At the beginning of 2020, I wrote a blog that looked ahead to the forthcoming year and to the challenges it would bring. Little did I know what was about to come down the tracks! At that time, news of a novel Coronavirus originating from China had reached the World Health Organisation, but it was not on most people’s radar – including mine. Instead, I was focusing on the challenges that Brexit might bring and the importance of employers retaining their staff, perhaps through attractive employee benefits programmes.
If the past year has taught us nothing else, it has shown that, despite our best intentions and plans, we cannot always control events. Or in the original words of one Robert Burns: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
Most of us won’t be sorry to see the back of 2020. We are all hoping for better times in 2021 especially as the promise of a vaccine has now turned into reality as mass immunisations take place across the country. But before we write the whole year off as a disaster, it’s worth remembering some of the positives that have come from ‘the year of COVID’.
Perhaps most significant has been an increased focus on employee mental health and well-being. It was recognised early on in the pandemic how detrimental some of the new ways of working could be. Feelings of isolation, increased stress, financial worries and concerns about health were just some of the factors affecting employees. One positive outcome of this is that it has accelerated employer and employee appreciation of Digital Wellness Services, as an integral part of wider company group protection plans. These services provide invaluable support to struggling employees (and consequently also to employers), enabling them to access confidential advice and counselling via video or telephone on a wide range of issues. If you need further information on these services, please do contact us.
The pandemic also highlighted the importance of employers keeping in touch and checking in regularly with their employees – especially those who are remote working. Employers have a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of all employees, wherever they are based. This became more difficult during the pandemic as large swathes of employees relocated to their homes. However, the best employers found effective, sensitive and sometimes innovative ways of keeping in touch, including regular one-to-one calls via Teams or Zoom and virtual team coffee breaks, get-togethers and quizzes. This activity was and is fundamentally important for employees to retain a connection with their employer and company values and to find a sense of purpose in their day to day lives. Many of the lessons learnt will stand us in good stead in the future especially if, as anticipated, we adopt more flexible ways of working.
Another positive change this year has been a decrease in ‘presenteeism’. For years some employers have been reluctant to allow employees to work from home because they would not then be visible to their managers. Since many employees have been compelled to work from home, sometimes also having to juggle home-schooling and other caring responsibilities, employers have had to learn to trust more and to focus on results rather than number of hours actually spent at a work station.
Much of the reticence of employers to allow more flexible working systems has in the past hinged on technology and worries about security of information. When forced by COVID to implement the technology to allow their employees to work securely from home, employers have seen how do-able it can be. For example, whereas this time last year, few of us had used or heard of Zoom or other conferencing platforms, now they are widespread – in fact, its probably true to say we’re all ‘zoomed out’! There’s no doubt that being able to see as well as hear one’s colleagues, friends and relatives over the past nine months has been hugely important. Remote conversations and conferences will perhaps never entirely replace face-to-face, but I believe the way we do business has changed forever thanks to technology discovered during COVID. In the future, we will probably all think twice before jumping into the car to drive three hours for a one-hour meeting and it seems likely that many future conferences will offer both an actual and virtual option for delegates.
Working life will never be the same again. Due to COVID19, employers have had to revisit long-established ways of working and adapt to unprecedented circumstances. As we move into a new year and (hopefully) better times ahead, many of the lessons learnt will be retained. We can never know for sure what’s going to hit us, but at least this year’s experiences will help us to cope with whatever’s in store. And with a bit of luck maybe this year we can all focus on something other than COVID – perhaps even Brexit!?