How leaders can future-proof their workforce

As COVID19 is becoming part of everyday lives, leaders need to stay ahead of the game.

We need to continually reassess the risks of working remotely, including the emerging risks of returning to the office. It’s also vital to be informed by the latest trends and research.
By Irini Agollari – Legal, Risk & Compliance at InnoWell

What worked pre-COVID, may not work again.

A recent Gartner poll showed that 48% of employees will likely work remotely at least part of the time after COVID-19 versus 30% before the pandemic (1).

Staff have shifted their expectations, working-habits, vigilance-levels and adapted to a new normal. As a result, we have to adapt with them and update our approaches.

Whether you’re an optimist who thinks a vaccine is just around the corner, or a pessimist who thinks we’re years away from it, it’s all irrelevant when it comes to preparing for the workforce of the future.

There is little chance of going back to our ‘normal’ office lives. COVID or no COVID, there is a new normal, a new way of working which includes working from home as well as working from the office.

Change has happened, and it is here to stay. Leaders must adapt in order to support their people and ensure business resilience with increased efficiencies and higher productivity.

How leaders can future-proof their workforce

What do we know so far? Lucky for us, there now is research and analysis we can (and must) rely on to future-proof our workforce.

Microsoft conducted a study of brain waves of over 2000 people working from home, which revealed that sustained concentration in video meetings leads to a phenomenon now known as ‘remote meeting fatigue’.

Safe Work Australia has produced a wealth of resources for employers to ensure they adequately manage risks relating to working from home.

We are also seeing journalists showing an increased interest on the topic, with the AFR writing about the casualisation of professional life, in an article titled ‘Goodbye power suit: will the office become more casual?’.

Even Adam Grant (an unlikely candidate), wanted in on the action and has explored (in a Ted-Talk) how science can help address the risks associated with remote work.

 If you’re not keeping up with the latest research trends, then you’re risking making decisions that are not evidence-based.

As business leaders, we have a responsibility to stay current and relevant, in order to help our people thrive not merely survive COVID19.

How leaders can future-proof their workforce

What are the risks of remote working?

A survey of international opinion identifies the following risks that have emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives upside down.

  • Isolation – Even without the added risk of contracting the virus, it is well established that isolation and disconnection can be a detriment to our mental health, putting us at risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Poor work environment – The majority of people spend their day working from the kitchen table or any other area in the house that isn’t filled with children or noisy housemates. In fact, a global poll found that only 35% of respondents in one study have a dedicated home office (2). So, it’s no surprise that distractions, internet connection issues, and lack of ergonomic work environments are key risks in remote work.
  • Organisational changes – New staff arrivals, can’t be celebrated as easily. The ability of newcomers to quickly form close working relationships is often hampered by the lack of face to face contact.
  • A yearning for water coolers – Working remotely is foreign to many office workers. The storied ‘water-cooler’ (or, more recently, coffee machine), which provides much positive interaction and growth in relationships, is no longer available.
  • Working from home often means working twice as hard – Some employees, especially women, are often faced with two demanding jobs – looking after small children (even supervising their education), as well as their normal workload. A recent survey showed that parents find it difficult to meet household demands whilst working from home – with 54% of parents experiencing stress.
  • Reduction of income – As companies are faced with a significant downturn to their revenue, they are having to make difficult decisions, with staff hours being cut. A reduction in income often leads to added stress of meeting regular mortgage, utility and childcare payments.
  • It’s all well and good to have surveys confirm our suspicions around the isolation, lack of proper working space, and overall added stress our people are facing, but how do we address these issues? What works and what doesn’t?

    What can leaders do to address the risks?

    As an extrovert, my first response to anything and everything is – communication, transparency, and more communication with your staff.

    This time, I am standing corrected because the data tells a different story – it says we’re overdoing it.

    In an effort to demonstrate agility and adapt, we started using tools – Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Video Chat (and the list goes on) – on a daily basis, for hours on end.

    Those outside the tech industry, who were new to this way of working, could not contain their enthusiasm. They jumped all in and filled their diaries with endless, consecutive e-meetings.

    Research suggests that video meetings are one of the factors that leads to fatigue and isolation (3). Why? Because we’re continuously focused on our screens in order to absorb information without the physical, non-verbal cues, nor the ability to ‘read the room’ and check in with each other.

    This is particularly hard for introverts – who are always wondering, is it my turn to talk? Before they get a chance, someone else has jumped in and ceased the moment.

    Lastly, researchers also found that screen sharing – the tiny view of the people in the meeting – makes it difficult to interact and engage with the content on the screen and leaves people feeling frustrated.

    How leaders can future-proof their workforce

    These findings are not unique, they were confirmed by a study in Microsoft’s Human Factors Labs which established that brainwaves markers associated with overwork and stress “are significantly higher in video meetings than non-meeting work like writing emails”. (4)

    Further, the high levels of sustained concentration mean that fatigue starts to set in early, 30 minutes into a meeting… making the days feel long and painful.

    Tech giants like Microsoft and google are quickly adapting by introducing new functionality to their tools which helps mitigate some of the risks with remote work. Examples include the Together Mode and Dynamic View, which make meetings more engaging by using AI to dynamically optimise shared content and video-participants.

    Leaders need to be across these developments and invest appropriately in digital solutions to combat remote-meeting-fatigue and isolation.

    How leaders can future-proof their workforce

    However, technology isn’t the whole answer, we need to think more broadly about our duty of care to our staff, and how we go about creating an environment where our people can thrive, not merely survive this crisis.

    Here is a list of non-digital strategies and solutions, that make working from home easier, for our people.

    Non-digital options to consider:

    • Ditching the e-workshops and the video-big-get-togethers where only the loudest people in the room get a word in and for the most part, they paraphrase each other. Ask yourself, what is my objective here and can I achieve it in a different way?
    • Encouraging in-meeting chats as they are shown to help people share their views and feel connected, without the anxiety of potentially interrupting someone.
    • Locking in breaks throughout the day – you can even introduce gamification around this, to create a culture where taking a break is something that is celebrated.
    • Limiting meetings to 30 minutes
    • Investing in ergonomic equipment and offering financial assistance to those who may need a desk or monitor. If this is outside your means, allow them to borrow office equipment (chairs, desks, monitors) so they can be better set-up at home.
    • If you’re an organisation that takes pride in its flexible-work culture, then embrace the future and let your people ‘get the job done’ on their terms.

    Research shows that weekend work has potentially increased by 200% since the pandemic with more staff logging into work on the weekends.

    As leaders, we need to be looking at these trends and adapting, together with our people in order to get the most out of them.

    Finally, I’m not one to love quotes nor clichés, but I couldn’t resist with this one.

    It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.

    — Charles Darwin

    (2) Harris Poll Survey commissioned by Microsoft on May 26-30, 2020 among 2,285 total adults ages 18+ who are currently working remotely across the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and China