Continuing business when business continuity is interrupted

building a better employee experience

As with all unforeseen threats, COVID-19 is prompting individuals, small and medium-sized enterprises, and large corporations to reevaluate habits that have long gone unchallenged. The outbreak is stress-testing our resolve and our resilience. Those that will emerge fighting fit will balance tough economic decisions with empathy.

For, while the pandemic remains foremost a human tragedy that requires constant vigilance and swift action, thoughts about the way we work are also coming to the fore. Who can work remotely? Do we really need that conference? How can we make virtual meetings more engaging, inclusive and productive? How ready are we to embrace digital working and digital healthcare? Even before the crisis, one in three employees said they were anxious about job security, data from Mercer’s forthcoming 2020 Global Talent Trends Study reveal. The novel coronavirus will do little to calm those fears.

And so, while organizations prepare to ensure business continuity in response to different scenarios, we find ourselves needing to experiment with new work patterns and embrace a new normal to minimize disruption. Companies ahead of the curve will be those that place empathy at the heart of their mandate (thriving employees are twice as likely to work in companies that balance their economic decisions with an empathetic outlook). It is the balance of empathy and economics that will win in an evolving and unpredictable world. In other words, companies that care enough to place people and productivity metrics side by side, while simultaneously confronting COVID-19 and its economic fallout and stimulating future demand and refueling their focus to build a better, brighter tomorrow.

This year’s forthcoming Global Talent Trends Study points to how companies can respond to the pandemic and focus on what matters by applying the new decade’s empathetic imperative.

Commit to stakeholders

With the vast majority of business leaders (85%) agreeing that an organization’s purpose goes beyond shareholder primacy, now is the time to match actions with words and make decisions with empathy and equity for all stakeholders. This includes supporting supply chains and the economies that rely on the company. For example, Microsoft has committed to paying normal hourly wages to non-employees (such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers) whose pay might be interrupted by the many Microsoft employees working from home.

Another imperative is to provide a sense of security and trust. Indeed, trust is a significant factor in employees’ sense of thriving. The 2020 study found that thriving employees are seven times more likely to work for a company they trust to prepare them for the future of work and twice as likely to work for an organization that is transparent about which jobs will change. Building a strong community around a common purpose and sharing the vision is vital to communicating that the company cares and has a plan for different scenarios.  How we handle communication and change is critical at this time.

And as people worry about their health, this is the time to confirm the organization’s commitment to well-being. Calm messaging, employee assistance, and mental health apps all have their place day-to-day. It also may be prudent to reexamine the relevance of company benefits: virtual yoga sessions or discounts for online shopping might become highly valued. The good news is that 68% of employers are likely to invest in digital health in the next five years.

And if the pandemic lasts for a long time, fundamental issues of well-being will be at stake. Epidemics are historically associated with a rise in depression and anxiety. And this year, a clear majority (61%) of employees said they felt at risk of burnout before 2020 even got started. Are employees’ partners covered by income protection? Do benefits extend to family members? What financial advice is on offer? For instance, outdoor retailer REI has modified its paid leave policy to guarantee the income and benefits of employees who miss work or have to care for family members. All these need to be communicated — in part to reconfirm a company’s values and focus during these unprecedented times. How employers respond to well-being issues like stress, burnout, and uncertainty will be a hallmark of their attitude toward responsibility and sustainability — a critical attitude given that 61% of employees trust their employer to look after their health and well-being and respect companies that deliver on this responsibility.

Kick start skills

Executives are swiftly adopting future of work strategies to compete in response to a possible economic downturn. If macroeconomic conditions continue to be unfavorable, companies see this as an opportunity to double down on new ways of working such as strategic partnerships (40%), using more variable talent pools (39%) and investing in automation (34%). Front of mind is modelling supply and demand under various scenarios and interventions, such as how to manage variable and fixed costs, when global supply chains are disrupted and workforce-discontinuity doesn’t have an end date.

With the quickened pace of automation, it’s no surprise that executives and employees are reflecting on how this will impact careers. The Mercer study reveals that business leaders rank reskilling as the top talent activity capable of delivering ROI this year, while employees say the #1 factor in thriving is the opportunity to learn new skills and technologies. Yet, for employees the biggest hindrance to learning is lack of time, according to our study.  As we rethink our work models and embrace digital tools, we also have to redefine our priorities and nudge people toward those activities that protect their future.

In this respect, the current crisis may offer the opportunity to kick start reskilling. Providers such as General Assembly and edX offer on-point courses and, with potentially a change in workload, employees may be well positioned to take advantage of online learning. But to realize learning’s full benefit, organizations will have to be transparent with employees about the new roles reskilling could lead to. Take the time to have clear career conversations with employees about the skills required to move along a pay range and/or qualify for other jobs within or across departments. People who feel well-informed about their future career path are more likely than others to take up reskilling opportunities (83% versus 76%) and are more likely to stay with the company (54% versus 46%).

Share what you know

In the last five years, HR has moved data up the value chain and seen a significant jump in its use of predictive analytics. This is a major development in the growth and value of workforce analytics. Finally armed with insights, organizations are shifting their focus toward gaining measurable value from analytics and honing their market-sensing and analytics capabilities to enhance talent management practices.

But as companies weigh the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, are organizations measuring the right things? This year, the study shows 53% of companies are tracking the drivers of engagement, yet insights on training (down 6%) and burnout risk (down 25%) declined in prevalence. Digital ways of working bring more data sets we can mine, but also challenge our models of how we evaluate success and stay in tune with the sentiment of the day and its impact on productivity.

Exploring what metrics are most relevant and sharing them with employees provides insight into productivity inputs in a new, remote working and distracted climate. Many employees would be happy to receive meaningful findings and advice on how they are working on their well-being indicators.

Finally, as the workforce science discipline gathers force, it can supply vital forecasting insights to build business resilience in the future. Key to workforce forecasting is an enterprise-wide culture of experimentation. HR can work closely with executives, finance leaders and data scientists to explore how to mitigate the productivity and well-being fallout of such scenarios.

Promote the remote

For many organizations, the novel coronavirus has been a wakeup call to the possibilities of remote working and its impact on the employee experience. JPMorgan Chase, Twitter and Sony’s European offices are just some of the many companies asking employees to work from home. The challenge has been that only 44% of companies assess every job for its ability to be done flexibly. So what helps? Thriving employees say the most important factors for successful flexible working are: colleagues that are supportive of people with flexible work arrangements, a company culture that encourages flexibility, and managing performance on results, not hours worked. Design thinking with pilot teams working remotely are critical to seeing what needs to change to better suit these times.

Still, if not done well, remote working can exacerbate existing challenges with inclusion, accessibility and emotional support. Some simple tips for staying connected in times of social distancing can help:

  • Inclusive teaming when working remotely requires effort. To make sure every team member’s voice is heard, communicate expectations and agendas in advance, encourage people to be visible on the call, ask people to come with comments/questions, and set up discussions by hangouts and chats in between calls. Pre-brief senior people on your team to be vocal and embracing. Create an informal climate with small talk and be cognizant of engagement levels.
  • Remote calls require a redesign of the meeting. As a rule of thumb, halve the time you would allocate for a face-to-face meeting for a call where people are dialing in. Leverage pre-reading to ensure those who are more introverted or reflective feel ready to contribute. Small group preparation and post-group actions are vital to building team spirit. Establish new rituals.  
  • Take time to address the emotional, not just the practical. Take a few minutes at the start and end of a call to find out how everyone is feeling. Using the chat function to pose pulse-checking questions (e.g. “Use one word on how you feel about what we’ve just shared”) can be a great way to take a temperature check. Communicate that managers are still accessible by phone, even if not in person. Use old and new technology (phones as well as video conferencing services) to stay personal, especially with workers not used to working remotely. Don’t let email (and even chat) be the only way you communicate. The volume online can become deafening if not managed. Leverage community sites and project boards to train people in how best to stay connected. In our study, 22% of employees believe that some necessary human interactions have been lost, so finding ways to inject warmth and a bit fun into exchanges is a good idea.

The social distancing required in response to COVID-19 has, rightly, got many companies reexamining their digital work experience. Forty-seven percent of executives are concerned about employees’ digital experience — or the energy-sapping nature of not having it. Nearly half of employees believe there is room to improve on digital transformation: 20% of employees today say HR processes are complex, and a further 29% say they have been simplified but still have a long way to go. In the longer term, it will be valuable to revisit the company’s EVP and interrogate how technology-enabled HR processes are today and how capable work tools are with coping with mass remote services. Intermediaries such as ServiceNow, Mercer’s Mobility Management Platform and digital outplacement solutions can help.

How we care is how we win

Employees are understandably concerned about the health of their families and communities. And organizations are quite rightly putting the health of their people first (their #1 workforce concern this year). But financial market volatility, and the impact on individuals’ jobs is a mounting concern that is weighing on people’s minds. Meanwhile, businesses are examining whether their practices are agile enough to withstand unpredictable events such as COVID-19, if they are resilient enough to sustain themselves through this period of hardship, and innovative enough to stimulate demand afterward. We’re being challenged to do things differently — in companies big and small, on new platforms and with new technology, and we see new ways of caring for one another emerge. And in their wake we will not go back to how we operated before. Necessity breeds innovation. We are on the cusp of new ways of working and living that, if executed well, will build bright futures for us all. 

Kate Bravery
by Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer