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Back to the Office: How to prepare for the return

Ravin Jesuthasan - futurist and author
black floor lamp on living room sofa

It is going to be critical that we do not just look to reset cost structure during this crisis, or we run the real risk of a jobless recovery. As Covid-19 begins to ebb in various parts of the world, many companies are starting to prepare for the return to work. The one thing we can be sure of is that there will be no return to the way things were before. This is the result of the confluence of multiple factors. The potential for multiple waves of infection from the virus means that many protective measures we have taken to date, like social distancing, handwashing and the use of masks, will continue for the foreseeable future. Nervousness about in-person contact is likely to have been ingrained into our psyches after months of social distancing and using PPE. Corporate leaders will question the role of the workplace after months of remote work, which has generally gone well in the UK. And throughout the pandemic, automation and the use of artificial intelligence, has continued to take hold.

So, the “return” will look very different.

Probably one of the most significant changes to the business perspective of operating in the post-Covid world will be the increased premium on resilience over the efficiency that we have pursued for so long. Key to accomplishing resilience will be a work strategy that addresses three key factors:

  1. Achieving a sustainable reset of the business model

That means significantly reducing the cost structure of the business and increasing flexibility by reducing operating leverage, all while ensuring we are optimising the employee experience.  Key to accomplishing this will be a work strategy that continuously taps into multiple work options in addition to employees, like automation, gig talent, alliances and outsourcers. This will help spread risk, optimise cost, and access-needed capabilities. While some of these options may be more challenging than others to execute, the broader point of taking a portfolio approach to work strategy is a critical one for companies all over the world.

We know from previous recessions that companies typically move more aggressively to automation during difficult times as they focus on cost reduction. It is going to be critical however that we do not just look to reset cost structure during this crisis, or we run the real risk of a jobless recovery. It is essential that the creativity and innovation demonstrated by many in the face of this unprecedented downturn extend to their use of automation. Companies need to seek the three benefits afforded by automation: substitution of many repetitive, rules-based tasks; augmentation of more variable work; and the creation of new work for humans as a result of the impact of automation (think data scientists, robot trainers, etc.). Achieving resilience will require a diversified and inclusive workforce strategy.

  1. Ensuring a flexible return to the workplace:

Some of the most pivotal questions being asked by companies about the return to the workplace include: What is the purpose of the workplace going forward? Is it to “do” work, collaborate with colleagues, innovate or engage with customers? How do we justify the cost of our physical facilities? What work/roles should remain remote when we “return”? For work that does return to the workplace, what will need to be different? That could mean keeping social distancing and offering protective equipment, and bringing in new workplace rules and workflows. And for those that do stay working at home, how do we formalise that process to ensure productivity holds up?

The responses to these questions will vary by industry: for example, manufacturing companies will likely need most of their workforces to return to the workplace, while services companies may have more options for remote work. Achieving a more resilient business model will mean taking a far more nuanced view of the workplace than we had prior to this crisis.

  1. Embracing an ecosystem approach to resourcing

One of the most heartening examples of innovation during the crisis has been the notion of a talent exchange, whereby companies seeing a significant decline in demand have been sharing their talent with those seeing a significant increase in demand. These B to B exchanges can significantly reduce the frictional cost and time associated with typical workforce transitions, while supporting employees in developing new skills. Taking a view of work that extends beyond the organisational boundary will be critical to increasing the overall resilience of the economy to shocks like Covid-19 in the future.

While no one can predict how the future will play out, these three tactics can help ensure that our organisations and economies are more resilient to inevitable future shocks.

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