The Leaders’ Perspective: How the New World of Work Impacts Business
A summary of the latest in EY’s series of COVID-19 webcasts, this one looking at the changing DNA of work.
Last Friday, EY held its latest COVID-19 webcast, The Leaders’ Perspective: How the New World of Work Impacts Business. You can listen to the full session here or carry on to read my summary.
What was the webcast about?
As lockdown pressures begin to ease, many believe we should get people back into the workplace ASAP — safely, productively and efficiently. EY brought together a number of business leaders of major companies to discuss this matter, considering the impact of coronavirus on how we work; the way shifting expectations are changing our understanding of employment, work and well-being; and what this means for business.
Who were the panelists?
Moderated by Mona Bitar, our COVID-19 response Leader, the panelists were as follows:
- Nick Beighton, CEO, ASOS Plc
- Kerry Dryburgh, Executive Vice President, People and Culture (CHRO), bp Plc
- Simone Rossi, CEO, EDF
- John Fallon, CEO, Pearson Plc
- Debbie Crosbie, CEO, TSB Bank Plc
- Leena Nair, CHRO, Unilever Plc
What issues did the panelists address?
- How the nature of work could shift as a result of the COVID-19 crisis
- How the role of the employer will need to evolve as the business community plays a heightened role in society
- How employers can preserve human connections, relationships and well-being in the post-COVID-19 world
Thanks to the pandemic, businesses, including EY, are starting to re-imagine their role as employers and how to do right by employees — now and in the long-term. Looking into the future, how do the panelists think we can do the right thing?
Some people related issues
The pandemic has meant companies have learned a lot about their people and how they work and support each other and their communities, including frontline workers. We now need to think about the long-term and how the nature of work will change of time, the digital impact, the way consumers are changing, and so on. We also need to look at how leaders are behaving, staying flexible, getting to know their teams, and keeping them safe and healthy.
As we prepare to live in a COVID world, it’s important to protect lives and livelihoods while maintaining business continuity. But it can feel overwhelming, like an avalanche, handling the wide range of issues involved in doing so — for instance, lots of employees being off sick at once and a lack of motivation or commitment. Employees also live in different countries, where responses to the pandemic have varied wildly, so even though we face the same storm, we’re not all in the same boat — one size doesn’t fit all.
The generosity of spirit has been key. More people feel a personal, intimate relationship with their company because of how they’ve connected virtually, but such virtual work life means it has been hard to draw a line between work and home. In helping employees do so, we do what we can to support customers and do the right thing by them.
Redeployment has been a key strategy, for instance, creating more customer service roles, sending people out into the community. We now know we can learn and adapt if needs be.
We’re looking at 10 years disruption for companies shifting towards digital models, and that’ll play out differently in each case. But companies need to think about how people are now behaving to serve them properly, to give them the products they need. We’re seeing the same disruption in how we work.
Employees were already demanding more flexibility, but a lack of trust prevented employers granting it. Now they know their workers can do their jobs well from home. They’ve had no choice but to learn to trust, and current models of WFH might stick.
Digital meetings have been hierarchy-free, have needed greater structure, and have been shorter and more focused, which is great. But we’re all missing real human interaction. When we come back to the workplace, we need to keep the best elements of both, retaining greater flexibility.
We will, one day, return to normal life — socialising, travelling, etc — but the nature of work will remain forever changed. Working from the office has become a right, not a duty. 70–80% of employees now prefer working from home, but the rest would rather come into the office.
We’ve now seen what we’re capable of, how adaptable we are, how we can trust and collaborate, and we need to inject that into our usual change programmes.
How will the role of the employer need to evolve in a post-crisis world?
Trust is critical. Employers need to step up, to be there for both workers and customers. The pandemic has given them a chance to behave properly, because all eyes are on them, and employees look to them for guidance.
There’s also a growing feeling that businesses shouldn’t be making a profit right now, and that execs shouldn’t be getting bonuses, while others suffer. It’s not seen as doing the right thing. Frontline workers should see an increase in payments in this instance. People before profit!
We need to be more confident in linking purpose and profit, as the latter is a by-product of doing something important for society and doing it well. With profit, we pay dividends — and not to fat cats, but to shareholders whose pensions rely on them — and invest in R&D.
On a different note, COVID-19 is an accelerant, rather than a change agent, as it is accelerating trends that were already happening — especially the shift towards digital. Automation means the need to retrain and re-skill was already there. Part of our duty as a company is to help people achieve this.
We should also celebrate our successes in this area to build the momentum necessary for recovery.
Unemployment is going to be the defining challenge of our time, and we need to look for systemic solutions to create jobs, reinvent education, allow for the teaching of new skills, etc. Saying we will take care of people isn’t enough. We must do more.
For many companies, a recent issue has been ensuring their public statements are consistent with their internal narrative — in relation to both COVID-19 and the George Floyd situation. We’ve learned we need to do more, and also be open about our failings to do more fast enough. We have to move in a more empathetic and systematic way, but that isn’t always easy.
How do we protect employee well-being, physical and emotional?
People always remember how you made them feel, so how we treat people is paramount. Really get to know employees, their families, and aspects of their lives. We’re apart but it doesn’t mean we can’t connect. Really try to understand their struggles and find ways of alleviating them — mental health apps, for example. Use tools at your disposal and create the right culture using those tools. In the future, we should lead differently and understand our people differently.
The home and the office environments are becoming one and the same, so support is essential, as is giving people space and privacy. Using digital tools helps leaders feel they know their team better, because video calling means it feels like you’ve been in their homes. We have a chance to redefine what we mean by working, creating adaptability, flexibility and productivity. All of this benefits companies.
Going back to purpose and profit, we now need to focus on what we do and do it well, returning to the fundamentals of the service we perform. Essentially, we have to go back to the basics and profit should be seen as a secondary goal, not a purpose, as capitalism would have us believe.
Once the debate concluded, the panelists fielded a few questions from the audience:
What is the impact of digital poverty on the new world of work and the options available for individuals?
Digital skills, or the lack of them, will be the divide. Income inequality will worsen, and a lack of digital skills will mean many people can’t access the jobs of the future. Therefore, we must work on ensuring digital fluency for everyone.
What have you learned through the crisis you didn’t expect?
Smart meter-installers delivering medicine to customers!
Will the drive to people before profit lead to a more environmental society?
This pandemic has forced the issue onto the table, and people will demand a more environmental society from the government and businesses — and they will demand it quicker than they might have done before. The same goes for other issues.
What skills should organisations focus on as they develop a thriving new normal?
Specialist and technical skills will be important, but so will linking them with what we wrongly call soft skills — for example, teaching people, empathy. They’re actually the hardest to learn, and machines can’t replicate them well, so they will be the most valuable in the future when we’ll need to constantly re-skill and change.
Mona concluded the webcast, saying that, although the discussion deviated a little, with panelists talking about purpose and future work, all these things are interlinked. We at EY, she added, have long been talking about building long-term value, and being purpose-led and considering a wider impact on society will put businesses in a stronger position as we work through the crisis, recovery and into the future.