This week we will mark one year since South Africa went into Level 5 lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the year since lockdown became part of our everyday language, we have seen significant changes in the workplace.
We asked members of our Talenttalks Panel of Experts and Contributors for their thoughts on the big shifts they witnessed in the last year and how these changes could further shape the world of work in the year to come.
Remote and flexible working
The idea of flexible working, enabled by technology, has been on the rise for some time, but 2020 saw this idea become mainstream in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Companies are realising that many employees are mature professionals who remain productive even when they work from home, explains Kirk Kruger, reward and executive remuneration consultant.
The shift to remote and flexible working has also opened up new opportunities for both employers and talent. Kruger explains that previously, employers were often constrained by geography in their talent search. But in a work-from-anywhere world, the location where talented individuals reside is no longer a factor.
Kruger adds that investments in the right tools to support remote working and lifestyle programmes for employee wellbeing are important levers in retention programmes. “Employees want to see their employers taking remote working seriously. Some people may well choose to stay or leave a company depending on how well they have embraced remote working.”
As work shifted from the office to home and online, so too did learning and development (L&D). Learning and development consultant Linda van der Loo believes that the radical digital pivot we have experienced in the last year presents an incredible opportunity for learning and development teams to deliver learning at the speed of business.
But to successfully deliver on the opportunity, Van Der Loo argues that L&D practitioners need to invest in developing their skills in content curation, data analytics and learning how to effectively and engagingly facilitate learning virtually.
“Digital transformation in organisations will require L&D teams to build a new set of skills, outside of the traditional skills, like instructional design, facilitation and training administration. New skills for L&D professionals are emerging all the time. The transformative CLO must be a change maestro.”
A focus on wellbeing
The COVID-19 outbreak brought employee mental health and wellbeing to the forefront of the HR agenda. HR teams must respond effectively to the health crisis inside businesses and develop effective measures to support employees.
HR consultant Delicia Dreyer explains that employees no longer have clear boundaries between work and home. ”They are grappling with the uncertainty of not knowing what the future holds. They face the possibility of reduced working hours or job losses, family and childcare responsibilities while being expected to ‘show up’ and deliver results. This has taken huge a toll on the mental health and wellbeing of employees.”
“Before the pandemic, levels of psychological safety were already extremely low in many workplaces. We observed this in several organisations through our employee experience MRI assessment process. Lockdown fatigue and anxiety over a return to the office has further exacerbated this,” says Brad Shorkend, organisational culture and employee experience consultant.
Rethinking the office
As organisations look to adopt more flexible ways of working, many businesses are rethinking their property needs as well as the nature and the role of the office.
“If you are rethinking the approach to your workplace design and strategy, start by looking at your current way of working and whether these are supporting people to do their best work. Do your current ways of working support your employees’ needs and allow them to bring their best selves to work,” explains Georgie Chennells, workplace and change strategist.
COVID-19 has also highlighted aspects of the workplace design conversation that speak to health and safety, including mental wellbeing, with greater emphasis placed on creating engaging workplaces that promote both productivity and mental wellbeing safely.
“With the health and safety risks of being together at the office, and the benefits of working from home now widely experienced, the office is going to have to work harder than ever to attract people back to it,” explains Chennells.
According to Chennells, the key to a successful return to the office will lie in creating a positive experience. “We need to make the employee workplace experience something we look forward to, and something we feel safe within. This has never been more important”.
“To address the degree to which people feel safe in public and at the office, we need to dial up our care and intentionality in creating a legitimate sense of safety for our people. If we consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we know that safety matters a lot,” adds Shorkend.
Communication and employee engagement
In the last year, efforts to overcome the organisational challenges posed by COVID-19 has cast the spotlight on employee communication.
“COVID-19 placed a spotlight on communication with two groups of employees in particular,” explains Werna Oberholzer, internal communication and engagement strategist. “For frontline employees, it highlighted just how important it is to have reliable and effective communication channels in place to reach this group, especially in highly uncertain and fluid times.
The rapid shift to remote working also refocused attention on line manager communication skills and the need to support managers in their communication role. As we focus on building sustainable hybrid working models, organisations will need to make further investments in providing coaching support and developing support materials to help line managers.”
Oberholzer adds that because of this spotlight on employee communication, she expects to see an increase in demand from leadership teams for measurement and analytics to demonstrate the impact and efficacy of communication efforts.
Where to next?
“We have been so fundamentally affected in ways we are not yet aware of,” says Shorkend. “As a result, the workplace cannot stay the same as it was pre-COVID.”
With the rate, pace and scale of change increasing exponentially, agility is now a critical skill for the future. Change leadership and learning consultant Sarah Babb believes that future orientation can support teams to be better prepared for a future that will remain uncertain and fast-changing. “Using scenarios to help people explore future alternatives is a powerful tool and can help them develop the capacity to live with change successfully.”
To build stronger and more resilient businesses, leaders and HR practitioners will need to actively embrace and explore alternatives.
“In the last year, our constraints made us creative – we looked for and implemented new ways of working. Now as we embed those ways, and adapt, a return to ‘what was’ is less and less likely. Many are realising that might be not such a bad thing,” concludes Gaylin Jee, leadership and strategy consultant.