10 workplace shifts caused by Covid – and their lasting effects

Rohit Talwar asks what new ways of thinking and working could take hold or be abandoned as we move beyond lockdown

The pandemic has been with us for a few months and globally we are at different degrees of lockdown or recovery. There has been a remarkably rapid impact on organisational activity and behaviour, and insights are already emerging on the possible futures of business, work and the workplace. From a standing start, many have adopted a model where most of their workforce is operating from home. 

For some, a total rethink of their strategy, business model, technology platforms, operating design, supply chain and partnership ecosystem has been necessary. So what’s changing and how much of it could shape the future of business, work and the workplace? Here are 10 shifts that could have lasting impacts.

1. New leadership

Leaders are beginning to appreciate the importance of flexibility and experimentation in everything from business models to the organisation of work and the management of home-based workforces. Empathy and emotionally literate leadership skills are becoming critical. Management roles are under greater scrutiny in a cost-focused environment. For some, the situation is quite exposing, as it reveals their jobs lacked substance or impact.

2. Innovation 

Necessity has accelerated innovation and radical ideas are emerging for every challenge. Organisationally innovation has become a true survival priority rather than just a budget line. The need for new ideas at speed is driving rapid experimentation with often incredible results, ranging from massive global self-organising research networks to firms switching production from luxury fashion to protection clothing in days. 

3. Collaboration

New partnerships and collaborations are becoming commonplace – as evidenced by the unusual alliances forming between Formula One race teams and aviation equipment manufacturers to create new ventilator solutions. The value of such partnerships in driving rapid responses to a constantly changing environment is becoming ever more apparent. 

4. Culture, empowerment and trust

Major cultural challenges are emerging for office-based organisations where physical environments helped shape and reinforce culture. They are learning to introduce virtual mechanisms to replace water cooler encounters, and lunch and learn sessions. 

Fast-paced change has driven greater authority delegation, enabling individuals to respond to a rapidly changing reality. Allowing staff to take more responsibility, show more initiative and make more decisions demonstrates the extent to which greater trust can be invested in the workforce going forward. The changes also highlight where trust needs to be backed with training, coaching and review as people learn to operate with less supervision and instruction.

5. Prioritisation and decision-making

The sheer scale of change and differing levels of impact are driving the need for smarter project and task prioritisation. Many are challenging the near and medium-term value of every initiative and evaluating their chances of success under different post-pandemic scenarios. 

6. Learning

The situation is driving learning at every level and providing organisations with new capabilities. This starts from basic adaptation challenges such as how to work productively while your children are across the room doing homework or playing. The need to use remote working tools in particular is forcing people to acquire greater technology awareness. 

7. Digital literacy 

The crisis is spawning a more digitally capable workforce. This could have massive benefits when delivering technology change programmes. Many are investing commuting time savings to deepen digital literacy – from learning productivity functions in Word and PowerPoint, to taking online classes in technologies that could form part of their next task or job.

8. Productivity and efficiency 

Many are reporting productivity and efficiency gains through reduction of interruptions, project cancellation and clearer communications. Individuals can focus more effectively on the task at hand and learn the skills required to enhance their productivity. The pandemic may be a significant tipping point in the work from home trend if the majority of companies decide their employees should remain remotely based.

9. Flexibility and adaptability

Managers and workers are having to find workarounds for tasks they previously took for granted or never had to worry about. Organisations are constantly changing priorities, reshaping and cutting headcounts. In response, individuals are taking on new roles, tasks and responsibilities at speed. This is driving demand for training in collaboration, cultural awareness, flexibility, adaptability, coping with chaos and decision-making under uncertainty.

10. Foresight, scenario thinking and resilience 

For many, the crisis has highlighted the need to be better prepared for the unexpected as well as our assumed or preferred future. This is driving demand for skills in horizon scanning for future risks and opportunities. Previously a ‘nice to have’, scenario planning is becoming a critical tool to explore different ways in which developments might combine and play out in the coming weeks, months and years. There is a growing recognition of the importance of having thorough contingency plans. Of course, the supporting resources and mobilisation protocols have to be in place to respond quickly, effectively and assuredly. This can help avoid having to make too many decisions from scratch in the middle of an unfolding crisis.

The situation has presented organisations with a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to acquire new approaches, ways of thinking and skills that can help navigate the current crisis and lay the foundations for the next future of work.

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, strategist, CEO of Fast Future and editor of Aftershocks and Opportunities