The Future of Work and the Workforce in the Post-Pandemic Era

June 18, 2020 – Richard Stein is partner, chief growth officer and head of OGiQ at Options Group. He supports the C-suite of many of the world’s top financial services organizations in all aspects of talent acquisition, development and retention. Organizations have all but slammed the brakes on recruiting at a time when they should be looking for those who will lead them through the complexities of the coming decades, he says. Here, Mr. Stein discusses how the coronavirus crisis will be a defining feature of the years ahead.

COVID-19 is only the latest example of a seismic global event upending sophisticated organizations. For no one does this matter more than for talent managers, who find their every process now up for grabs, according to a new report, “The Future of Work and the Workforce in the Post-Pandemic Era,” authored by Richard Stein, chief growth officer at Options Group.

Businesses in every industry, of every size in every country, are compelled to contend with the meaning of a phenomenon that six months ago they had never heard of. “How counterproductive, then, that so many have all but slammed the brakes on recruiting just when they should be searching most intently for the people who will lead them through the complexities of the coming decades,” said Mr. Stein. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a precursor of the kind of problem that can seem external to our operating environments and then erupt, testing our capacity to manage through uncertainty. These kinds of problems—unpredicted, unfamiliar—will be a defining feature of the next several years. What lies ahead is a high-wire act in a brave new world of work and hiring.”

Organizations of Tomorrow

“The organizations of tomorrow will be data driven and analytical,” Mr. Stein said. “The talent of tomorrow will be digitally savvy. We knew those things before the pandemic. Depending on how long this crisis lasts, once we come out the other side, it is likely that the world will only accelerate these changes.”

Despite the massive problems of today, businesses must remember that there will be a tomorrow. “Organizations cannot stop thinking strategically about talent,” said Mr. Stein. “We can’t close the door on the outside world and all its issues. Even if we could it would not be desirable. Any more than an organization can become great by trimming investments in growth neither can an organization lead its industry by being afraid.”

Warning Signs

Companies that adapt to violent change shove aside companies that don’t, said Mr. Stein, citing Kodak and Myspace as just two noteworthy cases. “The strategic failure of once unassailable brands was the direct consequence of an inability to see the threat from disruptive thinking or to seize the opportunity hidden in disruption,” he said. “Kodak’s collapse, for example, lay in a stubborn inability to embrace new business models that rapid, disruptive thinking created. Oracle did the same when it dismissed the threat from Amazon Web Services.”

Every company would acknowledge the warnings in such mistakes, but too many are unprepared to shift suddenly from protecting competitive advantage to embracing change that feels uncomfortable, even radical, Mr. Stein said. “Complacency can be as contagious as COVID-19, and just as potentially fatal,” he said. “Meanwhile, Zoom went from being a modestly well regarded conferencing tool three years ago to a household name precisely at a moment of worldwide social and economic crisis. It was culturally prepared for its moment.”

So what are the new business models of companies like Zoom telling us about talent strategy? Mr. Stein said the answer lies in four key areas:

Even before the world locked down, many employees were beginning to ask employers, “What is your remote policy? What am I worth to you? Are you going to train me? Do you care about me as an individual? What do we stand for?”

“Once the world comes out of lockdown, the supply of great talent will be as tight as ever,” Mr. Stein said. “If their questions are not answered directly, employees have the power to find jobs with employers who will answer them better.”

Stay Mobile

Technology is not an answer all by itself. Mr. Stein said that technology is a springboard if it enhances the employee and the customer experience. In the coming decades, companies that adopt remote working—not in response to crisis but as a long-term strategy—will win the war for talent over rivals who don’t.

“Except for a handful of organizations, remote teams will be far better positioned for the next generation than office bound teams,” he said. “A physical office means an organization can hire the best person it can afford in a small geographic radius. Holding real estate thus disqualifies an employer from much of the world’s best talent.”

According to a recent Stanford study, for example, a majority of U.S. Millennials would prefer to work remotely and would even take a pay cut to work from home. “Over the next five years, companies who do not give this option to their employees will lose their most talented people to their biggest competitors,” Mr. Stein said.

But Be More than Mobile

A surprising result of asking staff to work from home is how many people have realized how much more efficient they are outside of an office. “That’s an existential threat to all the bad managers whose principal performance metric is time spent in the office,” said Mr. Stein. “However, good managers primarily focus on what gets done. Employees with the flexibility to decide their work schedule operate when they are most productive. They are happier as a result, with all that means for retention. Gone is the need to plead with a manager to pick up a child when daycare is unavailable. Gone is the need to fill a cubicle and live in a high-cost city with a low quality of life. Organizing work around the rest of a life is a huge transition with major implications, not all of them good.”

“But some of us are less productive remotely and much less motivated,” Mr. Stein said. “We prefer to be social, not distancing. The new normal does not sit well with them. It has instead created a new set of previously unimagined problems.”

Acknowledge Complexity

Recruiting is a ‘high-touch’ business. “The hiring process will continue to be an essential component of every firm’s growth strategy,” said Mr. Stein. “Assume for a moment that the experience of the pandemic creates a national movement for remote work. How will working remotely interact, say, with demographic changes driving the acute concern for work/life balance, including new kinds of stressors on childcare and eldercare? Or with years of underinvestment in infrastructure? Or with spotty access to broadband in rural areas?”

“Against such a background of interconnected complexity, a coherent risk management strategy should, before anything else, aim at being simple to communicate,” said Mr. Stein. “Everyone—in and out of an organization—should be in no doubt about how an organization will pursue its ends even amidst tremendous uncertainty.”

Mr. Stein said the choice is simple: “Respond to crises with imagination, perhaps in ways that create previously unimagined opportunities. JPMorgan, for instance, responded immediately to the coronavirus pandemic with ‘Project Kennedy,’ rapidly turning many of its employees into a mobile workforce. The interesting thing is that Project Kennedy was conceived not as an answer but as a test—a test of the bank’s agility in managing not only people but technology and systems. It was not reactive but forward-looking.”

“Impossibly difficult problems are always with us—even those that once seemed unrelated to our own businesses,” Mr. Stein said. “Our responses moving forward to these problems will tell a lot about us and about our futures. How we respond will provide evidence of our capacity for managing—and growing—in a future full of complexity and ambiguity.”

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