Dr B K Mukhopadhyay
(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay
(The author, international award-winning development and management economist, formerly a Gold Medalist in Economics at Gauhati University)
Following the first couple of months and lockdown, the first few worries were around financial security, the lack of boundary with home life as 'work from home' started taking over, heavier workloads with added screen time of course. The situation has been burdensome at higher levels for employees with disabilities. For example, US Labour statistics show that while one out of seven Americans has lost their job, it is one out of five for those with disabilities.
For particularly the disabled employees, Bank of America took an exemplary stand in the industry. They provided constant support and also mentoring as needed to more than 300 such employees who were engaged in marketing and operations. While ensuring there is timely pay without any cut during the crisis, the Bank also provided drive-through flu shots which enabled employees to see their family or caregivers receive vaccinations right from inside a vehicle. The Bank also arranged for medications to be sent to employees' home regularly. These measures are not only good for strengthening psychological contract but also for supporting the mental well-being of employees.
Chances are you know people from your friends or acquaintance list that they are considering switching careers during and after the pandemic. This could be simply because A) they lost their job during the pandemic, B) similar jobs don't exist anymore or hiring has been frozen in that industry, or C) prospects are disappearing in their sector, as new demand and markets are created post-crisis. At this time in June when the article is being written, many industries are resuming to recruit and some are creating new opportunities for employees displaced by the pandemic. At the same time, a big percentage of currently employed or unemployed are looking outside their specific field and eyeing at new industries where they could potentially bring some value to and some transferable learning from experiences. This is a reality now in the IT and media industry.
Generalists over Specialists?
A recent Michigan University study shows that companies are not looking for generalists instead of specialists. Particularly those with transferable skills can work across multiple job functions, and also industries. For example, someone working in the hospitality field will have demonstrated leadership, innovation and creativity, intellect abilities, grit and effective time management skills – which are called 'human' skills (some list them as 'soft skills') – and these are essential in hiring, managing, retaining and engaging employees. Talent management and talent hiring have also changed in perspective of the changed timeline that we live in now. Specialists, however, would lack some of the broader skills that a generalist has, and could develop newer expertise through online courses, and more hands-on experiences in their targeted industry.
At the same time, various roles within the industry are becoming broad with time, requiring a range of skills and knowledge of new technology. For example, someone specialised in accounting or financial management would be required to have programming and storytelling abilities to better fit the expanded duties of their role. These require constant learning and skill upgrade. HR professionals also need to ensure to set up a culture of learning, development, and also appreciation. While data-driven human capital decisions are necessary, it is also important to identify where the skill gap is, recognising in-house talent and resources, and how to provide targeted training.
Employee skillsets during and after a pandemic
Another study by KPMG that studied over 400 firms illustrates that the skill sets that employers want from recruits are teamwork (55%), communication (55%), time management (46%), problem-solving (45%), and finally creativity (44%). In a recent study, IBM shared that 81% of their junior and middle management employees voted to continue working from home, at least until the end of 2022. PWC on the other hand is ensuring ways of hybrid working whereby a large number of office employees could rotate in and out of office configured for shared space, as necessary. Whether to go live, online, or hybrid depends also on the industry, management and operational structure, and leadership. These are critical topics of the day since they would create and affect new workplace culture, employee engagement, and the future of work also. Flexibility is a must-have and so are ensuring human skills remain upgraded and that quality is maintained uncompromised.
Burnout– jaded and weary employees?
Another study by Mental Health America (MHA) looking at the mental health crisis due to the lockdown-imposed isolation and increased dependency on virtual communication, investigated 800 participants across 4 industries - media, healthcare, sports, and banking. Forty per cent of the respondents reported that they have experienced burnout between June to December 2020, and also 37% of them said they were working longer hours compared with pre-pandemic times. About 56% of the respondents also pointed fingers at the HR team for failing to encourage an environment where employee-employer conversations could be facilitated rather than having it one way.
In regards to mental well-being due to increased stress levels during the period, both groups of employed (42%) and unemployed (47%) professionals reported their stress levels to fall between 'high' and 'very high'. As reported earlier in this article, the stress was around finances, extra work, work-life boundaries while WFH, but also fear and uncertainty sources from current events, mis/disinformation from media, misleading social media posts around COVID-19, concerns over family's health, the health of the economy, and potential new and added job responsibilities.
The role of HR during and after the pandemic
HR has a colossal role to play during this period, A) providing options such as offering mental health days, B) enabling flexibility at work and reducing virtual micromanaging, C) providing better health insurance, D) wellness and meditation sessions, E) virtual workout classes, also F) targeted webinars (not too many and repeated ones!) about mental health topics. These will have deep consequences on the company's history and stories to tell to explain the company's culture in the future, and higher than the three choices that companies face at large today, I) dismissing employees because of closure during the crisis, II) retaining employees with unpaid leave, and III) retaining all or part of employees with salary package. These are real questions because even though 'work from home, 'virtual workplace' – these are deemed necessary and normal today, we have to understand that not all companies can be that flexible necessarily, a range of large companies find it difficult to move all processes online quickly and effectively. For example, hospitality (tourism being a big chunk of it) and the entertainment industry faced not the problem of falling profit but for survival in the market.
To conclude, most of the research results shared in this piece shows that respondents are more concerned about business continuity as well as newer ways of working around new workplace practices, people management, and also exploring ways to feel valued. While staff need to ensure having a functioning technology at home as well as maintain effective communication, supervision, productivity and performance management, employee engagement and support, re-aligning employee benefits and re-designing policies concerning remote working are also critical components in this 'new normal' journey. The role of HR professionals and their expertise are manifold today – from managing panic, avoiding dismissals, remote work monitoring and management, to coping with lack of knowledge in technologies and crisis management skills, learning and implementing new safety regulations.