How the workforce transformed overnight: a story of human adaptability

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How the workforce transformed overnight: a story of human adaptability
Bryony Kelly

How the workforce transformed overnight: a story of human adaptability

In just five months, an estimated quarter of the world’s working population went remote. This period of adjustment has revealed the best and worst of humanity – but it has also highlighted our innate ability and desire to adapt. Here, we explore how businesses adapted to unimaginable change and why we must all be braced for future disruption.

In just five months, an estimated quarter of the world’s working population went remote. Triggered by the Covid-19 virus – a global pandemic – businesses around the world closed their doors and went online in an unprecedented act to stop the spread and save lives. This has been a period of adjustment for us all, especially in the UK, where 55% of the population had little or no experience of working from home until now. But while the pandemic has revealed the best and worst of humanity – from stockpiling toilet rolls to the 99-year-old war veteran who raised over £32 million for the NHS by taking 100 laps of his garden – it has also shown another distinctly human trait: adaptability.

Here, we explore how businesses adapted to unimaginable change, and the hurdles still in place to fully evolving to a new working model.

A catalyst for change

Almost overnight, businesses all over the world have had to embrace flexibility. Swept by the unprecedented scale and speed of demand, companies have had to mobilise remote workforces or recruit and train new ones, assemble infrastructure and equipment and develop new ways of working. Some companies have even adapted their immediate business model to meet need – such as the fashion industry making PPEor the consortium of manufacturing, automotive and engineering companies speeding up ventilator supply.

Where business leaders typically invest significant time, energy and resources in identifying, mitigating, managing and capitalising on change, here they had no luxury. It was done in chaos, at speed. But while some businesses have taken this step change in their stride, others have been left stalling. And the difference is how prepared those businesses were for change in the first place.

For example, companies that were already open to flexible or remote working are more likely to have employees that are set-up to work from home, aware of performance expectations and more autonomous. Meanwhile, businesses that have historically placed a large emphasis on being ‘present’ at work may see this materialise in micromanagers and communication overdrive – with video calls, emails and ‘check-ins’ standing in for the pressure of constant visibility (and ironically making workers less productive).

In another example, transitioning to the new normal has also meant leaning on technology to adapt. Demand for business collaboration, video and chat software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and G Suite has ramped up over lockdown – with business app downloads in early March up by 90% from the weekly average of business app downloads in 2019. Business leaders across the world are now relying on the strength of their infrastructure, their connectivity and their cybersecurity to ensure they can continue operating remotely, meanwhile data analysis is helping companies to identify patterns and respond to the market.

For companies that delayed or didn’t prioritise their technology strategy, it may now be too late to keep pace with change. IT now accounts for 35% of all vacancies in London over the period since shutdown, compared to a previous weekly average of 15% (contact Lorien if you need support with tech hires).

The reality is that the need for agility against disruption has been clear for a long time. But the current climate hasn’t just accelerated change, it’s exposed the cavity between those that were ready for it and those that weren’t. But why weren’t they?

The new normal

The concept of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) has long been used to describe the uncontrollable market in which business strategy is formed, and to highlight the importance of both insight and foresight in making business decisions. The words that we use to describe the market – high velocity, unpredictable, turbulent, rapid – all hint at a need for regular adaptation and agility. Which suggests that change, even monumental change, was at some point an inevitability.

The experiment in mass homeworking has forced adaptation towards trends that were already happening, just slowly. Take flexibility, for example. Thanks to technological advances, we are now able to work anywhere, any time. At the same time, the gig economy has been growing in popularity, and we know is particularly attractive to millennials and Gen Z. The next generation of workers desire full flexibility, in terms of what, where, when and how they do it (92% of millennials identify flexibility as a job hunting priority), and the barriers to this are purely down to pre-existing business structures.  In fact, decentralised workplace structures – where different experts ‘join forces’ for specific programmes and activities have proven highly successful (e.g. DevOps), but barriers to adoption are organisational and cultural – according to Gartner, in 2022 75% of DevOps initiatives will fail to meet expectations due to issues around organisational learning and change.

Then take the pressure of market competition. As business becomes more saturated by both global competition and start-ups, fighting for resources becomes more likely – whether that’s market share and client base, or competing for talent. Being operationally lean but strategically strong is paramount.

Moving to this forced business set-up provides the solution: freeing up both costly office space and unlocking a whole global talent market. Because once a business is remote, talent limitations are lifted. Some businesses were already on this path; encouraging flexible working, looking at different workforce mixes and introducing hot-desks to reduce overhead costs, while others still struggle with presenteeism. Last year, Accenture predicted that by 2023 “zero office” environments would be normal amongst knowledge workers across industries, fuelled by advances in technology such as extended reality.

Taking these two strands together, and following them to their extreme, the end result could be the complete erosion of the concept of ‘company’. Workers could engage independently and remotely on an almost freelance basis, flattening traditional business hierarchies (as is already happening), while a reduction in overheads means the bricks-and-mortar representing ‘the company’ also disintegrates. Businesses would become an intangible entity – with work input and output delivered by a skeleton crew.

This could be the trajectory we have been set on. Or it might not be. The point is that VUCA makes a future like this entirely possible, and the businesses best prepared for it are the ones that can withstand unexpected, significant and accelerated disruption. Importantly, businesses that are not able or willing to recognise market shifts – such as the move towards flexible working – will be even more unable to respond to these seismic shifts because they will be one step behind. Change must start now, and it must be continuous.

Human instinct

The global pandemic has shown us just how quickly we can evolve. And why, despite a natural reluctance to change and the risk it represents, we must be braced for it. The world is in constant flux, but drawing on our human instincts to invent, adapt and work together, we can continue to survive. This is a lesson in business as much as in life, and has been seen in the way we have responded to change.

From the mass uptake of furloughs, to stop redundancy and help keep people in jobs long-term, to re-skilling and redeploying workers from temporarily closed industries to in-demand, key worker roles, businesses are investing in the community. In recruitment, there is a drive to help people find work and help businesses find the people they need.

In technology, we see the ingenuity and inventiveness of humans to adapt. Technology helps us stay connected with online meet-ups and events, supports us with daily routines like online shopping, fitness, entertainment and education, keeps us up-to-date with the latest findings and ultimately drives the fight on the front line through artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Together, we are finding new ways to adapt to our environment, without compromising on the qualities that make us human. The key for going forward will be continuing to respond to change, both strategically and fluidly. To embrace the rapid and the unpredictable as much as the steady and the certain. To have faith in our human instinct to adapt. 

What’s next? Contact to find out how we’re helping businesses find the tech talent they need in this challenging climate.

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