Looking ahead – trends we might expect to see

I write this as we find ourselves in the eye of the Covid-19 storm.  Most countries are in some form of lockdown; cases are increasing as we climb towards the peak of infection.  For some it may be too early to be contemplating the employment world as we emerge from this pandemic, but those already planning for the medium term will want to have an eye on these possible trends.  One thing is certain:  employer brands can be built over this period, but they can also be damaged.  We’ll only know how each have fared when some normality returns; by then it might to too late to respond.

I’ve tested this with a small group of clients, but also with a few millennials.  There’s little dissent.

So, what can we expect?

  • Agility is paramount.  Remote working can be effective, but the traditional top-down chain of command is less so.  It’s the idea behind the “team of teams”:  the themes of ‘shared consciousness’ (everyone needs to know where we’re heading) and ‘empowered execution’ (trusted to act appropriately).  We’ll see an acceleration of this; the need to have a truly networked organisation.
  • Flexibility will have to be a given.  Now employees have been “sprung” from the box, they won’t want to be put back in again!  Employees will be more demanding about finding an approach which works for them.  We are likely to move further away from the core office hours mentality.
  • Empathy and understanding: the need for leaders to really tune-in to their team members and ‘walk in their shoes’.  It’s challenging in person; doing this remotely presents another layer of difficulty.
  • Despite the technology, we were still largely dependent on face-to-face interactions, but with so many excellent collaboration tools this might finally be the turning point for fewer meetings, especially international ones.  This could catalyse the sustainability agenda: do we need to go back to how it was before?  This could bring into question the use of physical office space:  will organisations find they need all they have today?
  • And whilst on sustainability we’ll be much more aware of the throw-away society we’ve created and there’ll be a backlash against waste, of any sort, including at an organisational level.
  • Purpose: we’ve seen the rise of this in the last 5 years.  It’ll grow more.  Most of us will be touched personally by this crisis; we know that from the statistics.  Employees will want to identify with a sense of purpose:  “I do this because……..”
  • Linked to this, CSR will have an even greater focus.  One of the (few!) positives coming out of this has been the incredible community support for neighbours/ elderly/ vulnerable.  Here in the UK the government has asked for volunteers to support the health service.  Within 24 hours they had already received around 300,000 applications; within 4 days it had grown to 750,000!! Organisations will need to do more to demonstrate more actively their social usefulness and tap into this desire to give something back.
  • Acceleration of automation/ AI.  We’re on this journey already; this will accelerate.  Organisations will have been blind-sided by their level of dependence on people; they’ll want to plan better next time and look hard at the pace of change.  There’s a natural tension between this and the need to build the employer brand.
  • Global/ local- probably one of the trickier areas.  I think this will force a close examination of supply chain and many organisations will want to revisit global connections, perhaps moving more on-shore and reduce dependence on other jurisdictions.
  • Resilience/ mental health– fortunately this has been on the agenda for some time, but it’s really being tested now!  Provision will already be in place to support mental health challenges, but more might be needed for some time to come.
  • Reward agenda will need to adapt.  Most countries have introduced generous schemes to compensate businesses, organisations and individuals impacted by the pandemic.  We can’t yet compute the impact on the debt burden, but we know it will be huge and tax regimes will need to respond.
  • Contribution from all- perhaps another positive by-product will be the visibility given to many “hidden” workers away from the front line of business:  IT professionals supporting the systems; HR responding to changing needs; finance professionals carefully monitoring working capital; and many, many others. We may discover a renewed awareness and respect for our human interdependence.

But will things really change?  I, for one, hope so, in many respects mentioned here.  For the moment, let’s at least initiate the discussion.

Jeremy Franks, Partner, Aretai LLP

March 2020

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