29 Sep 2021

As governments in advanced economies hope for some version of post-vaccination normality, employers have decisions to make. Do they want to embrace flexible working as a permanent feature? Or will they mandate that staff need to return to the office, rendering remote work as a strange quirk of 2020/2021?

Let’s look first at the data. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report said that Covid-19 process innovations in the United States and Europe could accelerate labour productivity growth by about one percentage point over the next three years – more than double the pre-pandemic rate. Another US study shows that a hybrid workforce will boost the productivity of American workers by 4.6 percent, mainly due to the reduction in commuting.

The global consensus seems to lie with a hybrid model, which has popular appeal – two thirds of employees want it to continue after Covid 19. Workers everywhere have become more efficient, thriving on the flexibility that WFH has provided.

From a PR perspective, business chiefs must think deeply about their approach to flexible work, asking themselves how it fits with their wider commercial, cultural, technological, and value strategies. Perhaps one of the most important questions employers should ask is: how can we maintain a strong culture and unique identity without demanding that employees return to the office? A workplace culture is defined by a collection of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and traditions that contribute to the overall workplace atmosphere. Culture is not reliant upon a physical space. The onus is on leaders and employees alike to create a bond that promotes solidarity and transcends office borders. Transparency and open communication are key to achieving this aim. Leaders must encourage and empower employees to create a culture that is not only in complete alignment with the company values but with the collective personality of the organisation’s staff. Frequent virtual townhalls in which employees can freely voice their concerns is an important internal comms initiative – as are group lunches, games afternoons, interactive training sessions and creative activities. Employers must consider how to recreate the workplace environment in a virtual setting – and that means finding ways in which camaraderie, friendship and collaboration can flourish, not just finding ways to ensure maximum productivity.

The world is changing and organisations that do not rewire to deliver a greater degree of resilience risk reputational crisis or business failure.

Team morale is also a crucial factor. Six months is a long time in Covid years. Last summer, the world appeared to be staring into an economic abyss. Employees were frightened, employers held all the cards and could cut wages, demand more hours, and remind their staff that they were lucky to have a job.

But, for now at least, times have changed. Advanced economies are roaring back to life, with both talent and labour suddenly in short supply. This should be a wake-up call to companies who need the right teams in place to build resilience and turn risk into opportunity in this new world.

Looking further ahead, attracting talented employees will also be crucial to preparing for Industry 4.0. The World Economic Forum predicts that one-half of all work tasks will be handled by machines by 2025, displacing an estimated 85 million jobs – and COVID-19 has sped up this transition. However, this same technological revolution could create 97 million new jobs. In other words, there will be winners and losers on a massive global scale, and a successful transition will require self-motived, future-focused specialists – who will also be the ones more likely to demand flexibility and independence.

Most importantly any public image must be reflected in private, otherwise authenticity is impossible. The world is changing and organisations that do not rewire to deliver a greater degree of resilience risk reputational crisis or business failure.