By Alistair Cox, Cheif Executive, Hays plc

Our lives will never be the same again. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, it’s a fact. COVID-19 has already, in a matter of just a few weeks, completely changed our world. If you take a step back and really think about the magnitude and speed of what’s happening around us, it’s remarkable - we probably won’t experience anything like it again in our lifetimes. It feels like a line has been drawn in the sand between life before the crisis, and life now and next – the before and the after.

The pandemic has forced us all to question so many elements of our day-to-day lives. It’s forced us to think about and realise what really matters to us and to the world we live in. It’s forced us to question our long-standing habits, routines and values, in both our personal and working lives. I can’t think of a time in my own life that has forced such deep reflection and driven so much fundamental change in such a short period of time.

Our customers will never be the same again, neither will our organisations

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed us as consumers. That means the organisations we lead must change too, if we are to survive and thrive in the coming era of work, post-crisis. While every country is at a different stage of the pandemic, and many businesses are struggling to tackle the ‘here and now’ situation, let alone start thinking of the future implications, it’s important that we also start to focus our attention on the future sooner rather than later. It would be naive of us, almost catastrophic in fact, to think that things will simply just go back to normal as they were earlier this year. I simply don’t think they will, in so many ways, shapes or forms. 

A considered, phased approach to returning safely to work

Understandably, as many countries start to slowly ease lockdown restrictions, business leaders around the world are challenged to understand how to best respond and plan for the new era that we are all on the brink of. I wish we could just flick a switch and fast-forward a few months to see what we need to deal with, but of course we can’t, so we need to figure out what to do in real-time. 

It’s clear that the transition back to work is likely to be a slow one. There is a body of evidence that suggests that cases of the virus will need to be near zero and a vaccine available, in order for people to really feel comfortable, and that’s completely understandable. It’s our job as leaders to try and negate some of that concern and anxiety, by being clear and considered in our recovery plans, and communicating them widely, in an inclusive way, that resonates on every level and with every person, respecting each unique circumstance. 

But this is a sensitive topic, fraught with huge health and economic implications on a scale that we’ve never had to contend with before and frankly no one on Earth is an expert in. Above all else, my immediate concern in my business is focused on ensuring the actions we’re taking will ensure the health of employees, and counter some of their worries, whilst minimising the risk of infection. As a result, it’s very likely that the return to the workplace will be staggered and phased, with different approaches under different circumstances. There will also 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.

Clearly there are lots of unanswered questions at this stage. I think now is the time to come together as a global business community to share our views and plans, to help facilitate a phased, safe approach to transitioning back into the workplace, wherever that place is. To kickstart that debate, let me share some of the more practical questions myself and my leadership team have been asking ourselves in the short term, as we start to think about helping our employees make that transition:

  • Will we need to physically redesign our work environments to facilitate social distancing that could remain a restriction for a long time to come? How will we tackle this in shared working environments or co-working spaces?
  • How should we phase the return to the workplace? Each one of our people is experiencing this crisis differently, some are juggling childcare, some are caring for vulnerable people, some will feel comfortable with social distancing requirements in the workplace, others won’t. Therefore, should our approach to transitioning our people back to their places of work be done on a case-by-case, personalised basis?
  • How will we take extra measures to ensure the health and safety of employees (and their dependants) who are at higher risk, due to age or underlying health conditions?
  • Should we consider staggering entrances, breaks, meetings and departures, to help further ensure social distancing is adhered to, as well as implementing restrictions in different parts of the work environment, such as car parks, corridors, bathrooms, reception areas? On a practical level, how should we schedule and manage this?
  • Will we be testing, somehow, everyone who visits our workplaces? Employees, suppliers and visitors, alike? How will we monitor, report and take action on those displaying symptoms?
  • Many employees will be feeling anxious about the prospect of returning to the workplace, what can we do to sensitively and proactively gauge their feelings and provide support in the immediate term? Our employees also now have a renewed appreciation for personal health and hygiene, how can we ensure they are confident that we, as their employer, are also equally as committed?
  • How do we respect the concerns of those who ordinarily rely on public transport and now feel unable to travel via those means?
  • Will we need to discontinue the use of shared items, equipment or hot desks?
  • Will we allow employees to visit customers and suppliers in person? Or should we try to limit face-to-face interactions in the workplace, via increased virtual meetings? What about those people who want to visit us? What milestones should we look for to allow changes to these policies in the future?
  • How will we ensure regular cleaning and disinfecting of our workplaces, as well as regular hand washing and access to masks and gloves?
  • How will we deal with non-compliance by employees?
  • What is our contingency plan should we experience a second peak in any of our geographies, or a suspected infection case in one of our own facilities? 

It’s a long list, and getting longer by the day as we examine more aspects. 

The crisis has afforded us time for reflection, so use it wisely

As I alluded to earlier, there seems to be a rush to somehow ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible. But what we considered to be ‘normal’ pre-crisis, won’t be ‘normal’ post-crisis. This pandemic will change forever what we have, in the past, all taken for granted as being ‘normal’. The problem is, we just don’t really know what the next version of normal will look like, yet – and we might not for some time.

There is a growing urgency and pressure on us as leaders to be able to quickly pivot our organisations to adapt to the new world. However, I would hasten against making any rushed long-term decisions – after all, things seem to be changing every day.

In a strange way, this crisis has bought us more time to reflect. The world as we knew it has been momentarily put on pause, and despite the rush to start considering the transition back to the workplace, we have, at this moment, the opportunity to carve out space for true reflection and contemplation as we will undoubtedly need to redesign our businesses and that cannot be done without proper thought. 

In our 24/7 pre-crisis lives, time is something most of us craved more of, we were always in a rush, doing seemingly urgent things and often delaying or ignoring the important things, because they took time to work out and didn’t deliver immediate results or gratification. I wonder how many of us are simply replicating that “rush” in our remote-working world, and how many are stepping back and asking “what are we doing and is there a better way?”

So, I urge you to use this time wisely - see it as an opportunity to ask yourself some challenging questions that will help you future-proof your business. Use it to think beyond the relatively short-term operational questions I’ve outlined above, and consider how the world might change, and how your organisation, in its own unique way, will need to respond to the unprecedented changes we’re all faced with.

I’d also encourage you 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. It’s scary of course when you don’t know what’s around the corner and we are all reluctant to throw away things that have served us well in the past. But, let’s be honest, the majority of businesses will need to find a new product or service set, a new marketplace, a new way of doing what they do, a new relationship with employees and shareholders, a new set of success metrics and so on. How relevant therefore are the things we brought from the past into a future that is so different?

As we prepare to enter a new era of work – what will change?

This is a very big question. It’s one I’m sure many a business book and whitepaper will be written about, and many a lecture and webinar will cover for years to come. As I’ve said, I really think we will start to compartmentalise our lives in a ‘before the crisis’ and ‘after the crisis’ perspective, both from a personal and from a business perspective – the impact of that will be huge.

The scale of what is ahead of us is hard to imagine, although there are already tomes of slideware from experts prophesying the future. I’m not going to join that industry, saying that I can articulate how the world of work is likely to change. But what I can do is share with you some of the broader questions that are in my mind as I try to understand the true impact this pandemic will have on my own business, in the hope it might stimulate thinking as to how your own business might need to change. 

So, here goes:

  1. As a result of this crisis, our customers are changing - that means our organisations need to change too, and fast enough to remain relevant to our customer-base. We’ve already been shown by many forward-thinking organisations that a lightning-fast pivot is entirely possible. Take Formula 1, for example, who are sharing their expertise to help design medical ventilators, Burberry turning their focus to manufacturing gowns, teachers delivering lessons virtually, restaurants switching to provide home deliveries overnight, and, of course, the countless SME’s who have flipped their businesses on their heads, to help serve their communities at this difficult time. Indeed, as Dr Maggi Evans, says, “It has long been known that a crisis, or sense of urgency is a powerful catalyst for change and creativity.” This crisis is no different. So, will we need to rethink our business model, or areas of strategic focus? How are the needs, wants and expectations of our customers going to change as result of this crisis? How will this impact the services we provide and the people we hire? Will the overriding purpose of our organisation still hold true in the new world? How will this impact our workforce planning? Will it create skills gaps that we’ll need to address? Will existing jobs be disrupted or changed? Will new roles need to be created?
  2. In a matter of a few short weeks, huge infrastructure has been put into place by almost every organisation on the planet, in super quick speed, to enable their employees around the world to work from home. This is an incredible feat, and one that is worth acknowledging. Who would have thought this would have even been possible pre-crisis? It’s been incredible. So, will these sophisticated infrastructures remain in place (and be further developed) to allow for more regular and consistent remote working going forward? If so, what does this mean for the hiring, onboarding, training, and performance management of our people? What does it mean for workspace planning if people’s roles do not require 5 days a week in an office? Maybe most importantly, how will we maintain our strong company culture if a large proportion of our workforce is “away” at any point in time? 
  3. The pace of automation and digitalisation has increased in many industries during the crisis, with many planning to ramp up activity in the future. In fact, a survey by EY found that 41% of respondents “said they were investing in accelerating automation as businesses prepared for a post-crisis world.” How will this trend manifest itself, and how will it impact the existing roles and skills within our business and those of our customers? Will the way we deliver our services look the same? It’s clear to see that the pandemic has changed consumer behaviour in this respect, with many examples of people preferring digitalised services rather than face-to-face interaction, as this Financial Times article explores.
  4. It’s been truly heart-warming to see the outpourings of gratitude around the world for the key workers, who, just a few weeks ago, were often taken for granted, operating under the radar and under-appreciated. This crisis has really emphasised their true value to our societies. After all, they have contributed the most important job imaginable – saving lives but in doing so exposing themselves to dangerous situations. I’m of course talking about health and social care workers, but also the refuge collectors, cleaners, supermarket workers, lorry and bus drivers, the list goes on. So, will this pandemic lead us to question our internal definition of exactly what the most ‘valuable roles’ really are within our societies? 
  5. This crisis is changing the long-standing values, attitudes and perspectives of many. In fact, according to Reuters, a study in China found that the “Coronavirus outbreak has led to a shift in attitudes…with less tolerance of individualistic behaviour and a greater tendency to recognise the contributions of others.” How will this impact their perception of work? Will people be more inclined to work for purpose-driven organisations and seek more meaning in their work?
  6. According to the World Economic Forum, as of March 2020, over a billion students were currently unable to go to school or university. Depending on how long this crisis goes on for, could the potential disruption to the education sector cause long-term skills shortages for our organisation in the future? What can we do to mitigate that? The world faced a skills and lifelong learning crisis before COVID-19. With the rise of mass unemployment in many countries and a further shift in skills required by organisations, how will we tackle the need to enable people to access the skills training they will need to adapt their own careers to the new world? 
  7. How will we acknowledge the many shining stars who have come to the fore during this crisis and delivered real value? These people may have gone somewhat ‘under the radar’ pre-crisis, so how can you acknowledge their input and accelerate their development going forward? Has the crisis made us re-evaluate traditional measures of value within our organisations?
  8. The crisis has shown us that huge, seemingly unimaginable events are possible (and they are likely to happen again, just in different forms, for example cyber-attacks, environmental disaster), so how do we future-proof both our products and services, and our people with that in mind? What can we do as leaders, to ensure our people work in an agile, adaptive, collaborative and resilient way? How do we think about the capital structure of our business and what should be the balance of emphasis across all stakeholders, whether they be owners, employees, customers, suppliers or the communities we work in? 
  9. During this time, many of our employees will have experienced more autonomy in their roles, being given permission to craft their routines in a meaningful way that works for them. How do we facilitate this positive trend going forward to ensure their potential is being reached? As this Harvard Business Review article states: “With jobs at the heart of how work gets done, leaders have an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine them by rearranging work and having employees take on different responsibilities to better respond to the evolving needs of their organisations, customers and employees.”

Of course, the impact of this crisis on each individual organisation will be different, with much of that impact hard to predict. It is a volatile and varied world out there, with some industries experiencing a backlog of demand including for example, the beauty industry, dentists, parts of retail. Sadly, the same prospects might not exist for other industries, as Erik Gordon, a Professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business states.

But, while nothing is certain right now, what we do know for sure is that there will be a tomorrow, and that tomorrow will provide each of our organisations with opportunity, if we look hard enough for it, and ask ourselves the right questions, difficult though they may be. The winners will be those who do a proper and thoughtful job at that deep analysis of what, why, how and who. The losers will be those that simply wait for everything to come back as before. 

So, what questions are you as a leader asking yourself right now? It would be good to share your thoughts. As I said, I think now is the time we must all come together as a global business community to ensure we can get the world of work back up and running in the safest and most effective way possible, balancing short term health concerns with the longer term need to have a vibrant economy that provides livelihoods and pays the taxes that support the public services we so obviously need. In more ways than one, this has been a global social experiment, so let’s all share what we’ve learnt along the way, to help us better prepare for whatever is around the corner next.