What do healthy workplaces look like post Covid-19?

Global people functions truly stepped up this past year. But as hybrid working becomes the norm, more needs to be achieved, especially around wellbeing and employee engagement.

Autumn 2021 magazine cover
This article is taken from the latest issue of Think Global People, the new home of Relocate Magazine.
Click on the cover to access the digital edition or read all of the articles on our website.

Severe skills shortages are impacting all parts of the global economy as life returns to some kind of normal. A Kelly OCG Global Workforce Agility survey finds 58% of firms surveyed in the UK say their ability to recruit talent has worsened over the last 12 months, compared to 41% globally.“As restrictions have lifted over the past few months, we have seen employer confidence shoot upwards, and the confidence in hiring has reached a new record high,” commented Kate Shoesmith, Deputy CEO of the REC, in reaction to the UK’s buoyant employment data this summer. However, the REC also signalled a warning to employers.“A number of factors, including the ‘pandemic’, are causing serious staff shortages now. Businesses will have to think hard about their offer if they want to attract staff, not just in terms of pay but also benefits, working conditions, and work-life balance. We have the opportunity to shift perceptions around flexible working once and for all and make it a positive option.”

Pandemic heightens challenges

The pivot to widespread remote-working (RW) and international remote-working (IRW) – and now hybrid working models – prompted by government health advice during the first phases of the pandemic to “Stay at Home” was met with widespread approval from UK business representative bodies like the CBI, CIPD and the Institute of Directors after research found productivity increased.The most recent global research into productivity, published in early September by talent advisory and solutions company, Adecco, and seeking the opinions of 15,000 office-based employees, found 82% feel more or as productive than before with a hybrid working model.Yet research is more mixed for employee wellbeing. Some data suggested people were happier working from home, while others highlighted the negative impact on wellbeing from balancing work and family demands.A study released in September 2021 by Hitachi Capital Business Finance surveyed a nationally representative sample of senior decision-makers in small businesses. Eight in ten with children still at home were feeling positive about a return to the office. This compared to 53% of those whose children have left home and 69% of single adults without children. The key reasons were looking forward to a proper work routine (47%), with around a third also citing missing “looking smart/professional” and “being able to see/socialise with colleagues again”. These aspects highlight the valuable role work can have on people’s self-identity and wellbeing.From an inclusion perspective, the CIPD’s Good Work survey for 2020 found that people with pre-existing conditions reported their health worsened over the pandemic. For the professional body for HR and people development, the key to successful hybrid working models is ensuring protected characteristics continue to be safeguarded as ways of working evolve, as well as ensuring that young people affected by the pandemic have access to quality jobs and good work.
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Managing people risks

The pandemic has clearly tightened the focus on people issues in a way like never before. Global HR consultants Mercer Marsh Benefits survey of over 1,300 HR professionals and risk managers around the world found people-related issues featuring in the top five risks for both global and UK businesses alongside challenges like cyber security.Talent attraction and retention is number two among global respondents and number three in the UK, where the top concern is managing employee’s deteriorating mental health over the pandemic. Workforce exhaustion also weighs heavily on the UK and global top ten, at positions 6 and 4 respectively.Interestingly, a study by global healthcare benefits provider Aetna International finds that 87% of expats surveyed believed family healthcare-related employment benefits to be important when considering a job opportunity abroad and more of a priority than the financial package and career prospect of the role.Dr Hemal Desai, Global Medical Director at Aetna International says, “In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, people understandably want to ensure their families are looked after and are looking to their employers for support.“We’re yet to understand the mid- to long-term implications of the pandemic on people’s physical, and mental health with the raised anxiety levels globally, both directly and indirectly. No doubt the reported potential delays to treatment owed to hospital and health care system backlogs will only add to people’s stress.” Damian Lenihan, Executive Director of Europe at Aetna International, suggests, “The pandemic has likely encouraged people to think more about the quality of healthcare they can access. With the value placed on quality healthcare by expats, international employers may need to consider if their healthcare policies meet expectation levels and stay competitive to attract the best talent.”

A new kind of leadership?

Amid talk of a national mental health crisis and employees based at home cautiously returning to the office, getting employee engagement right is going to be critical to the post-covid economic recovery and workplace renewal.A Mercer Marsh report with the Rewards and Benefits Association (REBA) finds that HR teams are well aware of the challenges. The top five areas that HR teams will increase their focus in are:
  • 85% employee wellbeing
  • 84% flexible working (time/location)
  • 68% diversity and inclusion for minority ethnic and racial backgrounds
  • 65% diversity and inclusion by gender.
With HR this past 18 months more than proving its fundamental role in delivering sustainable business and good work over the pandemic, consultancies and professional bodies are supporting HR teams to consolidate the leadership role of the people function and the standing it has worked incredibly hard to develop this past 18 months.Debi O’Donovan, Director of Reward & Employee Benefits Association commented, “In this time of turbulent change it is crucial that HR not only work more closely with their CEOs and CFOs to drive through business transformation, but within HR they need to remove silos between disciplines and encourage flexibility.“For example, Reward has to work with the CSR team, Talent with Pensions, Development with the D&I team, and so on. The interplay today is crucial in achieving true workforce transformation and engagement.”

Flexibility and personalisation

In the global people and mobility sphere, the RES Forum’s 2020/21 research report, International Remote Working: The emergence of a new paradigm, ties all these themes of flexibility, wellbeing, inclusion, engagement and productivity together in a research-based practical framework for action.It cites three trends in international mobility that have come to the fore in the pandemic that are likely to persist:
  1. Some company-led global assignments will convert to international remote working
  2. Talent-led assignments with developmental focus are likely to revert to physical moves
  3. Employee-led assignments for personal reasons are likely to increase.
This requires global people professionals to continue to adapt and flex to the demands of the current workplace renewal. “Individuals are on a journey that needs to factor in their work obligations, as well as their personal situation,” says the RES Forum’s report.“This is expressed well by Gary Keller, ‘Work is like a rubber ball. If you drop it…it will bounce back. Family, health, friends, integrity are made of glass…if you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.’“It is within this force-field that individuals must find their way. Teams (and team leaders) may include their friends and may have to develop an understanding that part of the rubber ball of work is to be highly flexible when individuals want to undertake temporary IRW.”
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