Smart Citti

Work After Lockdown: Opportunities for Lasting, Positive Change in The Workplace

1. Introducing: The New Reality

As countries prepare to exit lockdown and jump-start economic recovery, organisations are strategising to return to work in a new normal. But with viable vaccines months away and potential cures still in early testing, managing around the threat of covid-19 is playing an all-important role in shaping the contours of the new normal. Government-issued guidelines on preparing workplaces for covid-19 are proving very helpful. However, these guidelines are merely starting points and employers are faced with the important task of quickly translating these guidelines into company-specific policies.

While the challenges of the new normal loom large, one thing is clear; the new normal is also an opportunity for companies to make long-lasting change and improvement. Though many establishments struggle, a select group have exceeded pre-lockdown targets by becoming radically agile and responsive. As reported by McKinsey, one company was able to release in a matter of days, a campaign that would otherwise have taken 18 months to complete. Others have repurposed their production plants to make essential supplies. while most have turned to technology in one way or another. This has seen technology play a far greater role in day-to-day business operations than ever before, and with social distancing tech like our SafeDistance app already on stream, automation is set to take the headache out of organising workplace activity in the post- lockdown era.

So, navigating this new and evolving normal, though challenging, is an unprecedented opportunity for organisations to position themselves for sustainable success through positive change and adaptation. To undertake this task, it’s important to feel the pulse of key stakeholders like employees. As a critical group of internal stakeholders, their buy-in and cooperation is essential for the success of any strategic agenda. SmartCitti and WRLD conducted a survey of 1000 workers in the UK, uncovering valuable insight into what workers are most concerned about. In this post, we explore the concerns and changing expectations of workers, and lay out 4 opportunities for lasting, positive change in the workplace.

2. Understanding Employees’ Concerns

Getting employees back to work safely is the foundation of a sustainable return to work after lockdown. This is why a necessary starting point for executives and managers charged with getting organisations up and running again must be understanding employees’ concerns and how employee expectations have changed in the wake of the pandemic.

Here are 4 things employees are most concerned about right now:

1) Workplace safety

A survey of 1000 workers in the UK conducted by SmartCitti and WRLD in April 2020 showed that the predominant reason some employees feared returning to work was related to workplace safety. According to the survey, 47% of respondents expressed fear at returning to work for reasons that include concern about whether offices had been properly sanitised and fear of contracting covid-19 while at work. Government guidelines are clear on the importance of maintaining social distancing and implementing adequate hygiene and safety policies in the workplace. The question is whether employees can trust their employers and managers to do the right thing in compliance with government guidelines.

2) Communication and mental health

With so much economic uncertainly and the psychological pressures of living in lockdown, it’s no surprise that communication and mental health are also of great concern to employees. The same SmartCitti and WRLD survey found that 59% of respondents cared about being able to communicate their feelings while at work, and 36% were concerned that their current employers offered no mental health support.

3) Parenting and meeting private obligations

Taking care of children and elderly family members has proven to be a major source of anxiety for many employees because of the additional demand on their time and energy. A recent survey found that women who work from home during lockdown are putting in lesser uninterrupted work hours than before owing to their domestic responsibilities. By implication, they are also less productive, and this problem is unlikely to disappear when schools reopen as both they and their children will need time to adjust to new schooling schedules and safety procedures.

4) Job security

Added to fears of contracting covid-19 and employers shuttering in the economic aftermath of the pandemic, many employees are worried about being able to advance within the ranks of their organisations post-lockdown. To be clear, many employees worry that working from home could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to workplace advancement, and there is new evidence showing their concerns are not unfounded. A multi-year study conducted by Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University, found that people who worked from home were less likely to be promoted than their peers who worked at the office. His study showed that employees who worked from home were at a disadvantage owing to what he described as the ‘effect of proximity’.

3. Changing Employee Expectations

To truly understand the weight of the concerns outlined above, it is important to come to terms with how employees’ expectations have changed and evolved as a result of the times. Below are 4 expectations for employers to consider as they strategise for work after lockdown.

1) Employees want more non-punitive flexibility

Employees expect more flexibility. Flexible working hours and flexible workdays are increasingly part of what employees expect to both accommodate their responsibilities and avoid the kind of unsafe crowding that occurs when people arrive and leave work at the same time. Furthermore, they expect more flexible sick leave and emergency sick leave to enable them care for themselves and members of their families who fall sick. The important thing to note here is that employees expect non-punitive flexibility. Unlike before, they do not expect to trade their pay, their positions or indeed their eligibility for promotion in exchange for flexibility.

2) Employees expect employers to make tangible investments towards their mental health

In most parts of the world, governments have stepped up to cover medical costs related to covid-19 and employers have been given guidelines on how to ensure physical safety in the workplace. But the health risks posed by the pandemic reach well beyond the disease itself. In their policy brief published on 13 May 2020, the United Nations warned about the dangers of a mental health crisis resulting from the pandemic and recommended “…widespread availability of emergency social health and psychosocial support.” This highlights the need for employers to do more than safeguard physical health and safety. The SmartCitti and WRLD survey conducted in April strongly suggests workers expect their employers to invest in technologies and on-site services that are aimed at safeguarding their mental health.

3) Employees expect greater agility and responsiveness

Customers are not the only ones who expect agility and responsiveness. Employees expect no less from the people entrusted with leading them during a public health crisis, and in some organisations, agility and responsiveness have been lacking. A recent analysis by McKinsey noted that inaction and paralysis had caused some organisations to stumble in planning for worker safety and business operations before and after the lockdown. For employees, being agile and responsive in making and implementing decisions are critical for saving lives and livelihoods.

4) Employees expect greater communication and empathy

Employees expect managers and executives to be attentive to their feelings; an insight uncovered in the April 2020 survey by SmartCitti and WRLD. A natural corollary to this is that employees expect more empathy from their employers and managers. They expect to see their concerns and pain points reflected in executive communications and decisions more so now than in the pre-lockdown era. Furthermore, employees expect to be consulted before health and safety decisions are made. It should be noted that the UK government recommends similar consultations.

4. Opportunities for Lasting Change

Having looked at the concerns and expectations of employees in the post-lockdown era, here are 4 opportunities for organisations to change and position themselves to compete in a new economic environment where uncertainty and risk abound.

1) Renew focus on employee wellbeing as the bedrock of organisational success

There has never been a better time to reorient employee wellbeing, which includes physical and mental health, as core to the success of your organisation. The pandemic and its ongoing fallout have made it all the more critical for organisations to distinguish themselves by putting their own people first. With clear insight into employee concerns and expectations, this is a win-win strategy for reaching post- lockdown recovery targets because it is the best way to encourage employees to stay committed, productive and innovative.

To renew focus on employee wellbeing, begin by creating a robust and adaptable employee safety plan and prioritize covid-19 safety. The plan should be thorough and should cover all areas of risk related to covid-19, including mental health. Consult government guidelines as detailed in the Working Safely Guide and the Talking with your Workers Guide. Also, consider digital solutions like the SafeDistance which has an in-built ‘Happy to Help’ feature that serves as a framework for community-based psychosocial support. Essentially, through the ‘Happy to Help’ feature, an employee can discreetly ask for help or assist a colleague at work.

Digital solutions and technology have been the game changer for organisations that have so far survived the economic fallout of the pandemic. In the survey SmartCitti and WRLD conducted they found 62% of respondents said they would welcome technology into the workplace, whether mobile apps and/or wearables, if they helped to alleviate their concerns.

2) Structure for the continuous integration of digital solutions

Digital communication and collaboration tools made effective remote working possible. And now that lockdown restrictions are being lifted, digital twin technologies are set to play a key role in enabling the automated implementation of the safety guidelines required to avoid spreading covid-19 in the workplace. Applications such as SafeDistance enable the automation of social distancing guidelines, real-time safe indoor navigation, and live desk allocation using GPS and digital twin technology.

Overall, digital solutions are predicted to play a major role in the post-lockdown economy. Some experts anticipate a turn to “end-to-end value chain digitization for enhanced resiliency”, and the emergence of new digital tools is fuelling talk of a 4th industrial revolution. Structuring your organisation to support the continuous integration of digital solutions is a sure-fire way to futureproof your organisation and derive efficiency, cost and flexibility benefits that could enable you better serve the interests of all stakeholders.

3) Make flexibility part of your organisation’s DNA

Employees’ expectations of flexibility are not unreasonable. The problem is that a significant proportion of employers have no long-term strategy to accommodate it. This has to change because flexibility is here to stay. In a recent column in the Economist, a writer opined that the ease with which many employees transitioned to remote working during lockdown could render large, central headquarters obsolete. The same column also posits that the decline of the 5-day work week could be hastened by the success of remote working.

To make flexibility part of your organisation’s DNA, it will be necessary to accommodate remote working for a set number of employees in a simple, straightforward, and non-intrusive way. Companies like Square and Twitter show it can be done. Implementing a system for flexible work times could also help along with policies that enable employees maintain work-life balance while working from home. Finally, effective strategies should be put in place to avoid ‘the effect of proximity’ which may put employees who work from home at a disadvantage when it comes to workplace advancement.

4) Strategise to respond quickly to disruptions going forward

Disruption was already an important factor in the game before the pandemic struck, and today, its position as a deciding factor has been reinforced. Agility and responsiveness are paramount and must become part of standard organisational practice to serve as both defense and competitive advantage in the new, disruption- driven normal that is emerging.

To strategise for disruptions, adequate monitoring is essential. Also, crisis management toolkits and employee safety plans should be updated regularly, and sustainability practices should be embedded in business operations. Environmental sustainability is of particular importance here because some experts predict that the next big, global disruptor after covid-19 could be some kind of environmental crisis.

5. What’s Our Conclusion?

Everyone is cheering for things to get back to normal. But normal is different. It is stacked with risks and uncertainties, but also holds opportunities that could potentially guarantee success for the foreseeable future. The thing for organisations to do is quite simple— Carpe diem!

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