HR professionals are bracing for another challenging year as the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to change how we work.
Over the past nine months, employees have grappled with working remotely, missing the face-to-face connections with customers, partners and colleagues that often make each day more meaningful and fulfilling. And the loss of in-person events and conferences hasn’t helped, making it harder to learn from industry thought leaders and connect with peers.
Even with a proven COVID-19 vaccine in place, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll return to the pre-pandemic era of bustling offices and packed conference halls anytime soon.
The world has changed—and it’s up to us to adapt. Fortunately, HR professionals are an inherently adaptable lot and accustomed to managing change. That makes them key players in helping other employees adjust to this new world of work.
Researchers and infectious disease experts expect the restrictions on travel, in-person business meetings, crowded workspaces and events will continue well into 2021—and may even be permanent. Here’s a look at how COVID-19 may change the future of work (forever?) and how HR teams can ease the transition.
Corporate travel on the back burner
During quarantine, many organizations have found that costly corporate travel isn’t necessarily a “must have” to close sales contracts, engage new partners or connect with potential talent.
In fact, they’ve discovered that video calls work nicely (and certainly more efficiently) when it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships and securing key business agreements. This has been eye-opening for operations and finance teams that are always looking to improve the bottom line.
So it seems logical that corporate travel will likely continue to diminish as videoconferencing replaces meetings and networking. According to the US Travel Association, in 2019 alone US corporate travel spend topped $334 billion.
McKinsey, a global consulting firm, estimated that global travel costs reached $1.4 trillion in the same year. Then COVID-19 hit last spring, and US airline capacity decreased 70%—perhaps the catalyst to a long-term trend. It’s hard to turn a blind eye to that kind of savings, especially if it doesn’t have a negative impact on your sales.
Remote work is the new normal
New research from Forrester predicts remote work will rise to 300% of pre-COVID-19 levels. While it’s unclear if and when we’ll go back to the office, it’s obvious that organizations must boost remote worker productivity and engagement.
That means focusing on overarching company goals and prioritizing customer needs to drive profitability and growth during a particularly perilous time—at O’Reilly, I call this “first principles.”
Forward-thinking organizations have already invested heavily in technologies that support the remote workforce, including collaboration tools, videoconferencing, and artificial intelligence (AI). These technologies help foster greater personal connections between teams while encouraging spontaneous collaboration—all crucial drivers of productivity and creativity in the workplace.
That said, it’s hard to replace bumping into a coworker at the proverbial water cooler. So we have to make extra efforts so employees feel like they’re connected to the organization and its culture.
HR teams should help encourage company leaders and managers to regularly check in with individuals to see how they’re handling the challenges of remote work. Ask if they have the resources they need to get their jobs done and inquire about their families and their well-being.
This kind of outreach makes people feel valued — something all your employees want and need. But it’s particularly important for your highest-performing employees, since they’re the ones most likely to leave for better opportunities if they don’t receive it.
Investing in new technologies helps managers stay better connected with employees while boosting their productivity and effectiveness. At the same time, the democratization of AI, machine learning, the cloud and burgeoning workplace technologies can speed up the completion of important projects and improve team collaboration.
HR teams should encourage managers to train people on these new technologies, and champion new initiatives to help teams upskill and reskill. This enables your organization to empower a more modern, highly productive workforce that derives greater satisfaction from their work, as many mundane tasks can be automated, freeing employees up for more creative and meaningful endeavors.
Training & education is the new T&E
AI and automation will continue to play an even greater role in how teams learn new skills and technologies. One of the benefits is in-the-flow learning, which gives employees the tools they need to quickly solve problems while working so they can get back to what they’re doing with minimal disruption.
With in-the-flow learning, employees don’t have to sit through a three-hour training video or attend an in-person session that requires traveling on their own personal time.
Instead, they can take on a new technology or skill while in the midst of work, learning in quick bursts that help them complete existing projects. Thanks to several new learning solutions and tools, in-the-flow learning is now more accessible than ever, and you can be sure it’ll empower the workplace of the future.
A sometimes overlooked but key component of remaining successful in the age of remote work is the adoption of soft skills. The qualities and abilities that make someone a good leader or coworker are the same whether they’re in a crowded office or thousands of miles apart—communication, teamwork, adaptability, and time management. But how you hone them and apply them requires some adjustment.
In this new world of work, the ability to adopt the hard skills I’ve already mentioned with understanding how to put soft skills to work will emerge as important superpowers for managers who seek to motivate their teams —regardless of location — and achieve business goals during these uncertain times.