Remobilising a workforce, post-COVID-19, is no easy task because of the layered complexities that both operational and moral obligations bring to bear. Not only has the last 19 weeks of lock down wreaked havoc on organisations, but equally, the resulting societal disruption will also impact the emergence strategies needed in order to recover and achieve the forward momentum required to leverage opportunities that will present in a new business context.
A data-driven return
For any Board, how it supports management to address and utilise data will be critical for success moving forward. Whether it’s the health & safety of the workforce or the assessment of both legal and operational risk, all decision making needs to be data driven. With current scenarios being so fluid, decision making will have to be a process guided by the latest regional guidelines and regulations, or even aligned to a city-based health status. How and when a business returns to work will likely be on an office-to-office or site-by-site basis. Specific location-based directives, issued by local councils or government bodies, will need to be well documented with the requisite company policies aligned to these regulations. This should include robust version control to ensure that an ‘at-that-moment’ decision reflects the governance issued at that time and for that location. As much as we are entering an uncertain period, it is possible that someone on your workforce will contract the virus and therefore, to safeguard the company and all its stakeholders, it is essential that everything is documented.
It is not always possible to provide a tech-enabled solution but tracking and the correlation of data should be pulled into a company’s MI dashboard because this information will be requisite for the responsible management of the business. If manually handled, this process will be time-consuming and possibly ineffective so technology might be the better solution. Not only can this work out to be more cost-effective in the long-term, but it would also provide additional peace-of-mind to the workforce. Efficient systems prevent the need for mass quarantine or shutdowns. If an employee catches coronavirus, traceable contact history can identify which other team members need to quarantine without closing the entire business. It can also isolate where contact took place so that preventative measures can be immediately instituted. The challenge however, and where management need to be guided, is around privacy issues and what could be interpreted as employer surveillance. Tracking apps are not always welcome in the workplace with employees having the right to refuse use of these apps. And this gets complicated from an HR perspective, because at what stage does tracking within the context of COVID-19 become a reasonable requirement and failure to follow instruction leads to possible termination of that employee. Guidance will be required to look at each company’s specific risks and requirements and evaluate the need for tracing, balanced against employees’ expectations in respect to protecting their health, and the need to maintain business continuity.
Apart for guiding the Board on risk and control policies, a tactical review will be essential to navigate the new way of working. New routines have been established by a distributed workforce, and in situations where there has been no discernable loss of productivity, there is also going to be evidence of improvements; co-operation, speed of decision making, successful task execution, self-initiation of projects and problem solving that has either been enhanced because of the circumstances of lockdown, or is new behavior entirely. This should not be lost because of the application of pre-COVID-19 workplace conventions such as being office-based, nine-to-five or not embracing remote of flexible working.
The high-productivity rates, ‘always on call’ mindset, the focus and agility that may have been demonstrated during lockdown or because many employees were furloughed however, is not sustainable in the long-term. It has shed a light on how, with certain adaptions and changes in routine and location, a distributed workforce can positively impact a business and these learnings should be embraced and wherever possible, leveraged. If a company can support the three key tenants of communication, care/coaching and connectivity, any Board should be considering the opportunity that ‘a new way of working’ or being ‘digitally present’ offers. It is important to understand that this should not just be about cost-savings or company-biased improvements, but a chance to reset the culture, improve employee engagement and implement / improve key agendas such as diversity and ESG. It is also the time to reflect on what new skills are required to maximise on both the business opportunities and equally, manage the ubiquitous use of digital that now defines business development, marketing and indeed, most business engagement. In addition, which team members have demonstrated these or other ‘hidden’ talents and characteristics during lockdown. This will be essential to be able to balance the expectations of both the business and its employees during the recovery period, but importantly, it will provide the Board with the chance to evaluate what is required to harness the opportunities that will surface of this business recovery.
This transition to a new way of working won’t necessarily be easy because the impending recession will further impact the demand for hard decisions to be made; redundancies, contractual mitigation and other changes that will affect the current and future talent of the business as well as other stakeholders. This will be compounded by the implications of furlough and what will be the inevitable fallout of claims and counterclaims due to, in some instances, the hasty implementation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. As the Board take stock of the impact of the realistic and immediate cost-savings and future revenue opportunities that lockdown has exposed, it will be essential that strong HR leadership and the inclusion of external specialist advice is sought to ensure that the employees tasked to push on into this new future have both a business and moral roadmap to guide them.
Lisa Ward is Mercia’s Head of Portfolio Resourcing