How is the pandemic reshaping the nature of work?

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How is the pandemic reshaping the nature of work?

Beyond the crisis, part 4: COVID-19 and our working world

The coronavirus has put us in a time machine, zooming us (quite literally) forward into the future of work. The Netherlands – along with the rest of the world – was already on course: adopting technology to digitise work processes, restructuring business for online platforms and evaluating the mindset of the modern employee with their evolving needs/desires. The unknowns make rethinking the future of work critical. It is evident that our ideas about ‘work’, ‘workforce’ and ‘workplace’ will fundamentally change from this crisis, and even more rapidly than expected. Deloitte believes that examining these three, deeply connected dimensions of work will help organisations move past initial response and develop strategies to recover, and finally thrive, in the ‘new normal’.

Summary

With the move into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Deloitte explores changes to work in the Netherlands and what the future looks like, offering insights for business leaders. Here are our key findings:

  • The Netherlands will probably not return to ‘business as usual’ in the coming year, at least structurally. More disruptions are expected, including additional potential lockdowns caused by one or more waves of new outbreaks.
  • The pandemic has inflicted a broad variety of effects on industries and sectors. From the perspective of work, perhaps the biggest shift has been to remote/virtual working.
  • 75 per cent of CFOs have indicated that they intend to shift at least 20 per cent of previously on-premise employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19.
  • To move past initial response and become robust and adaptive enough to thrive in the future, business leaders must reimagine (not just reconfigure) work, the workforce and the workplace.
     

 

This article is part of the series 'Beyond the crisis: how to thrive in a (post)COVID-19 world' . Click here to read the other articles in this series.

 

Working in a disruption interval world

Reportedly 80 per cent of workers globally have been affected by COVID-19. With the start of the crisis, the Netherlands shifted rapidly to virtual/remote work and education, engaged in new levels of partnership within and across ecosystems, and showed unprecedented flexibility and teaming. But there have been broad differences in the pandemic’s effects; some businesses are doing well (or even better than before), including many online retail shops, and some have confronted serious problems with continuity, such as leisure and hospitality entities, airlines, and oil and gas companies.

The shift to virtual working was already underway in many Dutch organisations, and we now anticipate it will remain very common; 75 per cent of CFOs have indicated that they intend to shift at least 20 per cent of previously on-premise employees to permanently remote positions post-COVID-19. In addition to our work spaces, the way we work has been heavily affected, ranging from minor changes (adding a video element to a meeting) to major changes (full virtual check-in at hospitals).

Those who continued to work on site during the lockdown experienced a slowdown in work and productivity (aside from vital sectors), in tandem with strict measures for social distancing and personal hygiene. Supply chains also suffered, from severe disruptions brought by halts in production and transportation.

Now that another chapter is being written, organisations are committed to finding an effective approach to survive, and even thrive, in the new normal. In ‘After the shock: Learning to thrive in a (post-)COVID-19 world’ Deloitte advised: Understand your relative exposure to interventions, increase your robustness and boost your adaptivity. A simple starting point is to ask: How are we rethinking our work, workforce and workplace to recover and thrive? Those three dimensions are interdependent but worthy of individual consideration.
 

Work

Many organisations are struggling with an increase or decrease in business volumes, and are managing them through cost-reduction initiatives. Moving past this period of initial response, businesses will need to become more adaptable by simplifying, reimagining and digitising work and work processes.

We’ve already acknowledged the accelerated implementation of technology for work. There have been excellent solutions kicked into action to handle an unpredictable, uncertain situation. But the challenge, going forward, is bigger than redesigning work: reimagining work. All too often, business leaders try to settle for ‘tweaking’ – automating part of a process, implementing a new customer relationship management system or reorganising a team – and expect to see huge cost savings but instead see very little.

These business leaders mean well, but are mired in outmoded paradigms that will never enable the company to thrive, even if they allow it to survive. They have failed to train their workforce to truly think and act differently. To reimagine work means to adopt a task-level perspective. Consider how tasks can be disrupted by automation or an alternative workforce (eg, flex-workers), or how they can be executed in another space. Drill down into this kind of detail to tap into a new vision of work.
 

The workforce

Reimagining the workforce means looking beyond traditional work arrangements. It means using the strength of the open talent economy to connect furloughs and layoffs to immediate opportunities. Business leaders should also be actively planning for how to use the alternative labour market to scale, recover and thrive.

With the onslaught of the pandemic, flex-workers were affected first – the self-employed/freelancers, as well as talent provided by an agency or service organisation, saw their contracts terminated. Pre-pandemic, there had already been discussion of reforming the way the supply side (organisations) treat the demand side (flex-workers). Now we expect COVID-19 to influence that conversation, with an unclear outcome; any changes could bring positives or negatives for either side.

In the new reality, here are is what’s required to reimagine the workforce:

  • Optimize and balance the distribution of the workforce;
  • Reskill the workforce whenever possible;
  • Transition in or out if needed; 
  • Focus on employee engagement, well-being and development;
  • Revisit talent processes.
     

The workplace

The crisis forced organisations to shift to virtual working, which disrupted work environments and patterns. To what extent that practice continues is one of the big unknowns. We do expect that people will work from home for longer – into the next quarter or the remainder of 2020, especially considering regulations about how many people can be present on a work site (based on the size of the premises). Workers who can successfully perform their jobs remotely, such as staff members who had occupied office space on a manufacturing site, will free up physical space to accommodate those who must be on premises.

Those organisations returning to their workplaces are considering practical arrangements alongside cultural and regulatory implications. Social distancing is necessary but often hugely impractical, or impossible, in terms of physical capacity. Hygiene is its own logistical challenge; how can companies ensure their staff are staying safe as they enter the workplace, move around it and use its limited number of bathrooms and other facilities? And will they be negating the workplace’s hygiene regime just by travelling there from home? The future of mobility will be closely tied to ideas about keeping the workplace safe.

The endless array of new workplace challenges presents a single imperative: address them, and accept that over the next 12 to 18 months we will likely again have to abandon the traditional workplace in periods of (sudden) lockdown.
 

The road ahead

COVID-19’s acceleration of the future of work, and especially the concept of the workplace, has shaken up the business world, but opportunities lie amid the chaos. To find them, move past traditional notions of refining existing solutions and instead aim for a complete reimagining of what work is, who does it, and where. 

Many business leaders are already readying for coming disruptions. They are examining networks for vulnerabilities; implementing new human resources technology; transitioning traditional organisational models into more agile, hybrid models; and, fundamentally, identifying critical business processes and ways to avoid their disruption/discontinuation in a lockdown. The future of work is here but the challenges will keep coming, and now is the time to prepare for them.
 

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