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Why the workplace we will return to will not be the one we left

With COVID-19 restrictions gradually easing, companies are starting to look at how they can re-open offices safely. But one thing is certain: our experience of work will never be the same again. “We are at an inflection point,” says Ashok Krish, Global Head, Digital Workplace at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

“COVID-19 has forced all of us to rethink how we do things. The employee of the future has to be dexterous and work in a world where borders might be relatively closed, but ideas will flow. But the questions are many: How can organizations safely enable a return to work for critical roles in the coming months? How do you establish and sustain company values and on-board new employees in this new beginning?”

Krish was hosting a panel of experts from business and academia brought together to tackle these questions for a session entitled ‘A New Beginning – Safeguarding Our Workforce’ at the TCS Innovation Forum 2020.

Every year, the TCS Innovation Forum brings together more than a thousand senior business leaders in North America, the UK, Europe, Latin America and Japan to discuss the innovation, research and technology agenda. This year, reinforcing the role of technology in getting business through the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has become global and virtual, and is being held over a series of streamed events.

Looking at the measures being taken to facilitate a return to work were panelists Becky Frankiewicz, President, ManpowerGroup North America; Geoff Purcell, Chief Technology Officer, Melbourne Water; Paul Iske, Professor, Open Innovation and Business Venturing, Maastricht University; and Souvik Barat, Senior Scientist, TCS Research.

Facilitating a Safe Return

Manpower’s Becky Frankiewicz stressed that the primary focus for them in responding to the crisis – and coming back out of it – was concern for employees, their families and communities. Geoff Purcell supported this and highlighted that Melbourne Water’s core services continue to be delivered without interruption.  

Melbourne Water has always prided itself on its flexible workplace offerings for employees.

While a number of employees have always chosen to work this way, the pandemic has accelerated the transition to remote working for its non-operational workforce. Within only two-and-a-half weeks, a team from TCS and Melbourne Water put in place supporting infrastructure for 1,000 employees to work remotely, allowing non-operational employees to transition to working from home in early March, ahead of the lockdown.

“What we’re seeing now more generally across the whole of our workforce is greater agility, responsiveness and productivity,” observed Purcell. “An example of this is virtual meetings – they have now become the absolute norm. And I suspect that, for most people, that will continue as we return to work.” Without a vaccine, a full return is still quite a way off, but Melbourne Water is preparing for a staged return to the workplace when it is safe to do so and in line with government guidelines.

Workforce expert ManpowerGroup – which has offices in 75 countries – is taking an equally cautious approach. The company has also created practical models for other companies that are reopening. Social distancing measures, staggered shifts and leaving adequate time to sanitize facilities are part of this, but Frankiewicz also pointed to innovative measures – for instance, color-coding high-touch areas such as lift buttons to remind people to wash their hands after pressing them.

Predicting the Unpredictable

As companies move forward, technology investments will continue to be a focus to enable resilience and adaptability, as Becky Frankiewicz explained: “Like many companies around the world, we made the shift to digitization overnight, and are benefitting from decades of investment that we’ve made in technology. We want to make sure we understand how to leverage that technology, not just pre-crisis, not just during the crisis, but also post-crisis.”

Technology can help with anything, from ensuring safe access to offices – checking automatically for raised body temperature or use of protective equipment – to enforcing distancing between individuals . What is more, concepts such as ‘digital twins’, which simulate real-world scenarios, can help not just businesses but entire cities to manage a safe return to ‘normality’ for citizens.

Senior scientist Souvik Barat walked forum attendees through a digital twin model TCS has developed for the three-million-strong city of Pune in India. The model’s predictions have largely correlated with real-world events so far, and TCS has even been able to recommend some potential interventions to the local authorities. “Hopefully, in a month or so, we will have an understanding of how we can unlock a particular city and how we can best start our new normal,” Barat said.

It’s Work, but Not as We Know It

But what will this new normal look like?

To Becky Frankiewicz at Manpower Group, one thing is clear: “Whether you’re going back to a job that you had, or you’re taking on a new job – it’ll be different. We should embrace this new un-normal and go back to a future of work that is, honestly, more reflective of what workers want – things like flexibility, balance, wellbeing,” she added.

“The pandemic has shown us that people can do as much, if not more, work from their home offices as they were doing prior. And so, employers will need to be more trusting of their workers to be productive, and employees will need to be more trusting of their employers to provide safe workplaces.”

A poll conducted as part of the TCS Innovation Forum event appears to support this way of thinking: more than three-quarters of respondents (77.5%) said their firms were planning for upwards of a quarter of staff to work remotely in the medium to long term. Indeed, TCS’ own operating model is changing. By 2025, only 25% of employees will need to be in office at any one time in order to be just as, if not more, productive.

Companies’ technology investments will continue to play a key role in facilitating this. But as Professor Paul Iske of Maastricht University pointed out, it can’t stand on its own. “New technology in an old organization gives you an expensive old organization. So, we should not only pay attention to the technology aspects but also to the organization as a whole.”

He called for social innovation within enterprises to go with new working practices, for instance, in areas such as culture and values and organizational structures. Critical to the transformation of work is experimentation, he added, and with that, the permission to fail. “I think we should create for ourselves and each other the opportunity to fail and to learn and to move on. We should keep what works and we should learn from what doesn’t work.”

A Wider Social Impact

As we move to new ways of working, it is important not to forget the impact any change to the status quo has on the wider society, as N Ganapathy Subramaniam, Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director, TCS, reminded delegates in his closing remarks at the conference.

Referring to the company’s home market in India as an example, he said: “For every IT job we have created, there are five to six downstream jobs that get created. The lack of people coming into office means there is a huge economic downturn, and the people who are part of these downstream jobs are hugely affected.” A holistic approach will be needed to ensure that the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is equitable and ensures future growth.