We never really saw remote working as a core strategy for many companies. It made driving HR policies difficult, management oversight challenging, and creating a culture complex.
COVID-19 proved us wrong. And according to NTT Ltd’s 2020 Intelligent Workplace Report, some companies reviewed how they design their workplaces and HR policies for employees’ future needs.
An HR reckoning
Companies were forced to do some soul searching. They had to examine every aspect of their workplace strategy to optimize employee experience, including culture, technology, and location.
Many focused on the distributed workforce (54.9%) and facilitating collaboration and creativity (42.3%). Over a quarter (26.5%) reduced individual office desk space while 29.9% increased meeting spaces.
These initiatives are not only changing the workplace but the HR organization itself.
“Pre-COVID-19 we had a couple of roles that were distinctly distributed. I think what we’ve seen COVID-19 do is this massive experiment, where for a moment, just about everyone became remote workers,” said Johan van Vuuren, senior vice president of human resources for the Asia Pacific at NTT Ltd.
For many, the “experiment” has been challenging. People felt displaced, employees were struggling with home setups, and blurring personal-work lines created an imbalance.
But the pandemic also showed how rigid our approach to workplaces has become. “It did not give the level of flexibility that people needed in their lives. And from a policy perspective, we’ve always struggled with that,” said van Vuuren.
“I think what the report showed is that the workplace is not about physical space; it is about the people. And employers need to work very hard to ensure that the employee experience and well-being is part of the workplace.”
One challenge with remote working is management oversight. It requires additional tools and skills for senior managers. Old practices may not be relevant.
At NTT, van Vuuren noted that managerial staff now undergo various training to ensure that they can manage a distributed workforce.
For example, having check-in sessions “that are not necessarily focused on particular outcomes” and organizing casual meetings are part and parcel of management.
“I don’t think any of us envisage a world in which we’re ever going to be 100% remote. And I think that’s not desirable. Research is suggesting that productivity levels spiked initially, but there was an element of tapering off as the pandemic continued. So, there is a need for physical interaction,” said van Vuuren.
But he felt that HR needs to strike a new balance as employers prepare for a blended working model in the future. “We will need to designate some positions as distributed and others as remote, and require much less office work,” he explained.
A jolt for inclusivity
One positive result of remote working is that companies can expand their workforce for those physically challenged or allow introverts to shine.
Physically-challenged candidates did not apply “because of their inability to travel long distances or to find their own way to an office.” “Nowadays, there’s an opportunity to bring them into the employment fold and broaden the skills base,” said van Vuuren.
He noted that this makes sense commercially in the long run “because you have access to a much greater range of skills, and capabilities.”
More introverted employees are also able to use the pandemic period to showcase their skills. And for van Vuuren, it allows his team to finetune how they identify these “hidden gems” for further career advancement.
“It’s important that all of our employees can play to their strengths. And some of those hidden gems get an opportunity to shine during this time that requires adaptation and change. So, this [pandemic] has been a test for many of our leaders and employees in terms of how to determine the kind of skills that they will need for the new normal as we move forward,” said van Vuuren.
The pandemic has made both physical and mental health a priority.
Many companies already had employee assistance programs. But the pandemic showed why they needed to expand these programs and make them more accessible across the region.
“There is no question that as COVID-19 became a sustained pandemic, mental health issues, such as issues of loneliness and anxiety, became more pronounced over time. So, what it has done is that it moved health, both mental and physical, much higher up the agenda for leaders,” said van Vuuren.
At NTT, van Vuuren described how they had to review their policies to “make sure that they are fully supportive of these health outcomes that we need.” Employee assistance programs also became virtual, and HR is “sensitizing” their leaders to notice health issues among employees and steer them in the right direction.
“It is also interesting the use of some of the emerging technologies to support that health,” said van Vuuren, who is using sentiment analysis to understand the employee well-being.
Part of this effort also involved educating leaders to streamline their meetings and workload expectation during the COVID-19 period. Also, HR is making sure that policies also acknowledge the impact on families.
In fact, van Vuuren believes the social support from families during COVID-19 is vital, and HR needs to be “very mindful” about it.
The age of HR?
The pandemic showed the strategic importance of HR. After all, they were at the front lines helping companies cope with the workforce challenges surrounding new work restrictions.
It also drove HR to collaborate much closely with other peers. For example, HR had to work closely with IT to enable the employees and drive the employee experience.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for us to interact at a strategic level about the issue of employee experience and the link with technology,” van Vuuren observed.
More importantly, the pandemic has given HR leaders a chance to get a seat at the C-suite table.
“There’s no question that HR is becoming central to dealing with the pandemic issues, both from health and employee experience perspectives. They can help to shape the thinking at the C-level,” said van Vuuren.
Now, it is up to HR leaders to seize the opportunity.
Image credit: iStockphoto/Luisriesco