History has shown us that the effects of global shocks tend to linger years after the event has faded from memory.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, estimated to have killed at least 50 million people worldwide, led to concerted global efforts to develop vaccines over the next few decades, leading to major advancements in flu prevention and treatment, and discoveries of new life-saving drugs such as antibiotics.
The Great Depression of 1939 led to an expansion of the role of the government in the United States, with the federal government creating a safety net for vulnerable Americans in the form of Social Security and unemployment benefits, which millions of Americans are filing for during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Not too long ago, the 2008 global financial crisis led to a sharp dip in average worker wages, whose effects were still being felt across the world over a decade after the crisis struck.
Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic that has killed over2,154,300 people as of January 26, 2021, and infected over 100 million people in almost every country on earth is most certainly on its way to leaving a lasting economic, political and social legacy.
In this blog, we will talk about how the Coronavirus pandemic has changed the future of work irrevocably.
The changes in our day-to-day lives forced by the pandemic has accelerated two main workplace trends (remote working and skills-based hiring) and the establishment of a relatively new one (internal hiring).
The American political commentator and author Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times in March that the Covid-19 pandemic had led to a new historical divide: BC and AC — the world before Coronavirus and the world after.
The past year has proved that he was bang on. Let’s take a look at the before and after Coronavirus work-from-home statistics.
In 2018, 56% of companies globally allowed remote work either fully or partially, said the 2018 Global State of Remote Work report, which surveyed 3,028 employees across six continents. In March 2020, that figure had risen to 88% due to Coronavirus, reported a Gartner HR survey of 800 global HR executives. Several months later, Twitter and other major companies announced that their employees could work remotely indefinitely. By the end of the year, 90% of HR leaders said employees would be allowed to work remotely even once COVID-19 vaccines are widely available, reported another Gartner survey.
It’s clear from this that remote work is here to stay.
The question is: Why did it take so long?
The world has had the technology for remote working for over a decade now.
Faster, cheaper and widespread internet connections and affordable computer hardware, and a growing number of tools and apps – communication tools such as Zoom, Skype, Slack, Yammer, Figma and ProofHub and file sharing tools such as Google Docs and Dropbox – have been facilitating remote collaboration internally and externally for the past few years.
Despite this, it took a pandemic for the remote work trend to pick up in a big way. At the start of the pandemic, several people working from home for the first time discovered its attendant advantages and disadvantages.
One of the primary reasons organisations took so long to embrace remote working was scepticism. Employers weren’t convinced that employees could be productive in an unsupervised environment. This was essentially about a lack of trust.
“We’re right in the middle of the largest ‘work from home experiment’ ever conducted,” the site quoted McEwan as saying. “And I think we’ll come out at the end saying, ‘Our employees really stepped up. They were productive and motivated. And businesses didn’t collapse because people weren’t physically in the office.’
“Hopefully this experiment removes any of the last vestiges of cynicism from managers and leaders. That could be one positive outcome to come from this.”
Working from home is indeed associated with several benefits for employers who save costs in rentals and overheads and are also able to pick from a larger basket of talent – one that is not restricted to the geographical location where their office is located. Several employees also value the increased flexibility over their time and location remote working gives them.
There is, however, limited data to support the view that working from home is beneficial for employees. The jury’s still out on that.
An experiment conducted by one company in China in2012 showed that remote working boosted performance by 13% and led to higher employee satisfaction among other things. But experts pointed out that the study wasn’t all that reliable because it was held under“laboratory conditions” so to speak. The company had imposed three conditions on participants: that they should not have children, they had to work out of a room that wasn’t their bedroom, and that they had to have quality broadband internet that the company installed at their home. A large part of the remote working workforce in the real world will not be able to meet all these three conditions.
Among other things the past year’s remote work“experiment” has taught the world is that besides the advantage of flexibility, remote working brings with it some disadvantages including a sense of social and professional isolation among employees.
Possibly recognising this, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) warned in a policy brief inSeptember that though working from home had the potential to improve productivity, worker well-being, gender equality, regional inequalities, housing and emissions, “its overall impact is ambiguous and carries risks especially for innovation and worker satisfaction”.
It called for public policies that ensure remote working remains a choice, is not overdone, and does not lead to “hidden overtime”. “To improve the gains from more widespread teleworking for productivity and innovation, policy makers can promote the diffusion of managerial best practices, self-management and ICT skills, investments in home offices, and fast and reliable broadband across the country,” the policy brief said.
Regardless of its advantages or disadvantages, remote working seems to be something that millennials prefer. In fact, millennials are unlikely to consider a job if it doesn’t offer them the option of working remotely, said an SHRM report. With this age cohort expected to make up the largest group at work by 2025, it will be difficult for organisations to go back to business as usual regardless of whether they are happy with the results of the Covid-19 work-from-home experiment.
What organisations must know, however, is that remote working is not as simple as just permitting it. Companies will need to draft work from home policies (57% companies lack a work-from-home policy, says an Upwork study) ramp up virtual training opportunities, invest in hardware and software to ensure data security, devise policies for the wellbeing of remote workers and also address concerns of their customers regarding these changes.
Skills-based hiring has been a trend for a while especially in the US and Asia but Covid-19 is likely to add an extra dimension to it: Skills-based hiring remotely or virtual recruiting.
Ravi Kumar, the president of Global consulting and IT Services company Infosys, told Forbes magazine in March that following the pandemic, he forecast an increase in skills-based hiring as more companies outsource routine tasks to machines so that humans could focus on strengths unique to them such as creativity and critical thinking.
Later in the year, Kumar put his money where his mouth was when Infosys, along with a few other partners, launched an online platform in the US to provide aptitude and skills assessment, skills training/reskilling, and skills-based placement for those seeking jobs.
There are two main reasons why skills-based hiring is likely to remain popular for some time to come.
First, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt a body blow to certain industries such as airlines and tourism. People who have lost their jobs will most likely have to seek employment in industries that they haven’t necessarily worked in before. In Australia, for instance, the supermarket chain Woolworths and telecom company Telstra offered to hire workers laid off from Qantas Airlines. These employees are most likely to be redeployed on the basis of their skills more than their educational credentials.
Two, the majority of industries that are still hiring – healthcare (not just hospitals but also telehealth service providers), e-commerce, logistics, software development and cyber security – require skilled workers who can hit the ground running because of the immense challenges that they face now. These hires too are likely to prioritise skills and experience over formal degrees and certificates.
All this hiring will need to be done remotely given the restrictions on the movement of people in large parts of the world to contain the spread of the deadly virus.
At the beginning of 2020, when the Coronavirus was something that had struck one far-away city in China, LinkedIn predicted that internal hiring was going to be a trend that year. It wasn’t wrong. Internal hiring went up 20% betweenApril and August, according to LinkedIn, corresponding to the period the Coronavirus struck the rest of the world. The countries with the highest internal mobility rates were Germany, Indonesia, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore, said the report.
What happened was that several organisations had put the brakes on hiring as part of their efforts to survive the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. In fact, days after the WHO declared the novel Coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, Gartner reported that nearly half of organisations surveyed planned to freeze new hiring because of the crisis. A freeze on hiring meant that organisations were free to look within to redeploy employees with the right skills to teams and departments that had vacancies. Companies were also free to work with consultants or freelancers on a short-term/temporary project-by-project basis.
This trend is likely to stay as companies continue to reskill or upskill employees to take on new roles in the near future.
As companies increasingly look towards internal talent, tools such as MuchSkills that allow employers to easily view all the skills and skill sets available in the organisation – and match employees with jobs on the basis of their skills – will be an invaluable help.
When the world emerges out of the Covid crisis, it will be difficult for companies to go back to business as usual, experts say.
"If you already have a trend or shift that is growing, a shock like the coronavirus pandemic tends to be supportive of that, accelerating the trend," Newsweek quoted Steve King, a consultant, as saying.
Companies that survive the effects of Covid-19 will therefore continue to embrace new ways of working, communicating, collaborating, managing, recruiting and hiring in order to stay efficient and relevant.
Perhaps this is what will accelerate the digital transformation of companies, which every CEO has been talking about for years but hasn’t really implemented.
A meme captures this very well.
At a simplistic level, digital transformation is often understood to mean the adoption of technology in all aspects of one’s business. But it is more than just that. Digital transformation means the ability to be efficient, rapid and able to adapt in order to stay ahead of the pack using design and technology as enablers. Done right, it improves business efficiency, allowing organisations to deliver higher value to the customer.
As organisations think of new ways they can ride out the continuing Covid storm, they should be asking these and more questions: How can we deliver more value to our customers? What are the tools that can help employees communicate and collaborate efficiently while working remotely? How can we interview, recruit and train employees on the job remotely? What are the tools we can use to fill skills gaps internally? How can we secure the data of clients? How can we take care of the wellbeing of employees?
Their responses to these questions will determine whether their organisations will stay relevant in a fast-changing world.
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