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Working life: on the cusp of a new normal

20 May 2020: Deloitte’s latest COVID-19 webinar threw up some intriguing statistics that potentially herald a revolution in the way we work.

With almost a quarter of the UK labour force now on furlough, some 8% on Universal Credit, 30% physically at work, and 38% working from home, the first tentative signs of a return to work have begun. But probably not as we previously knew it,

Richard Coombes, a consulting HR partner at Deloitte, highlighted a recent UN report that showed that four out of five all workers globally are now affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are already seeing most organisations start to scenario plan for a greater volume of flexible working”, Coombes told attendees, who went on to question what this could mean “from a real estate point of view” in terms of the volume of office space needed by firms. 

Meanwhile, a Garner CFO survey revealed that 74% of CFOs have said they will now move a portion of their workforce to permanently remote positions after the coronavirus crisis has passed.

This was underscored by a comment from former WPP chief, Sir Martin Sorrel, now of digital behemoth S4 Capital, who expressed his company’s new appetite for homeworking and a permanent change in working practices. Sorrel stated that he’d rather use the £35m a year currently outlaid on his business properties to invest in employees.

A time machine to the future

Two more telling sentiments highlighted by Coombes, this time from American political scientist, Anne-Marie Slaughter, are indicative of this wider moment of change. 

“The coronavirus, and its economic and social fallout, is a time machine to the future”, said Slaughter, and “changes that many of us predicted would happen over decades are instead taking place in the span of weeks”.

Coombes said the effectiveness of “virtual and remote productivity” had already been demonstrated during this period with some 66% of employees who work in a fully-enabled digital workplace reported a positive impact on their productivity.

Many organisations, like Sorrel’s S4 Capital, are now reviewing their real estate plans because of the changes brought about by the pandemic. 

The world of work has seen rapid adoption of remote learning strategies, deployment of workforce analytics to track the virus and the construction of new working ecosystems to fill critical skill gaps and allow businesses to continue trading, while rapid decision making and agility has become the norm in this crisis.

Harnessing some of the things we have instantly adopted through the respond phase was key for organisations, argued Coombes, who urged organisations to review and reflect on their workforce strategy as we come into recovery. 

Organisations now have a huge commitment to their workforce and their wellbeing. “In many respects, the psychological contract with employees had shifted”, said Coombes, as the demarcations of work and home had blurred, with wellbeing at the fore.

As workforces begin their tentative return to work, “clearly one size does not fit all” so there has to be a balance between employee wellbeing and the risk of infection, versus a need to generate revenue, said Coombes. 

That means balancing which segments of the workforce physically return first and which stay remote, or a hybrid of both. 

Time for a rethink

“How can we rethink our work, our workforce and our workplace? he pondered. 

The pandemic had created a real opportunity to make work better.

HR, Coombes argues, has been at the forefront of this crisis and they “shouldn’t go back into the shadows”, as the function has a strong role to play at the strategic table.

“Fundamentally this has to be about scenario planning, looking at the different scenarios for return to work or a possible future lockdown and mapping those across the workforces in the organisation,” said Coombes.

Organisations should “actively engage employees” when they return to work as it is “absolutely vital they come back to work motivated and productive”.

This, said Coombes, is because employees and customers alike will have a long memory about what happened to them during this period, and may choose to act on negative experiences when the labour market opens up.

HR teams should also think about “refusals to work” as “although you may want to open up work to people, they may not have the circumstances or the appetite to come back to work”. This will need to be handled “sensitively and carefully”, to “balance the future engagement of the workforce versus your need for productivity and revenue generation”.

The crisis has already provided a fertile learning environment for organisations to witness how rapid decision making by cross-functional teams brought together to solve business problems at speed, can engender still greater organisational agility and improved resilience for the future.