Managing people in the new normal

Stefan Lauber, CEO of iFundi

Revolutions erupt suddenly. The 4th Industrial Revolution just hit us. As the world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, businesses were forced to pivot into the cloud. What years of deliberation could not achieve, materialised in a few weeks, much faster than anyone could have imagined.

Many of the predicted consequences of the 4th industrial revolution have become true:

  • Companies without digital delivery channels are facing ruin
  • Unemployment has sky-rocketed even in healthy economies
  • Lower skilled workers have been affected particularly hard
  • Workplace and employment relations have irreversibly changed
  • Social inequalities are more pronounced than ever
  • Uncertainty about the future remains

How will this impact on the way people are managed in companies? We do not really know what the future holds. But four issues currently stand out:

  1. The New Workplace
  2. Developing Critical Skills
  3. Leading People
  4. A New Social Contract
  • The New Workplace

Until now, few employers believed that their staff could be trusted to work from home. Covid-19 proved that it is possible.

Free from the need to commute, employees are saving time and money, lowering the burden on the environment. With less distractions from their colleagues, staff can focus better on their work. Online meetings are at least as productive. Employees enjoy more flexibility while working from home, which should allow them to better balance personal affairs and work.

Yet, for some, the workday never ends. Unfortunately, not everyone rose to the challenge of working from home equally well. The promise of working remotely has often been undermined by poor connectivity. We miss social interaction with our colleagues, the conversations over coffee that spark new ideas and give us a sense of belonging.

The future may be a combination of working between office and home. Companies will have to develop new human resource policies that take advantage of the benefits of working from home while mitigating its disadvantages.

When people work remotely, less office space is required. The purpose of an office used to be to accommodate staff. The office of tomorrow will look different. It will seek to compensate for the drawbacks of working from home. The emphasis may be on how to facilitate better communication, collaboration, community and strengthening company culture. 

As the economic crisis will continue, companies need to be nimbler and reduce fixed costs. Non-core function may well be further outsourced. Companies are expected to continue reduce headcount and engage contractors when needed. The gig economy is here. With large scale retrenchments, employees will have to reinvent themselves to become entrepreneurs.

  • Developing Critical Skills

It has been predicted that every second person will have to be retrained to keep up with the 4th Industrial Revolution. As the pandemic has been rapidly changing our lives, we require new skills faster.

Of course, new technical skills, especially IT, are essential when going digital. Covid-19 is forcing managers to adapt their style. Individuals need more resilience, adapt to change quicker, be even more innovative, and solve bigger problems.

Critically, employees will need to manage themselves, with less support from their peers and less chances to learn from others.

The deck is stacked against newcomers. Our educational systems already struggle to produce the kind of people businesses need.  Making things worse, training budgets of companies are strained.

As the pressure mounts, companies will be looking for people who can hit the ground running. However, there will simply not be enough people with tomorrows skills. Companies will have to grow their own talent.

Google has introduced training that leads to career certificates. The private sector is getting involved in the production of talent. Work Integrated Learning such as learnerships, internship and apprenticeship programme are on the leading edge.

What matters in future are not degrees, but practical skills. But how will we recognise what people know? Portfolios of Evidence and Qualification Frameworks will gain in currency and so will product certification by vendors. They are already the norm in the IT industry.

Online learning used to be resisted. Covid-19 forced schools to go online without preparation. Until recently, eLearning was mostly one-way, a tool to present content. Thanks to the rapid adoption of video conferencing, it has become much more participatory.

  • Leading people

Monitoring Time and Attendance was a central component of how companies controlled their people.  How will companies manage their people when they do not need to show up at work.

Managers will have to learn how to manage their teams virtually and use technology to collaborate more effectively.

Performance management will become even more important. Rather than working from general job descriptions, employees and contractors will be held accountable for clearly defined outcomes.

A manager will still have to plan, effectively delegate and monitor delivery. But they will also need to lead, motivate their staff and provide emotional support in times of crisis. Transactional leadership is dead.

By the way, we are now no longer dealing with resources but real people. Compassion is going to be part of our discourse. The focus of human resource managers was a company’s employees. Going forward, the whole ecosystem of people – staff, contractors and suppliers will be considered by the people manager. As companies become leaner, partnership become more important, team members will belong to multiple organisations.

Occupational health and wellness in many industries were an afterthought. We have since learned that health issues can not only bring companies, but the whole world to its knees. The threat of future pandemics is not going away. With never abating pressures, emotional health and wellness are going to receive more attention.  

  • A New Social Contract

During the lockdown, the Gross Domestic Product of many countries shrank by more than 10%. Millions of people have joined the ranks of the unemployed. It will take many years to recover.

But more than ever, we have realised that we are interdependent. One person’s lack of care threatens all our health. Individualism, the believe in the survival of the fittest, is an outdated concept.

Governments were trying to find the middle ground of how to protect lives and livelihoods. During the lockdown, there was a clear shift in focus from profits to people – something that would have been untenable before.

We have experienced a fundamental shift to a more caring paradigm.  Companies will continue to protect their staff. Job creation will be everyone’s concern. There will be no consumers if people are destitute. We will not be able to trade or survive while environmental catastrophes engulf us.

The new normal demands a new social contract. One in which people and the planet will prosper. In as much as the 4th Industrial Revolution called for technological change, we need also social innovation.

2020 was the year of disruption. Let the pain we endured become the catalyst for progress. Let us not slide back to where we came from but instead create a new normal that is better than the past. If not, the danger is that nature will catch up with us again, as a single virus has just done.

This article was published in Fast Company magazine, November 2020 edition