Building a workforce for an extraordinary time

Companies that act decisively, quickly and creatively to reskill and redeploy staff will find themselves at the forefront of leading through dark times, says Mouien Al-Madhoun

Life as most of us know it has changed. It may not be forever, but the shift has been sudden and unexpected, and we are now learning to adapt in the best interest of our families, communities and businesses. 

In March, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicted that Covid-19 could cause 25 million job losses. But at the end of April, the same organisation indicated that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, representing nearly half of the global labour force, are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods. This is clear evidence of the rapid escalation and impact of the virus on employment. 

While these figures are stark, the world is not yet closed for businesses that provide essential goods and services. I believe that retooled and redeployed workforces and businesses may be just what we need to help keep the world open. For this to happen, businesses need to move from the reactive mode that an unprecedented crisis causes, to a proactive ‘new world’ business mindset and footing. 

This new world mindset begins with recalibrating our workforce and human capital functions. Companies that have the flexibility to try retooling and redeploying their workforces will find it crucial to surviving the pandemic and recovering after it has passed. Such flexibility is also vital for the communities we live in. 

To make the shift, a deep, clear and wide understanding of the new environment is fundamental. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to identify and build up required skill sets and capacities within our existing workforce to match the new environment. Lastly, we need to act quickly, decisively and creatively.

The new conditions we’re operating in are largely digital – and rightly so. While many forms of physical retail are on pause for the moment, others are moving online – and rapidly. Brazil’s E-Commerce Association, for example, reported websites seeing a sales surge of up to 180 per cent since 12 March. Before the pandemic, the nation’s online sales were expected to grow 18 per cent in 2020. In India, Bigbasket and other online grocery delivery companies are reporting unprecedented demand. 

But e-commerce still needs people: sales people who know your brand and product, people to manage your customer and supplier relationships, and people to manage stock and run analytics. Reskilling your existing staff who know your brand, your clients and the way your company works is a better option than losing them and handing over your core functions to strangers. 

An internal upskilling programme offers the double advantage of both closing talent and skill gaps while also remaining committed to your existing workforce. For those who can, now is the time to implement this. For those without the flexibility and operational diversity to reskill or redeploy within, external opportunities still exist; the new environment simply requires new eyes and creative thinking. 

Qantas is a good example. Like many airlines, it has been hit hard by the pandemic. It’s been forced to suspend all its international flights, slash domestic services and make substantial temporary cuts to its workforce. The company, however, is working with its frequent flyer partner Woolworths to redeploy some of its workers to the grocery chain, which is experiencing extremely high demand as consumers stock up on supplies. 

So what collaborations can we create and what relationships can we amplify for our shared workforce? 

Just as skills can be upgraded, they can also be repurposed. Elsewhere, airlines are finding linkages between their industry and others. Flight crew members, for example, have basic health and safety qualifications that can be immensely and immediately useful in the healthcare sector to assist the response to Covid-19 – a policy Air New Zealand is pursuing. No matter how simple, this is repurposing at work. 

Similarly, teachers, data analysts, strategists and call centre specialists all have a role to play, if not in our companies then among our partners, suppliers, stakeholders and the broader community. 

At Majid Al Futtaim, we have redeployed more than 1,000 of our leisure, entertainment and cinema employees to our retail division. Internationally, many white‐collar workers in fields from communications to operations and health and safety are finding new or temporary homes in the gig economy as well as other unexpected arenas. There is much that can be done if we can look through a different lens. 

Finally, the way companies act towards their workforce now will have repercussions throughout society. Companies that act decisively, quickly and creatively to positively manage and lead their people will find themselves at the forefront of leading entire communities through a time of darkness and back into the light. 

Mouien Al-Madhoun is chief human capital officer at Majid Al Futtaim