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WORKSPAN
FUTURE LOOK |

Five Ways COVID-19 Will Forever Change Work

As the COVID-19 crisis recedes and economies begin to reopen, the adaptive changes introduced in the early stages of the pandemic response will permanently change the business landscape.

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The pandemic clarified the economic and social impact of risks to human capital, and showed the importance of the health and contributions of employees to business success. Leaders will pivot from their longstanding obsession with efficiency to also ensuring resilience in the face of a continuously disruptive environment. The actions that companies take to protect, preserve and sustain human capital value will define long-term success.

Here are five actions companies will need to take to differentiate themselves in a markedly different working world.  

1. Reduce Uncertainty

Businesses will seek flexibility and agility in the post-COVID-19 world, while workers crave certainty amid volatility and disruption. Companies offering certainty through their messages, actions and performance will enjoy a talent advantage, creating a competitive edge for organizations that recover more quickly. Companies (and sectors) that offer less certainty will need to provide more in the way of pay, benefits, career development, and culture to mitigate risks in the minds of their talent.

However, certainty in a volatile world is elusive. Only the best-capitalized firms operating in the least economically sensitive sectors can afford the broad security that employees and other stakeholders desire. For the majority of organizations that do not fall into this category, the ability to provide clarity and reduce risk in the absence of certainty will determine who wins the war for talent.

2. Mitigate Fear and Anxiety

Many employees will have lost friends, colleagues and loved ones during the pandemic, and even more will have borne a sense of isolation, loneliness and anxiety. Some will have post-traumatic stress syndrome, and others will exhibit phobias around human proximity or interaction.

To address new and previously unaddressed employee mental health needs, companies will need to substantially increase access to virtual, in-office, and on-site/near-site services. They also will need to effectively communicate the availability of these services and train supervisors and managers to recognize the emotional needs of both the in-person and remote workforce. These actions acknowledge the value associated with workforce well-being and help restore workers’ emotional health and psychological safety. This bolsters physical health and engagement, which will lead to a swifter return to productivity and increased value.

3. Evolve to Exponentially Flexible Work

Work will need to be exponentially flexible in an era that likely will be characterized by non-linear recoveries from COVID-19, as well as future crises. Large areas of work and associated work groups and facilities need to be able to quickly shut or open, isolate, modify production schedules, and/or shift to alternative products, such as sanitizer, masks and ventilators during the current crisis.

In addition, the means for performing work will pivot frequently to alternative models such as gig talent, outsourcing, alliances and automation. A shift to onshoring to protect supply chains will be particularly prominent. These changes will require substantial and ongoing reskilling of workers, managers and leaders, as well as redesigning work to optimally combine automation and human labor to compete with lower-cost, offshore operations. This will occur in parallel with numerous steps to keep work (and workers) safe, such as reconfiguring office spaces, schedules and production/distribution areas to accommodate physical distancing and other risk-reducing features.  

4. Focus on Purpose

Investors, consumers and employees increased their focus on organizational purpose prior to the pandemic. There was a surge in impact investing (estimated to be $20 trillion to $30 trillion of assets under management globally) and in belief-driven consumers (up to two-thirds of consumers, according to some reports). Additionally, talented employees were more likely to choose (and remain at) purpose-driven organizations which generally out-perform their peers in any economic environment. Specifically, companies with higher environment, social and governance scores had reduced risk and differentiated financial performance in the early stages of the pandemic.

Some have wondered whether purpose will survive the pandemic, but we see companies doubling down on purpose in the current environment. Especially during crises, companies benefit by articulating their purpose to their employees, investors and customers. The most effective companies also make tough decisions and communicate them promptly, clearly and in a manner that is consistent with their purpose and values. For example, they might reduce bonus funding to protect salary or health benefits, or delay merit increases to reduce the number of layoffs.

5. Address Social Determinants of Health

Ethnic and racial minorities and the poor are suffering a disproportionate number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 because they are more likely to be exposed to the disease, have more underlying chronic diseases, and often lack access to high-quality health care. 

This pandemic underscores the role companies can take in addressing social determinants of health, along with combatting racism, bias and stigmas in their own workforces. As they emerge from the crisis, leading employers will use the levers of benefit design, communication and data analysis to address health care disparities in their population. Employers that understand the value of a diverse workforce and the social and economic benefits of reducing disparities will lead the way in creating cultures of inclusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a defining moment for global business leadership. The post-COVID world will look different and there will be a huge premium on both understanding and addressing the “new normal.”

The companies that thrive will properly calibrate the new work equation to achieve flexibility, resilience and human capital sustainability.

About the Authors

John M. Bremen is the managing director of human capital and benefits and global head of thought leadership and innovation at Willis Towers Watson. Ravin Jesuthasan is a managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. Jeff Levin-Scherz is a managing director and co-leader of the North American health management practice at Willis Towers Watson.