Work: but not as we know it

Nov 30, 2021 | Articles

While the impact of Covid-19 has been devastating in many respects, it has also stimulated positive change, by forcing organisations to put employee wellbeing first, refocusing the business world on creating a flexible and inclusive workforce, and reinventing the future of work.

In this article, we discuss six business challenges that have arisen from these rapid changes, and explore some of the ways organisations can tackle them.

While things are unlikely to remain static over the coming months, one thing is for certain: work, as we know it, has now changed for good.

Six workforce challenges to watch for in 2021 and beyond


1.The Great Resignation

The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way organisations and their employees operate, with a lot of changes likely here to stay. These changes have brought new challenges with them, in particular the challenge of ensuring that new ways of working are fit for all.

With The Great Resignation creating even greater struggles for talent attraction and retention, organisations are under increasing pressure to become more flexible employers. This is not just a rumour, but an ongoing trend, with 4 million Americans having quit their jobs in July 2021.

While there are a great many factors that could be at play in creating this trend in employee empowerment, one thing remains clear: companies need to prioritise their workforce as one of their most valuable and critical resources, offering competitive and innovative benefits that acknowledge the realities we are all facing.

2. Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The overarching challenge that underpins everything we’re outlining in this article, is the need for organisations to create a diverse, inclusive and equity-driven organisation, where all colleagues, no matter their ethnicity, sex or personal circumstances, feel listened to and their needs respected.

A crucial element of diversity strategy is to understand the workforce demographic and scrutinise what is happening at every stage of the employment cycle, to identify if there are any unfair obstacles in the way.

As we move into a new working world, where employees are given more opportunities to choose their working style, and competition for talent is fierce, employers will need to ensure that employees who choose certain paths or working styles, are not given favourable opportunities over others.

3. Redesigning Office Work

As organisations have been forced by Covid-19 to move to more flexible styles of working, there has been much debate about how office-based organisations can monitor and ensure the productivity of their workforces.

With managers eager to stay in control, applications and software that provide employee surveillance are on the rise, and tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are used to report when an employee is “active”. Failure to open apps first thing in the morning is often taken by managers to be the same as being late for work.

Campaigners are fighting back, saying we need to embrace working environments that value the output of employees vs the input. Silkie Carlo, director of the anti-surveillance charity Big Brother Watch, told the Guardian last year that, “It’s important for people’s sense of autonomy and dignity, and their mental health, that the home remains a private space and we don’t go down the route of this really invasive constant monitoring of people’s homes.”

But, it’s not just the productivity of flexible working that is causing concern. Implementing a post-Covid-19 hybrid working policy brings a myriad of legal, employee and public relations complexities for businesses. To ensure successful hybrid working, critical operational, ethical and cultural questions must be answered by employers. As more companies look towards a flexible workplace, many are deciding they need to appoint a specific person to manage it. To name a few, Facebook has a director of remote work, LinkedIn has a VP of flex work and Dropbox has a head of virtual first.

4. A Focus on Employee Health and Wellbeing

Adding to the question of employee performance management, are the moves we are seeing by organisations and governments to protect employees’ wellbeing and work-life balance.

The pandemic has underscored the inextricable link between health and business performance, and forced the corporate world to re-examine how we define and approach health and wellbeing. Many companies have long acknowledged that doing good is good for business, but Covid-19 and all its labour complications have put ESG front of mind.

Statistically speaking, in 2020, companies with the highest workforce treatment scores in Just Capital’s rankings outperformed the Russell 1000 by 4.7%.

As Corporate Citizenship’s very own Piya Baptista puts it, “If organisations want to truly invest in the resilience of their businesses, they must invest in the resilience of their people, by addressing critical issues that affect their health, communities, economic stability, education and social identity.”

As research suggests that employees who work from home are spending longer at their desks and facing a bigger workload than before the Covid pandemic hit, questions have also been raised about how to better protect employees’ mental wellbeing. To help tackle this challenge, Portugal’s governing Socialist Party has introduced a new law making it illegal for companies to contact staff outside their contracted working hours. And in the UK, it has been suggested that monitoring of workers and setting performance targets through algorithms is damaging employees’ mental health, and needs to be controlled by new legislation.

5. Getting Colleagues Back to the Office

While working from home has brought many opportunities for employees and employers alike, it’s also true that it’s not for everyone. Some organisations want colleagues back to the office, as they recognise employee burnout in the mid-long term due to high workloads and longer hours; and a loss of culture and sense of team.

Research conducted by Steelcase suggests that, in ten out of ten countries surveyed, isolation was the greatest concern of people working at home. For many, work is a fundamental way our desire for belonging and community is fulfilled. We can connect virtually, but for many it’s just not the same.

The question for organisations, will be how to encourage and support colleagues back to the office, while respecting those who wish to continue to work from home.

6. Vaccine Wars

Alongside the questions of employee flexibility and wellbeing, are concerns over the safety of workplaces. Particularly in front-line service industries, where colleagues are more vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19.

As the world starts to open up again, businesses must think carefully about how they can protect their employees, while also respecting their human rights.

For many governments, unlocking the economy is tied to the speed and success of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout, but how far that will assist employers varies globally. In the US, employers are more likely to be able to compel employees to get vaccinated, but in many countries employers are legally unable to require employees to be vaccinated before returning to the workplace. In many European countries, it is unlawful to even enquire about an individual employee’s vaccination status.

In reality, organisations will need to approach re-opening with caution, and be sure to implement certain hygiene measures. In many cases, while requesting vaccine status of employees may not be an appropriate step, it is often reasonable to ask colleagues for proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

Authors: Germán Saenz and Rebecca Walker