Employers are quickly learning that returning to the workplace does not equal returning to life as it was pre-pandemic and is actually more complicated than previously budgeted for. 

But given the demands on employers to preserve their employees’ health and wellbeing and keep them energised and productive, they will have to balance empathy and economics, even in the face of tough decisions, finds Mercer’s Return to a New Normal white paper.

Whether working virtually or on-site, one thing we know is that a new shape of work will emerge. As the pandemic unfolded in stages, economic recovery will also likely happen in stages, as highlighted below:

Return safely

1. Navigate a dynamic environment and ready the workplace

  • What criteria will be used for evaluating compliance with safety guidelines?
  • How will ongoing employee health be monitored?
  • How will we receive alerts from different authorities implementing different stages of response? How do we quickly inform staff?
  • How will the organization build resilience to respond to a localised resurgence of the disease?
  • How and when will monitoring and intervention be communicated to key stakeholders?
  • How will the organisation formulate a strategy to listen to staff concerns, build them into plans, and monitor employee sentiment?

2. Re-examine remote, flexible and blended working

Not all jobs should come back to the workplace, and not all workers will want to go back into shared locations. People who have health conditions, and those who live with others who are ill or at high-risk, may prefer to stay home. Others may want to embrace a new, flexible way of working they find liberating. 

As a result of the pandemic, 72% of firms will review remote-working policies in the next three to six months, and 69% will review flexible working. Making a sustainable change is likely going to involve job redesign. Flexible work arrangements are an essential part of the employee experience. Equipping individuals to be part of design thinking sessions around how work gets done in the future is already showing that employees are thirsty for change.

3. Delegate non-core activities to focus on priorities

The complexity of navigating a new economic order offers opportunities to outsource non-core activities. These services free up HR to focus their attention where it’s most needed. For example, firms are finding value by outsourcing responsibility for retirement plans, or even the chief investment officer role, to focus on their main priorities: making their people safe, helping them be productive or processing potential furloughs.

Custom-built solutions are also emerging to support delegated needs. For example, remote proctoring for hosting examinations in the education sector or providing skill-need assessments when working or learning is done at home.

Similar opportunities exist for other HR practices. For example, ensuring brokers are pursuing cost-optimisation opportunities from plan design to alternative financing and health management. 

Return to stability

4. Clarify priorities and realign around “the new minimum”

The “new minimum” is about minimising negative impacts on people and business, and questioning what’s truly necessary to support both. As such, investments in “nice to have” programmes and processes may be dropped to unwind costs or in favour of flexible programmes that respond to a wider variety of employee needs.

Calculating the cost savings of various measures, when the savings will be realised (this year or the next budget) and the impact of each measure on worker energy and engagement will be critical to making balanced decisions at this time.

If furloughs or potential layoffs remain a reality, organizations may need to explore alternatives, such as outplacement services or temporary talent-sharing either with other employers or within the organisation itself.

The cycle of decision-making — to launch, cancel or refine programmes — will shorten as companies become more agile and align timelines with change. For example, companies may refine programmes as they learn more during the first stages of recovery and return to the workplace.

5. Focus on cost containment and zero-basing design

Considering who comes back to the workplace and in what order opens the door to a broader initiative around workforce optimisation, workforce supply/demand modeling, career infrastructure, and organisational and job redesign.

  • Which people, business units or departments best fit the transformation strategy?
  • How should the size, shape and skill set of the organisation change, and what are the implications?
  • Which people should be prioritised to return or incentivised to stay?
  • How can strategic workforce analysis validate, and revalidate, decisions around critical jobs, work locations, and productivity?

6. Use transformation as an optimisation strategy

With organisations pressed to do more with less, a focus on transforming the business and HR is front of mind. Companies are considering how to:

  • Quicken digital transformation and re-design HR processes to make them future-proof and/or crises-proof
  • Invest and divest strategically to drive growth but also improve resilience
  • Define new leadership behaviours and ways of behaving, often along with sustainability goals to reshape the culture
  • Change hiring, training, compensation and/or organisational structures to reflect shifts in value
  • Redefine performance management in the remote working world and succession slates given recent learnings around leadership-in-a-crises behaviours
  • Reset employee expectations

Return to energy

7. Support the workforce — mentally, physically and financially

The mental return to the workplace matters: One in three (36%) employees are experiencing mental health issues due to social isolation and economic anxiety, yet only two in five (38%) companies have conducted internal surveys, interviews or focus groups to understand what employees are thinking.

Knowing what’s on employees’ minds is only a first step, as distinct segments of the workforce are likely to express these thoughts differently.

Meanwhile, many employees will be facing financial hardship, directly or indirectly. Addressing job security concerns will be paramount. Companies are
considering:

  • Whether compensation and rewards should be adjusted to support workers required to be on-site, in new roles or part of transformation efforts
  • What to communicate to recently retired or soon-to-retire employees that keeps them energised and connected
  • How pay and any short-term incentive programmes need to pivot given a new focus or transformation agenda
  • How sustainability, a sense of purpose and corporate values can be embedded into performance plans as goals are reset

8. Reconfirm the organisation’s purpose and value

Benefit reviews and total reward optimisation analysis will be part of a new reality for most companies, but how organisations reconfirm their purpose and values will differentiate them. Progressive companies are already looking at their sustainability goals and redefining how to deliver value. 

With employee expectations for their employers to take care of them at an all-time high, companies ahead of the curve are taking the opportunity to reconfirm their value proposition and align benefits to values. 

Businesses are considering what expanded benefits to make available, such as:

  • Access to virtual care and behavioral health, including triage nurse lines, physician consultations, dentistry, and prevention and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders
  • Access to online learning and re-skilling opportunities
  • Support for other forms of digital wellbeing programmes, from online legal assistance to fitness, sleep or debt counselling
  • Mental health programmes that meet people where they are
  • Caregiving support

9. Design an energising employee experience

The next 12 to 18 months will be a rollercoaster as economies and organisations digest the full emotional and economic consequences of the pandemic. Employees will require energy and confidence to survive and thrive — whether back in the workplace, still at home, or embarking on assignment. Which employee experiences will unleash energy? And how are those experiences different in a remote-first or blended work culture?

Leading companies are taking a signal from this ‘global remote-working experiment’ and health crisis to rethink the employee and non-employee experience to ensure it is energising. What really are the moments that matter to our workforce? How can we be a responsible organisation to those within our businesses and in our communities? How can we collectively design the new shape of work?  

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