How COVID-19 will reset traditional workplace rules
16 July 2020
Back in February, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Italy and Spain, it was still business as usual for most of us in the UK. The vast majority of the UK workforce continued to commute – in our cars, on our bikes, by foot or by public transport.
Little more than a month later, our working culture was blown out of the water by the lockdown. Almost overnight, companies had entire workforces of hundreds, or even thousands, of staff suddenly working on laptops and dialling into virtual meetings from various corners of their homes. Some of these companies had previously paid no more than lip service to flexible working policies.
Lessons from COVID-19
For many CEOs and boardroom executives it was a revelation that the shift didn’t cause the sky to fall in. While many sectors including travel, hospitality and retail have been severely disrupted, many other businesses have been able to run as usual – some with more efficiency and with greater productivity.
This doesn’t mean we will all switch to working from home when this is over, particularly as many people prefer and benefit from an office environment. We must also be aware that the version of home working we’re experiencing now is hardly normal – it often includes children and partners being home and creating a more disruptive atmosphere than usual.
Nonetheless, the fact that businesses have been able to carry on shows a way forward for organisations in the face of disruption and skills shortages. Giving people more freedom and flexibility about how they work can help organisations adapt to disruption, as well as tap into new skills and talent that previously weren’t accessible. Ultimately, it can even help address social and regional inequality across the UK.
The penny has now dropped for many in the C-suite. Having employees present in the office doesn’t necessarily correlate to productivity, wellbeing, diversity and inclusion in the workforce. This is a significant shift from the old input model (of time spent in the office) to one driven by output (what the employee actually delivers).
There’s also growing evidence that more flexible ways of working create greater workplace diversity and inclusion. Opportunities are opened up to people with different backgrounds and life situations, those with disabilities and those previously excluded from the traditional workplace by their social situation or geographical location.
A catalyst for change
Disruption – whether because of economics, technology, climate change or employee health – is a fact of life for businesses today. Research shows that corporate longevity is growing shorter and shorter and, at the current rate of churn, three-quarters of today’s S&P 500 companies will be replaced by 2027. Those companies that don’t pivot and think about their workforce and skills in a more flexible way will struggle to survive.
The increasing squeeze on skills worldwide is another driver for change. In our 2019 CEO survey, conducted before the UK was impacted by COVID-19, 74% of CEOs said they were concerned about the availability of key skills and the impact it would have on growth. Today, that shortage of people with the right skills and adaptability could hamper companies’ ability to thrive as the economy recovers. Organisations would do well to start to think more radically about how they can upskill and widen the talent pool.
What this pandemic has shown us is that, despite traditional governance models, organisations can adapt when they need to. Many have done in a few weeks what would have previously taken six months or longer. This positive change can continue if companies seize the opportunity.
In Part 2 of this blog, we will look at how organisations can use upskilling as a driver for greater social equality and positive change.