COVID-19 has had devastating effects on businesses of all shapes and sizes around the world. This has caused a drastic shift in conduct and behaviour at work. It is affecting organisational culture, human interactions at work among others. Various measures have been put in place to contain and curb possible spread of the disease.
Employees move from home to work each day, and this increases the daily risk of contracting the disease. Just one infection at the workplace can cause multiple other infections. This has the propensity to bring the business to a temporary halt. It can cause a permanent collapse of the business if such a situation is not handled well to boost customer confidence and safety, especially those visiting the premises for business. The stigma associated with the disease has affected some individuals and businesses.
Many of the technologies that were already in place but not of much importance to business have over the period been helpful. Many organisations had several reason why they could not use such brilliant and efficient technologies. Surprisingly, businesses have quickly embraced these technologies and found their usefulness.
From remote working to digital events and virtual reality training facilities, these technologies have now become an essential part of our day-to-day work-life, and are here to stay. Is this the end for the world of work as we know it, and will this crisis mark the tipping-point for a new beginning?
A large portion of organisations currently either encourage or require employees to work from home. Organisations have now designed flexible working schedules that allow people to work from home. The few others who go to an office have also been put into teams of smaller numbers, just to be able to manage numbers in the office. Interestingly, these remote-working mechanisms have proven to be effective and convenient for both employer and employee.
Nevertheless, though some industries – e.g. the technology sector – were already familiar with remote-working, the crisis has forced workers in almost every sector to adopt such tools and techniques. Obviously, this became the only means of survival – especially during total or partial lockdowns.
The use of chatbox, webinars, podcasts, live-streaming, tweeting and getting instant feedback, among others, on customer request is an indication of the way forward leading to the full adoption of AI. Weekly team meetings have been held using zoom, polycom and team apps; and they have been done successfully.
Board meetings, Annual General Meetings among other high-profile meetings and engagements have been very fruitful using these technologies. Organisations therefore need to build capacity in order to be digitally proficient and adjust to increase their chances of survival.
Projects have been launched using virtual means through Facebook live, twitter, YouTube etc. It was previously almost unthinkable to suggest these means of launching a project which would have seen many people in attendance.
Not only are we witnessing a technology shift, we are also seeing a shift in values as the crisis forces organisations and their people to reassess what’s important to them in both their personal and work life. This is because SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being) seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being. SDG3 seeks to strengthen the capacity of all countries – in particular developing countries for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks. Both employers and employees must be socially responsible citizens, and therefore conduct themselves in a manner that will entrench this global goal.
Organisations have the responsibility of providing a conducive work environment for employees and customers at all times. Again, every decision or activity that risks the lives of employees, the community and environment should not be entertained. For companies, this could mark the moment to move beyond shareholder value and embrace a new triple bottom line: people, planet, purpose.
Businesses are presently in an era called ‘the now of work’, and projecting the future of work has become obvious. The workplace will change, considering the ‘new normal’ – and prominent among the many foreseeable changes will be:
Flexible by design: Remote-working will become more permanent. We’ve experienced at breakneck speed that it can be done; the technology is available, and workers quickly learned how to work, meet and collaborate digitally. The current pandemic has demonstrated the need for a flexible organisation that can rapidly adapt its way of working to ensure business continuity in case the next crisis or unexpected event unfolds.
Just a few organisations can and will remain in a completely remote state, but the majority will embrace greater flexibility to support different work situations and scenarios for their employees. It will increase the effectiveness of individuals and teams, and it gives organisations opportunity to allocate office space in smarter, more efficient ways. This in turn will appeal to the younger generations who embrace work-life integration, by making choices on how and when they get their work done.
Contactless office: It’s hard to imagine today, but I am sure most of us can recall a time when we went to the office with a cold – without thinking about the risk of infecting others. Those days are gone. With companies now focused on creating a safe and healthy workplace, the need for a contactless work environment increases. In fact, the first office that offers a near-contactless environment was recently opened in Estonia. No need to touch door-handles or buttons as the doors and elevators are accessed via smartphone, and the building does not require physical security staff. The system uses biometric verification accessible through a smartphone.
While companies are rearranging their offices to respect the social distancing guidelines – which are expected to remain in place for a long time to come – more needs to be done to ensure a healthy and safe workplace of the future. Increasingly, we will see implementation of smart building technologies to enhance the employee journey through the office and to reduce the ‘high touch’ areas (where many fingers are touching the same surface, therefore increasing the risk of spreading infections).
Re-purposing the workplace: COVID-19 will not only change the way we work; it will also affect the reasons why we go to an office in the first place. The rising trend of a mobile workforce does not equate to extinction of the office space, but there is a clear need to redefine the office’s purpose in the ‘new normal’. The office is transitioning from a place to be productive and process work, to a place for being creative and to facilitate spontaneous interaction. The flexible, open-office space is no longer fit for purpose. Not only is it difficult and stressful to work and concentrate in an open and noisy environment with continuous distractions, but it also can spread infections more rapidly – as staff often work at different desks during the day or week.
The physical office will – just like technology – become a tool to perform; a place where people would like to go to for specific tasks. With the increase in connected devices, sensors and biometrics, workspaces will be able to recognise an employee and apply personal preferences for adjustable desks, lighting, cooling and music. The data that is generated in these connected environments enable organisations to optimise the workspace – both from a cost and functionality point of view. Flexible by design, it will be a vital tool to support and enable a productive, mobile workforce.
It is clear that the current crisis has accelerated an unprecedented change in the way we work, how we communicate and collaborate with each other, and how we learn and develop. Maintaining a sense of belonging, sustaining productivity and enabling innovation in a virtual model demands not only different management styles and skills, but also investment in tools and technologies, training and physical and mental well-being.
The adoption and use of AI and technology is more likely to happen in advanced countries; but nevertheless, businesses in developing countries can module this in phases and pilot them to ensure compatibility with their business. This becomes the surest way to be kept in business and ensure survival, since it has come to stay with us.
Organisations are now dealing with a multi-generational workforce comprised of four generations, each with vastly different experiences and expectations. Business success will largely be based on how effectively companies manage such diversity and use it to their advantage. The millennial workforce is increasing at the workplace – and they have a taste for freedom. Hence, the design of a flexible corporate culture and work environment that will accommodate their needs and ensure discipline, hard work and the maximisation of productivity should be the focus. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to address this need permanently, ensure their inclusion and boost their morale.
A flexible work culture will drive employee well-being and fitness through work-life balance. There will be enough time for employees to take good care of their health. Finally, it will encourage as many people as possible to pay the needed attention to their health and develop positive lifestyle habits which will ensure total wellness.
The writer is a SDG Advocate and Lead Partner SDG Alliance-Ghana and Atos.net
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @ghanasdg Facebook: SDG Alliance-Ghana Tel. # 0244204664