How the Covid-19 crisis is once again reinventing the way we work
Denis Pennel, managing director of World Employment Confederation
The Covid-19 pandemic is an unprecedented, global health crisis which has had a swift and devastating impact on the economy and labour market. The various containment measures adopted around the world have affected not only supply – the production of goods and services, but also demand - consumption and investment, threatening businesses’ viability and putting millions into unemployment.
The good news is that most governments were quick to adopt measures to mitigate the immediate negative impacts of Covid-19 and are already working on what other mechanisms should be put in place to enable economic recovery.
The private employment services sector, connecting people with work and supporting businesses in finding the workforce they need, is at the forefront of the crisis. This position also affords us a unique perspective, allowing us to observe the ways in which the Covid-19 crisis is likely to affect labour markets and the way we work in a more structural, long-term way.
Firstly, comes the issue of teleworking. Organisations have realised how important it is to be able to implement continuity plans and to set in place remote work solutions. The crisis provided a good opportunity to equip workers with IT equipment (laptop, cloud, videoconferencing) allowing them to remain connected to their colleagues and continue to work. However, working from home for one or two days a week by choice is very different from being constrained at home for several weeks in a row, surrounded by distractions - be they your family, your pet or Netflix! It reveals that we need good conditions to be productive at home e.g. a dedicated, ergonomic working space rather than the dining table, a good wifi connection, the kids being taken care of properly. In Japan, a recent survey of 21,000 people found that 13% of company employees were teleworking but respondents cited a lack of systems and infrastructure to support them in this. Working from home can also be challenging for those who crave social interaction. The use of coworking spaces was already an answer to this situation and it is likely that their use will increase in the future.
The more widespread use of teleworking also has consequences for management models. Many managers are struggling to coordinate and motivate a remote and dispersed team. Not being able to see and interact face-to-face with colleagues is disturbing and requires new management models, based on trust, more result-oriented work organisation, new performance assessment tools and on-line social interaction.
Working from home also increases the porosity between our private and professional lives. Most workers already faced that situation to some degree - checking emails after official working hours, taking conference calls during holiday time, etc. But teleworking on a full-time basis has further emphasised the need to take personal constraints into consideration when organising work. In the future, flexible working hours (part time work, non-standard working hours) – and the necessary support systems such as flexible childcare that go with them - should be developed further to reflect this need for customised working arrangements.
Covid-19 is also changing the freelance landscape. Economic downturns usually see an increase in self-employment. High levels of unemployment prompt people to create their own business units in order to maintain some financial revenue. But the current crisis underlines that self-employed workers also lack protection against economic downturns. From an individual perspective, people might realise that being your own boss includes a lower level of social protection and a higher risk of losing revenues – and some people might be tempted to get back into wage employment. From the point of view of organisations, the situation might be quite the reverse. Faced with cost reductions and recruitment freezes, they will be turning to freelancers to secure access to the talents they need when the economy turns a corner and the recovery begins.
There will also be an impact on mobility and travelling. The Covid-19 crisis will have at least one positive impact as the lockdown has improved air quality and reduced pollution. It is a long time since the sky has been so clear and blue thanks to air travel usage having plummeted and commuters staying at home. The increased use of videoconferencing has also made us realise that not all meetings demand that we jump on a plane to attend a four-hour discussion miles away.
Ultimately, this crisis questions productivity at work. On the one hand, the rise in remote working could dramatically increase productivity – reducing all the unproductive time and costs associated with airports, planes, hotels and taxis. But on the other hand, many people feel disoriented working from home. They have difficulty in adjusting to this new style of work and miss the social interaction of the traditional workplace. There is a danger that it might lead to a decline in customer service and the client experience and a fall in morale and overall team performance. In short, these new work trends will require us to think differently about how we define and assess productivity.
The post-Covid-19 world of work could be one where remote work forms an integral part of regular work practice. It may not necessarily be a solitary experience either, as workers have easier access to collaborative spaces - whether they are virtual coffee breaks, physical coworking places or annual corporates retreats. It could be a world where managers empower their employees, trusting them to reach their goals and offering them the flexibility to manage their time and workload in line with their personal commitments. It could be a world where leaders build-in the adaptability and resilience needed to face future shocks. This crisis is certainly not the first, nor will it be the last. However, it presents a whole new opportunity to reinvent the world of work.
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