Posted: 27 May. 2021

Looking inwards: Businesses must focus on their workers for a post-COVID-19 world

Futurists have been talking about the future of work for more than a decade but when COVID-19 tore up the playbook, New Zealand businesses and government started to examine it in earnest. While New Zealand has been far less affected than many other countries, the disruption we have faced has provided a singular opportunity to rethink not just where work gets done, when and by whom, but also the nature of work itself.

Looking overseas shows us that organisations can adopt either a survive or thrive mentality. A survive mentality focuses on getting back to normal as quickly as possible and doing what is needed to succeed today. A thrive mentality embraces the disruption as a catalyst to change, creating a business not just to succeed today, but to grow in the future.

We believe that to shift from a survive to thrive mentality depends on an organisation becoming distinctly human at its core - approaching every question, issue, and decision from a human angle first. Through this lens, organisations must ask themselves how they can bring out human strengths in how they operate.

Based on research conducted as part of Deloitte’s 2020 and 2021 Human Capital Trends reports, we have identified three areas that businesses can focus on to help them thrive in a post-COVID world:

1. Integrate workers’ physical, mental, financial, and social health into the design of work itself, rather than addressing wellbeing with adjacent programs.

This is good for organisations as well as workers: work that addresses the human need for quality of life can motivate people to give their best when on the job.

This could include flexibility in where work gets done or how it is completed. For example, shifting towards a 3-day/2-day split between working from home and working from the office, or even shifting to a 4-day work week permanently.

It also means providing people with the tools to do their work more flexibly - either through technology platforms such as Teams or Slack or putting in place guidelines to help teams connect more consistently. Even in businesses where work from home isn’t possible, such as in manufacturing or hospitality, providing work rosters that give people flexibility and predictability can provide employees the opportunity to plan their work around their personal commitments.

2. Capitalise on worker agency and choice as the means to drive learning, adaptability, and impact.

Giving workers more control over what work they do and what learning experiences they wish to pursue can increase their engagement. Aligning workers’ passions and interests with organisational needs can improve an organisation’s performance as well, since workers are more motivated and engaged in their work and learning.

This could look like internal mobility programmes or secondments across departments or agencies, thereby providing workers with the ability to learn new skills and share knowledge. At the same time, organisations can retain talent rather than losing it to a competitor. Additionally, the organisation benefits by broadening their team’s understanding of the business and fostering the cross-pollination of ideas.

3. Develop and act on forward-looking insights using real-time data to harness workforce potential.

Understanding the workforce is the first step to aligning employee behaviour with organisational objectives in ways that recognise workers’ needs, develops their capabilities, and respects their values and those of the organisation. Insights into what work is being done and how people are doing it can help organisations craft new ways of working that bring out the latent potential in every worker.

The need for this visibility and understanding of the workforce was particularly highlighted in the early phases of COVID-19. Almost overnight, organisations had to repurpose, rethink and in some cases, resize their workforce to react to the reality of closed borders and a national lockdown.

To effectively deal with unexpected events in the future, organisations need to be able to quickly pivot and set new directions. The ability to access and act on real-time workforce insights plays a significant part in this. A dynamic approach to understanding the workforce can help leaders make better, faster decisions based on up-to-the-minute information on what their workforce is capable of.

None of these shifts are easy or quick, but the opportunity is here for organisations to reposition themselves in order to thrive in the future. In the word of Bill Gates: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

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Lauren Foster

Lauren Foster

Partner - Consulting

I help organisations and their people understand and adapt to changes driven by organisational transformations, digital disruption, Mergers & Acquisitions and business model transformations. I am a subject matter expert in strategic change management, communications and learning & development with more than 15 years of experience helping clients across the U.S., Europe and New Zealand navigate people aspects of transformation across a broad range of industries.