Companies have always been differentiated by their ability to adapt to change, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated that enormously. Today, some organisations have embraced flexible digital working while others haven't even tested the state of demand and supply for talent; even the terminology that people use to talk about the workforce has shifted within less than two years, and there is no 'tried and tested solution' any more.
“In a changed world, there isn't a playbook for success,” said Puneet Swani, Senior Partner and Career Business Leader for Mercer in the AMEA region. “But effectively with the new realities of today, organisations would need to simultaneously focus on near term and long term.”
Speaking at Mercer's regional HR conference on “Accelerating towards the future of work” this week, he outlined several of the major workforce challenges arising from the way the world of work is changing, and highlighted what organisations, especially leading companies, are doing to adapt.
Flexibility: the greatest challenge of the post-COVID world
The most far-reaching impact COVID-19 has had on the workplace was to accelerate virtual working, which in turn drove changes in the kinds of skills needed, the kinds of mindset required to operate effectively in the changed workplace, and the kinds of expectations that employees have of work.
“When it comes to flexible working, the dialogue has been clearly based on the emergency remote working which began last year based on lockdowns, but the reality is that this shift towards a more flexible work force has been brewing for a number of years,” Swani observed. Mercer's research in past years, he pointed out, has shown that pre-COVID, flexibility was provided less as a benefit and more as a way for people to accommodate to employers' needs, and those who chose flexible working were often viewed as less trustworthy and less deserving of career advancement.
The gap between strategy and experience underscores this, even now. The “vast majority” of employers are planning for a post-pandemic flexible working strategy, according to Mercer's research; but only 15 percent have said they actually have a plan in place, and a full third of employees across organisations do not feel that they are trusted to work flexibly.
So how do employers tackle the question of flexibility?
“Post and during COVID, the whole definition of flexibility has changed,” Swani said.”And it's not just about remote working either.”
He highlighted five different dimensions of flexibility that will shape any given flexible model, although they might not necessarily all be applicable to the same degree or at the same time:
- Flexibility of where to work, which involves location and remote work
- Flexibility of when to work, which is time-related
- Flexibility of how to work, which touches on the technology used
- Flexibility of what to work on, which is related to the scope and intensity of the work
- Flexibility of who does the work, which covers the allocation of work between alternative workforces and automation
Because these five dimensions will vary widely between organisations, people need to be aware that there's no one-size-fits all model, Swani said: “If you're implementing flexible working, there could be different models emerging, and it depends on your situation...there are examples of how divergent the models can be even within a single industry.”
As organisations define the flexibility that works for them, he suggested asking themselves three questions: firstly, what flexibility is possible at all? This requires an objective assessment of job categories, with individual preference set aside and the nature of the role made the main factor for consideration.
Secondly, what flexibility is desirable right now? “This is a subjective assessment,” Swani said. “It brings together both the leaders' and the employees' point of view, and this is where culture, preferences, and attitudes come together. Employee listening becomes very important to understand what employees want versus what organisations are trying to push.”
And thirdly, what flexibility is sustainable? This question revolves around what changes need to be made to enable the desired level of flexibility, how extensive they are, and whether they can last.
A related short-term challenge: retaining employees
Besides the big challenge of flexibility, Swani touched on a particularly urgent issue that many organisations and talent leaders face right now: that of retaining current employees, especially in areas where new talent pools are not coming in and there are talent mobility restrictions – all too common with COVID lockdowns and border closures today.
Although flexibility is increasingly correlated with employee attraction and retention today, it goes a little further than that, Swani said:
“Based on our research, we have categorised four critical reasons why individuals prefer to work for an organisation. One is responsible rewards, meaning a living wage for all, or fair pay, or ethical wage. Second, the organisation thinks about protecting employees. Third, its objective is not only about delivering revenue, sales, or financial targets – it has a strong mission, value, and purpose, which it stands for. And last but not least, the organisation shows empathy and concern for the environment and society.”
This approach, he noted, is closely intertwined with the concept of stakeholder capitalism, which has already been recognised by the World Economic Forum and the C-suite as a very important part of the “Future of Work” agenda.
“When we look at how companies are focusing on the future, in 2021 and beyond, we see that ESG, sustainability, employee well-being, business resilience, new work arrangements – all these trends have accelerated. And we've seen a number of organisations revisit their purpose.”
People Matters is the exclusive media partner for Mercer's 2021 Regional HR Virtual Conference.