As we hit 100 days since the WHO labelled COVID-19 a pandemic, countries around the world continue in their efforts to contain the virus while planning a route – both economic and medically – to normality. Politicians and journalists continue to talk about the crisis as ‘unprecedented’ with a 1600% increase in use of the word this year alone.[1] Yet these black swan events are becoming less and less uncommon. In my working career I have lived through four. The dot com crash, 9/11, financial crisis and now a global pandemic.  

Of all of these Black Swans, this will have the most horrific impact on many around the world.  It will change our lives for ever. It will also undoubtedly have the most significant effect on the way that we all work.  

Very early on, Mercer shaped the way business leaders can think about the stages of the Pandemic into Respond, Return and Reinvent.   As I’ve watched what has been happening, have read many articles and talked to colleagues in Mercer as well as many clients, I have tried to understand what our new normal will look like and how clients can reinvent themselves.

As we enter the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it somehow feels appropriate to think about each trend as being either a Boomerang – it will swing back to the way things were – or a frisbee – we will end up in a new place.

Here are some of my observations.

  1. Adoption of technology

The chasm between the technology ‘have’ and ‘have nots’ has widened dramatically as a result of the current crisis. Technology has fundamentally changed the work that we do and the way that we do it. In these times, those who have access to technology and the resulting data to track what’s going on across their entire organization have a huge advantage over those that don't.

Not only can they identify areas of increased risk, or opportunities to change tack quickly, but they can also get a better picture of the individual circumstances of their employees. This

means they can provide more personalised, relevant and meaningful support to employees who need it most. Many organisations have sped tech projects up as a result of coronavirus, doing away with levels of bureaucracy that previously meant projects took 12 months to deliver, to now just over 9 weeks.

It’s hard to imagine organisations going back to a less agile way of working, so I call technology adoption a Frisbee trend.

  1. Working from home

Technology has also been a huge enabler in allowing some organizations to continue operating with employees working from home. In March 2020 423 US public company transcripts mentioned working from home. That’s more than there were in the last decade combined — nearly all in conjunction with mentions of coronavirus.[2] 

Many of the tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter have announced that it will allow their employees to work from home forever if they wish and are able to, allowing them to continue with their emphasis on decentralisation.[3] More companies will no doubt adopt the same strategy, but we still don’t fully understand the impact on employee mental health and engagement prolonged working from home as an entire organisation has.

There are some employees who are able to work from home and who are loving it. And others who have had this forced upon them and miss the social and collaborative environment coming in to work provides. Not to mention those who can’t work from home at all. There will also be a generational impact to consider – older employees are more likely to have children or elderly parents they want to spend more time with, whereas younger employees may not be set up to work from home effectively. 

I believe that for some – mainly younger generations - this will boomerang back, for others – mainly older employees – they will never come back to work in the same way. And then there will be those who will be be somewhere in between. Maybe in the office 2 days a week. Companies will need to think about working practices and creating a culture for these different employee groups to work effectively together.

  1. The employer/employee relationship

Covid-19 has led to a massive shift of power. With current G7 jobless totals varying widely, from 30 million in the United States to 1.76 million in Japan[4], mass unemployment means that job seeking in many industries has become a buyers’ market. Many people have now painfully realised the pitfalls of freelance work and the gig economy, with the inherent insecurity leaving people craving stability even more.

Talent is the most important thing for organisations to remain successful, and there will be a huge focus on retaining it as we come out of pandemic. But according to the FT ‘the economic fallout from the pandemic looks to be one of the biggest shocks in generations. Normal economic activity has been disrupted on an unprecedented scale in peacetime as the patterns of everyday life have been upended.’[5]

The employer/employee relationship is likely to boomerang as the economy slowly improves – however there are no clear indications of how long this will take.

  1. Employees are human beings

The last, but most important trend that has been accelerated by the pandemic, is organisations recognising employees are human beings. Not only are employers getting a glimpse into their colleagues’ home life – from cats, to family, to juggling home schooling with work priorities. The relationships you have with your colleagues, teams and leaders has at once humanised and relaxed.

Mental health apps in Britain have been downloaded more than one million times since the start of the crisis, with employers also pivoting their benefit offerings to support their employees in adapting to their new working lives.[6] Whether creating flexible spending accounts to buy office equipment to work more comfortably at home, increasing awareness of wellbeing support offerings or even sending care packages – employers are focusing on supporting the individual.

This trend has slowly grown over the past few years, but coronavirus has brought into sharp relief the much-needed shift to recognise employees as humans and to support them to be the best they can be. This trend is surely a Frisbee.

As time goes on and we emerge from this crisis, more and more trends will change dramatically, with increasing Frisbees and fewer boomerangs. There is a reason ‘unprecedented’ has become the word of 2020 – this pandemic has changed the face of the working world as we know it. Some for the better and some for the worse, but surely the one thing we can take from this as we move forward is that we are all in this together, and we are all human. Let’s look after each other.