Vidisha Mehta is Managing Director at Willis Towers Watson’s Talent and Rewards Business in Singapore. Her role encompasses building client relationships and providing advice across areas of organization transformation including design and performance, change management, leadership development, and talent management. She has over 15 years of experience in consulting and corporate roles across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and is a trusted advisor to enterprises, governments, and non-profit organizations.
What are the key COVID-triggered trends that you think will accelerate in the long term in the context of work, workplace, and workforce?
One of the most prominent trends has been the rise of remote and flexible working. While flexible work practices have been around for a long time, they did not gain traction due to several reasons.
Most organizations were forced to shift almost overnight to enable remote working during the pandemic. In the beginning, this was to keep operations running and employees safe. However, a Willis Towers Watson’s (WTW) study in April shows that almost two-thirds of the over 500 organizations that participated were rethinking flexible work arrangements and the purpose of the workplace. We are seeing this trend strengthening as a second wave of the pandemic rises with a number of countries going into new lockdowns again.
A related trend to this remote working is on “virtualization” of work. Organizations are accelerating their technology deployment plans to ensure that processes are more digital in nature, and hence can be carried out remotely.
Another key trend we seeing is around the need for companies to respond with agility, such as in workforce redeployment and aided by rapid upskilling or reskilling. Similar to flexible work, the need for upskilling has been discussed in the past for a few years now. As the pandemic created asymmetric demand and supply of workers, organizations needed to rapidly move people from low demand areas (e.g. in hospitality, airlines, physical retail business) to high demand areas like healthcare support and e-commerce.
As a result of these accelerating trends, business leaders are now faced with these three challenges:
- Technology infrastructure – Most organizations struggled with providing remote and secure access to company systems, as well as hardware. Security systems needed to be upgraded urgently as more people accessed systems remotely, and in many cases, organizations had to send desktop computers which were loaded with company software to employees’ houses. In addition, Internet connectivity across different countries in Asia Pacific is hugely varied.
- Organizational processes and culture – Some organizations lack clarity on goals. This has led to challenges with performance assessment. Leadership mindset and culture may not support the future of remote work. The lack of trust by managers in their employees means that managers still want to see their people in front of them working. This culture of ‘face time’ will lead to virtual presenteeism and can result in problems for managers.
- Work-life balance – One of the drawbacks of the flexibility of remote working is the disappearance of boundaries between the workplace and home. At the same time, employees are also anxious and insecure about their jobs, so they want to show that they are working. Very often, this leads to back-to-back video calls throughout the day and often late into the evening, beyond their working hours.
Furthermore, many people do not have dedicated workspaces in their homes and this can lead to physiological issues. A WTW survey examining the business impact of COVID-19 on benefits found that one-third of the employers in Asia Pacific believe that COVID-19 will have a moderate to large negative impact on employee well-being.
There are many questions when it comes to envisioning the future impact and role of HR post-COVID-19. With the new normal shaping the future of HR, do you think HR will matter now more than ever as we come out of this crisis?
HR is in a unique position to make a strategic impact on businesses. As a result of the pandemic and crisis, there is an increased focus on the future of work.
As companies move through various stages of managing the crisis to restoring stability, their HR leaders are increasingly thinking about making their operations more sustainable. The HR function will play a key role in decisions related to responsible automation, helping business stakeholders deliver work through optimal human-machine combinations.
Jobs will continue to be redesigned, not only for flexibility but also to deliver higher value, as transactional tasks get automated increasingly. This will drive the need for continuous upskilling or reskilling of the workforce which HR will need to drive. As remote work continues and changes take place on the way work being done, HR professionals are in the driving seat to build a purpose-driven culture in organizations with a high quality of employee experience. All these expectations mean that HR will play a more strategic role, partnering with business stakeholders to find solutions to these areas. To ensure they have the capacity to focus on these, HR professionals will need to ensure that they drive automation of routine service delivery within HR and upskill themselves to deliver the higher value-added work.
Which jobs do you think will be compelling in the near future?
This is indeed an exciting time in HR. As technology use becomes more widespread in the function, it is resulting in new work and jobs being created.
We recently concluded a study on the impact of technology on the HR sector in Singapore, analyzing 27 HR jobs that will be impacted. From the study, we have also identified new jobs, both specialized as well as cross-functional in nature, that will emerge as technology enhances existing HR tasks and jobs. These include roles such as Learning designers – who combine UX/UI design with instructional design to develop immersive learning journeys for employees; HR technology specialist roles who will focus on developing the technology and data architecture for various HR service delivery processes.
Another exciting role that will also emerge is the Cultural Ambassador, who collaborates with business leaders to influence, develop and embed the organization’s culture, and supports the implementation of initiatives to enable culture change in the workplace. These jobs bring the human elements of work together with sophisticated technology-enabled service delivery to provide consumer-grade HR applications and services, and to build a compelling employee experience in an organization.
Employers faced with many total rewards challenges in COVID-19 aftermath. How do you think compensation and benefits programs will evolve in 2021? Is it going to be focused on skill-based rather than traditional performance-based?
Organizations have been trying out skills-based pay for a few years now. We see this trend increasing as work becomes better codified. However, as a result of the pandemic, performance reviews have also changed.
Organizations are realizing the challenges of managing performance management that relied on “face- time”. As a result, there is increasing pressure, to set clear outcome-driven goals so that employees can be reviewed against these objectively, which can then be fed into compensation decisions.
We are also seeing how organizations across Asia Pacific are beginning to explore flexible rewards mechanism in addition to flexible benefits. We expect to see an increasing amount of segmentation and personalization of compensation and benefits in 2021, which will allow organizations to optimize their total rewards spend while making it attractive to the employee. For instance, some companies have introduced employee subsidies to help their employees manage the cost of working remotely. These include cash allowances for the purchase of home office equipment to support work from home arrangements such as monitors and chairs.
Josh Bersin says, 'COVID-19 may be the best thing that ever happened to employee engagement'. Can you share three tips on how can organizations plan to ensure productivity and engagement?
- Review work design – COVID-19 has accelerated many organizations’ automation plans and transactional activities will continue to be increasingly automated. It is critical to review work – at a task and job level, to find opportunities to make jobs more value-added.
- Focus on continuous reskilling – The pandemic has highlighted the need for employees to upskill and this is even more urgent now, through the disproportionate impact on certain types of work. Organizations need to develop a concrete plan to help upskill employees to meet the new requirements of their jobs. Employees need to be open and hungry for these new opportunities.
- Continuous listening and feedback mechanisms – As work becomes more distributed, it is critical to have a deliberate plan and activities to ensure that employee programs and initiatives are relevant. Organizations are increasingly mapping the employee’s journey, identifying moments that matter, and making sure they have specific programs and interventions that define the employee experience at these moments. Continuous listening tools also help organizations improve this employee experience on an ongoing basis.
One lesson you have learned from this pandemic and why it matters? Do you see any big opportunity that businesses should seize in 2021?
Several opportunities have surfaced through the pandemic at an organization as well as individual level. One of the most critical lessons for organizations is the review of business processes to identify ideal human-machine combinations for service delivery. Not only would this bring cost efficiencies, but it would also free up the working capacity of employees to do work that will add more value to the organization.