As the economy gradually reopens, companies now find themselves facing important choices about what the future of work looks like.
How will work change, what have they learned during the three-month shutdown, and perhaps one of the most difficult questions of all, can and should we really design the future based on an intense 12-week experience that is unlikely to be repeated for a generation, or even longer.
We discussed these issues recently with Sarah Kruger, Head of HR at Accenture ANZ.
As business shifted en masse to work from home arrangements and at a scale few companies had ever experienced, the line between home and work evaporated. She told Which-50, “That blurring of the lines is the trickiest thing. We have all had good and bad weeks.”
Kruger said it is up to leaders to understand the impact that has on their teams. “To do that, you lead by example,” she says adding that leaders need to be willing to put the brakes on if the distinction between and home becomes too opaque.
She also said it is important to pay attention to the cues that team members send and cautions that that can be harder in a digital-only environment.
“You may see each other online but you may not necessarily recognise the same level of strains.”
Work, of course, provides much more than simply an income for most people. “Coming to work is a massive part of people’s lives. It is not just work, it is often also their social life.”
A teachable moment
She acknowledges that while companies want to make decisions based on what they have seen during the shutdown, it is important to recognise that none one yet understands what the impact is likely to be long term as work from home arrangements remain in place for an extended period.
“People are starting to realize that we may never go to be back to exactly the way that is was before, and for a number of people they may have to work like this for another 12 to 18 months.”
It is important that companies put in place the right boundaries [between work and home].
And of course, there are also a lot of people who might find they prefer the new way of working.
A recent Accenture survey on consumer trends emerging from COVID-19 revealed that almost one-third (30 per cent) of respondents plan to increase the amount they work from home in the future and almost half (49 per cent) who never worked from home previously plan to work from home more often.
These findings are indicative of an employee-led revolution where many workers who found themselves trapped in the 9-to-whenever rat race will resist going ‘back to normal’.
“We know that companies can mass migrate staff to home working. We know that they can maintain high performance. What we don’t know is what’s the impact on the employees after they have been working this way for a year’s time.”
While it is hard to predict that longer-term impact, there are some lessons that companies like Accenture and others have already learned.
While three months might be a short period, the intensity of that window really forced people to think hard about what they do, and to adopt new approaches, Kruger believes.
A good example would be that the move to digital has forced people to use collaboration tools that they may have avoided in the past, she said.
The tools have been there for a long time but people always opted for face to face meetings whether they were effective or not. “In this period, people have had no choice but to give some of those tools a go and they have realised they are not as bad as they imagined.
“People have been forced to see the value.”
There is another, often unrecognised benefit of the wholesale switch to digital meetings – it has made the leadership of organisations more visible and immediately available, says Kruger.
Traditionally leaders would have to move around the company (and around the country) with all the time, cost, and logistics that involves.
And the COVID disruption has also had another impact on the relationship between a company and its employees, she says. “We, along with many organisations have become health businesses as well. We’re not only thinking about the physical health of our people, but we’re also thinking about their mental health.
Kruger says that while there may have been an initial drop off in productivity as employees got set up in home offices and adjusted to new routines, overall concerns for productivity decline have not been borne out.
But businesses need to consider how to manage new trends emerging:
- Hierarchy be damned – Business leaders need to lead their teams by example. If they are used to being tucked away in private offices, it will mean they need to be visible, accessible, and working with team members on non-managerial projects. Now is the time for leaders to flatten hierarchies, smash functional silos, and indulge experimentation in ways of working.
- Every business is a health business – concerns about health will dominate people’s priorities, which means health should be considered in every experience.
- The cost of confidence – it is not just business confidence that has taken a bruising during the Covid-19 crisis. Many team members will not be feeling confident to speak up, offer ideas, or bring issues to attention. The conditions surrounding the COVID-19 crisis have made people crave the familiar and want to avoid risk. The erosion of confidence will make trust way more important than ever before. Successful businesses are those whose people are confident enough to freely raise issues, innovations, and ideas with their team leaders.
- Keeping our distance – the merging of home and work life has had its own unique advantages – we’ve met (sometimes inadvertently) people’s partners, kids, and pets and engaged on a personal level that would never normally be achieved in an office. The flip side is trying to create and manage boundaries around our workday.
- Don’t waste a crisis – now is the best time to set up new ways of doing things and support people as they transition to digital ways of working The enforced shift to virtual working, consuming and socialising will fuel a massive and further shift to virtual. Anything that can be done virtually, will be—learning, working, transacting, and consuming.
Accommodating flexible work hours, implementing regular team video conferencing sessions, and allowing more working from home are just some ways that business leaders can remove stress from their team members’ lives and increase productivity, she says.