Rethinking Work

As Covid-19 begins to ebb in various parts of the world, companies are starting to prepare for the reopening of their workplaces. The one thing we can be assured of is that there will likely be no return to the way things were before. This is the result of the confluence of multiple factors: the potential for multiple waves of infection from the virus means that many protective measures we have taken to date (e.g., social distancing, frequent disinfecting, the use of personal protective equipment, contactless service delivery, etc.) will continue for the foreseeable future; the potential for a continued nervousness about in-person contact being ingrained into our psyches after months of social distancing and using PPE; the questions being asked by corporate leaders about the role of the workplace after months of remote work; and the continued increase in automation during the pandemic are but four factors that ensure the “return” will look very different.

As we look ahead, how will these and other factors affect our businesses and the relationship with our talent? Our longstanding focus on efficiency and growth will likely give way to a greater emphasis on organizational resilience in the face of an increasingly volatile world with numerous potential discontinuities. When it comes to the workforce, how will companies balance the great dichotomy of employees seeking certainty and stability while organizations pursue flexibility and agility?
Our response to these challenges will require a sustainable reset of our business models and a radical rethink of work. It will, specifically, require the following:

– A portfolio-based approach to work to ensure resilience
– The agility to rapidly pivot talent
– Greater collaboration between companies to reduce risk
– Embracing workplace flexibility as the hallmark of the new deal

Let’s explore each of these pivotal capabilities

A Portfolio-based Approach to Work
Key to accomplishing the aforementioned resilience will be a portfolio-based approach to work strategy that continuously taps into multiple options like automation, gig talent, alliances, outsourcing and employees with the right skills, to diffuse risk, optimize cost and access needed capabilities.

Industries that are seeing a spike in demand during this crisis are taking a new look at gig talent, which affords flexibility and efficiency during times of uncertain demand. We know from previous recessions that companies typically adopt more automation during difficult times as they focus on cost reduction. But as we emerge from the crisis, looking beyond resetting cost structures will be critical. Otherwise, we risk a jobless recovery.

Business leaders will need to extend the creativity and innovation demonstrated in the face of this crisis to how they employ automation. Companies need to seek the three benefits afforded by automation: substitution of many repetitive tasks, augmentation of more variable work and the creation of new work for humans. For example, many utility companies have expanded their use of automation software in recent weeks to allow workers to operate, monitor, and control systems remotely, thereby reducing the risk of human exposure to the virus and enabling utilities to run smoothly without service disruptions. To handle increased call volume, other organizations have increased their use of automation in call centers. Automation can speed up response times and free agents from transactional tasks so that they can focus on responding with the empathy and emotional intelligence that customers need now more than ever.

Agility to Rapidly Pivot Talent
Another lesson learned from this crisis has been the value of being able to rapidly pivot talent beyond their core functions. As part of its coronavirus crisis response, for example, Bank of America temporarily converted more than 3,000 employees from across the bank into positions intended to field the onslaught of calls from consumer and small business customers on account of the CARES act.

By breaking out of rigid job constraints, the right talent and work can be matched to solve evolving business challenges in real time. Networks of teams empowered to operate outside of existing organizational hierarchy and bureaucratic structures are a critical capability to reacting quickly in times of crisis.
Many organizations, such as Allianz Global Investors and Cisco, have already set up internal project marketplaces that break down work into tasks and projects that can be matched with people from anywhere in the organization with relevant skills and availability. These marketplaces can enable people who suddenly find themselves bereft of their normal job tasks to quickly and easily find different work using their core or adjacent skills where their contributions make a difference.

Greater Collaboration to Reduce Risk
One of the most intriguing innovations during this pandemic has been the great collaboration between companies across various sectors as they sought creative solutions to offset labor cost and supply. These cross-industry talent exchanges, temporarily moving employees without work due to the crisis (e.g., airlines, hospitality) to those organizations that have an excess of work (e.g., health, logistics, some retail stores). This avoids the frictional and reputational costs associated with letting people go while supporting workers in developing new skills and networks.

For example, supermarket Kroger is temporarily borrowing furloughed employees for 30 days from Sysco Corporation, a wholesale food distributor to restaurants that has been hit hard by the coronavirus. In Germany, McDonald’s and grocery chains Aldi Sud and Aldi Nord entered into a similar talent exchange agreement. Taking a view of work that extends beyond the organizational boundary will be critical to increasing the overall resilience of the economy to shocks like Covid-19 in the future.

Embracing Workplace Flexibility
As we start to prepare to transition back to the workplace, the questions will be about how fast and to what extent. Flexibility will be essential. Who should return to onsite work? What should onsite work look like?

While we have been talking about flexible (or more specifically remote) work for over 50 years, it became a necessity with the crisis. As many organizations operate at close to 100% productivity through this pandemic, employees and leaders alike are asking why they need to go back to their offices when things get better. What is the rationale for that $1000-a-square-foot office if it does not play an essential role in how we do our work?

The new human capital strategy will need to clearly establish what work needs to be done by co-located employees adhering to new rules of social distancing and what work should continue to be done remotely. It will need to explicitly factor in where there is a return on investment from in-person innovation and collaboration versus working remotely to preserve any productivity gains achieved during the crisis. In other words, if we are to realize the aforementioned premium on flexibility during transition, the human capital strategy will need to be far more reflective of the work being performed rather than the job.

Progressive organizations are using the impetus of this crisis to transform their culture, centering it around the broad notion of flexibility. They are seeking a shift away from our legacy of requiring talent to engage with us on our terms, our schedules, our locations and our rules to meeting talent wherever, whenever, whoever and however they choose to engage with the organization. This strategic and encompassing notion of flexibility is at the very heart of the idea of the human-centric enterprise.

We know the post-COVID world will look different and there will be a huge premium on understanding the new normal. While no one can predict how the future will play out, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that our organizations and economies are resilient to future shocks. The companies that thrive will be the ones that get the new work equation, with its emphasis on flexibility, agility and resilience, right. While few if any organizations will be able to fulfil their workforces’ demands for certainty and stability, all should promise clarity and continued relevance for a changing world.

Ravin Jesuthasan, CFA FRSA
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Ravin Jesuthasan is a recognized global thought leader, futurist and author on the future of work and human capital. He was named to the Thinkers 50 Radar Class of 2020 and has been recognized as one of the top 25 most influential consultants in the world by Consulting Magazine. He is the author of multiple books on the future of work and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s steering committee on work and employment. He is a managing director at Willis Towers Watson

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