COVID-19 has catapulted us to collaboration 2.0.
The black swan event of a global pandemic has disrupted the work-environment. The urge to adapt is inevitably forced from the outside on companies, creating a situation of rapid change, where the dynamic of the transformation keeps accelerating. Companies are struggling to retain their operational integrity shaping the post-COVID workplace scenario.
Remote working has become the new reality. Whereas scholars are analyzing the effects on productivity, social dynamics, emotional side effects, corporations are already engaging in their own, economic assessments. The Corona crisis has forced us, to let go of our legacy understanding of office culture, as the maturity of technology supports decentralized and remote collaboration. Once we will return to a new normal, parts of this new form of collaboration will stay and transform our way to work in the future. Yet, companies will not “forget” to call back their employees to office, but economic incentives will foster further decentralization.
Three drivers are identified.
1.) Talent will be competing in a global market
Remote work eliminates geographic proximity as consideration for recruitment processes. Suddenly, a candidate from a rural community is just as eligible for a position, as the applicant, living two blocks from the corporate HQ. In parallel, this is leading to a democratization of opportunities. Privileged access to job openings, based on geographic proximity is a pattern of the past. Talent, living in remote communities or abroad will be applying for jobs, inaccessible for them, just a few months ago. Globally decentralized teams, as we witness e.g. in the software industry, will be normal, soon also in other industries. This increases the pool of potential candidates for new hirings, hence leverages the bargaining power of the employer.
For employers no reason remains, to pay the same upmarket salary to all employees, if geographies, hence the cost of living, vary widely. The national minimum wages are quickly obsolete if recruitment is seeking for the equilibrium between supply and demand in a global market. Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) adjustments as part of a firm’s compensation scheme are to be expected. Already Facebook has been seen, to have introduced cuts on salaries of remote workers, who live in rural areas.
The combination of these elements holds a very important message for the workforce: In a post-Corona work environment, near to all employees are acting and competing in a global market. The skills and cost of labor are not any longer subject to only local conditions. Protection by national labor laws will be weakened and diminished.
2.) Talent management will be like Just-in-Time Supply-Chain-Management
Extending the scope for recruiting to the global market place for talent offers firms the opportunity to onboard specific skills much more flexible than when being restricted to a local talent pool only. The idea of “just-in-time” delivery gives the right direction.
Whereas the flexible onboarding of highly skilled experts for specific tasks, becomes available also for SME firms, the flexible “rightsizing” of the workforce delivers additional benefits. Analyzing labor laws, we find significant differences between different legislations. Whereas the protection of employees is high in one country, it might be inexistent under another legislation. As protection (= inflexibility) comes at a cost for the employer, engaging “free agents“, that are operating under a more flexible legislation makes economic sense.
Taking advantage of arbitrage effects between different markets will allow employers to be more cost-efficient. Freelance- and payment platforms like e.g. Upwork.com, provide already today the technical infrastructure to engage freelancers from a global talent pool. Operating through these platforms helps firms to void risk and complexity of international labor law.
Hiring foreign talent has just become as accessible as the local workforce. Any form of employer commitment and administrative hassle to hire or fire staff is been excluded from the process. On the good side, this means to further democratize job opportunities, as also, visa and work permit constraints, and the hurdle of commuting (or relocating) is removed from the decision process for the employee. Also, individual time management, work-life balance, etc. is fully at the discretion of the employee. “Testing” a job, bridging between two assignments, creating extra income, etc. becomes feasible, regardless of distance and location.
Yet, the degree of competition in the workforce is increased again. In the long run, this puts another element to the test. Today costs for social security account in western economies for a significant portion of labor costs. Under the rule of global competition, it can be expected, cost positions being gradually minimalized. This can lead to increasing rates of unemployment in “social security”-strong economies and potentially compromise the integrity of the social contract in these economies. This suggests also lawmakers stepping in at a certain point, and creating a regulatory framework for outsourcing and decentralizing the workforce of the firms.
3.) Office space will become obsolete
With an increasing decentralization of the workforce, demand for office space will decrease. Flexible workplace policies, moving to shared workplaces, etc. may be practical applications. Real estate companies will potentially look in a less rosy future or will be required to adjust there offerings to a more flexible approach, less scoping long term economic rents but more moving towards scalable office concepts, where fully furnished, high end facilities, provide IT infrastructure and services, to address the value-creating part of employee presence. Strong connectivity, conference, and workshop resources, high-end technologies for e.g. video conferencing, may come more in the focus, than the beloved cubicles in the shared office spaces.
Opportunities for lower labor costs will be a key for competitive advantage
In a post-COVID-19 work environment, areas to decrease cost of labor include:
- Reducing costs per labor unit, by including PPP adjustments and arbitrage effects into HR hiring strategies.
- Removing idle resources through the flexibilization (JIT) of knowledge and human resources, adjusted to the current demand for projects and the organization.
- Reconsideration of required facilities, and potentially downsizing of space and repositioning the remaining facilities to areas of collaboration, rather than to “(administrative) production facilities”.
These trends are likely to reduce the required permanent number of employees of a firm to a bare minimum of individuals with a high degree of relevant competencies, corporate memory, and decision making authority, within the specific context of the company.
The flexibilization effect of this trend will be experienced by employees, so far rather untouched by efficiency and outsourcing initiatives. With the evolving IT systems, supporting remote collaboration, processes, and data can be shared, that was out of the picture of decentralization and outsourcing before.
Inefficiencies for productivity, associated with remote working models, are considered to be overcompensated by the economic benefits. As in many other trends, it is fair to understand these as temporary. Over time, organisations and individuals will learn, how to foster efficiency despite the distance.
HR will transform to talent procurement experts, key for the adaptability of the organization
Also a department with, so far, a Snow White-like existence may find a new purpose. Human Resources is notorious for having a bad reputation and only low respect among line managers. Under the parameters of the new reality, the Human Resources department can become a broker of talents, vital to the performance capabilities of an organization. This elevates the HR department from an adminstrative pain for everyone to a strategic asset for the CEO.
The change we are looking at is not only operational. Whereas many start-up companies are already operating in the described mode, companies in legacy industries are far from being ready for this kind of transformation. This creates vulnerability and also economic inefficiencies, that might be exploited by more flexible and capable market participants.
Make or break – the role of the non-executive-board on the post-COVID scenario
Make- or breakpoint, will be in the culture of a firm, hence, also under the influence (and responsibility) of the non-executive board:
- Is change embraced or is the organization reluctant to adapt to new market conditions?
- Is HR seen as an administrative department, or a critical instance, to help to create the future?
- Is the firm driven by a culture of accountability, as a basis for strong project management skills, critical for decentralized collaboration?
- Is a strong vision in place, motivating and engaging employees, and creating trust between employees and executives, sustainable enough, to bridge the distance.
Take away – The post-Corona workplace reality will transform the way we work and offer chances for SME firms to globalize.
The new workplace reality is based on technology and is taking advantage of decentralization.
Digital champions have better chances to adapt and survive.
Whereas this holds the potential for cost efficiency, diversification of the team, and fast iterations of the evolution of the organization, a strong culture is key to be successful.
Content originally posted at INSEAD.edu
Kolja A. Rafferty, MBA