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12 uplifting changes COVID-19 could bring to the world of work

By Travis O'Rourke, President, Hays, Canada

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly brought tragedy and turmoil, there’s no understating that. However, some genuinely positive changes have come about as a result of the disruption.

In the early stages of the crisis, you might have understandably imagined that the initial interruption to our lives would only be temporary, and that after a little while, things would generally return to ‘normal’. But actually, what many of us have now realised is that the ‘normal’ we once knew may never fully come back.

However, if – as seems increasingly likely – the COVID-19 pandemic does signal the start of sustained, permanent change to how we live and work, that might not necessarily be a bad thing. After all, if you think back to your pre-crisis life, was everything exactly how you would have liked it to be?

Over the past few months, most of us have spent more time at home than we ever have before. On a personal level, that has allowed for more time spent with family, and perhaps opened our eyes to new hobbies and pastimes. But the pandemic has also had, and is still having, a huge impact on our professional lives, on our world of work – so much so, that these changes are signalling a new era of work. As strange as it might seem to say given the circumstances, there have actually been many good things that have come out of this experience that will shape our new ‘normal’ working lives.

Here are 12 of my thoughts on what those positives changes are – changes that are potentially here to stay:

1. We’re learning lessons we never would have otherwise

The crisis has taught many of us lessons we could never have even contemplated prior to the pandemic. This has been an invaluable learning experience, one which has opened our eyes to so much which had previously gone under the radar. One example of this is how the period of uncertainty has lead us to now be more confident in adapting and learning as we go. We’ve had to accept that we don’t always know all of the answers, nor can we predict what’s coming, and we’re ok with that.

Several of our recent podcast guests have given insights into what some of those other lessons could and should be. Business Psychologist Gordon Tinline, for instance, has spoken about “the need to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about how we can change, what we can change, what we can adapt in our roles and working lives”, urging professionals to consider how they can organise their activity and influence to enable them to make a stronger contribution to their workplaces.

He has also suggested that people use this time to ask themselves “how can I adjust my role or try to so that it plays to my personal strengths and meets my objectives in a way that’s bringing out the best in me.”

Meanwhile, Simon Lance – Hays Greater China Managing Director – has underlined what he has personally learned from the crisis, including the need for organisations to suitably prepare to “move digital and stay digital at short notice”. He also spoke about the significance of how organisations communicate “from the executive level down to general staff”, explaining that for CEOs and business leaders, there is now the need to be “much more visible” and to talk to staff “more frequently about what is going on in the organisation, in the world, in general”.

The key lesson for us here, is that rather than fearing change or challenge, we’ll now see this as an opportunity. We now know that disruption, or a shift in ‘normality’, provides us with a chance to learn lessons we didn’t realise were there in the first place, and to embrace new or different perspectives we’d never appreciated before. In short: our eyes have been opened and our attitudes have changed, for the better.

2. We’ve got better at self-reflection

Before this crisis, I suspect that a significant proportion of the people reading this blog often felt swept away with their busy lives. Perhaps you wished you had more time to pause and think about where your career was heading, instead of constantly running on a metaphorical treadmill?

The coronavirus crisis has meant that greater numbers of us have had the opportunity to take time to analyse and reflect on whether we are genuinely happy in our personal and professional lives. The pandemic has made many of us more mindful of the need to regularly reflect and reset. So perhaps this will become more of a habit for us all going forward? Rather than us being so busy with life that we don’t get time, or even have the inclination, to do so.

Regular reflection can be key to success. In fact, research from Harvard Business School has shown that taking time to reflect on your career can actually improve job performance. One of the study’s researchers, Francesca Gino, states, “When we fall behind even though we’re working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection.” This goes to show just how powerful more regular self-reflection really is – not just for allowing your mind to rest from the constant work treadmill, but to actually improve how you are performing. Here are five tips from our CEO, Alistair Cox, for how you can do exactly that.

3. We’ve redefined what we perceive as ‘valuable’

Before our lives were hit by this crisis, it’s probably fair to say that a lot of us may have lost sight of what is actually most important in life. I think it’s a reasonable judgement that many people, including myself, led such hectic lives before the pandemic – spending hours on end travelling to and from the office each day, attending those back-to-back meetings and conference calls, and often staying later in the office than we should. But the crisis has forced us to change our routines. As a result, perhaps the things that mattered most to us before the crisis, don’t feel so important now?

As our CEO, Alistair Cox discussed recently, “The COVID-19 crisis has changed people for good. It has forced us to re-evaluate what really matters to us, and what really matters to the world. It has forced us to question if we are spending our time on this planet in the best way possible, recognising that we are just visitors. On the flip side, for some, it may have reinforced their views and made them stronger.”

One of the great things that being forced to work remotely for long periods of time has brought is that many of us have been able to spend more time with friends, family and in our communities. This, in turn, has altered what we see as a priority in our lives, realising what truly makes us happiest.

It’s likely, then, that many have been re-evaluating their career choices, and now have a stronger desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. This could breed a generation of workers who are more passionate about how they feel about their work, and what their work achieves for the wider world.

4. We’ll benefit from more flexibility

Widespread remote working has also demonstrated to most leaders just how productive their workforces can continue to be even when everyone is working from home. And, as lockdowns around the world now start to ease in some countries, we’ve seen the rise of ‘hybrid’ workplaces, for example, whereby some team members are based at home, while others are in the office.

This sudden shift to remote work has encouraged many business leaders who may have been unsure or even against remote working to provide more flexible working options for their employees going forward. As our CEO, Alistair Cox said, “The ‘luxury’ of working from home can no longer be reserved only for the trusted few or positioned as a perk or benefit. Pre-pandemic, many managers were cautious of remote working. […] In most cases, the coronavirus and the need to suddenly work remotely has proved them wrong.”

In fact, we’ve even seen many large companies implement remote work on a permanent basis as a result of the crisis, for example Twitter have newly informed staff that they can work from home ‘forever’ if they wish, and tech giants Facebook and Google have extended their remote work policy to the end of 2020.

Such flexibility has given and will continue to give employees greater freedom to balance their personal and professional lives, including those whose caring responsibilities for children or other vulnerable people may have heightened during this pandemic.

5. We’ll have greater autonomy in our roles

The introduction of widespread remote working has significantly impacted the level of autonomy experienced by employees. Managers have needed to trust in their employees’ ability to deliver from afar, as they have no longer had anywhere near the same level of control or oversight of their team members’ working days. In addition, organisations have had to completely pivot their business models during the crisis, causing shifts in employees’ day-to-day work, with many picking up new or alternative responsibilities.

Not only do we now have more autonomy in shaping our roles and tasks, we also have much more freedom and control over our schedules and routines – something that is certainly a positive. After all, as our CEO, Alistair Cox reflected recently, “Give your people the freedom and autonomy to craft their roles and pursue their passions. Over time, all of this will build confidence in you as an employer.”

6. There’ll be an increased focus on wellbeing and mental health

This period has seen considerable numbers of people dealing with new stresses or difficult life situations that could have a detrimental effect on their mental health. We’ve therefore become more mindful of self-care, with many establishing healthier routines which have given a new perspective on life. Alongside the increased flexibility and greater focus on self-reflection, we’re building more supportive organisational cultures; one in which employees feel valued and cared for by their employer. Hopefully these healthy changes are here to stay.

It’s also been encouraging to see how employers have been putting greater emphasis on supporting their employees’ wellbeing. This is something that our CEO, Alistair Cox, has recently written about, observing how benefits packages have been changing with “some businesses extending benefits to dependants and loved ones, providing access to mental health and wellbeing apps (Experian is offering virtual yoga classes) and access [to] financial education.”

In fact, sociologist Tracy Brower predicts that solutions, employment benefits and wellbeing programmes will be key areas for organisations to embrace in the future of work. Isn’t that a brilliantly positive change for our world of work?

7. We’ll work in more compassionate workplaces

With an increase in mental health and wellbeing awareness, has come greater compassion in our workplaces. Many managers have been leading teams of people who are going through difficult challenges, whether in or outside work. As a consequence, they might have had to develop more empathetic approaches to their management style.

Some people may have additional caring duties, while others might have had to home-school their children while also fitting in work over these last few months. These are just some examples of the very real human challenges that many of us have been grappling with. If leaders wish to effectively support and guide employees facing such tests in their lives, compassion is going to be a key factor of workplaces going forward.

Not only that, but the remote way in which we’ve been working has forced us all to adopt a new level of empathy for our colleagues and their personal circumstances, after all, we’ve been given a virtual window into their personal lives. This has led us to become even more tolerant and compassionate than before. This is something which should stay with us in the new era of work; knowing that even if colleagues are working in the office again, we have a new appreciation for the demands they have in their personal lives.

8. Our collaboration and communication has improved

The way we communicate and collaborate with one another has completely changed during the crisis. As a result, we’ve had to develop new skills to help us work effectively.

During the early stages of the crisis, many of us had to quickly get to grips with new software, like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Slack. Whilst this may have been difficult for some initially, we can now see how this technology has enabled us to work remotely effectively. We’ve been able to work on the same documents or projects simultaneously with our colleagues, as well as to have group meetings and calls and continue seeing each other regularly, despite being miles away from each other.

Promisingly, many within our own businesses are reporting that they feel more connected to their teams now than they ever have done before, and I’m sure you’ve experienced the same. After all, we can be involved in team socials or virtual after-work drinks, now that we’ve become so accustomed to regular video calls with one another. This increased communication between teams – whether that’s work-related communication or other – has brought about a feeling that we’re all in this together.

The crisis has also demonstrated to leaders just how important honest and transparent communication really is, and many are vowing to keep this up in the new era of work. Indeed, in a note to business leaders and managers, our US CEO, David Brown, recently wrote, “We must remember that as we enter the next phase of the crisis, the questions we’re asked will be different, but the need for clear, honest and transparent communication will continue to be important.”

9. We’re becoming more creative

The challenges, changes and disruption we’ve all faced have meant that we’ve had to think and work more creatively, including when devising solutions to everyday problems in the workplace.

Your own business may have been forced to shift its entire business model, or to explore new or alternative products and services. Or perhaps individuals at your workplace have had to take on new tasks and responsibilities?

Whatever the exact circumstances have been for you and your organisation, it’s clear that we’ve all had to employ greater creative thinking in the COVID-19 era than we needed to do in our pre-crisis lives. Often, the usual solutions and problem-solving exercises weren’t applicable or relevant, and so we’ve been pushed to creatively devise new strategies and techniques that are relevant to the new situations and priorities brought upon us by the pandemic. Perhaps this means we’ll all be more confident working in a more creative way in the future, regardless of our role?

10. Our lives will be more sustainable

The pandemic has brought home to us how some of our pre-crisis habits could have been having a negative impact on the environment. If we just think about our working lives alone, many of us were driving or using public transport five days a week to commute into the office, buying lunches in single-use plastic every day, and spending evenings working overtime in artificially illuminated spaces long after everyone else had gone home.

Now, we are beginning to properly recognise just how unnecessary so many of these actions are. Looking back now at how the crisis has already profoundly changed the world of work, I doubt we’ll all go back to travelling to an office every day of the week – and just think of the difference this will make to our carbon footprints. Earlier in the year, the BBC reported that transport accounts for around a quarter of CO2 emissions globally. Making a dramatic change in the level of transport all of us are using every day will have a big impact on this figure.

Not only this, but organisations will now be expected to become more sustainable, if they want to attract new talent and engage their current workforce. Cutting the amount of printing or reducing plastic waste just isn’t enough now; we’ve all seen the impact our lack of commuting and travel can have on our world.

11. We’ll have increased focus on lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling

COVID-19 may have forced a pause on some aspects of our lives, but that doesn’t mean absolutely everything has stopped. Indeed, the most enterprising leaders and professionals have realised that the lockdown period was the perfect time to proactively learn and upskill in readiness for what could be a significantly transformed world after the worst has passed, including by making the most of online resources such as industry-relevant blogs, podcasts and webinars.

A lot of these educational resources are now more accessible than they were before the crisis. Training has had to adapt so that it can be delivered remotely in a way that has never been necessary before, which has helped to make it easier for many more people to upskill.

We’ve now established a habit of learning – and the need for it has really been brought into the fore. Hopefully, then, this will continue into the new era of work. In the words of our CEO, Alistair Cox, “The world is going to need talented people, that hasn’t changed. The type of talent they need might have changed, but we’ve all got the ability to learn. So, figure out what it is you need to learn, and go and learn it.”

12. We’ve experienced how powerful pulling together as one collective is

Finally, one other great thing that has come out of this experience has been how it has brought us all together. Although lockdown restrictions and safety measures such as social distancing have prevented us from physically seeing each other as frequently as was once the case, our eyes have been opened to how powerful our efforts are when we come together. In fact, a recent survey in China revealed that there’s been a shift in attitudes: “with [people having] less tolerance of individualistic behaviour and a greater tendency to recognise the contributions of others.”

All manner of reports have filtered through of people coming together virtually as one even while the coronavirus crisis has kept them physically apart, ranging from Indigenous Peoples sharing their culture through song and dance over social media, to schoolchildren competing in sports challenges.

We’ve realised what we can all achieve if we work together, so let’s try to maintain this collective thinking as we transition to the new era of work.

Taking forward the lessons into our new era of work

In listing all of these positives, I am in no way downplaying the serious personal and economic damage that the virus has caused – indeed, yourself or someone you know might well have experienced life-altering changes or losses as a consequence of this pandemic.

I believe equally strongly, however, in acknowledging the real positives of such sweeping change where they do exist. Now is the ideal opportunity for us to press the ‘reset’ button and instigate real positive change in our world of work, instead of slipping into our old ways. By coming together, we can make a lot of good happen from a bad situation, and shape a new positive reality for all of us, in and out of work.

About this author

Travis O’Rourke joined Hays 9 years ago after holding various leadership roles elsewhere in the Canadian staffing industry. Travis setup and established Hays’ outsourced talent solutions business and played an integral role in building Hays’ temporary and contract divisions throughout Canada. Initially joining Hays with a deep background in Technology, he holds extensive cross functional knowledge to provide clients with talent solutions in Financial Services, Energy, Mining, Manufacturing, Retail, and the Public Sector.

Travis is the Toronto President of ACSESS (Association of Canadian Search, Employment, & Staffing Services) and sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Canadian Consulting Businesses (NACCB). He has been featured in segments with CBC On the Money, BNN The Open, CTV National and other news outlets. Like Hays, Travis is also passionate about corporate social responsibility and is an avid supporter for Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.

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