Overnight we went home. By the end of March 2020, nearly 50% of the world’s population was in lockdown.
The UK alone saw a jump of around 5% of the population working from home to just over 60%. For sometime now the debate has raged – is work something we do or somewhere we go? Suddenly 55% of the working population had the opportunity to ask – why am I commuting/travelling quite so often? What is the real work?
“Nudge policies” became popular in the early 2000s. Put sugary drinks on a hard to reach shelf. Ask people to opt OUT not IN to organ donation. The concept is a relatively subtle policy shift that encourages people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest. It’s not about penalising people financially if they don’t act in certain way. It’s about making it easier for them to make a certain decision.
In many ways Covid-19 has acted like the ultimate nudge policy – perhaps more of a shove than a nudge but the analogy holds. Concerns about productivity, about teaming, about collaboration had stifled the transition to a truly flexible working lifestyle. Large parts of the economy maintained it was still too hard – that face to face was the only way. But by the middle of March those objections were being nudged aside. Needs must.
As the early adopters of remote working had always maintained, two things were crucial to the success of the ultimate home working experiment. Technology and communication. Overnight live streaming platforms like Zoom and Teams multiplied their user base many times over. On 1 January 2020, Zoom had 2 million users. By the 31 March 2020, that stood at 100 million and counting. Virtual teaming and working applications saw almost overnight adoption as the norm – sharing screens, virtual whiteboards, KANBAN boards, cloud storage, online messaging. Familiar to some. Suddenly universal.
Certain parts of the economy had always been particularly resistant. But forced into a position of “no way out” the transition has been hugely successful. On 1 March, NHS England estimated that by simply moving 5% of GP consultations to virtual appointments, 300,000 face to face meetings a week could be avoided. And 20% capacity added into the system.
As it is, most practices have moved to a 90% online triage system – and it will be particulary hard to get this genie back into the bottle – patients like the flexibility; GP’s like the ability to process more patients.
Call centres are another example – the view was always that it was impossible to manage call centres remotely. There were pockets of “difference”. Companies that specialised in allowing their customer service teams to work flexibly – in terms of hours and location. But productivity and security were always the two biggest concerns. Covid-19 forced business and government into a rethink and the relatively simple application of software (monitoring security, productivity and deploying AI to reduce the volume of traffic going to a person) and training has meant that customer service teams are able to be deployed remotely AND effectively.
Location is just one part of the equation. Lockdown has taught us to be more savvy, more creative about the necessity of that trip, that commute. But has it also taught us to reassess the more pressing question – what is the real work?
Another potential benefit that we may have to wait a little longer to feel the benefits is around the talent pool we can draw upon if flexible and remote working become more common place. With more employers now using remote candidate selection, embracing AI and conducting blind interviews, many of the old issues around bias are being chipped away.
Couple this with the possibility of recruiting from different geographies and leaving behind traditional work methods should open the door for more workforce diversity in all its forms – tapping into new sources of talent, but also enabling (at last) the talent ecosystem to flourish. If people are able to sell their skills rather than their hours, working across clients and jobs, organisations will be able to draw on entirely new pockets of talent, cost effectively and flexibly.
Talent is a perfect example of the real opportunity we are being presented with. The opportunity to take this moment to challenge the status quo. The question isn’t so much – “Can I do this meeting as a video call?“ as “Do we need this meeting?”. Creative solutions to being productive are suddenly far more acceptable. Couple this with a wider debate around trust, around how you build engagement and loyalty, around what the new employee value proposition is?
Employees are often closer to the customer than the manager, let alone the Board. How do we include them in the circle of innovation and adaptation – product, service, delivery. How do we allow our people to be at the heart of the product, trust them with its development and delivery?
There remain huge problems to overcome – just because in a crisis people have been forced into remote working doesn’t mean it’s the right answer permanently. It would be dangerous for organisations to assume that working from home will land positively with all employees. And if we are to move our working patterns in that direction there will need to be significant investment in technology, in culture change, in building a compelling EVP that works virtually and isn’t reliant on a central hub or office location to build loyalty.
The return to work will not be smooth or happen overnight. Lockdown is not binary but transitional. A huge range of options exist, and an even wider range of approaches will be taken. But we have a moment. An opportunity to re-examine all our working practices, what we value, what we want delivered.
Will I really send furloughed employees back to the same job with the same expectations? How could we redeploy our people more effectively? What does location really mean – and does it matter? How do I engage? And what skills do I need?
Business leaders have talked a good talk about ecosystems and organisations where people are managed based on skills, not hours or level. Can we deliver that? Can we manage it?
How will we use AI? How we do create a hybrid between what machines do and learn and what my people do and can learn? What does a team/employee/manager look like in 2021?
2020 is a hard re-set. An opportunity to recover, re-deploy and re-imagine.