6 ways the pandemic will make companies more human

WorldatWork CEO Scott Cawood predicts organizations will change forever--and for the better.
By: | August 11, 2020 • 5 min read
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

I’m deeply encouraged. From the beginning of this humanitarian, economic and social crisis we’ve seen glimmers of how this pandemic is making companies more human. Many that pledged to keep their employees instead of laying them off have stuck to that promise. Companies that have had to let people go helped redeploy their workers across the corporate parking lot where the skills they already have can be put to good use. Many offered bonuses for employees to use to support local businesses, purchase iPads for their school-aged kids, or set up home offices in their kitchens. Now, they’re acting on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Through these acts, both large and small, organizations are showing that adversity doesn’t define the humanity we can offer one another.

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HR technology firms ThinkHR & Mammoth HR spent $50,000 to give their employees $250 each to use that money to do good in their communities. An East Coast pizza chain offered employees time off to participate in Black Lives Matter protests. Companies made pledges to keep their employees and are clearly communicating how they’re going about it and, perhaps as importantly, why they’ve made that decision.

Author Scott Cawood

Those organizations that knew who they were and what they stood for prior to the pandemic are well-positioned now. Their unprecedented actions were the obvious choice because they didn’t require a cultural shift to support them. They understood that the promises an organization makes to its people, customers, community and other stakeholders are what binds an organization and empowers it to make a difference in the world.

Now that the world is getting back to work, every organization has been tweaked, from remote work protocols to changes in their diversity and inclusion programs. These actions are emblematic of our potential and of where we’re going in the future.

Related: Why the pandemic isn’t all bad for the workplace

Here’s how I predict organizations will be changed forever and for the better:

Powershift: Top-down leadership will feel stale and fake.

During the pandemic, as people were freed from the 9-5 grind, work got done. Good work, too. That happened because business is powered by the interdependence of people, and most sat down at their desks in their bedrooms, basements, closets–collaborated and got to work. New processes and procedures will reexamine how teams are structured and how decisions are made. Power will shift to smaller, flatter networks because leadership now trusts employees to make their own decisions, to innovate and to do work that is more important to them.

Generalists, not specialists, mean greater diversity and opportunity.

To get things done, everyone is going to have to do more of a little bit of everything. Part of this is because roles that were unfortunately eliminated as a result of the shutdown may not be coming back–even though the work still needs to get done. People won’t be able to retreat to their former territories. The change opens up the opportunity for a more diverse workforce, which will be breaking through the formerly invisible but readily felt barriers between teams. There might be some stress at the start but, ultimately, people will be more engaged and valued.

Work-life balance morphs into life with work.

Salary is still important, don’t get me wrong. But we can expect to see dramatic changes, not only in what organizations do to support employees but in what employees expect their companies do to support their total wellbeing. When people work, how they work and what benefits are offered so they meet people’s needs as people, not just employees, will be the litmus test for healthy organizations. This shift is significant: physical health, mental health, financial health–all these pieces will require renewed focus from organizations.

Hyperdrive is the new innovation paradigm.

The rhythms that we used to get things done have gone into hyperdrive. Speed is the new paradigm because anything that takes too long is the enemy of our current situation. The pharmaceutical industry changed almost overnight as scientists around the globe work furiously to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, new businesses sprouted during the pandemic to challenge old ways of doing business. The need for speed means less red tape, fewer committees, fewer meetings (thank goodness) and more collaboration.

Bosses lead and embrace employees as people. 

Before the world changed forever, employees were viewed largely as just that. But now they’re seen for who they are–people with rich lives outside the office. COVID gave organizations windows into everyone’s lives–their kids, their dogs, their pet snakes. Nearly every organization operating today has seen the more human side of the workforce and that glimpse cannot be ignored. Expect nimble organizations to use that insight to make it easier for employees to find a reason to be their best selves in and out of the workplace. That could mean flexible schedules and time to take their kids to the doctor or care for an aging parent. It could also be giving them more opportunities to learn–and lots more virtual work.

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Digital compassion will reign supreme. 

There were reports of sudden layoffs via Zoom, of employees let go with no explanation on a video call, even after 15 years of service. Harsh. And that will change. Business conversations–hiring, feedback, firing will all be held via video–and managers will be searching for ways to hand a digital tissue through the screen when an employee gets a bad review. We will have to learn how to develop real, compassionate relationships over a screen. Expect a bevy of digital behavior coaches who teach us how to be more emotionally connected in the virtual business world.

At a time when the world is grieving the many losses from COVID-19 and examining roles, responsibilities and responses to #BlackLivesMatter, wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we could emerge from this with better, safer, more meaningful and more human workplaces?

Scott Cawood is president and CEO at WorldatWork, a nonprofit professional association in compensation and total rewards. We serve those who design and deliver total rewards programs to cultivate engaged, effective workforces that power thriving organizations. Questions or comments about this story can be sent to hreletters@lrp.com.