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Ulster Business

What can we learn about how we work from the coronavirus crisis?

John Moore

This year will undoubtedly be defined by coronavirus and the toll it has taken on society. But while many of us are now looking at how our businesses might respond in the second half of 2020, it would be unwise to think that things will simply go back to normal.

Some companies have prospered in lockdown while businesses in other sectors of the economy will recover at slower pace, with many industries potentially changed irrevocably from the way they looked before. We are confident that the global and local economy will recover, but it may take several months or even years.

Some of the key learnings from the crisis will be about the way we work. Through necessity, lockdown has forced employers whose teams are able to work remotely to embrace a far more flexible way of working than they might ever have done without the pandemic.

I read a news story about a Japanese man who was still going into his office in Tokyo once a week to stamp his official signature on documents, a custom that has traditionally been seen as important in Japan’s business culture.

We can laugh at such stories but they serve to highlight that, in the modern world of video conferencing, workflow management tools and other apps that make collaboration easy, there are a lot of jobs which previously demanded attendance at the office that clearly can be done from elsewhere. There will also be people who decide that, actually, this works for them and they don’t want to go back to their old commute.

So, how will this potentially play out here in Northern Ireland whenever we exit lockdown?

People management

Some employers have managed teams remotely for years, particularly those who have staff in different locations. Coronavirus has proven to many others that it is possible. Perhaps your organisation has simply replaced physical meetings with long online ones, but most of us have got more efficient about managing these conversations with our colleagues and clients. Will it mean fewer meetings in the long term? It’s hard to know, as there’s much to be gained from face to face meetings in some circumstances. But if you trust the people that work for you, remote working must now be on the agenda as a long-term option. In the short term, the extension of social distancing measures means we may need to get used to a new hybrid working system, with part of a team in the office and others working remotely. It’s certain that more roles will be remote-enabled in future.

Communication

The lockdown has highlighted the importance of good internal communication by forcing us to engage with staff more directly, consistently and more regularly than before, sometimes using new tools. A lot of that has been in response to safety measures, furlough schemes and logistical matters around working from home, but it must be hoped that employers will not revert to a more distant form of communicating with their people when they are allowed back into the world.

Recruitment

Certain industries have understandably furloughed employees and some companies have had to make people redundant, but others have maintained their hiring plans. For roles that are not hands on, interviewing, hiring and onboarding has all been done from afar. Talent managers in international companies were used to doing this to some degree already, but most local hires still involved the recruiter meeting their chosen candidate in person. It is nice to meet people, but more organisations will likely realise it’s possible to move away from the traditional hiring process.

Skills and innovation

People have been forced to be innovative in responding to this crisis. It’s been brutal for some companies, but others have found new solutions to problems, invented new products where needs have arisen, pivoted on a product or service that became irrelevant during lockdown and tapped into something new. Digital skills that were so in demand before lockdown will continue to be highly valued.

Career changes?

We have written a lot in recent years about the growing desire amongst employees to work for employers with a purpose, a mission and a reason for doing what it is doing. While in the short term many people will be glad to still have a job, it seems likely lockdown will encourage more people to consider whether their employer is really for them. Other careers which have been able to help society through coronavirus may become more attractive. It will be interesting to see if more people follow through on those desires in future.

Culture and leadership

Many business leaders will, I hope, have been heartened by the desire of their teams to work together and go above and beyond during lockdown. I’m not just talking about essential services here. It will be important for leaders and managers to motivate people to continue in this vein rather than allowing a feeling of comfort of normality to return and settling back into how they used to do things. They must make sure positive changes, particularly around cooperation and collaboration are retained.

 

John Moore is managing director of Hays Nothern Ireland

Ulster Business