“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Marie Curie, Nobel Prize winner for Physics and Chemistry
Exactly a year ago, in December 2019, none of us saw this coming. None of us could have predicted the spread of such a virus. None of us could have anticipated the impact it would have on all our lives and the ways in which we work. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented.
Well, none of us other than Bill Gates. In his 2015 TED talk, Bill Gates said that the US and other countries were not prepared for the future pandemic that was going to hit them. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” Gates said. “Not missiles, but microbes.”
Here we are, having been impacted by this pandemic in ways we did not fathom to be even possible; something many of us did not want to believe could be a reality. Given the impact of this pandemic on work, workplaces and how we work, it is important that we look at what this means for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in workplaces that are functioning very differently than they were at the start of 2020.
As countries started going into lockdown in the first quarter of 2020, maintaining inclusion through working-from-home quickly became a key concern for HR teams, and as the lockdowns continued this concern expanded into needing to find ways to make new hires feel included through the onboarding process. While no one could have imagined at that time that the pandemic would last as long as it has, we are now finding ourselves confronted with continuing to work-from-home for prolonged periods (or in some cases possibly forever) as companies realize the possible benefits of this way of working.
COVID-19 may have given us the corporate culture reboot we all needed. It showed us how little we knew about our colleagues’ personal lives even though we spent a significant part of the day and week working together. We all know though that our personal circumstances affect the way we work, our attitude towards the job and our colleagues, and we do bring those emotions into the workplace. Yet, prior to this pandemic, we all left a part of us – a part that is so important to us – outside the doors of our companies.
The pandemic has resulted in a very large-scale work-from-home experiment. But in doing so it has made even many of the most traditional leaders become conscious of not being biased against people’s personal circumstances.
The pandemic also helped us question a major bias we have had – location bias. We have always assumed that our talent should be in workplaces. Working from home was not really a widely-accepted option available to employees, with many employers, managers and leaders believing that talent is most productive when they are physically in the office. We have seen that Infosys, Tata Consulting Services (TCS), Shopify, Siemens, Google, Facebook, Twitter, State Bank of India and Microsoft are all providing more long-term work-from-home options for their employees; some are even saying their employees will be working remotely indefinitely.
This has meant that a pool of talent – like young parents or those who are disabled or those who have retired but would like to continue working – who have been largely discriminated against being hired or promoted now have greater flexibility about where to work. The advantages for the talent of working-from-home or working from a distance include greater flexibility, a reduction in time spent on commuting, and the ability to balance personal life and work. For organizations too, working-from-home means reduced real-estate costs, increased productivity in employees, and happier employees.
However, to reap these positive benefits requires a great sense of trust between managers and their employees to avoid micromanaging talent who are not physically together, as well as a rethinking of organisational culture that embodies this trust and sense of inclusion.
This work-from-home revolution arising from the pandemic will likely mean that an increasing number of companies will at least be considering adopting more hybrid forms of working, where employees work-from-home for some days of the week and are in the office for other days.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast on HBR Ideacast where the guest Prithwiraj (Raj) Choudhury, a Professor at Harvard Business School, was explaining the Work-From-Anywhere (WFA) future.
WFA takes work-from-home a step further; employees could be working from absolutely anywhere, not necessarily in cities where their companies have offices.
This model of work provides geographical and temporal flexibility to talent in the knowledge industries, and really eliminates the location bias that we traditionally have had. Raj shared that this shift towards working-from-anywhere began well before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated its viability by almost a decade. Companies, no matter what their size, were forced through lockdowns to make distance working work for them, resulting in many investing resources into ensuring they had the technological infrastructure to make it work.
Raj emphasized that while a reduction in real-estate costs could be one of the reasons companies are looking seriously into making this shift, the main driver for most senior leaders whom he has spoken to during his research is the ability to attract and retain the best talent. Without geographical limitations, companies can hire the very best diverse talent from anywhere in the world. This talent – who may not want to move to another location due to dual-career considerations, immigration laws, proximity to family and a host of other personal reasons – can be easily hired when operating in this model. In fact, countries like Estonia and Barbados began actively promoting their employment visas for such WFA talent through the pandemic. Who would not want to work on a beach with the lovely weather, chilled lifestyle, and stunning views, right?
For societies more generally, Raj suggests that this WFA movement may finally halt the brain drain that many countries like India and China have faced for decades, and even reverse the brain drain from tier 2 and 3 cities into larger ones having a further positive impact on pollution levels and overcrowding. In his article in Harvard Business Review, Raj explains that his study shows that talent who are WFA are happier and even more productive with WFA boosting individual productivity by 4.4%. He further explains that the Millennial generation is particularly captivated by this WFA model because it enables them to truly live like the digital nomads that they are. What this pandemic has shown is that the WFA model is not that far-fetched, and as more and more talent demands this from their employers, we will see companies needing to be more flexible about where talent lives and works.
As a result of the WFA phenomenon, we are also likely to see another trend being accelerated: the reliance on an on-demand workforce, often referred to as the gig workforce. For a while now, we have been projecting the move towards a gig economy but companies, especially larger ones, have struggled to envision what that may look like more practically. Through the COVID-19 pandemic and with talent working remotely, companies and their leadership are more open to alternative options of hiring talent.
With acute skill shortages in certain industries, rapid automation and digital transformation, the authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Rethinking the On-demand Workforce” suggest that on-demand access to highly skilled workers to work at just the right time is becoming more of a reality. The authors make a strong case for being able to embrace more diversity in the talent pool by having access to talent with care responsibilities for children or the elderly, women who are looking for flexible working opportunities, older workers who have retired or were laid off due to their age, and younger talent who prefer to work for themselves. As a result of this expanded diverse talent pool, companies have the added flexibility of crowdsourcing innovation workers when needed without hiring the required talent permanently – a possible boon in times of hiring freezes.
So, what is the catch? Is WFA going to become the reality in the post-pandemic world? Will we see more gig workers in our workplaces? Perhaps. While we have all experienced that we could indeed work from home, many of us have really missed the face-to-face social interaction of being at work with our colleagues.
The biggest challenge for organisations moving to a hybrid or even full WFA model lies in enabling workplace socialisation. Through the pandemic, we have tried to recreate coffee machine or watercooler chats online through Zoom lunches, Virtual Friday Bars, even virtual workout sessions – and, in doing so, we have also realised the limitations of working remotely. No one can predict “what’s next” but if the future of work involves a hybrid model of working-in-the-office and working-from-home or WFA, with some talent being permanent hires and others being on-demand, then some of the concerns we had about inclusion through lockdowns will still hold and require us to pay special attention.
So, the questions we need to be asking ourselves as we enter 2021 are: ”What should inclusion in this hybrid working or WFA model look like? What can those of us in HR and talent management do right now to help managers and teams with being inclusive while being apart?”