Future of Work Series Part 4 - Four ways COVID-19 has moved the dial on workplace operations

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 4 - 4 ways COVID-19 has moved the dial on workplace operations

COVID-19 and social distancing measures have had an extraordinary impact on workplace operations, demanding a reimagining of the procedures and processes companies employ to maintain or exceed the same levels of efficiency, productivity and community as before. Indeed, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said: “We’ve seen two years of digital transformation in two months”.

In article 4 of this 5-part series, business leaders break down how they have shifted their approach to business operations and how they foresee this changing the way companies operate moving forward.

Today’s changes will be tomorrow’s normal

Pivoting to a remote working model required companies of every size and stage of digital transformation to introduce new methods of internal communication, collaboration, production and external service provision. To design and implement such significant reworking to the traditional way of operating only to return to the ‘old’ ways of working is to waste a significant amount of resources and cultural adjustment.

As Andrew Bain says “This experience is possibly correcting some of the traditional structures we held on to for too long. Do you really want to insist on the old way of doing things, and drag people back that don’t want to return, or do you want to embrace a new approach?”

Indeed, having already made the transition, Richard Raj observes that it will be challenging to make a business case for a complete return to the office as “COVID-19 has demonstrated that it is possible to complete work from home en masse”. This rapid transition has opened up many organisations up to a ‘hybrid virtual’ model which combines remote and onsite operations into one flexible operation in the future.

Re-aligning expectations with reality

Remote working required a rethinking of even the most basic assumed timeframes, such as day-to-day meeting schedules. Managers need to grapple with how and when previously assumed events will happen, with employees and clients, and rely on technology to a much greater extent than ever before. However, as Clinton Marks notes “many organisations are still lacking many of the tools, infrastructures and skills needed to enable a fully operational, remote workforce”.

A recent McKinsey survey suggests that COVID-19 has resulted in digital transformation initiatives being implemented at two to three times the speed they once were, and with that comes a steep learning curve which can impact efficiency and productivity.

As Andrew Bain sees it, this is part of the adaption process and he accommodated a slight drop in productivity as a result of the challenging circumstances for his management and business planning. While efficiency in the workplace is partially due to the resources and systems in place, ultimately it is a product of the users, and their familiarity with the processes and systems so expectations need to be re-assessed in line with the new operations.

In particular, training and familiarising teams with new methods at the same time as introducing and troubleshooting new technology can disrupt the assumed timeframes to complete existing tasks. Similarly, new processes can unearth unexpected issues or overlaps that need to be fine-tuned to maximise efficiency.

This period has highlighted a greater need for staff capable of reimagining processes. As Richard Raj states “Specifically, there is even greater demand for digital transformation stewards who are capable of working through existing operations, identifying automation opportunities, and working with existing staff to frame how traditional processes can be delivered differently using new tools and technologies.” In turn, this raises the importance of companies investing in professional development to upskill, train and develop employee competencies to adapt their workforce to new ways of working and future-proof their value to the business.

Recalibrating connectivity

Maintaining connectivity can be a challenge for companies in the current climate. Organisations today, however, need to have a clear view and strategy in place about how their teams can engage with colleagues and customers online when face-to-face communication isn’t possible. 

As Clinton Marks highlights “As companies have been moved offsite and teams dislocated, traditional methods of communication and collaboration that were second nature to a role have had to be reimagined through digital processes”. In one week of March alone, Microsoft teams saw its user base increase by 12 million, while Slack saw its user base in Australia increase by 25% in just three months. In many cases, the digitisation of communication channels has been a centralised and streamlined upgrade from manual or informal processes, yet taken some of the creativity and ease that fuelled outcomes via face-to-face processes.

For Simon Turner, this shift has seen his company increase their investment in new technologies and tools to reduce what has been lost because of that human contact. A particular focus is recreating the breadth of engagement that comes with a conversation, rather than the more transactional and direct communications that often take place via keyboard. Similarly, Andrew Myers has focused on creating a multitude of digital communication channels to cultivate the social dynamics of interpersonal relationships through both formal and informal channels.

The acceleration of reporting and further rise of real-time data

As companies scramble to keep up with the evolving social distancing requirements of COVID-19, while adapting to disrupted supply chains and shifting consumer needs, data and automated processes have proved critical to guiding decision-making and effective responses at speed. This has highlighted the importance of business intelligence functionality to gathering and analysing data. It has also seen reporting frequency increase, including more frequent employee and consumer engagement surveys.

Just as data is being heavily relied on to guide decision-making in uncertain scenarios, automated reporting is being employed to provide standardised accountability and reporting across businesses. In particular, consumer facing industries are looking to digitise their compliance procedures, creating demand for task management tools which can digitally recall processes being done, and centralise and record them for future reference.

Andrew Myers has seen industries such as hospitality, fitness and retail retraining employees in over 100 processes to ensure safe and hygienic practises, with automated processes accelerating this whilst reducing human contact from the process. Particularly in the midst of a global pandemic, ensuring accurate compliance records is not only a matter of professional responsibility but also a key driver behind consumer trust and decision-making behaviour.

The global implementation of remote working protocols has seen a vast acceleration of digital and mobile processes to enable the scattered continuation of operations. While this presents an opportunity for companies to streamline and automate their procedures, ultimately creating a more efficient workflow regardless of office restrictions, it has also created a steep learning curve as employees and leaders race to maintain productivity in the face of change.

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