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COVID-19 has forced us to change how we work - which of those changes might be permanent?

By Jacky Carter, Group Digital Engagement Director at Hays

To say that 2020 hasn’t exactly got off to the best start for many of us would be the understatement of the century. Here in Australia, we were only just beginning to start the recovery from the devastating bushfires that wreaked havoc across the country, impacting massively on lives, businesses and wildlife. This wasn’t just happening in Australia, many other parts of the world have also had similar tests thrown at them by Mother Nature – impacting power supply, air quality and many aspects of daily life.

Next we were all faced with a new, unprecedented challenge. Needing no introduction at this point, the COVID-19 outbreak is the single biggest disruption of a generation. Whilst our colleagues in China were the first to deal with the virus, few of us in other parts of the world were really prepared for the terrible impact it would have. Now we are in a situation where many are, sadly, have lost and are losing their loved ones.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that different countries are at different stages of this pandemic, and that personal circumstances continue to play a huge role in each individual’s experience. We have all lost something, whether that be our peace of mind, job security, or way of life. The pattern of emotions that many of us are experiencing have been likened by many to the stages of grief: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness. At some point, we will start to accept the situation and feel hopeful, before working together to turn things around. This is already happening with people finding creative solutions to deal with the crisis. There’s light at the end of the tunnel – we just don’t know how long the tunnel is.

For now, a great many rulebooks are being thrown out the window, as we are forced to adapt to new and unpredictable conditions. In the world of work, the effects of social measures that governments are being forced to take have proven to be incredibly challenging for businesses and employees - many self-employed workers and those in public-facing roles, for example, hairdressers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers are understandably worried about the effects on their income, particularly in light of the catastrophic effect coronavirus is having on the world economy.

When the time is right, and that time will be different for each of us depending on who we are and where we live, we will start to think about what we’ve experienced and start to think about how our working lives might change as a result. Many business leaders around the world are now starting to turn their attention to the potential long-term implications of the pandemic on the next era of work, our CEO, Alistair Cox included. After all, we all need to be able to anticipate the change in order to plan for it.

Post COVID-19, will everyone continue working from home?

Those of us fortunate enough to have a job that can be done from home (so many don’t have that opportunity) have been forced to rethink our working lives in recent weeks and months, working closely with our teams to put new technology and processes in place to enable us to keep our businesses functioning in new ways. 

Whilst many people already had the opportunity to work remotely, for most of us, it was just occasionally. However, as we got deeper into this crisis, more and more organisations had to build infrastructure and operating frameworks to enable a much larger proportion of their workforce to work this way on an ongoing basis. An interesting question is, how much of that change will become permanent? 

Of course the idea of working at home in itself is not a new concept - reports suggest that ‘teleworking’ has grown by as much as 173% since 2005 - presumably something to do with improvements in technology, innovation and communication. As a result, more than half of employees (56%) now have a job where at least some of what they do can be done from home. 

On the whole, people welcome it – in fact a 2019 Owl Labs report found that as many as 80% of employees wanted to work from home at least some of the time, before the crisis. In fact, flexibility is one of the top-ranked work benefits amongst the millennial workforce. Pre-crisis, more than a third of employees (35%) would go so far as to change jobs if they had the chance to work from home, whilst over a third would take a pay cut of up to 5% in order to work at home some of the time. These figures may well have gone up in light of world events.

For prospective employees, the chance to balance their work and home lives can be a big draw. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many organisations faced the challenge of embracing the benefits of regular remote and flexible working without disrupting or undermining established ways of working. Now we’ve been forced to work from home in a productive way, we could see this being the ‘new normal’ going forward. This thinking is echoed by our CEO in his LinkedIn Influencer blog, post-crisis “There will…be many people and roles who legitimately can show they would rather remain home-working, at least for a part of their week, if not all, and can evidence their productivity in doing so. That’s an example of how the world on exit will be different to the pre-COVID world.”

It is therefore quite feasible that the previously held fears and concerns of employers have now been overtaken by necessity. In fact, we are already hearing (and seeing in our own teams) reports of the positive impact that more frequent, structured and focused communication is resulting in increased collaboration, teamwork and support. Some people report feeling more connected now to employees they sat feet away from previously!

Post COVID-19, will we hire remotely, more often?

The way we hire individuals has also changed. Today, the default way of interviewing potential candidates is by video call – only a few months ago the default was face-to-face. Of course, video interviewing has been around for a long time, but I’m not talking about the initial screening tool that many platforms offer. I’m talking about replacing the traditional “first interview” on site, with a client, for a specific job.

For the roles we’ve been asked to hire during the crisis so far, all parties are quite comfortable to take this crucial first meeting online, even though it’s a first time for many. We’ve even built a group assessment process which is entirely online, yet enables group interaction and offers the hiring team a chance to evaluate candidates in a group setting. Ensuring inclusivity is critical in those processes - everyone must be given equal access and opportunity.

In this new reality, we are all learning as we go

As we work through this crisis, things to be changing daily, so, most of us are evolving our approach as we go. As we become more adept, we’ll be building in the elements we identify as missing along the way – because we are all looking out for those learnings. It might be that we see a need to devise ways to replace the water cooler conversations, things you pick up in the corridors – this is hard to do when everyone is remote. We’re having to find new ways of having fun together over our video conferencing tool of choice and explore new ways to build and evolve our cultures in different ways than we’re used to.  

So, having achieved all that, as our CEO says, it’s important to “…use this precious time to think about which parts of the ‘old normal’ you will take forward into the post-crisis era and why, and which you will happily wave goodbye to.” 

As the world absorbs the aftershocks of Coronavirus, and we come back to a more certain environment (hopefully soon), won’t we all be considering the learns from this period, and how we carry them forward? Will we ever revert entirely to the way things were? How do we make sure we retain the best of the new and the old?

I’d love to hear what you think about the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the world of work. Share your thoughts with the #TalentVoices hashtag on LinkedIn.

This blog was first published on LinkedIn.

About this author

Jacky joined Hays UK in 1987 and commenced her career in recruitment having worked previously in Retail Management and Learning and Development with J. Sainsbury plc.

Initially working as a consultant recruiting across the finance and accounting sectors, Jacky transferred to Australia with Hays in 1989. Since then, she has held several management roles within the organisation including state-based and national operational roles, marketing and advertising, including launching one of the company’s first websites in the late 90s and building key client relationships for the business.

Since 2002, Jacky has been responsible for driving the Hays brand across the APAC region to achieve a market leading position through building strong awareness, great engagement and a program of high value thought leadership products. In addition, Jacky has been a key contributor and leader to the innovation and change team across the Hays global network.

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