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How Covid-19 kick-started a new age of work

The world’s largest work-from-home experiment will dictate the future of employee engagement.

Co-working spaces, managing mental health and recognition will dominate employee engagement programmes. (Pictured: Tencent Holdings' first office in Singapore at JustCo OCBC Centre East)
Co-working spaces, managing mental health and recognition will dominate employee engagement programmes. (Pictured: Tencent Holdings' first office in Singapore at JustCo OCBC Centre East) Photo Credit:JustCo, Achievers

As we enter the new year and leave 2020 behind, it would be fair to say that no one would have expected the last twelve months to play out as they did. Across what has been a tumultuous year, Covid-19 has turned the world upside down, with countries still reeling from the epidemiological and financial devastation it has left in its wake.

With no end in sight to widespread movement restrictions, the majority of the global workforce remains at home — with businesses continuing to strike a balance between employee safety and operational continuity. And while the implications of such a paradigm shift might have been relatively unknown at the start of the pandemic, the effects of what has been deemed the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment” have made it increasingly clear that a new era of work has officially arrived.

Out with the old, in with the new

While the novelty of working from home full-time may have worn off, the practicality and benefits that it has brought about continue to be well-received by many. In Singapore, eight in 10 workers indicated their preference for remote or flexible working arrangements in the future, and in the larger Asia Pacific region, 55% of Australians are similarly looking towards hybrid work models that would allow them to work remotely several days a week.

It is important to note that such sentiments remain true up till now, even as Covid-19 cases begin to stabilise and government restrictions relax. After all, with over 60% of workers reporting no major changes to their productivity when working from home during the pandemic, the role of — or arguably, even the need for — a physical workspace is now being called into question.

Additionally, with most of the interaction between co-workers being relegated to the virtual space, employers have had to find new and innovative ways to stay connected with their employees and maintain morale, be it through online game sessions or virtual happy hours.

Even benefits and incentives have taken on new forms. For example, while travel programmes for employees used to be a mainstay in companies such as AirBnB and Carousell, the grounding of the global aviation and tourism industries has made it unlikely that such incentives will retain the draw that they once did.

For organisations and HR teams, agility and adaptability must continue to be key tenets in their journey to recovery, says Jeff Cates.
For organisations and HR teams, agility and adaptability must continue to be key tenets in their journey to recovery, says Jeff Cates.

Perhaps, most significantly, the role of the physical workspace is going to continue evolving towards that of a social hub for employee interaction and collaboration, instead of simply serving as a venue for them to get work done. While video conferencing programmes have been used to fill the social void over the last year, the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” has also been recognised as a growing mental-wellbeing concern for employees.

Alternative solutions could either involve adapting workplace designs, such as introducing more open and collaborative spaces, to meet evolving needs, or even entail a complete shift towards co-working spaces equipped with shared amenities.

In fact, the latter option had already started to see a rise in popularity going into the end of 2020. The recent buy-ins of major companies like Tencent on the co-working trend does highlight a growing acceptance of such arrangements, and potentially serves as a sign of things to come in 2021.

Mental health and a shift away from material benefits

Similarly, the growing emphasis on employees' health and wellbeing is likely to find its way into company incentive programmes. From increased coverage for individual counselling sessions, to providing employees with greater access to mental well-being programmes through government schemes, we may begin to see companies shift away from more material benefits in response to changes in employees' needs. In fact, as the mental health crisis continues to enter the public zeitgeist, it is arguable that such incentives may eventually be regarded as necessities, and not options, in one’s employment package.

Taking a leaf from early-adopters like Accenture, who had begun incorporating mental health coverage into their employee health benefits as early as 2018, the results speak for themselves, with increased levels of appreciation and engagement being noted in internal employee surveys. Therefore, it is vital that companies address these issues quickly before they escalate to an even more serious issue.

Finally, as companies continue to adapt their employee engagement programmes for the new normal, we are likely to see a greater incorporation of tailored recognition options and other “voice-of-the-employee” solutions into the overall employee experience. This comes in response to research showing that 40% of employees did not feel appreciated for their work during the course of the pandemic, despite more than a third of them listing greater recognition for their work as the best way that their organisations can show support.

Further, given the clear correlation between recognition and engagement, such initiatives would also go a long way towards plugging organisation-wide gaps in engagement following the departure from the office. Their success, however, will depend heavily on the approval and buy-in of an organisation’s management team. Thus, company leaders must collectively work towards the adoption of such programmes should they wish to see more desirable behaviour in the workplace.

The events of 2020 have highlighted the importance of standing resilient in the face of adversity, and for organisations and HR teams looking to bounce back in the new year, agility and adaptability must continue to be key tenets in their journey to recovery.

Jeff Cates is CEO and president of Achievers


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