Future of Work, post-COVID-19 - Building an Agile workforce anchored on Trust and Empowerment
“Remote work is here to stay.” That is an often-heard refrain among business leaders and HR professionals peering forward into the post-COVID-19 era. Forced to have their staff work from home (WFH) during the global COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, businesses have seen the flexibility and efficiencies that WFH or remote working can bring.
This change presents opportunities for organisations to transform their culture and ride the wave to be more agile and efficient, and not revert to old inefficient rigid practices.
But yet some leaders rue the loss of the ‘good old days’ where everyone worked from the office, and they were ‘seen, heard and present’. While the future of work will see the rise of more remote work, the impact of COVID-19 has a wider and deeper implication than merely a question of “Should my workforce come back to the office or should they continue to WFH?”
How should Business and HR leaders then build upon the lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic thrust upon their organisations and emerge as more competitive?
Pre-COVID-19, the default was to have most of our people work from the office, and the fortunate ones who were granted the flexibility to WFH were the exceptions. During the COVID-19 period, the reverse happened; WFH was the default and those who had to return to the office or was granted permission formed the exception. Post-COVID-19, it’s not useful to think of this dichotomy of office versus WFH and set HR policies around that.
Rather we should be asking, “Where should my people be located to be most effective, and can I empower them to make the decision themselves?”
Now, this requires a significant cultural shift anchored on the elements of trust and empowerment. This also has to be supported by enlightened leadership, competent and responsible staff, logistics and technical enablement, and the development of a flexible workforce made up of a new mix of talents on permanent positions and on gigs.
Building a Common Purpose and Direction, Engaging our People in the ‘Phy-gital’ World
Militaries have long had teams operate ‘remotely’ – far from the HQ, in hostile terrain and often operating in a fast-paced and ambiguous environment, and out of physical sight from their HQ. Armies understand the importance of having the last soldier on the ground understand the intent of the mission, as there is no way for the HQ to micromanage the teams on the ground when they are a few hundred kilometres away. Having them understand the purpose of the mission, the training to deliver on it, and the knowledge that HQ will have their backs is key to building trust and having agile teams on the ground that respond quickly to volatile and uncertain situations. Commanders are encouraged to leave their ‘all-seeing, all-hearing’ high-tech command posts and move forward to lead the frontlines to sense (See, Hear, Feel) the battlefield. There, they will get a better sense of the battlefield and readiness of their troops. Organisations will do well to take a leaf from these principles as more of their workforce move between office and remote working, and to wherever the mission requires their presence.
A Common Purpose. First, Leaders will have to do even more to create a sense of common purpose and direction. This is foundational to build a culture of trust and common direction, allowing the dispersed and remote workforce to march in the same direction regardless of the location of their staff.
Weaving a tight Social Fabric at the ‘Phy-gital’ Workplace. To strengthen the social fabric of the organisation, leaders must engage employees in new ways that marry the strengths of a hybrid digital-physical or ‘Phy-gital’ world, where online and face-to-face interactions complement rather than substitute each other.
While face-to-face interaction may decline, online communication and sync-up meetings should increase to make up for the loss of informal face-to-face interactions at the workplace. Leaders must regularly communicate directions (the Whys and Whats), encourage dialogue and sharing, and empower their remote teams to develop actions plans to do their jobs (the Hows).
Technology allowing that to happen across geographies and time zones has been around for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made people more comfortable with collaboration and even socialising through online platforms. For example, virtual town halls that are able to reach out to thousands across the organisation and not be limited by the size of the auditorium, allows leaders to engage every stratum of the company at one go, flattening communications and speeding up the message getting to the ground. ‘Zoom parties’ enables teams to catch up socially, substituting for the lack of physical interactions.
That said, cyber catchups don’t make up the social connection that physical interactions bring. The workplace is a very social environment that runs on the formal and informal relationships between people and the flow of information. Trusting relationships that grow from the watercooler talk, lunch and after-work drinks are important to the social fabric of teams and their cohesion. So, even as organisations see more staff working remotely as a norm, opportunities must be created to allow for these interactions that build trust across teams. These interactions will help employees feel connected with each other and align them closely to a company’s mission.
Leadership Presence – Leaders need to be seen and heard. Leaders too must play their part - by increasing their presence on the shop floor, meeting customers and engaging staff in-person - to build trust, respect and confidence. With this, they can get a better pulse of the company that remote working cannot give. This must complement the opportunities that remote working and video meetings allow for leaders to reach out across all segments of their organisation and not be limited by physical distance. They mustn’t be lulled into the false belief that they too can work remotely to the full extent and be just as effective.
Shifting from an Output- to Outcome-Based Focus
From Rules to Communicating Intent. Before COVID-19, companies used rules and supervision to govern behaviour and control their teams. And many of these had KPIs that measured outputs rather than the outcomes. Employee activity was monitored, and performance was measured based on output such as hours at work, dress codes etc.
Organisations should move towards evaluating outcomes rather than monitoring the output from their staff. They should measure the desired effects (eg. customer satisfaction scores, cost reductions), rather than the effort and time they put into it (eg. number of hours at the office, meeting with customers, number of new initiatives worked on).
Set Clear Outcome-based Goals. To do this, organisations need to be more diligent in setting clear outcome-based goals and targets for their teams and then empower them to achieve them. This allows the staff to be clear about what is expected of them to meet the purpose of the organisation and also be given space for staff to be where they need to be to achieve the output - whether they feel there are more effective at the office or remotely.
Reshaping Skills to Operate in the ‘Phy-gital’ world
Agility in an Unstructured Environment. Leaders and staff need to be trained on how to operate effectively in a more flexible and agile way, that in some ways may seem to have less structure and rhythm that a traditional work-from-office regime gives.
In traditional office environments, there is a clear delineation of time and space to mark the start and end of work. The presence of authority figures and approval protocols provide structure to the workday. Face-to-face interaction enables the natural development of relationships and facilitates collaboration. Communication and supervision styles were developed to cater for teams in the same location. But in the ‘Phy-gital’ workspace, the shift to a hybrid office-remote system will require a different set of skills for effective management and collaboration.
Leading a decentralised workforce. Moving forward, leaders will need to learn how to lead a decentralised workforce. They will need to learn how to communicate, gather ideas, moderate meetings and align stakeholders in an online environment and know when a face-to-face meeting is required. Managers will need to take the lead in identifying and learning what the most appropriate tools and best practices are for the Phy-gital world. This way, organisations can be equipped with tools that enable them to ideate, strategise and go-to-market quickly.
Self-mastery and Self-discipline. Everyone in the organisation will have to hone their skills in self-management, digital collaboration and cross-cultural communication. Remote work also requires empowered employees to be disciplined in organising their priorities, managing their time and avoiding distractions.
Augmenting the workforce with AI and Robotics, and growing new skills
Resilience in operations – reduced reliance on humans. The post-COVID-19 world has made organisations rethink the resiliency of their workforce in surviving a global crisis. Seemingly robust business continuity plan (BCP) that shifts work and teams to alternate sites in the event of a crisis (eg. shifting outsourced BPO work in India to alternate sites in the Philippines) has proven to be inadequate as the virus hit globally and affected operations even in these locations. Attention has since turned to accelerate the adoption of AI and Robotics Process Automation to replace transactional work, and the workers.
Over time, some of such roles will become redundant. Navigating this imminent wave of change requires a deliberate approach to redesign jobs, augment them with technology and reskill staff to operate them.
Doing what robots can’t. Beyond technical knowledge, people will also need to develop skills that are difficult for computers to replicate. According to LinkedIn's 2019 behavioural data, the top 5 skills companies need are creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. In high demand but short supply is creativity and innovation. The ability to master the art of solving complex, messy problems and to co-create with others in new and imaginative ways will be much needed to augment technical skills.
Re-Imagining Talent – shifting from traditional Talent management to growing a Talent inventory
Tapping on talent around the world. The ability to work remotely opens up opportunities for organisations to tap on an even more diverse talent pool globally.
Growing a Talent Inventory. The traditional HR function of talent management focuses on ‘building’ talent - developing and retaining in-house talent. The future of work will see a wider diversity of local and international co-workers available for flexible work arrangements on short contracts or specific task-related gigs. This will be accelerated by the ability to have flexible and remote work arrangements.
HR leaders will do well to capitalise on ‘buying’ and ‘borrowing’ talent on top of building their core capabilities with in-house talent. Organisations need to measure their success in talent management not by how much talent they own alone, but also how wide and deep an external inventory of talent they can call on-demand with flexibility.
This effort can begin by creating a network of partners and a specific set of freelance workers to tap on when a need arises. With the presence of talent platforms, such as Toptal and Upwork, that play the role of smoothing out the demand and supply of executive talent, companies will find it easier to hire global talent on-demand.
To enable this, leaders must trust the quality of work and the ability of the contingent talent to keep confidential information private. Along with this, leaders will have to navigate new ways of managing these relationships.
Re-imagining Phy-gital Touchpoints and Enablement
Leaders have to radically rethink the physical and digital touchpoints of their employees.
Doubling down on Digital Touchpoints. Organisations will have to double their efforts to improve the digital user experience for employees. Security and user experience will matter for areas such as the signing of contracts, onboarding, e-learning, leave application and accessing of payslips. Forward-looking organisations should begin to shift more transactional activities online and go paperless more aggressively. By providing digital infrastructure and the best user experience for their people and customers, organisations will be able to operate effectively in the new ‘Phy-gital’ world.
A Safe and Flexible Workplace. In the new normal, workplaces have to be ready for the next pandemic, and hygiene will be a priority and fundamental for employees to trust that it is safe to go to work. The use of contactless technology will accelerate. Touch-free sensors, facial recognition system with control access to rooms and contact tracing will become commonplace as we move towards a low touch environment. With voice search gaining traction, even taking an elevator can become voice-assisted.
Workspaces will see a redesign. The trend towards wide open spaces, hotdesking, and shared offices to drive collaboration should not be reversed as they do provide the flexibility and environment for collaborative work. But they must be flexible and modular to convert to smaller and contained spaces when the need calls for it, if and when another pandemic hits. Screens, easily movable furniture and self-sanitising features in the ventilation systems will allow open workspaces to be quickly converted to segmented smaller spaces to mitigate the spread of infections across the floor. Space freed up as a result of the partial workforce working from home will lead to costs savings and can also be converted to collaboration areas.
Coming back to Trust and Empowerment…
Trust as the Cornerstone. To seize the opportunities of the ‘Phy-gital’ workplace and tap on the rich source of global talent, trust and empowerment must be the cornerstone of the relationship between organisations, leaders and their talents, regardless of where the team is working.
Leaders drive the change. Leaders must trust that their people are aligned to the corporate purpose and desired outcomes, and be empowered to do their best, whether they are in the office or WFH. They must trust that their team knows what is best and most effective to get the job done. They must reassure, communicate and train their people to be ready for their new world so that the staff will, in turn, be assured of their job security and career progression. They must create a workplace that staff trust and feel safe even in times of crisis and pandemic.
Staff must earn right to maintain the trust. Staff must upskill themselves to be competent and relevant, be disciplined and responsible so that their leaders can trust they can get the job done.
With this, the post-COVID-19 world can be an opportunity for organisations to be agile and deliver high performance with an engaged workforce in any location.