By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff
As many countries around the world emerge from the first shock of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home restrictions slowly lift, many employers are quickly learning that returning to the workplace does not equal returning to life as it was pre-pandemic and is actually more complicated than locking-down. While employers look for ways to preserve their employees’ health and well-being and keep them energized and productive, they will have to balance empathy and economics, even in the face of tough decisions, finds Mercer’s Return to a New Normal white paper.
“Organizations faced with a global pandemic of such wide sweeping impact cannot predict what a ‘new normal’ will look like, but they can predict the challenges they might face,” said Martine Ferland, President and CEO, Mercer. “This uncharted territory has pushed employers to consider who should return to the worksite, when and under which conditions; how work gets done digitally; what it takes for employees to be mentally and physically prepared to return to work; and what measures are critical to ensure success in these turbulent times. To be as prepared as possible, it is critical to build a risk mindset, thinking through what protocols and policies as well as what range of reactions employees may have and how to implement necessary changes. Leading companies are taking a fresh look at how best to return, with one eye firmly on how to use this reset as an opportunity to reinvent.”
The ability to adapt quickly will be vital; employers will need to deploy a variety of proven channels for effective communication, while also providing tools and support for managers to accomplish these goals. As the pandemic unfolded in stages, economic recovery will also likely happen in stages, but it is clear that as employers progress on return practices, they will need to continually revisit their relevance for changing times. While each organization faces unique sets of challenges and variations by location, there are distinct issues that are top of mind.
Return safely. To manage both clinical realities and government guidelines, HR and business leaders are working together with internal stakeholders such as facilities, occupational health and safety, and risk management to re-imagine workplaces, reshape physical customer interactions and understand the reality of the new employee experience. Workplace readiness plans that are flexible and adaptable—and that continually audit safety within or outside the worksite—will prove invaluable.
Organizations should consider using dynamic navigation tools that rely on the latest science and epidemiological data to anticipate—as well as monitor—developing situations. These types of tools can help employers decide when to initiate rotational or remote working and to what degree. Before bringing people back to the worksite, employers are seeking plans that emphasize the health and safety of employees and their families. According to Mercer’s COVID-19 pulse survey, 63 percent plan to provide facemasks. Additionally, insights into what PPE inventory is needed, when and where, and the range of testing available are part of an informed and dynamic return strategy. More than half of employers (56 percent) are implementing a staggered return to the worksite to allow greater social distancing.
Since not all jobs need to return to the workplace and not all work-from-home arrangements will outlive COVID-19, organizations are re-examining remote, flexible and blended working arrangements. Mercer’s research found that two-thirds (66 percent) of firms have arranged for greater flexibility to work from home, and data indicates employers are taking the opportunity to evaluate which roles can thrive in a remote-first environment.
Many employers want to get back to growing their business, however, there are concerns associated with the complexity of navigating a new economic order and the challenges with re-engaging employees. Outsourcing activities such as the responsibility for employees’ retirement plans might be considered to alleviate the burden on internal resources.
Return to stability. Gaining stability and planning a path back to more robust financial and operational performance is crucial. As employers move beyond initial cost deferrals, cost reductions and preserving as many jobs as possible, they are likely to enter a different environment with a stronger focus on the bottom line and their employees’ productivity. Rigorous prioritization of programs and processes will help companies determine what their organization needs to do to sustain their workforce for survival and growth. Alternatives to furloughs and layoffs will be considered, such as outplacement services or temporary talent sharing. Longer term, changes in pay associated with “work from home” moves or transfers of headcount to lower cost locations or to contingent talent may be part of the solution, along with a reexamination of benefit plans and automated HR processes.
The pandemic has demonstrated how adaptable most people and businesses can be, and this has become a cue to embrace disruption. While employers are pressed to do more with less, a focus on transforming the business and HR is now front of mind. As a result, they are considering how to quicken digital transformation and re-design HR processes to make them both efficient and crisis proof. They are also looking at where to invest and divest strategically to drive growth and how best to pivot top talent into growth opportunities. Many more are defining new leadership behaviors fit for a new age, along with sustainability goals to reshape the organizations culture and reset employee expectations.
Return to energy. As plans to return to a new normal begin to take shape, employers have a real opportunity to reaffirm their direction and values. Communication activity around updated goals and their impact on the employee experience will help drive a wave of new day-to-day practices individuals recognize and value.
With employees’ expectations for their employers to take care of them at an all-time high, companies ahead of the curve are taking the opportunity to reconfirm their value proposition and align benefits to values. Mercer’s research found that 39 percent of firms say they will review employee engagement efforts as a workforce priority in the next three to six months.
“Knowing what employees want and what is happening in their lives can ensure a personalized experience, even when the experience is remote, blended or still to be defined,” said Kate Bravery, Partner and Advisory Solutions & Insight Leader at Mercer. “Engaging employees in transparent, empathetic communication practices that will foster trust and strengthen the employer’s culture is vital. Combining data with a transformation of HR will enable companies to deliver an intimate employee experience via both people and technology.”
Importantly, how organizations treat their people during the pandemic will set their talent attraction trajectory for years to come. Innovations and new ways of listening, learning and responding to employee concerns are emerging by the day. Specifically, healthcare access and coverage has been top of mind for both employees and employers. Healthcare delivery will change as employers adopt forms of technology like access to virtual care and behavioral health, online learning and re-skilling opportunities, mental health programs and caregiving support.
The near- to medium-term will be a rollercoaster as employers digest the full emotional and economic consequences of the pandemic and anticipate new waves of contagion. Employees will require energy and confidence to thrive—whether back in the workplace, still at home or embarking on assignment. Sustainable organizations are paying attention to make sure progress is not lost in areas such as D&I and pay equity.
“In many ways the pendulum of responsibility has swung from the public sector to the organization. Brand equity will be vital coming out of COVID-19. Employers that take systemic actions to improve the representation of underrepresented groups will achieve long-term success and the benefits that go along with it,” said Ms. Bravery. “I think the most important factor is that ‘respond, return and reinvent’ are not a linear relationship as organizations contend with a localized response to COVID-19. None of us has a crystal ball to predict how this situation will evolve, so companies must remain nimble and willing to adapt quickly for the sake of their people, while keeping an eye on their own reinvention.”
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