Workforce | Skills

How workforces and workplaces have adapted to COVID-19

CEDA People and Culture Director Belinda Gleeson discusses the workplace and workforce opportunities and challenges shared by member organisations at the recent CEDA HR Roundtables.

Regardless of generation, gender or role, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been immense across our member organisations. In early 2020, leadership teams, in particular HR leaders, across the country were focused on crisis management.

There was no playbook for managing a business and supporting teams through a pandemic, so many organisations had to move swiftly to full-scale work from home (WFH) arrangements, adapt quickly to new technology, and find creative ways to engage with team members and stakeholders.

As the end of 2020 draws closer, organisations are now beginning to operate in a ‘new normal’, where video meetings are the norm; mental health and wellbeing is common language; and the ambition of many for a fully flexible workforce has been accelerated. These outcomes of 2020 will help shape the future of organisations.

Over the past few months, CEDA has had the privilege of hosting a series of roundtables with senior HR directors of our member organisations. These roundtable discussions have provided an opportunity for HR leaders to share insights on how their organisations have managed the COVID-19 crisis and the practices that have been implemented to support leaders and employees during this intense period of change.

A common theme arising from these discussions has been the resounding investment made by leaders in the health and wellbeing of employees. Many organisations have cited examples of leadership teams connecting with a broad spectrum of employees, regardless of organisational hierarchy, to support wellbeing and extend communication. 

Recognising the impact of these conversations, reviewing feedback from regular pulse surveys, and confirming the need to ‘care for the carers’, significant investments have been made across organisations in developing leaders’ capability in mental health first aid, leading remote teams, resilience and change adaptability. Nous Group Chief People Officer Sally Pritchard confirmed that the experience of the pandemic had been very different for everyone. 

“At Nous, we have prioritised continually checking-in with our people, so that we can understand what is happening in their lives as things evolve,” she said. 

“We have signalled the ongoing importance of wellbeing – being kind to and taking care of yourself – and have made many resources and supports available. We have emphasised our focus on mental health, and many of our senior leaders have participated in activities and shared personal stories in an effort to remove the stigma associated with mental health, and create a safe space for all Nousers. 

“The flexibility inherent in our ways of working at Nous has been instrumental in allowing Nousers to manage the pressures and changing circumstances brought about by the pandemic. We understand that our people have different personal and professional commitments, which are ever-changing. Flexibility arrangements like scaling up and down hours; accessing personal leave; working at times that fit with other activities; and working from interstate or overseas means that our people have been able to continue to deliver high quality work for Nous, without compromising on their personal needs or wellbeing.”

Another key take-out from the HR roundtables was the different generational experiences that came to the forefront when significant proportions, if not all, of the organisation were working from home. Consistent feedback throughout these conversations showed the need for organisational flexibility to support the Gen X population with the balancing act of working from home, supporting online school learning and caring for elderly parents. Gen Y and Z workers were more challenged with the lack of social interaction that the workplace traditionally provides, combined with a home environment that may be part of shared accommodation, which can lack space and facilities.

It is anticipated that the impact of social isolation on employee wellbeing will be felt for a long time to come. These experiences are consistent with recent findings from a US study confirming that millennials and Gen Z have been most challenged with ongoing WFH arrangements, finding it more demanding to stay organised and on-task.

Australia Post has been steadfast in providing a strong voice in support of the positive role workplaces can play in fostering care and connection. Sue Davis, EGM People & Culture at Australia Post, shared the organisations commitment and partnership with Beyond Blue during Mental Health Month. 

“Together, we want to lead a positive change in the way Australians talk about mental health and support Australians to stay mentally well,” she said.   

“To support the mental wellbeing of our workforce this year, we developed a COVID-19 support plan, which included a Pandemic Leave Policy, customised manager and employee psychological safety guides, specific support for isolation risks, leader-dedicated Psych Safety Webinars, and managed the safe transition of close to 4500 non-operational staff members to remote working. 

“This built on existing offerings including Mental Health training for Leaders, Safety Time, our HealthyMe Portal, and our Employee and Workforce Assistance Program with a utilisation rate that exceeds the sector benchmark.  We are proud of our strong foundational work and our evidence-based programs that aim to positively influence psychological safety and wellbeing outcomes for both our broad workforce and in the wider community.”

Many organisations are continuing to grapple with employees who are working longer hours and therefore challenged by the lack of separation between work and home, which is consequently impacting negatively on their wellbeing. The efforts of organisations and the variety of approaches to combat this isolation, to keep employees connected, and to inject an element of fun into the remote workplace has been well-received by the broader workforces.

Kate Hillman, Partner in EY’s People Advisory Services team, commented that no one was prepared for the impact that COVID-19 would have on people and businesses. 

“For EY, in navigating this uncertainty, we’ve had a clear mantra to ‘save lives and save jobs’ – providing a guiding light for our approach, which has served us well,” she said. 

“Early on, we approached every decision with an abundance of caution to protect the health of our people and our communities, while also managing our business sustainably. For a long time, we’ve supported our people to work flexibly, which meant we had the culture, mindset and infrastructure to enable a smooth and swift transition of all our people to remote working. This year has been difficult for many people. We have surveyed our people throughout the pandemic to understand how they’re feeling and to gather insights on their wellbeing, in particular their mental health, and we have been able to support them with an incredible personalised wellbeing program. 

“One of the great lessons COVID has taught us is that large-scale remote working is not only possible, it also has many benefits which we don’t want to lose. The majority of our people tell us that moving forward a mix of working remotely and from the office will be their preference, which we will support. At this stage, our offices are open in line with government guidelines and we’re seeing a steady incline in the numbers returning each week. 

“As an organisation, we’re working to reimagine how and where we work. EY is a people business and building relationships and strong connections, with one another and our clients, is at the heart of who we are and what we do. Supporting our people to reimagine how they continue to build these connections, both face-to-face and in our new digital world, is a critical part of how we will lead strongly through the recovery.”

While the transition to remote work and the closing of offices in March was challenging, the return to office and reopening has also presented many challenges for HR leaders.  With the exception of Victoria (although we are closer), most states have commenced a reopening of their physical offices. Critical to the reopening of offices has been the ongoing consultation and communication with employees, which has been achieved through a variety of methods such as town hall briefings, surveys and consultation sessions.  

Through these feedback channels, many organisations identified the necessity to cater for different needs with different solutions – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model if an organisation wants to ensure the engagement, wellbeing and productivity of its workforce. Employee feedback has regularly raised public transport as the biggest barrier in returning to the workplace, along with an expectation of flexible working being the norm. The implementation of critical COVID safe work practices and risk management strategies have been embraced by organisations and employees as the ‘new normal’.  Those organisations that have returned to the office speak fondly of the team culture and social interactions of the workplace.

Looking towards 2021, HR leaders shared their key priorities as supporting the wellbeing of teams with annual leave management and proactive mental health strategies, and revising flexible work practices. Continuing to build capability across their organisations was also a priority, particularly in the areas of managing change and building resilience.  

Jo Fox, Executive Leader People & Culture at AGL Energy, noted that prior to the pandemic, they ran a lot of training and information sessions in a face-to-face setting.  

“Our WFH arrangements have meant we have now established on-line training and a portal with a wide range of information that is now available to our people if and when they need it,” she said. “These are the things that will make us stronger in the future.”

Many organisations will continue to review their workforce management plan and office footprint whilst rebalancing engagement, connection and the social culture of the office. 2021 will be another challenging year, but with the learnings of COVID-19 and a passion to adapt, I am certain it will also be a year that creates opportunities for proactive change.

CEDA will continue to host a series of HR Roundtable discussions in 2021, if you’d like to participate please reach out to Belinda Gleeson