By Andie Burjek
May. 22, 2020
While the buzzword “the future of work” is often thrown around as if it’s the new, exciting, sexy thing, it just refers to a reality that’s always been true. The economy changes, technology changes, and social trends impact the way people want work. Workforce management — as a field that relates to employees’ wages, schedules, promotability and more — can be impacted by large economic and social trends as well as technology.
Smart workforce management professionals pay attention to what trends impact their organization and workforce and plan ahead. Some trends relate to the COVID-19 pandemic and others relate to forces that existed much before that.
Based on information from various reports and expert interviews, these workforce management issues are some of the most immediate for 2020 and what practitioners should be thinking about.
In environments like factories, workplace safety has always been a point of focus, while the same could not be said for the average retailer or office setting. “All of a sudden, that’s changed,” said Matt Stevenson, partner and leader of Mercer’s Workforce Strategy and Analytics practice. Due to COVID-19, employers are concerned with how the work environment must change to ensure employee safety.
Currently, this is one of the most significant workforce management issues, he said. I’s impossible to predict how long this hyper-focus on employee safety will last. He surmised this depends on whether a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and when.
Stevenson gave the example of polio. Before the vaccine it was a serious threat, and there were polio epidemics globally. After the vaccine was created, safety issues related to polio stopped being a concern. On the other hand, he added, viruses like HIV still don’t have a vaccine decades after being identified in 1981.
Shifts in the way work is done
One outcome of COVID-19 is that certain jobs are done differently, Stevenson said, especially with remote work. Some organizations did not change their operating models because they didn’t have to, and the pandemic made it so they did not have a choice.
For example, the use of telemedicine has grown since the pandemic started, Stevenson said. Telemedicine has existed for years, but there was some resistance to it, and it was often underutilized. With a pandemic that limits physical contact, people began embracing telemedicine. It’s possible this trend could continue after the pandemic ends.
That’s what happened with retail stores, Stevenson noted. Online shopping for goods of all types is the norm these days, although consumers still can visit brick-and-mortar locations.
Industries like hospitality, leisure and travel have been especially impacted by the pandemic, he added. It’s difficult to imagine how a shift to something more online-friendly would look for these organizations.
The future of the physical workplace
Whether remote work will be as accepted after the pandemic ends is still unknown, but there’s a possibility that organizations will be more open to a largely remote workforce.
As employers think about their return-to-work plan, they may start with only bringing people in they have to, Stevenson said. From there, a large portion of the workforce may remain remote. This could lead to a big picture question of, “Do I need this big, expensive office space if I can just have employees work from home instead?”
This is already happening in the tech sector. Twitter recently announced that staff can work from home permanently.
Not enough flexibility for employees
Deloitte’s “2020 Global Human Capital Trends” report highlighted organizations that took employee-friendly approaches — giving employees more jurisdiction over their work schedules and offering them new flexible time off programs. These approaches are designed to allow employees to “live and work at their best” ultimately had positive impacts for companies. Company culture was improved, and teams saw better communication and collaboration.
More flexibility is good for worker well-being, which is good for business, according to the report. It surveyed respondents on how they have redesigned work to promote well-being in the organization. The top three answers were “giving workers more autonomy in how they do their work” (45 percent of respondents), “using technology to promote connectivity and collaboration” (41 percent) and “increasing flexible and/or predictable scheduling” (39 percent).
“Worker input is critical to understand what changes to work practices may have the greatest impact on well-being,” the report noted. For organizations who want to take this route, they need to think about how to get that employee input and act on it.
Interestingly, the report also noted that forward-thinking organizations should “stop obsessing about generations,” which leads to too many oversimplifications about employees. Ultimately most people, regardless of their generations, want many of the same things in a workplace — including their preference for flexible schedules.
A larger focus on workforce science
Mercer’s “Global Talent Trends 2020” report highlighted the need for HR and workforce management professionals to get better at workforce science — a practice that can help professionals address many workforce management issues. For example, the survey found that only 24 percent of respondents said their organization has data on who is at risk of burnout. Only 43 percent of organizations surveyed used metrics to identify employees likely to leave, and only 18 percent have looked at the impact of pay strategies on performance. This is an area organizations can improve on in future years.
The report didn’t paint a grim picture, though. Mercer’s surveys have found that the use of predictive analytics has increased from 10 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2020. While there’s more employers can be doing with analytics, they’ve also been stepping up their game the past five years.
“The good news is that the workforce science discipline is gathering momentum,” the report stated. “That said, insights into workforce management could be adopted more widely.”
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