Just a month ago we were perfecting the art of tech and getting to grips with working, learning and socializing safer at home, to tackle the health crisis and flatten the curve. Just weeks later (it feels a lot longer I know) leaders - governments, business, education - are digesting the data, sourcing the science and laying out plans for not just when to restart, but how. We are in the throes of reimagining a new future for work and for workers.
Switching off the proverbial office lights was just the beginning and dare I say, more straightforward. Dialing up the dimmer, at the right speed, in the right way that works best for people, is the next leadership challenge. And while the restart will be divergent by industry, geography, health, culture and community, what we can be sure of is this: while thankfully a small proportion of the population will be infected by corona virus, 100% of us will be affected by it.
Here’s what leaders can be thinking about for a PeopleFirst approach for the near term and the long term...
A safe workplace is more than a hygiene factor
Safety is not a new normal. Safety has always been a basic workplace need, and the definition just got a whole lot wider. Physical distancing, protective equipment, sanitization materials, spacing, tracing, tracking and temperature checking just took workspace planning to another level. While we reassure our people of what it is to feel safe, and skill up for a new growth industry, that’s a good reason to tweak that dimmer switch just a little more cautiously too. It is also why we joined our industry peers as the world’s largest private-sector employer to begin the Safely Back to Work Alliance and today publish A Practical Guide to a Safe Restart: Best Practices for Organizations.
Embrace this opportunity to go back to the future, not return to the past
There are myriad learnings to leverage from recent weeks, as we reflect on achieving what we thought was impossible. So let’s choose what we create for the future. The 40-hour week with hours of commute can become a thing of the past. Sourcing in-demand skills from anywhere can become a comfortable norm. Creating cross-functional, cross-country collaborations across cultures can be nurtured overnight. People are proving adaptable, tech-savvy and speedy learners. And we know from our What Workers Want research that workers of all ages value flexibility, work-life balance and the opportunity to work and learn in a way that suits them. This is our chance to re-shape a future that is more flexible, more virtual, more trusting and allows people to better blend work and home while allowing organizations to tap talent that can work from wherever.
Be intentional - know your why
Begin with Why Return in order to be planful and fair. What does the business need? Which work can be done remotely? Is productivity compromised? Tasks we thought could never be done remotely have transformed overnight – closing the books, payroll, customer service and even information security - so now is a good time to be asking Why? A phased return, reducing risk for our people and our wider communities is part of our duty of care and social responsibility. Managers too need to understand individuals’ needs, to avoid assumptions or/and prevent unconscious biases from playing out. A safe return means being intentional about what people need to come back to the workplace or remain remote working, while at the same time avoiding re-marginalizing the people we have worked hard to engage – women, parents, carers, older workers, people using public transport or with health conditions, and other underrepresented groups. Asking “why return?” takes a more human-centric and data-driven approach to how, when and who.
Find the right balance between people and tech
Investment in technology is paying off as part of the solution to this crisis, and long may this continue. Learning has been decoupled from the classroom and the workplace, strengthening a generation of learners and workers for today and tomorrow. Virtual upskilling and online coaching will accelerate education in school and at work. And when continually learning and adapting your skills to stay relevant is more critical than ever to employability, the edtech revolution has the potential to be a great leveler and enabler of the Skills Revolution.
At the same time, tracing, tracking and temperature checking will likely prove critical in bringing people safely and confidently back to work. Will people be willing to share more data than ever? Will they trade privacy for safety? Will employee data become synonymous with health as much as performance? And how will organizations reassure ethical use of data and demonstrate value and care for people? Like all tech, how far this transforms the way we live and work for the longer term should be determined by what is preferable not dictated by what is possible.
Physical & Emotional Wellbeing will be the new Health & Safety
The impact of this pandemic will change us. For many, it will be the most disruptive event of our lives. Feelings of isolation, stress, fear and anxiety will be a COVID-19 legacy, and so too will be our reflections on the value of health, wellbeing, family and community. The organizations that demonstrate they live their values and deliver on their purpose, especially in these challenging times, will be those that attract, retain and motivate the best-skilled talent for future growth. A Work Ready plan that prioritizes emotional wellbeing will be just as critical as physical and organizational measures in ensuring people are confident, healthy and productive.
Extraordinary times require extraordinary efforts. The world has changed and people have too. Rather than adapt the way work gets done, let’s embrace business as unusual, and restart the future to create one that works for everyone, one we know people have been seeking for some time. More digital, more virtual, more connected and more wellbeing-orientated than we could ever have imagined. And it’s here now. Let’s tread wisely as we restart.