The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of the world works in a matter of weeks. While plenty of organizations allow for flexible work arrangements, very few — if any — have a fully remote workforce 100% of the time.
However, due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements as preventive public health measures, that’s the situation many organizations have found themselves in. Yet, there’s been no reports of mass productivity loss. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. Productivity has either increased or mostly stayed the same.
This could turn out to be a watershed moment in the way organizations approach flexible work and it could completely alter the way employees view companies that don’t support it.
“What you’re starting to see is in the last couple of weeks companies have very quickly gotten up to up-to-speed on productivity,” said Ravin Jesuthasan managing director and global practice leader at Willis Towers Watson. “So, they might have struggled, and their people might have struggled initially with trying to find space, trying to find bandwidth and managing cybersecurity, but companies are now operating close to 100% productivity on remote work. And, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how we revert back — if at all.”
Jesuthasan, who is recognized as a global expert on the future of work, poignantly suggests that there’s an underlying psychological shift that has likely taken place amid the pandemic. People will likely be much more discerning about which decisions require in-person contact, whether it be work arrangements, travel, hotel stays or even meetings with customers.
“I think if we go through many more months of what we’re experiencing now, ingrained in our psyche will always be this nervousness about in-person contact,” Jesuthasan said. “So, I really do see the quick pivot to remote work being something that sticks with us for the foreseeable future.”
Aside from a health safety standpoint, Jesuthasan said businesses might also consider the financial element associated with more remote work. If your workforce has demonstrated during this time period that it’s as productive outside the office as it is in it, then is it necessary to pay for a large office space?
“Is the best use of that space for employees to come to work, or is the best use of that space for us to come innovate, to meet to collaborate, which means we maybe need about a tenth of what we used to have,” Jesuthasan. “That I think is going to be a question that many companies will ask.”
For companies contemplating a permanent shift to remote work, as Jesuthasan has suggested, the main hurdle is implementing it in a formalized way. This would entail heightened cybersecurity, increased bandwidth and ultimately, a much heavier investment in technology.
Again, however, being forced into full-time telework with little-to-no warning has allowed companies to adapt and make the necessary adjustments in real-time, giving them a good sense of what would be necessary to formalize a fully-remote working environment.
While the concept of remote work was already mainstream — just not to the scale that it has become due to COVID-19 — talent sharing between companies is relatively new.
Many companies have had to implement furloughs and layoffs due to plummeting consumer demand in their industries. However, some organizations have gotten creative and agreed to transition their furloughed workers to other businesses that are experiencing surges and are short on talent.
An example of this is Sysco Corp., which entered into an agreement with The Kroger Company to provide temporary work opportunities for Sysco associates at certain Kroger distribution centers. Under this agreement, associates in the United States who have been temporarily furloughed due to the dramatic decline in foodservice demand from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will have the opportunity to work at Kroger locations for 30 days or more, as agreed upon by both companies.
In Germany, McDonald’s and grocery chains Aldi Sud and Aldi Nord entered into a similar talent exchange agreement.
These are unique solutions for unique times, but it could also prove to be an interesting and beneficial strategy for some companies moving forward. Most large, multinational organizations already hire part-time workers and independent contractors, and some companies — Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Postmates, etc. — exclusively rely on them.
While what Sysco, Kroger, McDonald’s and Aldi are doing is a creative way to offset costs in a difficult time, it could make economic sense for companies to explore this type of arrangement in a post-pandemic world.
“I think going forward there may be more opportunity to create these more collaborative enterprises where talent is shared in a much more structured way,” Jesuthasan said. “There may be reasons to do it to offset costs like what we’re going through now, but there may also be reasons to do it where we can collaborate with these other enterprises that make up a company’s value chain. And, it’s a way for me to develop my people, giving them the opportunity to acquire some new skills and then rotate back to the company.”
Figuring out how to properly manage the logistics of the talent exchange, such as when it occurs, how many workers, how long, which parts of the business and protecting intellectual property, would be a heavy lift for companies, but it might prove to be a transformative development in how businesses operate.
“Dealing with the mechanics of the exchange is going to become a bigger consideration,” Jesuthasan said. “It’s very similar to the remote work discussion where companies rushed into it because they had to and so they’re moving from these ad hoc arrangements to more structured policies, procedures, tools and tips for managers, etc. I can see the talent exchange side of things going in the same direction.”
COVID-19 FUTURE ROUNDUP
How the Coronavirus is Redefining Work
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Ravin Jesuthasan, Tracey Malcolm and Susan Cantrell explore all the ways the COVID-19 pandemic is altering how jobs are defined. This gives business leaders an unprecedented opportunity to rearrange work to have employees take on different responsibilities to better respond to the evolving needs of their organizations, customers and employees.
What are the Lasting Effects?
This Vox piece asks experts in fields ranging from behavioral sciences to economics, restaurateurs and big thinkers on democracy and public health to predict the 11 ways the pandemic will transform our societies.
Five Ways the Future of Work Is Changing
This TechRepublic article explores five different ways the COVID-19 pandemic will change the future of work, including a prediction that flexible/remote work options will become a permanent fixture.
Forbes author Tracy Brower makes five predictions about how the coronavirus will change the future of work. Brower surmises that leadership across the board will likely improve as decision-makers have to navigate their company through a very real crisis.
About the Author
Brett Christie is the managing editor of Workspan Daily.