Changing and adapting to the global pandemic has been every organisations’ first priority as a crisis response. As businesses move to the next phase of recovery, leaders must now prepare for and shape the next set of workforce challenges.

PageGroup recently hosted a webinar on “Workforce strategies for post-COVID-19 recovery” presented by Juliet Bourke, Partner at Deloitte who outlined critical workforce priorities, as well as considerations for the new way of working.

A poll conducted at the start of the webinar revealed 63% of the business leaders in attendance felt optimistic about moving into COVID-19 recovery. Confidence from businesses will be crucial to success in transitioning the workforce into the recovery phase.

Jessica Priebee, Associate Director at PageGroup said the confidence in the market was also reflected in the recruitment company’s experience during COVID-19.

“We have seen sequential growth across April, May and June in job flow, as well as job interview numbers rising. This confidence bodes very well for further growth into Q3 and Q4,” Priebee revealed.

She also added that many clients and employees are beginning the transition back into the office partially and in well thought out stages. This was also a positive step in returning to some semblance of the ‘new normal’ and allowing staff to readjust.

Based on Deloitte’s 2020 “Global Human Capital Trends” report, Bourke highlighted the importance of continuing to ensure work, workers and the workplace remain adaptable and resilient. And critically, that employers take care of employee well-being. 

“There are always more and more expectations of organisational responsibility, and that is aligning with what employees want – that they are expecting more from organisations because the control lies with the organisation to create wellbeing and safety. We need to build well-being into job design,” Bourke told the webinar.

During the Q&A discussion, webinar participants asked about how to ensure a fair and equitable move to the recovery phase for those with a mixed workforce.

“Well-being is critical for all workforces – white, pink or blue collar. And empowering workers to identify and create healthy workplaces is vital, especially now. A great example is a hospital in Germany where they have ‘health circles’ as a process for  teams to get together and talk about how that current experience of work is going for them,” Bourke explained.

“This is a great example of empowering people on the frontline to talk about scheduling, the number of hours they’re doing and allowing them to make conscious decisions as a group.

“COVID-19 has been a conversation dominated by white collar workers so we need to think about what aspects of blue and pink collar jobs can be done virtually so that there is a sharing of the benefits that come with accessing flexibility.”

RELATED: Realigning your business and teams post-COVID

The challenge for business leaders

Bourke also touched on business leaders’ challenge with balancing the pressures to perform in the recovery phase, while also setting examples for their employees.

“It’s a real issue for leaders. The workday is increasing in length but also, the nature of the workday has changed. We’re scheduling  a larger number of meetings in the diary, and usually they are back to back with no time to recover. People are “zoomed out” and it is not a fully satisfying experience for all of our interactions to be mediated by a screen. We don’t get as much energy from those interactions as we do from face-to-face,” she noted.

“The first thing I’ve noticed with leaders who do better at this they start naming what’s going on with them – for example, saying that there are too many meetings will help get back some control.

“And secondly, they start trying to mix things up. If one meeting every day is a walking meeting, it adds up to five small walks a week. Little things add up to something meaningful.”

She underscored that virtual work is working but not as well as it could because organisations transferred to working from home with no time to think about how that would take place or the unintended consequences. Without considered thought, she warned virtual was now running us, rather than being a tool used by us.

“Leaders need to take back control. It is hard but we have to set boundaries for ourselves as well. We know that in periods of uncertainty everyone goes the extra mile and a half but that has long-term costs on productivity and wellness,” she said.

Finally, commenting on whether good remote work processes will be carried forward, Bourke said: “We’ve all participated in a live experiment and demonstrated that virtual working can work. Sure, it needs to be tweaked to create an optimal experience but overall it works. So it will be very hard for organisations to go back and deny employees and leaders flexibility [during the recovery phase]. 

“Even though face-to-face will still be important, we’ve proven that we can still carry on with business while working remotely. That has incredible benefits for travel, the environment, finances and personal well-being.

“We’ve already seen some leaders model that by saying, ‘My workday is going to look like 2 days in the office and 3 days at home’. I doubt very much that things will just return to the way it was in February in Australia and some people will realise the way they did flexibility wasn’t thoughtful.”

Four practical tips for post-COVID recovery

Bourke shared the following advice around four key areas for business leaders to prepare for:

1.    “My workplace is safe.”

Laser focus on employee health and wellbeing. Safety must be of upmost priority for employers. Both mental and physical health will be paramount to ensuring employees can focus on exceptional customer service while feeling a sense of safety.

2.    “I’m empowered.”

Empower leaders and team members. Increased uncertainty and ongoing change require adaptive and resilient leadership and teams empowered to act with clear decision rights. Employees don’t want to go back to the complexity and bureaucracy of pre-COVID. At the same time, ensure bad habits picked up during work from home (like the blurring of work and family time) aren’t taken back into the organisation.

3.    “We have an impact.”

Recommit to your purpose and social impact. Emerging from COVID-19, we expect there will be a much higher expectation on businesses to make a social impact. Organisations that link what they do to the broader social purpose garner much more positive attention. The choices leaders made and how they acted during COVID-19 indicates exactly who they are as a business and what they stand for. Some choices have the broken psychological contract that workers give discretionary effort and employers are there for them during a downturn. There’s a higher recognition that organisations are also a social enterprise, and part of the social fabric.

4.    “I’m listening.”

Continuous communication and listening. Open, clear and consistent communication will be critical to managing re-openings and new operations. Listening strategies will be essential to manage risk. As we moved into a virtual environment due to COVID-19, it gave us the chance to listen to people’s voices whom we hadn’t heard so much from before.

Juliet Bourke leads Deloitte Australia’s Diversity and Inclusion Consulting practice. She has over 25 years’ experience in human capital, management and law. Bourke works with executives and global organisations to improve workplace performance through cultural change, focusing on D&I, leadership and culture.

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