'Normal' took on a whole new meaning when COVID-19 swept across the globe in the early months of the year.
As governments sought to contain the virus with social distancing measures, daily routines were restricted and working lives were turned upside down.
Change happened almost overnight.
For many people, the daily commute to work became a quick trip from one room of the home to another — and technology was vital in keeping organisational wheels turning.
REIMAGINING THE EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE
For some companies, the tools were already in place. Meanwhile, others were forced into a digital future they had assumed was some years away.
Change can be for good, but it also presents challenges. COVID-19 has fast-tracked flexibility, for instance, with more people working from home than ever before.
But how can employers promote wellbeing and a positive, productive employee experience among an increasingly dispersed workforce?
This is one of the questions to be explored in an upcoming ANZIIF Webinar, From Surviving to Thriving — designing the employee experience Post COVID19.
The webinar will include insights from Kristine Dery, a Research Scientist who leads research on Digital Workplace, Employee Experience and Talent for Digital at MIT Sloan School of Management’s Center for Information Systems Research.
It will also include the experience of insurance professionals - Rachel Pollack General Manager, Employee Experience at QBE Asia Pacific and Renae Smith, Chief Customer Officer at AIA Australia.
FINDING NEW OPPORTUNITIES
Dery’s research focuses on how employers can create the best employee experience for people in the digital world.
She seeks to identify opportunities to ‘create a world of work where the employees can really focus on the stuff that adds value and get rid of all the junk’.
‘Coming into COVID, many companies were in the stage of just getting everybody connected to do the work that needed to be done,’ she says.
‘Now, they are starting to focus a lot more on what new employee experiences looks like as a large percentage of the workforce still works remotely. They are figuring out what they will carry forward into the future and what was purely relevant to the crisis.’
PLAN INTO ACTION
When QBE Australia Pacific activated its business continuity plan earlier in the year, it began equipping all employees with the required technology and ergonomic support to ensure they could work from home with minimal disruptions to the insurer’s operations.
‘Most areas of the business were already fairly well set up for this WFH transition, however some of our teams implemented home-based operations for the first time so there was a large logistical effort to ensure everyone had what they needed to be effective,' says Pollack.
'During this period, we put wellbeing at the forefront of our agenda, ensuring our wellbeing services could all be accessed virtually. Our people have responded exceptionally well.
'They are reporting that they feel supported, cared for, are productive, are receiving adequate communications, and remain well connected. We have also supported our employees with additional flexible options, such as changed start/finish times, taking extra leave or varying their work hours.'
NEW WAYS OF WORKING
At AIA, new online collaboration tools allowed employees to connect and support each other.
‘Rapid change to remote working could easily have changed team dynamics and rapport but our leaders have found new ways to connect,’ says Smith.
‘We have established a rhythm of twice-weekly People Leader Forums, which have allowed us to engage and support our people leaders, and help them to better manage their teams and the flow of information through the business.
‘What we have found is that people are missing the social connectedness and ability to more easily collaborate in a face-to-face working environment, so this is something we are continuing to address as we look at our ways of working and tools for collaboration.’
BRINGING THE WORK TO THE PEOPLE
Data from Gartner HR reveals that 88 per cent of organisations encouraged or required employees to work from home during the crisis. Gartner’s research also shows that 74 per cent intend to shift some employees to remote work permanently.
With work becoming more digitised as a result of the pandemic, Dery says employers now have an it opportunity to rethink where and when work is to be done, and by whom.
‘It’s allowed us to rethink the workplace but, if that’s all we do, it will be a lost opportunity,’ she says.
‘I’m now hearing a lot of companies talking about bringing the work to the people, rather than the people to the work.
'As work has become more digitised, we have more transparency over where and how work is done.
'We can make more informed choices around what work needs to be automated and what should be done by humans. And finally, we get more options to access the best talent to do it.'
BUSINESS AS USUAL
At AIA Australia, many of the changes brought on by COVID-19 are expected to have a long-term impact on the insurer’s ways of working.
Smith explains that the results of a recent staff survey show that around one-third of employees would be happy to continue working from home full time.
‘Interestingly, only a very small number said they were hoping to return to the office full time. Work/life balance remained the number one motivator for their preferences, followed by health concerns and productivity,’ says Smith.
‘Historically we’ve been a Melbourne-centric, face-to-face business,’ she adds. ‘We’re finding that the remote working environment is allowing people from our offices around the country to better connect with each other. In that sense, the current environment has been a real equaliser.’
While insurance is a service-oriented industry, Smith says the AIA team has adapted to providing services remotely.
‘Our people have embraced video-conferencing tools like MS Teams and Webex and they are suggesting ways we can use the technology to increase productivity and engagement,’ she says. ‘We are also accelerating our focus on digital services to enable a better customer and partner experience into the future.’
QBE has also experienced benefits of new ways of working.
‘We now have a better understanding of how and where we do our best work, be it at the office or at home, and there is more appetite for a varied work schedule,’ says Pollack.
‘Having everyone working remotely can also help build greater levels of inclusivity by removing any location bias that might exist.
'The most critical factor to enabling a more remote workforce is to ensure connectivity remains central, both physically and virtually. We aim to continue ensuring high levels of connectivity and communication are embedded across our business.’
Workplace training has also continued with little interruption, says Pollack.
‘We were fortunate to have recently launched a “Learning for all” virtual training platform just before COVID began. This was part of our long-term strategy to connect employees across our many Australia offices, and has proven invaluable during this period of remote working.
‘We put a series of education pieces in place through our “Learning for all” platform where any employee could sign up for courses that helped build resilience and boosted performance in a virtual environment.
'For our leaders we put in place a “Care & Connect” series where we educated leaders around the key people risks and how to best lead and support their teams through the period.’
CHECKING IN VERSUS CHECKING UP
To ensure a positive employee experience in a digital world, Dery says it is important for leaders to 'check in' rather 'check up' on their employees.
‘When we check up on people we are asking them, “Have you done the work that you're supposed to do?” When things are digitised, leaders are able to access data to get better insights into productivity.
‘Therefore, the role of leadership is no longer checking up on what people are doing, but rather, checking in on the challenges they’re facing. What are the sticking points?
'What can we do to resolve the work speedbumps and make it easier for our people to do their jobs. We can have more informed conversations about that are less about work processes, and more about coaching and resolving more complex issues that make our people working lives stressful.
‘Some people are calling this an “empathetic style” of leadership, and I think that’s true,’ adds Dery. ‘But, when you unpack it, it’s really about being able to use data differently and have conversations that are meaningful for everyone.’