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Workforce strategies for post-COVID recovery

Sep 18, 2020

What is the best way to handle post-COVID recovery? Leaders should see the recovery process as a spectrum of options, argues Valerie Daunt, and adapt accordingly.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 2.7 billion people, or more than four out of five workers in the global workforce, have been affected by lockdowns and stay-at-home measures. Business and government leaders have been challenged to both respond to the crisis quickly and rethink their workforce strategies in real-time.

It is important to realise that recovery won’t be static. It will not occur on a specific date. COVID-19 is unlikely to end suddenly given the lack of available therapeutics and the uncertain prospects and timing of a vaccine.

Most organisations’ priority has been crisis response and emphasising health, safety, essential services, and the virtualisation of work and education. Now, as organisations begin to emerge from this response phase, leaders are focusing on the next set of challenges as they plan for recovery. There are three phases that leaders will likely face:

  • Respond: How an organisation deals with the present situation and manages continuity
  • Recover: How an organisation learns and emerges stronger
  • Thrive: How an organisation prepares for and shapes the “new normal”

Many organisations are planning for multiple scenarios and time horizons as they shift from crisis response to recovery. Many are also planning for the possibility of multiple waves of the pandemic and its continuing global and uneven footprint. As a result, we expect it will be a gradual transition from the respond phase to a new reality. Organisations must prepare for different outcomes of the pandemic – mild, harsh, or severe – and recognise that the recovery should be adaptable to different situations within different countries and industries worldwide.

To do this, it helps to think of this recovery process as a spectrum of options. Some organisations are hiring or expanding and others contracting. Some may bring more employees back to the workplace, while others are still working remotely, perhaps permanently. Other organisations, especially those that expanded during the crisis, may reduce their workforce or adapt to new environments.

Leaders should ask how they will integrate additional workers in the future, what services might be added or changed as a result, and what other operations may be maintained in a remote capacity. The answers to these types of questions will help organisations redefine their workforces and set the direction to thrive in the aftermath of the pandemic.

It is not essential that leaders have a detailed blueprint of the new working landscape at this stage, but they should start to actively envision it and work toward it. In sharing our insights on how to approach workforce recovery strategies, business leaders should begin with a sense of priorities and direction for their future. The future of any organisation’s DNA, and critical guideposts for workforce recovery, should include its direction on organisational:

  • Purpose: integrating the well-being and contributions of individuals in the organisation’s mission and work;
  • Potential: for what can be achieved by individuals and teams; and
  • Perspective: with a focus on moving boldly into the future.

It’s not simply a return to old ways of doing business. The pandemic has created an imperative and an opportunity for organisations to reengage with the workforce and reinvent their workplaces.

The biggest challenge organisations will likely face in recovery is the tension between preparing for a return to previous activities and routines – getting back to work – while also embracing a new reality – rethinking work. While many workforces have demonstrated resiliency in the face of crisis, it is important to remember that transformative change can be difficult and unsettling for many workers. While some may prefer working from home, others may be uncomfortable or unproductive outside of traditional work settings. How leaders accommodate and balance these divergent expectations will help define the future of trust in their organisation.

Despite the uncertainty, one thing remains clear: customers, workers, suppliers, and other partners are watching. How organisations handle the recovery may define their brands with both their workforce and their customers, establish their reputations for years to come, determine their future competitiveness, and ultimately define whether they are truly operating as a social enterprise.

Valarie Daunt is a Partner in Consulting in Deloitte.