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COVID-19: The Challenge of Future Re-integration

Burak Koyuncu phD, Workforce Solutions Director for the UK and Ireland LHH,
man in blue dress shirt sitting on rolling chair inside room with monitors

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many businesses operate, it has temporarily suspended operations for others, and sadly, and perhaps inevitably will cause some to close completely. Employees have had to adapt, show incredible resilience, and deal with uncertainty about their future job security. Although no one can be sure of when things will return to some semblance of normality, it is clear there will be a period of re-adjustment for businesses. For those leading them, it poses numerous challenges to re-integrate employees after what will have been a particularly challenging and stressful period.

Back to the office

For organisations that have been able to maintain operations remotely, it could be assumed that it will be easy to revert back to the previous, established way of working. However, this will present challenges in the same way that rapidly switching to 100% home working did; it requires employees to fundamentally change their behaviour and new habits. Their reliance on technology will need to shift and valuable face to face interactions will be re-introduced. Their motivation and productivity may have been adversely affected during the pandemic and their mental health will potentially have suffered. This will require tailored support and mentoring.  The business may have changed the products or services it offers during the pandemic to stay profitable, and that may now need to be adjusted – impacting their day to day work. Some employees may have been struck down by the virus themselves, or someone in their household may be infected which means that returning to the place of work may a staggered process – not everyone will be back at the same time, and that in itself will need careful planning and consideration from business leaders who will be keen to maintain a positive culture and strong engagement, but will have to do so with a potentially fractured workforce. It is critical to include those who are still absent in any internal communications. If they’re unwell that doesn’t mean expecting them to check emails, but keeping them informed in a way which feels inclusive but not invasive. A sense of cohesion and team spirit will be critical for many businesses striving to recover once the pandemic is over.

Business as Usual?

Remote working isn’t new – many organisations will have embraced it before the pandemic began, but only a very small proportion would have been operating 100% remotely. Now, people that wouldn’t previously have had the option to work flexibly, or perhaps wouldn’t have asked to do so, are working from home all of the time. Of course there are challenges associated with this; some people feel lonely, disconnected, demotivated, and find it difficult to structure their day.  However others may find they are more productive than ever, or that starting their day without a 2 hour commute is so much better for their sense of wellbeing. Who is to say that they should return to the old way of working if their performance and happiness is better with greater flexibility? In addition, many firms have reported that employees have revealed previously undisclosed health conditions in the wake of the pandemic, which in many cases make them more vulnerable to the infection. Where the flexible nature of work is beneficial to their health, they too may be reluctant to return to being in the office full time. This doesn’t pose problems to businesses as such, but there need to be clear protocols in place. Employees should feel empowered to ask for a working pattern which allows them to be happy and productive, not feel obligated to return to normal because everyone else seems to be.

Restarting Operations

Some businesses will have had to temporarily pause operations during the pandemic. Service industries, retail, and manufacturing have all been hit hard. Employees may have been furloughed with a view to returning to work once it becomes possible to do so. Others may not necessarily have a role to return to if theirs becomes redundant because the business has had to make cuts to survive. This poses obvious challenges to business leaders; the impact it has on culture, morale and engagement is significant. Employees may feel they’ve been kept in limbo, and if communication has lapsed whilst they were on indefinite leave, they are likely to be frustrated, upset and angry at the lack of clarity. While for most businesses it is impossible to give an accurate picture of how secure jobs are now or in the future, it is important to be transparent and share relevant information that is at hand where appropriate. A communication void in situations like this, is often filled with negativity and fear otherwise.

Career Transitions and Talent Retention

Inevitably some people will not be able to return to their previous role; but for organisations that are restructuring in the wake of the pandemic, this doesn’t always mean a wave of mass redundancies. If the business is changing its focus or strategy, this could create new roles and opportunities – and the people whose jobs are currently at risk could prove to be ideal candidates. Offering structured career transition support in situations like this can prove invaluable; delivering increased loyalty, a reduction in overall (and unwanted) employee turnover, reducing the time it takes to fill new posts and important, significantly reducing recruitment costs. It also energises the company as a whole; with new opportunities emerging and people developing and re-skilling, there will undoubtedly be a positive halo effect on morale and employer brand.

Share Good News

For those who do return to work, while it is great to be able to offer them continued employment, they are likely to feel uneasy for some time. They will be keen to see that the business is progressing and recovering well, so leaders must endeavour to share any good news when they have it. It’s not about painting a rose tinted picture, but more recognising that people are looking for positivity and reasons to feel engaged and motivated; this is by far a preferential state for most people, rather than feeling anxious and insecure about their jobs.

Moving Forward

Although the last few weeks have been focused on survival for many, and this is likely to continue for several months, it is important that organisations don’t overlook development for teams. Fast forward to Q4 2020: We all hope that things will be more settled and that normality will be relatively resumed. Employees may have been back at work for a few months, the business could be recovering well. So what’s next for those employees? They are grateful to have kept their job of course, but in the spirit of moving forwards they are probably thinking about their personal development. The pandemic may have given them a new sense of perspective and ambition. They might feel in need of a change of direction, or to hone their skills in a specific area. While budgets for talent development will have undoubtedly suffered during the pandemic, organisations will need to do what they can with the resources they have. Whether that’s internal mentoring schemes or other cost effective development initiatives, leaders that show that they are investing in their employees will reap rewards and contribute to a brighter future for their people and their business.

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