The data is all around us: the workplace we once knew is no more.
There will be no magical ‘switch the lights back on’ moment, but rather, a phase of recovery. We should expect adaptation as the world begins to move on from COVID-19.
HR leaders and talent acquisition professionals are facing critical questions. In a period of endless transformation, what is fair? What do our people want? How do we continue to grow?
One of the biggest questions facing leaders is working remotely. A work-from-home policy has evolved from being an employee benefit to an expectation for much of the workforce worldwide.
But what about those whose roles cannot be performed remotely? This has created a gulf between home-workers in corporate roles and millions of front-line workers in retail and hospitality roles, laboratories and those on production lines and construction sites.
Equally, not everyone who is working remotely is doing so with relish. From conversations with clients, candidates and key opinion leaders throughout this period, Armstrong Craven has found that up to half of workers who could feasibly work remotely might not want to. For HR leaders, the pressure is on to enable remote working, to recognise the impact on front-line workers and meet the needs of those who would rather return to the office safely.
HR leaders need to consider the shape of the new workplace, and how they will meet the varied needs of global workforces.
In sales and marketing, people need to be in the office regularly as blue-sky problem-solving is much easier in person.
Overwhelmingly sales and business development teams would prefer to return to the office and in technology roles, there is an appreciation for the convenience and focus facilitated by working from home. This may be true across the board; people in social, client-facing roles feel disconnected and unable to work effectively. Meanwhile, for many individual contributors, the deep focus time, and lack of distraction, boosts both satisfaction and productivity. Other workers may have safety concerns about commuting.
I want to work remotely on a permanent basis. I can get up later and am generally happier at home; there are no distractions.
So how does an organisation ensure fairness in a divided workforce? Overall, we are increasingly anticipating a phased return to a “hybrid” model, retaining collaboration spaces for employees while offering near-unlimited working from home.
But there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. To move forward in 2021, HR leaders must address the following:
As major global companies begin to announce policy decisions, it appears that there is a significant split by sector. Technology companies are ahead of the curve as working from home has few barriers for them. With fewer on-site workers, many are open to a fully remote future.
Twitter, Facebook and Fujitsu have already announced long term plans to enable remote working to continue in the recovery phase. Under Fujitsu’s ‘Work Life Shift’ Programme, the company will halve its office space in Japan, allowing flexible home working as standard.
In May, Twitter made headlines by announcing that employees can work from home ‘forever’ if they wish. Although, it is not expected to radically reduce its physical footprint.
However, other sectors may struggle to implement a hybrid model for practical reasons. In the retail and hospitality sector, leaders have historically resisted remote working, even in corporate roles, in order to avoid a “them and us” culture between home and on-site or, between senior and junior employees.
In these sectors HR leaders have two choices. They can implement a full-scale return to the office when it is safe to do so, abandoning home working and returning to their default. The alternative is a complete overhaul of the organisation, reducing physical office space and expanding remote working wherever possible.
If home working is no longer seen as a benefit, will workers expect some additional package elements to take its place? And should employers compensate those who cannot make use of home working?
The impact could be substantial: someone working in London who previously commuted five days a week might be saving more than £4,000 a year. This cost may have been passed on to their employer through a travel loan, subsidy, or a company car. In some cases, this money may be better spent making contributions to employees’ utilities costs which will increase with home working.
From London to Tokyo, there are millions of workers who live in small apartments as close to the city centre as possible. They have designed their lives around the shortest possible commute. Their homes may be unsuitable for remote working or indeed, round-the-clock living which could affect mental and physical wellbeing. Companies who get rid of expensive city centre locations run the risk of alienating this working population, and losing talent to more accessible offices.
There are already examples of employers taking radical approaches to balancing benefits in a divided workforce. Deutsche Bank has even suggested taxing remote workers’ salaries to compensate those who are not high earners and cannot work from home.
According to Deutsche Bank's Luke Templeman, "for years we have needed a tax on remote workers – COVID has just made it obvious." Templeman cites the financial rewards and greater safety of home working, and argues that a tax on home workers could be used to "smooth the transition process for those who have been suddenly displaced."
A further complicating factor is how affected different countries are by the virus and their varying approaches to COVID-19 countermeasures. In a global workforce, some employees will be living in lockdown while others are able to return to the office safely.
For HR leaders in global organisations, this raises an urgent question of fairness: a blanket policy on home-working, communication or pandemic countermeasures will affect individuals in very different ways. To offer equity, rather than equality, organisations need to respond flexibly depending on markets, countries and even regions, while government policy changes all the time.
2020 required HR leaders to meet challenges and demands in a period of continuous transformation. Employees have been affected by changing working patterns, technology adoption, physical and mental health, and financial hardship. It has never been more critical or more complex for HR to lead from the front with clarity, compassion and empathy. As remote working advances globalisation by decades in a single year, the global nature of our workforces makes treating employees equitably incredibly challenging.
Lockdown has removed the ’corporate barrier’. People are seeing humans rather than suits […]. For leaders it has been an opportunity to show empathy and connect with teams on a deeper level. It is difficult to imagine going back to the corporate company culture we had before.
However, there are opportunities emerging. Home working has encouraged many to “bring their whole selves” to work, removing artificial barriers between different levels and functions.
For a while the corporate world consisted of individuals doing the best they could, working from home offices, bedrooms and dining tables - with pets, spouses and children providing both welcome and unwelcome distraction. While working remotely some teams are more connected than ever, with a real sense of culture, community, and that we are all in this together.
At Armstrong Craven, we are continuously encouraged by the innovation, dedication and compassion of our clients, many of whom worked tirelessly through 2020 not just to “keep the lights on” but also to grow, transform, support their people and to prioritise critical programs including diversity, equity and inclusion.
We work closely with some of the world’s most inspiring businesses to reshape talent strategy in these volatile times. Speak to the Insight & Talent Analytics team to find out how we gather and analyse critical primary and secondary insight into niche talent populations, helping you transition to a hybrid model, transform EVP in a virtual world, or simply continue to attract and retain top talent.
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