate and plan for this eventuality as well.
Digital companies & their battle with the COVID-19 crisis
Industries that are already digital or on their way to becoming digital have a better potential to endure, if not thrive, in a covid world. Insurance, the health sector, online education (although there is a question mark about the level of monetisation owing to growing competition in this space), and IT (at least in the short term, before they get squeezed by clients whose businesses are undergoing a recession) are among these.
Many have already pivoted quickly to a work-from-home mode. The novelty of being with family all day, the tangible time saved on the office commute, and a sense of common purpose to band together in a crisis, collectively, have given momentum to the switch. In fact, in the first several weeks of WFH, a majority of surveyed employees responded they were MORE productive in the new normal.
But as weeks have turned to months, with no clear end in sight, fatigue has begun to set in. The daily dish-washing, sharing of every meal, broadband, and more with family members – the novelty is wearing off. The hours seem filled with interminable back-to-back conference calls. Our sources of entertainment (Netflix, online shopping, et al) and attempts at socialising, involve even more screen-time. We’re going into a downward spiral.
Perceptive organizations are taking steps to institute talent initiatives to turn the vicious cycle into a virtuous circle. At least two key dissonances in our new normal have become more exaggerated in a COVID-19world: first, the intrusive way in which work now impinges on our lives; and second, the formal (over informal) conversations that dominate our office discourse. Let’s consider each one.
The curious case of work-life balance
We’ve always had a need to balance work and life - integrate the two even - but with covid, it feels as if our personal space has been usurped by our employer. Our living rooms have become accessible to all and sundry over zoom and webex. The lack of separation between work and home in the physical arena has spilled into our mind space. Weekdays have become indistinguishable from weekends and the laptop is always available and beckoning, while the outside world is in a chronic state of semi lockdown. Many organisations are taking their employees’ time for granted, making requests well after official office hours end; expecting them to be delivered well before office hours begin. Junior employees do not feel empowered to assert boundaries when the threat of job loss looms.
Here’s how business and HR leaders can help
Positive talent practices need to reinforce the importance of downtime in order to reduce otherwise inevitable burnout. Being tolerant, even encouraging (vs disapproving) of the occasional family / pet interruption, reducing hour long meetings to 45 or 50 minutes to allow a break between back-to-back calls, discouraging Friday afternoon calls, making video displays optional to protect privacy – these are just a few mini practices that can be fostered by leaders to create a more nurturing environment.
A simple, “How was your weekend?” question at the beginning of a meeting can go a long way in making employees feel they are not mere utilities. The key is to show personal interest and to have the flexibility to adjust to individual employee needs where feasible. This is also a good opportunity to strengthen and reinforce the employee assistance programs that companies can offer their employees – from wellness initiatives, avenues for open doors or speak-ups, and round tables with leader to professional counselling services.
Formal (over Informal) Conversations
Informal chats are conspicuous by their absence in our WFH environment. In the office, we used to have opportunities to hang out over lunch, over tea, and simply, while passing by someone’s cubicle. But now, random physical interactions are best avoided while virtual ones must be formally scheduled. The spontaneous network, the unplanned connection - these have almost disappeared. Yet, these serendipitous encounters are often the very spaces where innovation thrives. A good talent strategy must discover creative ways to foster informal get-togethers through virtual chai addas, talent competitions, informal games nights, and more. Focusing on inclusive fun@work activities is not merely desirable; it is a necessity to keep employees energised and productive.So there you have it: comprehensive outplacement services for those with whom you must part ways and a conscious leadership focus on showing personal interest, reinforcing employee assistance programs, and encouraging informal fun@work initiatives for those you want to retain. These are some key talent strategies that, when used appropriately, can have a positive impact on companies beset with COVID-19 crisis.
So there you have it: comprehensive outplacement services for those with whom you must part ways and a conscious leadership focus on showing personal interest, reinforcing employee assistance programs, and encouraging informal fun@work initiatives for those you want to retain. These are some key talent strategies that, when used appropriately, can have a positive impact on companies beset with COVID-19 crisis.