Business Resilience through an Enabled Workforce

The COVID-19 global outbreak presents critical challenges for companies to continuously assess and address. Business responses, both short and long term, should be built on a clear understanding of the impact of the disease on the company’s capability to implement its strategies, while living out its purpose and values. The global pandemic has exposed underlying weaknesses in every organization, foremost of which is the reality that the organization’s human capital has become the first line of resilience. Because of this, companies will need to adopt enterprise-wide responses, from the human resource function up to the Board, that aim to protect its most valuable – yet vulnerable – resource.

For many companies, the first agile response has been to find alternative ways of working to support and enable their people. In most cases, this has been to implement work-from-home (WFH) policies as much as possible.

Work from home (WFH)

WFH has become the new norm for many jobs and roles to maintain some level of productivity while protecting employees from physical exposure to the dreaded disease. However, having a WFH mindset requires preparation, discipline and practice. Some organizations that were already operating in a WFH environment pre-COVID-19 are reaping the associated benefits, including office space efficiency, better employee engagement and higher productivity. These better prepared organizations already have the right protocols in place, such as managing remote work from employees, dealing with connectivity issues, information security and many others.

However, many companies in the Philippines were caught by surprise and had to implement WFH in a very short amount of time. These organizations were forced to suddenly identify, articulate and enable WFH practices covering various aspects of its business from policy to technology issues, from finance to change management, and others. Truth is, some companies are still making up the rules as they go, and in fact, many companies especially SMEs, may only be able to begin implementing WFH protocols after the quarantines are eased and they can return to their offices and resources.

Actual WFH Implementation

It is likely that many companies have business continuity plans that they immediately implemented because of the pandemic. Yet, we recognize that many plans may not have considered the immense scale, complexity and challenges of suddenly transitioning your workforce to a WFH arrangement. Many companies were unprepared – in fact, there have been stories of companies that needed to suddenly procure thousands of laptops and accommodations for staff just days before the quarantine took effect.

Technology considerations

In order to maintain productivity, employees will need to be provided a modicum of stability in their working conditions at home. Naturally, the environment will be different – there may not be centralized air conditioning and quick access to a secure computer network, among other things. Companies will need to plan for and purchase computers and laptops, as well as arrange for stable internet connections for their people. For employees living with extended families, privacy and security may also be issues to address with the provision of earphones and security cables. This is not as simple as procuring new computers. Companies will need to come up with new policies to ensure accountability of company property, processes in the event of employee non-performance or resignation, and prepare for increased operational costs for remote internet connections, among others. Yet they also need to balance these additional and unexpected capital costs against other savings, such as reduced power consumption, leases, and potential medical expenses from employees who may become infected if they were not working from home.

Psychosocial considerations

In a sense, all of us are finding ourselves adrift in uncharted waters. For almost all of us, never has there been such a period of sudden enforced confinement for entire populations, with attendant feelings of stress, fear and social isolation. Companies need to anticipate the rise of psychological issues among its people on a significant scale. Some of the ways to address these will include effective, timely and regular communications to provide reassurance and clarity on the company’s plans and strategies. They should also establish touch points where employees can connect with each other and provide much-needed mutual support from feelings of disconnection with their respective teams and the larger organization.

Virtual meetings or one-on-one video call could be done to allow colleagues to interact with one another “face-to-face.”  Virtually replicating non-work activities or office traditions such as having birthday celebrations may promote engagement and give a sense of normalcy. Recognizing that people who work remotely is prone to the ill effects of isolation, leaders need to regularly touch base with their team members to talk about work and personal challenges.

Companies also need to understand the new working reality. People working from home are likely to have more distractions and personal responsibilities to manage such as childcare, elderly care or chores. Companies should establish clear ways of working during this time, particularly around remote working, virtual teaming and personal schedules. Allowances will need to be made for compromised working conditions and human resources leaders will need to update policies to reflect new WFH policies.

Reinforcing your culture and values

Setting a clear and short roadmap for your organization’s objectives in recovering from COVID-19 will mobilize and galvanize your employees around a common goal. This is also an opportune time to create a communication campaign to rearticulate your values to keep people grounded in the familiar and give them a compass for navigating uncertainty. Communicating the company’s roadmap and presenting regular updates to all employees enables employees to support the organization’s objectives.

What’s next?  Business reimagined

We all need to accept that life and work, as we know it, will be vastly different from here on. WFH is but the first step that companies will need to take to attain a truly enabled workforce. New plans and strategies will need to be developed. Additionally, for industries or occupations where WFH is not an option, such as for our heroic front liners and medical personnel, what will the future nature of work be like for them?

As early as now, organizations will need to pivot and plan for the possible physical return of their people to the workplace. This is no easy feat considering the difficult balance between employee safety and commercial viability. To enable an organization and its people to adopt to the new work environment, jobs need to be redesigned along with business processes that support needed technology.

1.   Reimagine a new workplace – Employees will need to familiarize themselves with stringent new protocols and practices at the office to promote physical distancing, limit group interaction, mandate the use of PPEs, and apply minimum health and hygiene standards. Work conditions will need to be reassessed and modified to limit the possibility of infection, such as temperature checks, changing the office layout and seat plans, reviewing work schedules, determining the appropriate employee capacity in office areas, and frequent regular sanitation and disinfection. Existing workplace concepts, such as the “Open office” will likewise need to be revisited.

In addition, companies need to consider the work premises as well. Those operating in multi-tenant buildings will need to find the right balance between internal and common health security practices. Leaders will also need to adopt new measures in dealing with vendors, suppliers, concessionaires and service personnel.

2.   Reimagine new work behaviors – From the moment they step out of their homes, employees will need to adapt to new practices and rules, such as in transportation, food availability and very limited social interaction. Everywhere they go there will be tight health security measures that may start feeling restrictive after a short time. The mere necessity of wearing a mask while working may cause discomfort after extended periods of time and thus impact productivity. People will need to learn to work in semi-isolation, even when at the office, due to the necessary limits on physical and social contact.

3.   Reimagine new ways to support your people – Approaches to employee engagement will shift with the changes in working conditions. In addition to closely monitoring employees’ mental and psychological health given these stressful changes, companies will also need to come up with relevant guidelines for employees, such as training and official company events. Virtual activities and platforms could replace the usual initiatives that require physical presence. Compensation and rewards policies will also need to be revisited to better align with the new ways of measuring productivity. Companies may also wish to explore new benefits that address COVID-19 related concerns to give employees more peace of mind, such as beefing up HMO packages.

In the long term, reimagining jobs and working conditions to address business continuity challenges like COVID-19, is a must. Those who can quickly adapt and transform are not just likely to survive this crisis but may even come out stronger and more resilient.

Aldwin Aris C. Gregorio is a People Advisory Services Executive Director of SGV & Co.

This article is for general information only and is not a substitute for professional advice where the facts and circumstances warrant. The views and opinion expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of SGV & Co.