Future of Work Series Part 1 - Looking back to move forward: Lessons learnt so far

By Robert Half on 17 August 2020

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to ripple through the Australian market, Robert Half organised the ‘Workplace of the Future’ roundtable and invited six business leaders to a virtual panel discussion on COVID-19’s implications on businesses as well as evolving priorities that may shape future growth opportunities.

The panellists included:

  • Andrew Bain, CEO at Recreo, a cloud-based administration platform for the superannuation industry;
  • Andrew Myers, VP APAC & Global Digital Strategy at WorkJam, an employee engagement platform for hourly employees;
  • Simon Turner, CIO at AxiCorp, a provider of margin Forex trading services for retail and institutional markets;
  • Hayden Vowell, Financial Planning & Business Performance Lead at Culture Amp, an employee engagement, retention and performance platform;
  • Richard Raj, Director, Principal Consultant at Knight's Move Consulting, a consulting firm specialising in Lean Digital services;
  • Clinton Marks, Director at Robert Half.

The roundtable was hosted by David Jones, Senior Managing Director at Robert Half.

Part 1 - Looking back to move forward: Lessons learnt so far

COVID-19 has been a shared force of disruption to the globe, forcing businesses of every industry and size to adapt to survive unfamiliar and ever-changing conditions. Indeed, almost 3 in 4 Australian businesses state they operate under modified conditions due to COVID-19 with 57% modifying the number of people allowed on site and 40% changing the way their products and services are delivered to customers, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

While the panellists all acknowledged that responding to the scale and speed with which COVID-19 precipitated change was a challenge, it became clear that with necessity comes innovation, and that without many of the barriers to experimentation that slowed progress under normal circumstances, companies have been able to progress and reimagine their customers, markets, workforce and business processes in positive ways.

In article 1 of a 5-part blog series covering this event, we share some of the key insights from these leaders on the lessons they have learnt so far:

The importance of acting on change with speed

In times of evolving crisis, addressing issues as they emerge and actioning rapid responses is the key to responding effectively and mitigating the extent of damages. Richard Raj says “In the past, we’ve focused a lot on reliability and ensuring redundancy plans are in place across the business. It seems now we should be talking about resiliency – accepting that things will go wrong, and focusing on the procedures, people and plans necessary to recover quickly from it.”

Alongside cultural readiness, an organisation’s embrace of digitisation before COVID-19 hit helped to chart their path through the crisis. In Andrew Bain’s experience, working with a company who were culturally open to disruption and had already implemented cloud-native operations meant that they were seamlessly and rapidly able to transition to remote working arrangements with few constraints on bandwidth or productivity. This sits in contrast to many of his peers, particularly larger professional and financial services institutions, still working with legacy systems and a siloed approach to technology who needed to upturn their existing operating model to adapt which in turn slowed down their ability to absorb disruption as a more agile organisation could.

Disruption will be a constant presence

As businesses entered 2020 and a new decade, digital transformation initiatives were widely considered to be the most disruptive commercial force facing corporate agendas. Few could have anticipated the immense disruption that they would encounter in a few short months.

“COVID-19 has really signalled the need for businesses to prepare for disruptions and how they impact the future of the labour force - not just pandemics, but digital transformation as well. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to eventually fade into something quite small compared to what's coming. So the future has to be that we are and need to be a lot more ready and resilient,” Richard Raj says.

Throughout the panel discussion, it became clear that being capable of embracing disruption through agility – particularly towards digitisation - may be the defining trait of those who successfully navigate their recovery, particularly as the full force of disruption is expected to reverberate through the market for months and potentially years to come.

One of the key forces of disruption that Andrew Myers identified was that as businesses reopen under constrained conditions, many of their processes will have to evolve in turn. For instance, internal training and operations that were traditionally done with employees on site cannot be conducted as they were, which has created an uptake of revised digital processes for training, safety checks or surveying via mobile devices.

Employee-employer relationship is evolving

The shift to offsite operations has forced leadership to re-evaluate their responsibilities beyond their work and focus on how they create a positive and connected workforce, particularly without a physical space for people to socialise and connect.

While there have been many perceived benefits of remote working, companies are also recognising what they have lost. For Hayden Vowell, this has put company culture and engagement at the forefront of leadership thinking, with businesses increasing the frequency of their pulse surveys from annually or biannually to weekly and monthly to ensure they are attuned to how their employees are feeling.

Andrew Myers highlights that the move to remote work runs the risk of creating a “transactional” relationship with employees if we don't look for other reasons to bring people together and connect in a face-to-face environment”.

This reinforces the importance of internal communications and relationship management amongst staff to driving business outcomes. “When you have a multifaceted digital relationship with employees that is akin to their social media relationships, it creates a two-way dialogue that goes beyond work into broader peer-to-peer dialogues that are critical to maintaining company culture and helping to support employees mental wellbeing,” Andrew concludes.

Rethinking the purpose of a business continuity plan

When it comes to reflecting on each participant’s corporate response to the pandemic, there was a common reflection on the shortcomings of their business continuity plans (BCP) to effectively respond to the many, varied, and often unpredictable realities of the situation.

While even the most comprehensive contingency planning could not have covered the extent of a global pandemic, this experience has – once again - reinforced the need for agility in the face of disruption. For Simon Turner, this has necessitated a rapid remediation of their BCP protocol – particularly as a company with operations and employees across the globe which require unique responses.

Clinton Marks argues that “a well-prepared business continuity plan should act as a roadmap to guide decision-making in response to the current context, rather than a procedural step-by-step plan based on broad business assumptions”. Richard Raj adds “When it comes to BCPs, there is the plan and then the reality of it. Even great BCPs for large corporates all went out of the window because new angles were not covered. We just don't know until we go through it.”

Corporate security can no longer be exclusively an ‘onsite’ guarantee

While remote or flexible working arrangements were a growing trend in the workforce prior to 2020, many professional service industries were constrained by security and privacy concerns for themselves and their clients. However, as the globe undertook the world largest work-from-home experiment in which companies were forced to operate with fewer controls, Andrew Bain perceived “some real observed changes in relation to how we view security in the context of COVID-19, in part because it highlighted how much more important healthcare is than existing data or cyber-security concerns”.

Clinton Marks highlight that “while some roles that dealt with sensitive information, such as payroll, have previously been thought of as onsite only to ensure security compliance, work-from-home mandates have forced companies to adapt and implement new remote security measures to account for a loss of physical controls. This presents heightened risk – particularly through remote servers and usage of personal mobile devices - which in turn has highlighted the importance of remote real-time data security reporting programs such as Citrix to allow businesses to oversee and pinpoint where breaches are occurring at speed. As companies adapt, however, it also opens the door for roles such as payroll to move to remote arrangements long term.”

That being said, with a new cyber-security breach reported every 10 minutes in Australia since COVID-19 first hit2, opportunistic hackers have embraced disruption with equally agile measures that will require a further consolidation of remote security measures across Australian businesses.

While the rate and scale of corporate decisions to address shifting demands has placed enormous pressure on business leaders across Australia, business leaders across industries continue to reinvent themselves to meet changing business demand in the face of uncertainty.

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