Post-Covid recovery, restructuring & reskilling: resetting the agenda

With the end of government pandemic support for employers and furlough schemes imminent, business representatives, professional bodies and consultancies are setting out how organisations can recover.

An illustration of people wearing face masks
Summer Issue 2020 cover image
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Whether you see Covid hastening the changes in the world of work, prompting a significant reset or a situation somewhere between the two, there is no doubt that the next few months will be no holiday from our day to day worries.As a marker for the financial impact on businesses around the world, GDP measures are experiencing the biggest falls in Q2 since records began and unemployment is predicted to spike with the end of job retention schemes globally.International managers, HR, global mobility and business leaders are all therefore facing big questions around how to deploy people in these unprecedented times.

Times are changing 

Delivering a keynote speech at the CIPD’s Festival of Work in June, London Business School professor of economics, Andrew Scott, an expert in the link between health, worklife and longevity, acknowledged the high levels of uncertainty in global economies and set out how employers can respond.Governments around the world have closed down their economies to safeguard their populations’ wellbeing – itself a significant shift in public policy, said Professor Scott. The policy-induced recession has precipitated an opportunity for people to show care, be kind and support their communities and employees.“Covid is an accelerant and a stress test,” he said. “For the budget projections you’ve all made, you are never going to get those back. This is a permanent loss and means we all have to adapt. Try to ignore the bad news about GDP because that is a lag indicator. Firms need to focus instead on what they should be doing.”

Global talent mobility: moving forward from Covid-19 in 

From an HR and people management perspective, “this is a challenge for leaders and all of us,” said CIPD CEO Peter Cheese in response. “How are we going to create sustainable organisations and treat our people?”Management consultants and professional services firm Mercer has examined Covid-19’s impact on mobility through the lens of its regular cost of living benchmarking and in the context of globalisation. Its latest study shows how people on international assignments have been able to work from home or return home temporarily.The question is whether this is sustainable in the short term, bearing in mind Professor Scott’s assessments around budget projections and the unpredictable nature of recovery, especially in mature economies, cited in IMF research.Summer-Issue-in-text-banner1Ilya Bonic, head of Mercer Strategy, agrees this a moment to take stock and reflect. “Rather than bet on a dramatic resurgence of mobility,organisations should prepare for the redeployment of their mobile workforces, leading with empathy and understanding that not all expatriates will be ready or willing to go abroad,” he said.

Lenses to consider for your company's post-Covid response

From this perspective, Professor Scott set out five areas he’d like organisations to focus on in the post-lockdown recovery and seek to support personal and organisational well-being for a sustainable response.
  1. Stick to the mission, not the plan: economic shocks disrupt so plans need to be reconfigured in line with purpose.
  2. Don’t sow seeds in winter: it’s easy to confuse hard work with productivity, but use your resources wisely.
  3. Manage the bounce-back: GDP, supply and demand have fallen hugely, but when these come back on stream, be prepared.
  4. Seek robust, not optimal, policies: focus on long-term, not reactive, projects.
  5. Pitstop recessions: winners spend time not moving; while resources are idle right now, it’s an opportunity to reconfigure, fine-tune and put in play the areas where you have placed your bets.

Compassionate management in the post-Covid workplace 

Conversations like these at the CIPD Festival of Work and in other professional communities are beginning to flesh out how HR and global managers and employers more broadly can reduce the impact ofredundancy, restructuring and curtailed investment on overseas expansion programmes on their workforces, and make changes in as positive a way as possible.“There is a bow wave ahead of us of redundancies after the end ofthe job retention scheme,” said Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, talking at the Festival of Work session on trust. “How are we going to make unlockdown happen? All businesses are worried about this.”Reputational damage, social unrest ofthe nature experienced recently in the US and UK, as well as already in France – and the faith employees put in the employers to do the right thing on every level – means how companies restructure post-Covid-19 is going to critical.“I’m very struck by Edelman’s Trust Barometer,” said Peter Cheese. “The most recent one, for 2019, shows that in business, the biggest determinant of trust is how you treat your people. This is a time when we will all be judged on how we respond.“If the 2008 put chief financial officers in the spotlight, then this pandemic has put chief human resources officers in the spotlight. For HR, it’s about having the confidence and courage as a profession to drive this.”

Time to trust and be trusted 

Joining Peter Cheese at the virtual festival’s session on how the pandemic has forced responsible business to show its face, Amanda MacKenzie, chief executive of Business in the Community, Veronica Hope-Hailey, university vice president (corporate relations) and dean of the School of Management, University of Bath, and Andrew Hill, management editor of the Financial Times, agreed trust is a focus now more than ever before.This is for everyone who remains in the organisation, as well as for those whose roles no longer exist or have changed dramatically. Andrew Hill, Financial Times journalist, said: “It is extremely likely some companies will come out of this having ruined trust because ofhow they have read the situation. It is possible you can emerge with trust enhanced. What people do in this moment of unlockdown will be critical for their future.”Acknowledging every organisation is in a unique situation in this respect, Veronica Hope-Hailey said: “Some businesses are more in the spotlight and will have to be more responsible than others as they come out of the crisis. For example, those like banks, where people can’t run their lives without them. They are under great scrutiny when it comes to how they are going to make redundancies with integrity.”

Making compassion a reality in a virtual world

Acting with responsibility and compassion is difficult, yet even more important, in these times of transition. Many employees remain unable to be physically present in workplaces. Collective and individual consultation about redundancy or redeployment will therefore be challenging. Video-conferencing technology has its limitations and is no panacea for face-to-face conversations and the human touch. What can HR and global managers do then as we all move on to the post-pandemic world?Veronica Hope-Hailey offered a three-step approach. “First, think about how to deal with those who lose out. Academic research shows that someone can feel a decision is unfair, but their sense ofinjustice can be mitigated ifthey feel how they were treated on an interpersonal level and the procedures are fair.“Second, think about your survivors. Show how you are working from a strong values base and a sense of purpose.“Third, don’t become the scapegoat. Get business managers alongside you. You may be the messenger, but don’t carry all the blame. And watch and care for those leaving the business.”

Be creative about skills 

As the CBI, the CIPD and others have said, the skills agenda is a critical piece of the bigger puzzle. This is especially because, as Professor Scott highlights, there is a temptation for businesses to replace people with cheap technology, rather than technology that augments human skills as we go into the recovery.How businesses partner with higher education and further education and invest in their workforces will remain critical for lifelong learning and developing the skills that organisations need.UK business representative body, the CBI’s outgoing director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, warned in a letter to PM Boris Johnson on this issue that without immediate intervention, pre-crisis inequalities across regions, gender and race will worsen. “Time is of the essence. Smart, fast policy is needed now to accelerate the process to minimise the human cost.”
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