Rethinking ways of working in a post-COVID-19 reality

As the world looks to recover from the unprecedented disruption to their personal and professional lives, we look at how mid-corporates are rethinking their workforce and reshaping their workplaces. What opportunities do these challenges and changes present?

COVID-19 as an opportunity to reinvent the way we work

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented disruption to personal and professional lives across the globe. According to the International Labour Organisation, “more than four out of five people (81 per cent) in the global workforce of 3.3 billion have been affected by full or partial workplace closures.”1

Companies around the world have responded rapidly, taking swift action to safeguard the health and safety of employees and move to a completely new, mostly virtual, way of working. In our survey2 of over 200 mid-corporates, the vast majority (65 per cent) of respondents highlighted workplace safety as their major concern.

major workplace challenges

Companies’ rapid response has not only demonstrated the human capability to quickly and successfully adapt the way we approach work, but also shown how work is an activity, and not a place. This new mind-set has helped reduce the stigma around remote working, giving organisations worldwide the opportunity to rethink long-established notions regarding the role of the office, and how work can (or should) be carried out.

As countries emerge from lockdowns, mid-corporates are moving beyond the initial ‘reactive response’ phase and focusing on the next set of workforce challenges as they enter the second and third stages of the ‘Road to Resilient Growth’ (‘Preservation and Stability’ and ‘Prepare for Growth’). While doing do so, it is critical that companies do not fall into the trap of defaulting to former behaviours and routines.

The corporate world is faced with a unique opportunity to completely reinvent its approach to work and must use lessons from this initial experience to strengthen their operating models for the long-term. This is especially relevant for mid-corporates, which inherently have greater flexibility to adapt as compared to large multinational companies.

Embedding new ways of working into the organisation

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the future of work, and this point-of-view highlights some of the key actions mid-corporates can take to find optimal new ways of working in the evolving post-COVID-19 reality. This includes restructuring their workforces, reconfiguring their workplaces and embedding these changes into their organisational culture. Mid-corporates who manage to align their new workforce culture with their organisational strategy and purpose will undoubtedly be better positioned to thrive in a post-COVID-19 world.

Our survey2 indicated various initiatives that mid-corporates are already considering, with deployment of technology and reassessing human resources (HR) policies and incentive plans being top of the list. Overall, these can be categorised into three areas that mid-corporates ought to consider when adopting new ways of working:

  1. Enabling your workforce
  2. Re-engaging with employees, and
  3. Reshaping the workplace

new ways of working

1. Enabling your workforce

As a starting point, it is essential that mid-corporates enable their workforce by providing the right means for employees to carry on working productively and eventually perform better in a post-COVID-19 world. This includes the following actions:

  • Ramp up talent and capability development – upskilling and reskilling are, and will continue to be, critical for workers whether they are operating fully or partially remotely. From basic instructions to more advanced training, a learning curve is to be expected. Workers may need to learn new technologies, acquire new skills and form new habits whilst also protecting data and information. Fifty per cent of the mid-corporates surveyed are in fact seeking to engage external stakeholders for talent development. Training will be particularly important in areas which have been shaken up by the pandemic, such as:
    • Customer engagementOver 50 per cent of mid-corporates have concerns around declining customer engagement and experience levels during the pandemic, especially for client-facing staff and companies that have had to move sales to online channels. A new, virtual environment has shifted relationship models from time/face-based to trust/reliability-based, and mid-corporates must quickly train employees to understand these new relationship models and be able to engage and interact effectively with clients.
    • Client experience Maintaining customer experience levels in a virtual environment will also require upskilling staff on the use of digital technology. Digital tools such as advanced analytics allow personalised messaging and sales optimisation, while increasing brand presence on social media platforms can help enhance connectivity and interaction with customers and ultimately improve customer experience levels.
  • Leverage digital tools to enable productive new ways of working - Mid-corporates need to focus on speeding up digital adoption, prioritising technologies and processes that enable employees to be more productive, particularly around the following:
    • Remote workingMid-corporates should swiftly address shortfalls of existing technology and provide the appropriate tools for operating remotely. Fifty per cent of mid-corporates surveyed are adopting digital tools to enable remote working.  Beyond the basic  digital work tools   (such as  laptops, monitors, work mobile phones), digital communications systems and platforms such as virtual private networks (VPNs), voice over internet protocols (VoIPs), virtual conferencing systems, cloud technology, virtual collaboration tools (e.g. digital whiteboards) and facial recognition technologies must be considered to enable remote working for employees.
    • Data security - An underlying critical requirement for effective remote working is having strong internal processes for managing data security. Almost half of the mid-corporates surveyed plan to strengthen their data management processes, given current data security risks. Cybersecurity players claim attacks soared since the virus started. Mid-corporates must look into training workers to be alert to cybersecurity threats, and invest in the necessary cyber tools and talent to protect their remote and on-site workforce, their customers and their organisation.

case example 1 infographic

2. Re-engaging with employees

The pervasive uncertainty created by this pandemic has brought to the surface a more human side of employees and employers alike as they experience a range of fluctuating emotions. Traits such as empathy, support, kindness, gratitude, and transparency have been observed across all levels of organisations. By acknowledging and encouraging the values and behaviours that foster better interpersonal relationships and making these part of their corporate cultures, mid-corporates can create workplaces that are more conducive to enhanced employee satisfaction and productivity.

To re-engage with employees, mid-corporates can:

  • Reassess HR policies and practices - HR departments will play a crucial role in anticipating new organisational priorities, aligning policies and practices to them, and devising corresponding employee value propositions as companies get back to business. These can cover areas like:
    • Workforce planning – planning for staffing (e.g. redeployment, critical roles), performance and rewards, and overall employee relations
    • Employee flexibility – institutionalising remote working policies which allow for constraints of individuals and grant them work arrangements that suit their unique circumstances
    • Employee mobility – revising travel protocols, ensuring compliance with travel restrictions in the short-term, and adjusting executive travel policies as borders re-open
    • Employee assurance, satisfaction and wellbeing – defining and implementing policies to account for employees’ individual constraints and comfort levels, providing an open channel for employees to communicate their concerns and anxieties. This involves creating support groups and redesigning employee wellbeing programs to ensure they protect and promote mental health and wellness.
  • Enhance workforce motivation - As mid-corporates support and prepare their employees for new routines, priorities and roles or assignments, they must focus on boosting their morale and productivity through positive engagement. This means establishing new ways for workers to connect with each other, feel involved and inspired (e.g. creating opportunities for employees to work with each other and in teams, ensuring they are meaningful and impactful).
  • Review employee incentivisation - In the post-COVID-19 workplace, mid-corporates must recognise that productivity combined with well-being is what will help employees thrive. Organisations therefore need to review how they can best incentivise and encourage their workforce, through:
    • Realistic incentives and motivational mechanisms – both monetary and non-monetary, these should be carefully redesigned, attuned to realistic performance expectations and created with the ultimate aim of ensuring employees thrive in this new work environment
    • Recalibrated KPIs - performance management should be aligned with new organisational priorities and ways of working (e.g. account for a learning curve as employees adapt, anticipate dip in productivity). Adapt KPIs/success metrics and respective compensation to reflect the new circumstances (e.g. people engagement, readiness/ability to change, customer engagement, etc.)

case example 2 infographic

3. Reshaping the workplace

As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, mid-corporates should consider reshaping the work environment to, first and foremost, ensure compliance with regulatory requirements and guidelines, and secondly, to align with the changing needs of their employees both in the immediate and the longer term.  In this undertaking, mid-corporates will need to:

  • Create a safe and secure environment to which employees can return
    • Build a framework for monitoring legal and operational risks, and managing procedures associated with a return to the workplace such as a phased return-to-work plan by site, job roles, project teams, for example.
    • Abide by local regulatory requirements and protocols (e.g. distancing, installing protective measures such as shields, protective equipment). Include enterprise tools such as automatic contact tracing in office facilities to help quickly identify and mitigate potential risks of exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
  • Adapt/reconfigure the working environment
    • Establish flexible scheduling processes – optimising the combination of on-site and remote working (e.g. alternating teams, change in number and duration of rotational shifts). Plan work schedules with a people-first approach focused on accommodating the unique constraints of team members.
    • Optimise team structures and working models aligned with shifting business priorities. This may include creating new roles, redeploying workers to different teams and reinforcing roles of teams and team leaders. Instil inclusive behaviour that provides everyone with an opportunity to contribute. Where applicable, consider practices such as always-on videoconferencing, in-person and remote collaboration spaces (e.g. virtual whiteboards), making sure that employees are adequately equipped to work remotely.
    • Ensure clear, real-time communicationassign a central/single point-of-contact to provide factual, consistent messaging and clear direction on changes in work priorities and routines. Aim for open and frequent communications that instil a sense of purpose.
  • Rethink the physical workplace
    • Optimise office/shop floor layoutsunderstand where and how much space is required, and how it can best foster collaboration, productivity and a positive work experience whilst including provisions for physical and mental safety/well-being, and ensuring all regulatory requirements are met. In addition, mid-corporates (especially those in non-manufacturing sectors) need to support their employees in optimising their home working space and also explore options for them to securely work in third-party locations (outside home and office).
    • Evaluate the real estate footprint, both in the short-term (i.e. for the next 12 months) and for the long-term (permanent). This will include not just reviewing the size of the real estate footprint, but also reconsidering the location of facilities and type of ownership (e.g. central business districts vs. suburban areas). In the short-term, mid-corporates may consider having a range of different space solutions such as owned facilities, leased facilities, flexible rentals, co-working spaces, etc., and in the longer term collaborate with real estate players to entirely re-do their footprint focused on fit-for-purpose solutions. As real estate represents a significant cost, mid-corporates can also consider this as an opportunity to realise savings in the long term.

case example 3 infographic

New ways of working and resilient growth

Mid-corporates need to recognise that a resilient workforce is the bedrock of resilient growth. The ability to adapt by incorporating new ways of working is an essential element of resilience building. And a collaborative, dynamic and connected working environment – where employee productivity and well-being go hand-in-hand – will give workers a sense of purpose and the space to thrive going forward.

Our next point-of-view in the ‘Road to Resilient Growth’ series will take a more in-depth look at how mid-corporates can drive efficiencies via digitalisation across their operations and go-to-market activities to build further resilience and succeed in a post-COVID-19 world.

1 International Labour Organization, ‘COVID-19 causes devastating losses in working hours and employment’

2 Survey commissioned by Standard Chartered in June 2020 and completed by 205 mid-corporates (annual revenue USD100m-500m) based in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and India.

Building a Resilient Workforce: 3 Areas to Consider

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International Labour Organization, ‘COVID-19 causes devastating losses in working hours and employment’, April 2020

Forbes, ‘As We Emerge From Lockdown, It's Clearer Than Ever That Work Is An Activity, Not A Place’, May 2020

PwC, ‘Reboot: Getting back to the workplace’

PwC, ‘COVID-19: Workforce considerations’

PwC, ‘Protecting people and productivity in times of crisis’

Strategy+Business, ‘Getting back to the future...of work’, July 2020

World Economic Forum, ‘This is how COVID-19 could change the world of work for good’, April 2020

Channel News Asia, ‘Commentary: COVID-19 is reshaping what work looks like’, April 2020

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