A remarkable thing could happen as we return to work

A remarkable thing could happen as we return to work

When COVID-19 forced much of the world quickly to shut down offices, factories, schools, shops and restaurants, and pushed hundreds of millions of people into remote, makeshift workspaces, no one knew how it would all turn out. 

Now we know a lot more—and a lot is quite positive. For millions of people, working from home is feasible, welcomed and productive, even if many companies had to scramble to go digital. Sorting out the fine points will occupy companies throughout 2021, as they analyse the workforce data they’ve been collecting and put what they’ve learned into action. But there were negatives, too: the knock-on economic effects of COVID-19 were particularly rough for women, minorities and low-skilled workers.

This crisis has underscored the important role business plays in keeping the fabric of society in repair. And the challenge for CEOs has never been clearer: although societal needs differ according to geography, sector, skill set, risk appetite and ability to work remotely, the world of work needs to work better for everybody. That creates two interrelated imperatives for leaders in 2021, even as they continue prioritising health and workplace safety. First, reinvent the workplace to address the new realities created (or exacerbated) by the global pandemic. And second, use this moment of reinvention as an opportunity to create fairer, more inclusive, more equitable places to work. 

Reinventing work

Most obviously, we’re in the early stages of rethinking ways of working and working spaces. Business Matters hosted a webinar with UK businesses of all sizes and the overriding priority for most was increasing support for hybrid working configurations, with clear roles for remote and in-person approaches. These types of flexible work models may become a permanent fixture for a range of roles (including sales, finance and technology) across sectors, which would necessitate significant reconfiguration, and companies are in widely different stages of preparing for this possibility. More challenging still is the task facing companies in industries such as hospitality, transportation and retail, where irrevocable business model changes are likely to require bigger shifts in deeply ingrained customer behaviors and employee ways of working. 

It also seems inevitable that geography will matter less tomorrow. Remote working on a massive scale has shown potential for cost savings in transportation and, to a lesser extent, in real estate. It has even helped the environment, though not as much as some had hoped. It also has vastly expanded access to a talent pool that is location-independent. This was already happening on a smaller scale before the pandemic as non-hub cities sought to lure digital nomads. Countries may now get in on the act.

Creating better work 

The impact of COVID-19 should signal a broadening of horizons rather than a narrowing. We’ve seen how easy it is for whole swaths of society to slip from stability into crisis, in both developing and developed economies. We may see this situation worsen until the vaccine becomes widely available. Those hardest hit need to be the focus of the recovery—which could be a spark to address deep-seated issues around the nature of work. 

The jobs market has had a problem of supply and demand for years: too many people are finding they do not have the skills to take up the jobs available today, much less those that will be at the heart of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. COVID-19 has only exacerbated matters, contributing to the continued hollowing out of low- and middle-income work in many developed economies.

The solutions—creating more good jobs that better align human skills to the value chain and drive workplace productivity, and upskilling workers so that they are prepared to fill those jobs—are crystal clear but challenging to pull off. To be sure, the public and investors are beginning to place value on ‘good’ businesses, and purpose-driven business models are gaining steam. Still, making the economics work isn’t trivial, and businesses need to stay in business to create good jobs. 

A pivotal moment

COVID-19 has prompted commitments from some CEOs to focus on the workforce, be it adopting hybrid models, placing more attention on well-being and good work, or both. Satya Nadella at Microsoft, for example, is looking at reducing the time employees spend in the office to less than 50% and talks openly about empathy and wellness as hallmarks of the corporate culture. Citibank’s Jane Fraser, who will take over in February as the first female CEO of a large US bank, is openly talking about the challenges women face, including their role as working parents.

As we hope for brighter days ahead, and as our organisations stretch for more sustainable operating models, this is a pivotal moment for leaders. CEOs and their top teams must move from crisis response to ensuring that their organisations reset in a way that leverages the knowledge gained from the experiences of the past year.