The most radical and immediate impact of COVID-19 has been on people. New ways of working have put increased pressure on managers and their teams. Lockdowns and remote working have blurred the lines between business and professional lives and brought to the fore the physical and mental wellbeing of workforces. Health, morale, the working environment, skills and productivity are critical issues and meeting those challenges is a priority. According to Grant Thornton's IBR data 36.7% of mid-market businesses said they were planning for people and leadership challenges in preparation for recovery.
Manage back to work performance
For those businesses needing their staff to be location-based, the priority is to provide a safe environment with appropriate self-distancing measures, and Grant Thornton's IBR data showed that 46.8% of companies were planning workplace safety.
However, as people return to their workplaces, they also need managerial guidance and clarity to get them back on track.
Patrick Gallen, head of people and change consulting at Grant Thornton Ireland, says: "When people get distracted by what's changing around them, when they are unclear, confused or feel insecure, they lose focus – and this negatively affects performance .
"Unless people are clear what's changing and why, how the change impacts both them personally and their team, they will spend more time distracted and not be as productive. With the negative impact that COVID-19 has already had, businesses have to get back to capacity and performance as soon as possible."
However, well-executed change can have a positive impact. If approached with thoughtful planning and meaningful engagement, change can be an opportunity to 'build back better'. Gallen says: "We've plotted the impact on performance over a seven-month timeline, starting with 30 days before the anticipated back to work date, right up to six months afterwards. By splitting this period into key stages with targeted interventions at each stage, you can help maintain and even improve performance."
Consider outsourcing specific roles
With many businesses reluctant to bring in new permanent staff, Pallavi Bakhru, chartered accountant at Grant Thornton India in New Delhi, expects there to be growing demand for outsourcing. She says: "In this whole endeavour to become lean, organisations will now look at outsourcing services." Rather than hiring a team of specialist FMCG marketers, for example, using an agency is more flexible until there is more certainty.
Or where very specific high-value skills are required bringing in an individual specialist maybe more advantageous than creating a permanent role. "This is going to benefit both providers and customers who want to be lean. Service businesses will want to create these strategic relationships where clients can draw on very specialised knowledge as and when required."
Revisit your wellbeing policies
But for a large proportion of employees now working more or fully remotely, mental wellbeing – more easily monitored under face-to-face settings – is a growing concern for businesses. Emerging research from the UN found that women have been disproportionally affected by lockdown work patterns, given care responsibilities and impact on job security. The research suggests that given the large proportion of women working in the most impacted sectors, we need to think carefully about how we can redeploy this human capital as a critical component to our economic recovery. Employers’ support for women’s wellbeing has a vital role to play in that. Meanwhile, many younger employees are living – and now working – in shared accommodation with less space and privacy. While many people across the generations, feel isolated or that their sense of purpose has diminished.
A happy and healthy workforce equals productive and profitable employees says Susie Crowder, head of human capital advisory at Grant Thornton, Channel Islands. "One of the things we've done to help organisations is to look at how robust or present any wellbeing offering or strategy is in their organisations."
She says that organisations need to recognise, the impact of wellbeing on the workforce and ultimately the bottom line. And then they work through a process that ensures organisationally the business systematically checks in with all staff on a regular basis to make sure that they're okay and provide support.
Don't ignore your business culture and values
With so many businesses focused on survival, it is not surprising that Culture has slipped off the radar. But Crowder says: "There's not enough attention paid to the importance of core values, to the importance of a mission and vision statement, and how you treat your people, how you do your business. It's not just from an employee point of view, but also a shareholder and customer perspective."
Employees in organisations that neglected their staff during the lockdown are sitting tight because they can see the market is flooded with jobless people. Crowder says that even if staff are unhappy, they're staying put because it's all they've got at the moment. "This isn't healthy from a productivity, cultural, or wellbeing point of view."
"Being able to communicate sincerely and genuinely, to both your staff and wider stakeholders is critical. When we run staff engagement surveys for organisations, poor communication is often cited as the worst thing. It upsets people when they read in the newspaper what's happening in their firm; they want to hear news from somebody inside the house.
Businesses need to be more transparent in their communications. "When people worry about their jobs, it's important to say: 'this is an insight as to what our financials look like right now.' You don't have to give them chapter and verse. You can deliver it in a way that people in the room will understand and what it means to them. Because the 'what does this mean to me' factor is what people are most interested in."
Even in these difficult times, businesses need to demonstrate integrity and their core values in their DNA. "Culture is your shop window to clients or customers and your biggest recruitment and retention tool. While there are some tough decisions to make around headcount, you need to include many voices around the table and carry people with you. The minute you compromise on your values, then you start to get in deep water."
Rethink your skills strategy for a post-COVID world
The new challenges COVID-19 poses for businesses require new skills to deal with them. Crowder says: "The pandemic is forcing organisations to snap out of an antiquated way of teaching people, to embrace technology, and adopt a much more inclusive approach to upskilling and reskilling people of all ages, across all communities."
While upskilling has a positive motivational impact on employees, by thinking now about teams' future skill requirements, businesses can position themselves strongly. With some roles having changed drastically to adjust to circumstances, the crisis has allowed people to develop new skills and identify where they fall short.
Crowder says HR teams need to put human capital back on the boardroom agenda, developing better short-term horizon scanning and helping boards be more open to how technology can help.
The World Economic Forum recently claimed that financial services will automate up to 30% of roles over the next six months. Crowder says about this: "Organisations need to adapt and be agile and see the opportunity through positive lenses. There needs to be transparency on that as well and say 'it is our strategy to use tech to undertake these sorts of roles so let's work with these people to upskill them now so they can transition into new roles'."
A disengaged, demotivated and distant team is akin to putting the wrong fuel in the car. A retuning exercise, based on proactive communication, transparency, core values and an evaluation of skills can help ensure your people are optimised for the race ahead.