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How business leaders will need to adapt to shifting employee expectations post-pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven itself to be an invisible battle which we could never have envisaged fighting. As significant in scale as it is in impact, few, if any, areas of the economy have been left untouched by its devastating effect and any comparison to the great recession of 2008 have long faded into the ether.

Business leaders and senior management teams have been forced into the unknown, needing to adapt quickly to fast-changing market landscapes. Many obstacles still lie ahead, but, as we will see, the very act of getting the ball rolling will shift a lot of them.

In a short space of time, businesses implemented rapid change which would usually take years to complete. Research from KMPG found that the four top changes between January to August were technology investment, re-evaluation of brand purpose, redesign of office space and rolling out detailed working from home policies.

However, as we come ever closer to a vaccine and begin to acclimatise to the ‘new normal’, it is now crucial for CEOs and Managing Directors to think more long-term and implement solid foundations of change for the next generation of workers.

In Wade Macdonald's recent Employee Expectation report we ascertain the impact the pandemic has had on workforces. We surveyed 415 professionals within Accounting and Finance, HR and Data Science to explore how leaders can learn from their employees’ experiences to make their business models and leadership styles more suitable for the workplace post-pandemic.

Routine and structure

As per most office-based industries, the majority of those surveyed spent the pandemic working from home (66 per cent), which was for many a brand-new way of working.

Adapting to this routine was no easy feat. While 31 per cent found the process much easier than being in the office, a much higher percentage found it either much harder or a little harder (44 per cent).

Of course, the challenges faced by each individual differed based on personal circumstances, but the most quoted issues were technology-based such as internet speeds and IT infrastructure or domestic related problems such as childcare, home-schooling, sharing space with partners and mental health concerns.

Nevertheless, while the majority reported that working from home was hard in those first months of lockdown, the consensus is that working from home more often would be the preferred way of working. The newly coined ‘hybrid model’ - employees working partly at home and partly in the office - has taken the jobs market by storm. The majority of those surveyed would opt for four days at home and one in the office or three at home and two in the office; only 10 per cent of employees would want to go back to the office full-time. 

When it comes to candidate job searches, the same attitude stands. Three quarters (73 per cent) state that flexible working will be the most valuable benefit offered by a company when they are looking for a new career.

Moving forward, leaders will need to work with their internal teams, especially HR, to implement a much more flexible approach to working routines, downsize offices to save money and offer suitable training to senior teams to manage remote leadership.

Welfare support

The demand for working from home or remote working must also be met in a way that protects employees’ welfare. 28 per cent of employees reported a decline in mental wellbeing as a direct result of the pandemic. Many felt the loneliness of isolation, as well as pressure to balance home working with domestic responsibilities, leading to depression, anxiety and burn-out.

While we can’t attribute all mental health issues to work, it’s clear that as we move forward, leaders need to be an instrumental player in supporting and protecting employees from mental illness. Mental health related absences contribute to a loss of £105 billion for the economy per year, so having detailed welfare policies in place is clearly advantageous for both employee and employer.

Encouragingly, many businesses already had effective support mechanisms in place or were quick to act if they didn’t. Almost four fifths (78 per cent) of respondents stated that their employer had done exceptionally well or reasonably well when it came to support over the lockdown, a clear message that business leaders have quickly made wellbeing a priority; a trend that was already making waves but was accelerated by the pandemic.

Moving forward, it has been noted that the four areas of improvement lie in communication, flexibility, technology and equipment. The latter should be easy to iron out with investment of both time and money from leaders where possible whilst the first two will take dedication from leaders to take heed from their teams and listen closely to their personal needs and requirements to create a model which suits people on an individual level.

Leading through a time of crisis, whether it be unique to the business or an event which dominates the entire globe, is incredibly difficult. It requires an open mind, a tight knit team and the ability to listen to those around you.

While we’re not out of the woods yet, there are clear signs that progress is certainly happening, and employees are feeling positive about the future. Indeed, 64 per cent report that the pandemic has strengthened their business’s prospects or had no affect at all, a good, firm grounding for the future of the jobs market as we head in 2021 and beyond.