By Carl Kutsmode, Senior Vice President

2020 has been a year of rapid change and heightened uncertainty for both business and HR leaders. Some organizations were proactive and timely in their decision-making and successfully managed to adapt their people strategies, systems, and processes almost overnight. This flexibility enabled them to seamlessly support their employees and customers in an effective manner. Others faced bumps in the road—or even complete roadblocks—when transitioning to a fully remote workforce. To maintain stability and preserve cash, countless executives were forced to reduce labor and workforce-related overhead costs by laying off or furloughing significant percentages of their employees.

As we are now over nine months into the global pandemic, our world is still faced with an uncertain future end date to COVID-19. As winter draws near, the current upward trend in infection numbers have forced HR and business leaders to prepare for a new wave of challenges. Return-to-work issues—along with the preservation of employee health and customer safety—present significant hurdles that HR and business leaders to overcome in the months ahead.

For some businesses, the coronavirus outbreak has given rise to creativity and innovation in the workplace. Employers have found new ways to service the demands of their customers by inventing new products or designing innovative strategies. For others, the initial COVID-19 work from home government mandates forced more traditional leaders—those who desperately cling to the legacy 9-to-5 office culture and leadership style—to come to terms with reality Today, however, many have softened their stances on the remote work environment upon observing that most employee productivity has not been significantly impacted by the workplace transition. In some cases, workforce performance improved when groups of traditional office workers shifted to the work-from-home model. These remote workers quickly discovered that the time that was previously devoted to office commute times could be filled with more value-producing activities.

As questions continue to swirl in the minds of company leaders and HR experts alike, where do you begin on your journey to determine what the future of work will look like?

1. It is important to first evaluate your business and talent alignment strategies. Examine how your organization has changed its pre-COVID-19 goals/KPIs, hiring demands, skillset needs, and timelines.

Here are some questions to get you started:

• Are revenues increasing or decreasing due to economic uncertainty, or are they dropping because of a decline in demand for your service or product?

• Should you begin to ponder another round of layoffs and/or furloughs when PPP funds run out in July?

• Are you still growing your organization through M&A, or has that shifted to organic or no growth for the next 12-36 months?

• Will you renew your large office space lease, or will you consider making some roles entirely virtual to reduce facilities and overhead expenses?

• Have you chosen to invest in new technologies like video conferencing tools, remote new hire onboarding and training, or cloud-based business applications to support a virtual workforce? Are these the right tools to support your business long-term?

• Will you be forced to redesign your workplace to account for social distancing and other safety precautions that may negatively impact employees’ productivity metrics and goals?

• Are there new legal considerations or compliance mandates that need to be built into your processes and business practices?

• Do your performance management systems, processes, and KPIs need to be modified?

• Do your leaders know how to lead and motivate virtual teams effectively?

• Is your culture agile and innovative to quickly react and adjust your people practices to support future uncertain changes?

• Does your organization have a culture of managing performance and making decisions using people data and analytics?

• Do you have the systems and tools to support a data analytics culture?

2. Once you have assessed the categories of work that need to be done, you must next decide how and where it will be done.

Company leaders should consider whether their organizations will require more workforce flexibility as we move into a more unpredictable future. If the answer is yes, then shifting some roles to part-time hybrid or full-time virtual models may be a practical decision. However, before molding your decisions into formal practice, be sure to evaluate the personal impact that this shift will have on your employees. It is crucial to first get a feel for the preferences of your teams to ensure that they will be able to work effectively from home on a permanent or consistently regular basis.  

Start with some focus groups before diving into one-on-one conversations. Conduct employee pulse surveys to uncover workers’ honest perspectives and potential work-from-home concerns. By taking proactive steps before mandating a virtual work policy, you will show your employees that you are doing your due diligence instead of rushing into a quick decision.

Consider the following questions before shifting segments of your workforce to remote work: 

• Do your employees have a place in their home where they can work uninterrupted?

• Will they incur additional costs while working from home?

• Is the company prepared to pay for workers to upgrade their internet speed or add a second phone line if needed?

• Will employees need updated computer and office equipment while they temporarily use their own computer and supplies?

• Does your organization have appropriate systems in place to ensure a secure network connection over the internet and provide access to your systems?

• What types of family dynamics at home are your employees dealing with that could impact their ability to work from home effectively during normal business hours? Are there children to watch or elderly parents to care for?

• Does the employee have the personality to work effectively in isolation and remain motivated and engaged, even when removed from an office culture? Is the employee self-directed and self-motivated? 

• Does the employee have a physical disability that needs to be accommodated in their home in order to do their work?

3. Assess and update current technologies, tools, and processes to support and measure the performance of remote work employees.

Begin by conducting a current vs. future state vision gap assessment to determine investments or revisions/tweaks needed for the various technologies that your company utilizes. COVID-19 has created a perfect business case to ask for an increased budget to support these investments. Often, departments will look to upgrade systems and make changes that have been considered for a while, but had lacked the ROI justification to support the funding request. The following tools will be essential in driving bottom-line profitability while managing costs in a more transparent and agile world as your business settles into a new normal of uncertainty long term.

Communication, collaboration, and project management – Video chat, instant messenger, virtual whiteboarding, meeting note capture, and project management collaboration tools are essential and should ideally be easily integrated within other business applications.

Time and activity tracking/reporting – Rather than having employees complete individual spreadsheets or printed time reports, transition to a mobile app with online user access. There are many tools that may have sufficient functionality built into your core HRIS/HCM or financial systems that can easily be activated. If your organization lacks the budget to invest in new tools, use a cloud-based spreadsheet or an automated forms document like Google Forms or Microsoft Form to capture information and populate an online spreadsheet that can be accessed and updated by a team in real-time. For more sophisticated needs, evaluate standalone and integrated time and project management tools to gain access to more robust tracking, reporting, and insights.

Employee engagement and performance management – The annual performance review—combined with a quarterly “check-in” with the boss over lunch—is not going to cut it in a virtual work world. Younger employees and managers demand more transparent and frequent two-way feedback on their work. They often like to discuss their personal performance to ensure high degrees of engagement and motivation. For client-facing roles, consider tools that capture 360-degree feedback from both internal and external stakeholders. For roles where frequent ad hoc team meetings are conducted in the office, you will need to establish a regular schedule of check-ins with a set agenda. On virtual videoconferencing calls, politely ask everyone to show their faces on video to maintain a level of personal connection. You will also be able to observe if employees are distracted and unable to pay attention on the call.

Labor cost management, planning, and analytics – To accelerate speed and accuracy of decision making, having transparent and regular visibility into workforce performance and labor cost data while linking it to critical business financial drivers is key. Typically, this data is housed in many different systems that are either not integrated or lack robust reporting functionalities. Consider investing in cloud-based visualization and analytics tools like HCMI.co or Visier that can pull data from a combination of disparate systems into a single online dashboard accessible by various stakeholders in your company. These tools are designed with pre-build talent insights and reporting tools that can be configured to your needs while enabling you to identify historical trends compared to industry or known HR benchmarks. When you consider how much time it takes your staff to manually pull and merge data, create reports, and run analytics, these tools will almost certainly pay for themselves.

Recruitment – Many employers have adopted remote work policies and invested in tools to support a more efficient and cost-effective recruiting process. Organizations leverage enabled tools to facilitate entirely virtual communications, interview scheduling, interviewing, and onboarding processes. For those companies embarking on this path for the first time, many counter-culture decisions must be made quickly. For some, the tools selected for the recent short-term mandate may not be the best fit for a long-term need. Below are some of the various recruiting technology components to specifically assess, along with a few of our favorite tools to consider.

1. The use of job and culture video management and distribution tools—such as SparcStart and Digi-Me—can significantly improve employment and culture branding, talent attraction, and engagement.

2. Platforms like JobSync offer an improved candidate experience by providing a universal job application that drives candidates from almost any job posting source directly into your recruiting systems.

3. Video interviewing tools like InterviewStream and Hirevue provide a secure platform and interview team candidate rating collaboration tools to efficiently manage a remote interview process.

4. Fostering a positive candidate experience is more important than ever. There is a myriad of online talent assessment, AI-powered chatbot pre-screening, and virtual onboarding platforms that have become core tools in many employers’ recruiting toolboxes in 2020.  The key decision here is whether it makes more sense to piece together multiple best-of-breed vendor solutions to (1) achieve your goals or (2) to invest in more comprehensive solutions that provide a modular approach. One of our favorite tools is PhenomPeople, which provides comprehensive solutions to optimize the end-to-end job candidate experience.

•  General business applications – Cloud-based platforms that are secure and accessible via single sign-on are important selection criteria in enabling file sharing, document collaboration, and collaboration. Microsoft Office365 and the Google G-suite of office applications and collaboration software can help to manage most all of what is needed for your virtual team.

•  Systems integration – Consider the use of a new cloud integration tool like SwoopTalent, Zapier, and Workato to integrate and/or automate existing and new HR systems and processes.  Each system has pre-built integration APIs, which make it easy to manage data between disparate systems while improving candidate or employee experience.

Regardless of the decisions that your company makes, ensure that your work-from-home policies are well documented and properly communicated to the entire organization. This will ensure that all employees understand the rationale behind your decisions and are clear of what is expected for those who are provided more flexibility in their roles.

To learn more about Carl, connect with him on LinkedIn.

For more thought leadership content from our TalentRise team, be sure to check out our TalentRise blog.