How the pandemic has rewired the world of work

Mar 26, 2021

It’s hard to imagine going back full-time to an office that's full of people. But can we really let go of the old ways of working once the pandemic is over? Gerard McDonough says that our ability to move forward hinges on our willingness to rethink everything we ever knew about the way we work.

It’s been just over one year since the first COVID-19 case in Ireland. As the crisis continues to evolve, we are still facing a high level of uncertainty about what the future of work looks like, but the remote working experiment has shown organisations and employees exactly what’s possible. It’s given rise to a shift in employee behaviours, as well as sweeping changes to the ways we relate to work and each other. And, now, there’s no going back.

Rather than adding expectations, we need to let go of the old ideas that defined the workplace. From our attachment to the 9-to-5 working week to organisational hierarchies and the notion of the employee-for-life model, our ability to move forward hinges on our willingness to unlearn. The future of work can feel out of our control, but it is important to grasp the learnings present in this moment and draw a clear line in the sand. 

For organisations looking to embrace the future of work as we navigate the new normal, we recommend taking the following steps.

Think critically about your ambition and involve your people in clarifying your purpose

Our research shows that people want to work for an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society. Given their desire to work for purpose-driven organisations, now is the time to reflect on where your business is heading. You need to embed flexibility and plan for multiple future scenarios so that you’re prepared to tackle an uncertain future. Ask questions like “what do we want to be known for?” and “what might cause us to change course?” Have these conversations with your people and customers, communicate transparently and let your employees know they have a role in achieving this ambition.

Redefine what work is and how it gets done

Identify what is core to your organisation, the types of workers you need and the size and skills of your workforce. With 77% of respondents in PwC’s Hopes and Fears 2021 survey indicating that they are ready to learn new skills or completely retrain, this will be key to attracting and retaining key talent in your organisation. 

You also need to consider where work gets done. In the new world of work, we need to say goodbye to the notion of a single workplace. Good work can be carried out in different ways across multiple workplaces. Getting clear on your definition of work is the first step towards nurturing the motivation, performance and engagement levels of your people.

Co-create the future

The future of work is human, so engage them. While top-down, directive leadership can be useful in times of crisis; now, you need to involve and engage your people more than ever as you plan for the post-pandemic world of work. Doing so will energise and inspire your people so they play an active part in your organisation, while also developing a compelling employee value proposition for what will continue to be a competitive and transient labour market.

The crisis has forced us into restrictive repetitive routines. As the crisis eases, we can expect to see an increase in the movement of talent, with employees looking for something new and different. Therefore, it’s more important than ever for organisations to find new ways to engage, retain and attract key talent.

Don’t be afraid to adopt a ‘test and learn’ mindset

We are at a crossroads. And when faced with change, we tend to live in a state of fight or flight. We can either go back to the way things were, and what is comfortable, or use this opportunity to innovate and iterate, and define a new path. Now is the time to make a conscious decision to embrace experimentation. It’s vital to test, learn and experiment – and be prepared to act on your findings. It doesn’t just happen. It requires you to make some deliberate decisions and actions.

Lead consciously

As the art of leadership becomes shaped by a new kind of complexity, we need to support leaders in their role as mentors, coaches and navigators, so they can chart a course through this new paradigm of work. The future of work must be leadership-led and leadership-lived. 

The future of work is also about teams. It is about the collective efforts of individuals coming together rather than singular achievements. Leaders play a crucial role in sustaining these communal bonds. Ensuring that your people feel needed and have a sense of belonging will be a defining focus for leaders moving forward. 

Ultimately, the future of work isn’t just about the physical walls of an office. It’s about employees’ connection to their work and each other, and how collaboration and creativity can flourish in both offline and online contexts. To do this, you need to rethink your ambition, redefine work, engage your people, experiment, and invest in leadership. The opportunity for Irish businesses now is to co-create a future of work that works for all.

Gerard McDonough is Partner at PwC Ireland.