Business and HR leaders are still defining what work life will look like post-pandemic. Last year, businesses went into crisis mode and found new ways to get work done. Where possible, they leaned heavily on technology to maintain connections with employees, customers and partners. They found inventive ways to form and manage teams and execute critical projects.
One takeaway from 2020 is that people can get extraordinary things done under pressure and without the traditional office structure. Companies quickly retooled to address the early personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages. Medical teams conducted research and worked together to create vaccines in record time. Businesses kept serving customers under unprecedented circumstances. All these untapped business capabilities became evident during the crisis.
This year, as vaccine distribution offers the prospect of a return to previous routines, HR and executive teams are trying to figure out how to move on to the next phase. They want to keep the dynamism and creativity unleashed in 2020 while balancing all stakeholder needs. In crisis mode, they got the job done, trusting that structure and business capabilities would become clearer after the fact. Now it’s time to build that structure.
The workplace of tomorrow: today
One immediate question employers are struggling to answer is how — or if — they’ll require teams that have been working remotely for more than a year to come back to the office. Although telecommuting was slowly and steadily rising prior to COVID-19, employers remained skeptical about remote work in the pre-pandemic period. Now employees have proved they can be productive from home, generating new business capabilities or managing their current ones.
Employees like the flexibility of remote working. According to a Harvard survey, more than 80% of professionals who’ve been working remotely don’t want to return to the office full time. Many favor a hybrid arrangement. Meanwhile, some employers are eager to get workers back to the office, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently said, “We want people back to work.”
As always, the market drives changes. HR will have to balance priorities and redesign how work gets done. They’ll have to address remote work issues that came to light during the pandemic, such as the difficulty of onboarding new employees and team members remotely, while preserving the autonomy and creativity that more flexible work arrangements made possible. Data and technology will be the key.
That said, there’s evidence that many HR organizations aren’t prepared to extract the full value of available data and technology, which they’ll need to successfully transition to a post-pandemic workplace. Dave Ulrich, a university professor and cofounder of the RBL Group, a think tank for strategic HR, is conducting an ongoing HR competency study intended to illuminate a path forward for HR in a post-pandemic world.
The study identified the top three capabilities of an effective HR department, including strong employee practices (major business impact, lower effectiveness impact), capability support and stakeholder value. But HR departments’ weakest competency is mobilizing information, meaning that at many workplaces, HR isn’t taking advantage of information or analytics as well as it could.
Using data and technology to reorganize
The good news is that HR has new sources of information to understand employee sentiment, like Microsoft Viva, the employee experience platform in Microsoft Teams, in addition to other sources of information they can use to determine a post-pandemic operating model. HR can do a diagnostic exercise to understand where the organization is now and model scenarios to select a new design.
To reorganize the workforce in a way that preserves the agility companies discovered during the pandemic, HR needs to have/improve the data and technology in place at their companies to identify and assess trends and convert them into business opportunities/insights. Gathering the necessary data is essential, but so is a framework that allows HR to determine data quality and analyze it for meaningful insights.
To successfully redesign how work gets done and unleash the true human capabilities discovered during the pandemic, HR will need trustworthy, real-time data and analytics that allow them to determine the right organizational architecture for the next normal. Companies accelerated digital transformation during the pandemic, deploying new technologies that produce even more data. Now HR will need to harness that information to plan the next phase.
Keeping what matters most
During the pandemic, the companies that were most resilient and creative achieved their objectives in new ways. But it’s important to recognize that the way work gets done is every bit as critical as the achievement itself. The task in front of HR now is to keep what matters the most from the new methods teams used to innovate and successfully fulfill their missions.
Employees were empowered in unprecedented ways during the crisis. In many cases working from home, employees were allowed to operate autonomously out of necessity, which resulted in flatter organizational structures. Employees also had the technology and tools they needed to communicate with team members and collaborate on complex projects to reach their goals. New business capabilities emerged as a consequence.
So, HR’s task now is to build a structure that preserves those qualities. HR can identify those capabilities to create new organizations that keep the empowerment that supercharged employee creativity and encourage the communication and collaboration that allowed the organization to achieve extraordinary results, which is the ultimate goal. The key will be to retain those capabilities in the organization’s DNA while redefining processes.
Over the last year, with a clear vision and empowered team members who work together seamlessly, companies proved that almost anything is possible. Now it’s up to HR to create a new organizational structure that keeps that spirit going in the months and years ahead. By leveraging data within a framework that provides meaningful insights, HR can redesign how work gets done while transforming how HR is done.