Mirror mirror on the wall, COVID-19 is highlighting our workplace flaws

Mirror mirror on the wall, COVID-19 is highlighting our workplace flaws

Dr Sharna Wiblen says COVID-19 is illuminating ineffective workplace policies. The talent management expert offers advice on how organisations can transition through the pandemic with clarity.

COVID-19 provides an external (albeit unplanned for) mechanism for innovation with many examples of companies – large and small - pivoting. Online platform Mable worked quickly to reassure their community they could still be essential in the COVID-19 environment, while wedding make-up artist Sophie Lau has used the downtime to add a video production arm to her business.

Every story of agility, however, is matched with one highlighting the absence of resilience and creativity. Today, while representing an opportunity for some, for others, the current emphasis on change is considered unwelcome.

While intentional and strategic management of your workplace is always key to what your organisation can be, the current context may be illuminating ineffective policies which you previously could not see (or chose not to see). Here are three key areas and some recommendations to assist with transitioning through COVID-19 with clarity:

1. Strategy, Strategy, Strategy: you must reiterate your talent management strategy  

Is the absence of a clear talent management strategy contributing to your fall? Organisations require a clear understanding of the game they are playing, the arena they are competing in and success criteria. Talent management strategies should be informed by, and aligned to, organisational strategy.

The first step for practitioners is to garner an informed understanding of the organisation’s plans, and then pose questions about the skills and capabilities required to execute both current and future organisational strategies. We need to identify and know the role of people-based assets in strategy execution.

Guided by the assumptions that some workforce components contribute disproportionately (positively) to achieving pertinent ambitions and goals, we ask questions about how to structure jobs, tasks, and functions, and where to invest resources.

Talent management strategies capture answers to such matters and documents where investments are to be focused. A talent management strategy is a formalised plan documenting how an organisation will deploy specific individuals, skills and capabilities and roles to pursue strategic ambitions and goals.

Organisations can devise talent management strategies in various ways. Akin to organisational strategies which must simultaneously balance immediate and long-term goals of the organisations, senior stakeholders should frequently update and revise people-based policies and practices to ensure ongoing alignment between workforce composition and organisational needs. Talent management strategies are bespoke, customised and tailored frameworks for “doing” talent management.

It is not the time now, nor was it ever, time for strategy-as-design. Assuming a linear, systematic or logical approach to strategy nor talent management strategy fails to reflect the ongoing need for organisations to iterate. Think about how your organisation can mirror software and phone providers and decide what is in your next talent management strategy update.

Frequent iteration and (re)alignment are key to the success of your business, both now and post COVID-19.  

2. Leadership: be the leader your workforce can see (and don’t talk about the “new normal” as it doesn’t help you or me)

Leadership, human resource, and strategy texts already profess the essentialism of good leadership. The prevailing rhetoric purporting that individuals quit bosses, rather than organisations, while potentially an unfounded myth, illustrates the importance placed on leaders and leadership.

Alongside comparisons of the impact and success of leadership between world leaders are other experiences with fellow humans no longer exchanging beers at the local pub, but rather yarns about how their respective leaders are responding to the crisis.

While the jury is out on the impact of COVID-19, we can agree that leaders affect how, when and where (more on that next) people work. This assertion is useful both today and yesterday. Employees benefit from regularly “seeing” their leaders in action. Leaders should not shy away from the limelight or worse still, go MIA.

Leaders should also be wary of talking about reverting “back to normal” or expressing sentiments about how we will operate in the “new normal”. Discussions about normality infer the effectiveness of previous ways of working. Discussions about returning to normal also foster cognitive anchoring where perceptions of what is possible and probable are entrenched in the past.

3. Work: it’s time to realise that working remotely and from home was (largely) possible all along

The mirror on many workplaces’ walls is illuminating divergent perspectives about the “where” and “when” of work. Differing perspectives, however, are not new. Notions of whether “All productive work occurs in the office” and “work occurs Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm” influence the design and enactment of the workforce strategy. Such underlying sentiments will also inform your Remote Work or the Work from Home policy.  

Many leaders are commended for utilsing technology and transitioning towards digital workplaces, thus affording many individuals with the opportunity to complete tasks and jobs without the need for co-location.

Face-to-face physicality has been replaced with infrastructure (both software and hardware) and agency over the where and when of work. Many have already experienced levels of digitalised transformation, including a recognition that work is something that you do. “Work” therefore, is as a verb – we do “work”.

Others, however, are having a shining light reflected on how many managers and organisations still frame work as a noun with work considered a physical location. Social media channels are awash with COVID-19 stories and reflecting on the perceived irrationality of the actions of specific mangers and the notion “work”. Disillusion of the requirement to work in the physical “office” under the watchful eye of managers may be underpinned by notions of human motivation or the absence thereof. Worse still, surveillance and control could signify a lack of trust.

“Work” issues will prevail as we transition back into the office. While there is no debating that some work occurs in a place, working from home or remotely was (largely) possible all along.

There’s so much more to say, but in the interest of word count, here’s a final remark and an overall take-away:

There is evidence to suggest that humanity has changed. Mass job losses, physical isolation, increased time with or without family and the decrease in mobility both domestically and internationally will feature in memories of 2020 (or the year we don’t talk about) for many generations to come. The mirror image is different.

COVID-19 presents us all with a time to pause; so, go ahead, amend the strategy. Pay attention to what the mirror’s reflecting because there is no time like the present to address your workplace flaws.

Dr Sharna Wiblen is a lecturer in Management at UOW's Sydney Business School.

UOW academics exercise academic freedom by providing expert commentary, opinion and analysis on a range of ongoing social issues and current affairs. This expert commentary reflects the views of those individual academics and does not necessarily reflect the views or policy positions of the University of Wollongong.