While some people are still waiting for things to go “back to normal”, it’s becoming increasingly clear to many of us that the world will not be the same once COVID-19 passes—whenever that may be.
What are the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the way we work, and how can leaders and HR teams prepare for the new normal?
Anyone who can is working remotely today. And while this won’t necessarily be the case forever—a study in the UK found that nearly half of employees expect to go back to limited flexibility once lockdown ends—it’s a near certainty that remote work is going to be more widespread than it was before the pandemic.
Daniella Sikora, Head of People Operations at Typeform, stresses the need for businesses to shift their strategies and embrace remote work as the new normal. “The situation we are experiencing now is far from normal and requires adaptation, flexibility and new ways of communication and collaboration,” she says. “We will all learn how much more open to remote work we can be once this is over.”
For some, it’s a blessing—a major challenge for others. Even teams who had embraced remote work long before the coronavirus hit aren’t completely untouched, having to rethink their approach to team building. Vaida Revuckaite, Head of People at Slite, believes the biggest challenges for remote teams are working on team culture and getting people to connect. “Even though we've been fully remote before, we did in-person meetings and retreats to have space to get to know each other and connect as human beings as well,” she reflects. “Doing that from a distance, especially if you have new joiners, is more difficult.”
The unprecedented nature of the situation means there are no proven best practices. Leaders have a lot of trial and error ahead of them, to figure out what works. Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution just yet, Revuckaite is confident there are many positives that can come out of this huge global shift towards widespread remote work. “For example, being forced to rethink how to organize work sessions, bigger team workshops, and meetings,” she says.
“We've been doing in-person meetings every two-three months. Now we’re doing them remotely. Something we changed that worked nicely was to record the presentations beforehand using Loom. Then we just did Q&A sessions with two-three people in each time slot about the presentation. We found that the questions were far more thoughtful as people prepared them before and the discussions were more qualitative.”
For the past several years, the global job market has been overwhelmingly talked about as a seller’s market. The talent was calling all the shots, as an unprecedented and gradually worsening talent shortage meant that top talent was free to pick and choose where in the world and for whom they worked. The legendary and ominous talent crunch was on track to cost the world economy $8.5 trillion in unrealized annual revenues in 2030.
When COVID-19 hit, that trend was reversed practically overnight. In the US alone, the number of people left jobless by the coronavirus has reached 22 million. Economists can’t even begin to accurately predict the total cost and extent of the recession we’re heading into, but it’s a safe bet that $8.5 trillion looks like a dream in comparison.
The talent landscape is changing on a massive scale. Businesses in deeply affected regions and industries are shutting down, downsizing, or freezing their hiring plans. With a huge flood of newly unemployed talent suddenly on the market, companies lucky enough to be hiring will have their pick of the litter. They’re also having to learn to interview and onboard new hires remotely—another trend, like remote work, that was already growing steadily and is now getting a big, unforeseen boost.
The world of remote work isn’t all fun and games and hilarious Zoom backgrounds. Behind the seemingly cheerful scenes, employee wellbeing is taking a hit. COVID-19 is bringing into sharp focus the importance of maintaining the mental health of the workforce.
Experts anticipate a substantial increase in the prevalence of mental health concerns. A recent JAMA study predicts increased “anxiety and depression, substance use, loneliness, and domestic violence; and with schools closed, there is a very real possibility of an epidemic of child abuse.” Employers can’t afford to sit back and hope that their employees aren’t affected or that they will be able to manage everything on their own.
“For our workforce to stay engaged and productive, people need to be healthy,” says Daniella Sikora. “As HR leaders, we need more than ever to support our people in this new reality, introduce initiatives that focus on mental and physical wellbeing, open lines of support, and reinforce frequent and open communication. We also need to adapt our internal People processes focusing on technology to help us with employee engagement, onboarding, offboarding and so on.”
As individuals, we owe it to ourselves to do whatever we need to do to stay sane at a time of crisis. As a society, we owe it to each other to keep going: eliminate the busywork and focus on how and where we can make a difference.
The pandemic has shown that much of the work done daily serves little actual purpose. In her Forbes article 5 Predictions About How Coronavirus Will Change The Future Of Work, Tracy Brower notes that COVID-19 has led to a decrease in unnecessary systems at many organizations, allowing these companies to respond quickly with more streamlined processes. “In addition,” Brower writes, “many companies have had to delegate decision making to enhance speed—resulting in increased empowerment for employees.”
As both businesses and individuals find themselves under immense amounts of stress and extra demands, leaders are working with their teams to identify the most meaningful and impactful tasks. As applied behavioral scientist Silja Voolma, Ph.D., puts it: "Productivity equals the amount of meaningful work done, rather than hours spent or impact-adjacent tasks completed.”
As the world scrambles to make sense of what’s happening and what to expect next, there are a few things employers can do now to set themselves and their teams up for success.
A potentially mind-warping concept to wrap our heads around is that the new normal might mean there’s no such thing as normal. To adapt to the pace of change that lies ahead, employers and employees alike need to adopt a “flux mindset”.
According to April Rinne, global authority on the future of work and the digital economy, “a flux mindset demands that we make plans with the assumption that those plans will change.” Rinne stresses that rather than not making plans at all, this means getting used to continuous change as the default. “People with a flux mindset will be positioned to navigate the weeks and months ahead far better than those who are simply waiting for the whole situation to be over,” she writes.
Vaida Revuckaite similarly stresses the need for adopting a whole new mindset to survive and thrive in the new normal. The key for teams to succeed in the new world of work, she says, is not just to rethink your tools, frameworks, and rules, but how you want to work in a broader sense. “In our case, we're proponents of a thoughtful, written-based, and transparent working culture,” she says. “Having documentation, notes, and written project content helps everyone involved to collaborate at the best time for them, without a "here and now" distraction culture. A lot of work can happen if you adopt good practices. You'll have more time to do calls or in-person meetings to connect with each other and become better as teams instead of fire-fighting and making decisions on the spot.”
The current crisis also draws attention to employers’ responsibilities when it comes to providing their remote workers with the tools they need to work effectively at home.
In her future of work newsletter, writer and speaker Laëtitia Vitaud points out the importance of focusing on the home as a workplace. “With the ubiquity of knowledge work tools, homes have been places of knowledge work for many years now, as they have always been for many artisans and artists,” Vitaud writes. “Yet employers pay too little attention to these workplaces whose ergonomic conditions leave greatly to be desired.”
To make sure employees are working in good conditions, employers should expand their definition of the workplace to officially include the home office and make sure their teams have all the necessary tools, equipment, and moral support they need to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing.
You are who you hire. And hiring has just become a whole new ballgame. Kwun-Lok Ng, founder of the knowledge management tool provider Kipwise, believes that in the aftermath of COVID-19, many teams will realize that fully remote is the way to go and stop renting offices altogether. “Hire those who would fit in a 100% remote environment,” he recommends.
Even if you don’t completely abandon the office, there’s no way to escape the remote future altogether. “We may need to make our remote work policies more open and flexible, shift our recruitment needs and strategies to focus on remote candidates,” says Daniella Sikora.”
Remote work has been thrust upon millions of people around the world over a very short period of time, under extraordinarily stressful circumstances. Adjusting to it has been unavoidable. Adapting to it and staying at least remote-ready, if not remote-first, even after the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed, will help you keep your teams thriving as you step into an uncertain future.