Are We Really Going to Telecommute More?

The lasting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on work culture will take some time to assess. We tend to overestimate changes when we are in the middle of them due to the closeness of the experience. Habits are learned over a lifetime and it takes more than a few weeks to change them. For instance, after the World Trade Center bombings, there was a lot of talk how business travel would be reduced over time because we could not fly for a short period of time. In fact, the change was just the opposite—due to demand, airlines eventually built planes specifically to handle more business travel.

There is plenty of talk about how the pandemic will lead to more telecommuting (something we also heard after 9/11). While it might not be to the extent that some predict, I think there are some reasons why we might see a modest increase in people working from home once this passes:

1)  This time, it impacts managers. In the past, management was one of the biggest resistors to allowing people to work from home. They imagined that productivity would plummet. Given that technology barriers to working at home have come down and their own experiences, more managers may become more open to people working from home. Change is easier when you get to explore it rather than just think about it.

2)  Somewhat related to the above, digital non-natives are living a bit more in the world of millenials and Gen Z. Yes, you can spend most of your day online without the sky falling. Older workers who always thought they needed the discipline of going into the office everyday are discovering that might not be the case. Oh, and commuting really is a miserable experience that people will be loath to return to.

3)  Going back to the office may soon be considered the change and not the normal. For people who have been working remotely, it could be months (no, I’m not thinking years) before their state/country/workplace allows them the opportunity to go back to their office. Even if the building opens tomorrow, social distancing guidelines may mean that many people will still have to work from home due to space limitations. They will develop good work habits from home. These employees are going to be reluctant to go back to the office.

A contrary viewpoint that a friend expressed to me is that younger workers may miss the daily face-to-face work interactions. Now that all of their lives are spent online, they may crave being with people at least a few times a week. We’ll have to see about that.

There are many considerations of managing a workforce where fewer people are visible each day. For instance, will recognition and promotions be available equally to in-house workers and telecommuters? There may also be recruiting and hiring issues as well. But, those issues are for a future post.

Tips For Bringing People Back After COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected businesses large and small.  While as of this writing it is unclear we (in the US) are closer to the beginning or the end of business restrictions, we can safely assume that some businesses will not be bringing back all of their staff when the restrictions are lifted.  This will lead to some tough decisions that have legal and performance implications.  Since I’m not a lawyer, I’ll focus more on the latter.

In an idea world, companies have processes for measuring performance.  Where objective measures are used, they are relatively free of environmental conditions.  Where managers rate performance, they are relatively free of bias.  If these represent your company, then you have an easy way to bring people back—top down based on their performance.  Note that collective bargaining agreements may render any other process moot as they may have last in, first out provisions.

Let’s say for a moment that your evaluation processes don’t live in the land described above.  Then what?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Think about how the business is going to look as things recover. What parts will stay and which ones may go (or be dormant for longer)?  This will help you think about the skills and abilities you’ll need in your staff.
  2. Have managers rate employees on the skills and abilities described above NOW.  The longer you put it off, the less reliable the ratings.
  3. Be explicit about how the ratings match up with the work to be done. It is always important to document these kinds of decisions.
  4. Use the data from the managers to develop a recall list.  That way you are bringing back the people who will help the business most first.  This will help in retaining your best people if you begin rehiring before others.

You should also be thinking now about how you are going to communicate the re-opening process to your employees.  There may not be enough data now for you to craft a message now, but HR should be considering different options so that when decisions are made they can be communicated quickly and effectively.

Silver Linings to Losing Some of Your Selection Processes

COVID-19 is, and will continue to, affect many parts of our work processes.  One of them is how we select new employees. Yes, even with layoffs some companies are hiring now and most will be again before the end of the year.  With social distancing and the acceptance of video-conferencing, we are beginning to accept that how we select candidates will change.

This does provide for a process improvement opportunity in what we do.  Are all of the current steps we use necessary or are some based on myth?  For instance, the National Football League is going forward with their big selection weekend at the end of the month, but there are concerns from those who evaluate the candidates that they do not have access to the tools that they normally would in doing their final rankings.  I am guessing that they will find that some of those tools are for making people feel important in the process and do not really add a lot of value in finding meaningful differences between players.  You may find that some aspects of your process are redundant or done for the sake of tradition rather than adding value.

Here are some selection traditions that we are going to have to let go of for a bit and the silver linings associate with the changes:

  1. Face to face interviews.  Whether social distancing is officially with us for four more weeks or four more months, the hesitancy to be physically close to others will likely be with us for a while.  People are becoming more comfortable and adept with video calls and we should continue to utilize them.  Silver lining:  In areas with heavy traffic, the video calls are easier to schedule for both parties.

  2. Virtual assessments.  Whether it is for skills and personality testing, or role-plays, assessments have been moving online for several years and the current situation will likely convert some who have not yet made the switch.  Silver lining: giving these assessments online is very efficient.  The reduced cost improves their business impact and will make it easier to process candidates when hiring picks up again.

  3. Being ultra-professional.  Being interviewed or assessed online was a way to put one’s best professional foot forward.  Doing so from home, with kids and pets around, is going to chip away at the veneer.  Silver lining: While I feel for the candidate who is trying to respond to a question with a barking dog in the background, I do think that interviewees will bring forth more of their authentic self.  Whether this leads to a more valid process is an open question.  But, hiring managers and HR will have a better idea of the “real” person being hired.

In HR we often talk about implementing change, but this is a time where we also need to be the leaders of it in our own areas.  Let’s skip the denial of what is happening and ditch the resistance to new ways of evaluating candidates.  I think we will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

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