Heading into the new year on the tailwind of a pandemic we continue to move through uncharted territory. Over the course of 2020, the tide continued to change as South Africa went in and out of lockdowns — and businesses reflected cautiously on their ability to work safely in the office.
As the pandemic evolves around the world in 2021, with the bitter-sweet addition of a new more transmissible variant of the virus and the roll-out of vaccines, the role of business leaders has expanded. They are not only the guardians of profit and loss, but they must be motivators as well — with responsibility for employees’ health, safety and wellbeing.
During these times, making sound and comprehensive decisions is more important than ever for employees to keep faith — especially when it comes to safely opening and closing the office. It is essential to find the right balance between working from home and on-site. Trust in employers to get this right is paramount, as employees seek assurance.
Covid-19 and Employee Care
At the start of 2020, when the first wave of Covid-19 rippled around the world, companies rushed the workforce to the home office — in some cases over-night. This accelerated digital transformation projects, with IT investments becoming a business-critical priority as businesses quickly adapted. But many were simply not prepared, and some found themselves back on-site as the pandemic prevailed. Just as transmission rates varied across regions, so did approaches to handling the crisis. In turn, the sentiment of the public and their willingness to return to site varied.
In Europe, following the first wave of the pandemic, the UK workforce was the most reluctant to return to site with only a third (34 per cent) of white-collar employees back at their desks by mid-July, according to Morgan Stanley’s research unit AlphaWise. At the same time, 83 per cent of French office staff had returned and 76 per cent in Italy.
In South Africa, according to a survey by Michael Page Africa 41% of workers were provided the freedom of choice to either return to work or work remotely. The remaining 59% of workers who were expected to return to work could be broken down as follows: 16% were asked to return to their workplace for between 1-4 days per week, 19% who were asked to return full time, and 24% were given options on their return.
The gap between the UK and its European counterparts was attributed in part to general distrust following mixed messages and changing regulations. Business leaders in turn had to interpret this information and make their own decisions on return to work strategies — perhaps leading to more cautionary approaches. That’s not to mention of course the convenience of homeworking and a growing preference for hybrid working models.
While it may be a more pertinent point for some nations rather than others, the importance of trust when leading through a crisis cannot be understated – particularly in this instance when the decision to work from home or onsite impacts employee and community welfare. Amid this pandemic, and now in the second and third waves of lockdowns throughout Europe, business leaders are being called upon to make not just business-critical decisions, but human-centric decisions that inspire faith in our ability to work safely. Nothing right now is more important than our health and well-being – and that of our loved ones.
During times of uncertainty, trusted relationships with employees foster strength and resilience. In fact, fresh research from Accenture highlights trust as ‘the new currency at work’. It enables businesses to create supportive cultures and grow business while helping the wider community. Looking at the impact of the pandemic, the stats speak for themselves. Prior to the pandemic, 35% of CXOs fully embraced the responsibility to support people’s holistic needs. Just six months later, this has grown to represent 50% of CXOs.
Keeping faith with tangible, data-driven insights
The question uniting all businesses in these unprecedented times is how to regain or indeed strengthen trust — providing comfort to employees and steadying business foundations. When fighting an invisible virus and being inundated with conflicting information from a variety of sources and organisations, people need something tangible to grasp onto – particularly when it comes to returning to site. They need data to back up critical decisions. But they also need consistency.
Given the fast pace at which the pandemic shifts — with transmission rates guiding regional approaches along with the wider availability of vaccines by 2021 — having access to real-time data in order to make swift, effective and consistent decisions around onsite working is essential. With local lockdown measures still in place as we move into the new year, employees now need faith in their employer’s ability to move flexibly between onsite and offsite working — making the right call, at the right time.
Dell Technologies data scientists in partnership with medical professionals developed a dedicated tool, the Inversed Risk Matrix, to make sense of all the health data — the number of infections, hospitalisations, curve inclination, etc — to make informed decisions that put the health and safety of our team members and communities first.
The matrix works by collecting the best available data from credible sources such as Johns Hopkins, Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. It uses a total of 15 different variables, all weighted appropriately, to calculate the overall risk score across 182 countries and 173 states/provinces where the company operates. The data is automatically refreshed, and it is checked multiple times a day.
Leaders also take into account each facility’s capacity and local government regulations to determine the readiness to open or need to close sites. Not only does this tool help organise the return to site safely, but it also helps us remain on site safely.
Holistic health: Bringing the business together with data
Data-driven approaches like this help humans make better, more informed, consistent real-time decisions. But data alone cannot solve the dilemma of how and when to safely open offices. It requires a collaborative, holistic approach that ensures key stakeholders are onboard, eliminating siloes. A safe and well-timed strategy that enables onsite working for those who want it, means bringing HR, facilities, the CIO organisation, the C-Suite and Sales leads together so that a sensitive, inclusive approach is taken that is tailored to the local workforce and its needs. This holistic approach is very much built into digital businesses already — and is an essential part of their digital transformations.
Indeed, businesses that enable flexible working practices, with the necessary digital transformations in place to empower more agile operations will thrive. They will embody resilience. For this reason, taking a data-driven approach during this pandemic can help temper any further shocks — fundamentally reassuring the workforce that their health and safety is paramount by swiftly scaling up or down on-site working. Moreover, it will elevate the business as a responsible, trustworthy employer.
Regardless of how evolved back-to-site strategies are across Europe, flexible working is the way forward. The workplace is evolving — it is connected, it is flexible, and it has served us well in this crisis. We must continue to reimagine work not as a place and time, but as an outcome.
With trust now a currency of work, transparent communication with a representative range of stakeholders is essential. Only then can the successful implementation of flexible working practices be fully embraced. But of course, to get it right, data helps.