3rd January 2022


Conducting business beyond the pandemic


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About Sekhendu

The pandemic has seriously disrupted labour markets over the last two years. The results were sudden and severe: millions of workers were furloughed, lost jobs, or had to quickly adjust to working from home (WFH) as offices closed. Many other workers were deemed essential and continued to work in hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies, dustbin collecting, and warehouses under new protocols to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Recently, we caught up with Sukhendu Pal, an advisor to CEOs and Boards of some of the world's most valuable companies, as well as to founders of many promising start-ups and unicorns. Sukhendu is also a lead mentor to Funding London's 140+ portfolio of high-growth start-ups. We asked Sukhendu several questions, including the pandemic's impact on consumers and if the UK's business recovery would be led by enhanced productivity and innovation. Here is what Sukhendu shared with us on the key issues businesses will face in 2022.

What’s good, what’s bad, and what’s ugly about remote working?

Let’s focus on the good first. The most obvious impact of the pandemic on the workforce is the dramatic increase in employees working remotely. Implementing remote work successfully is difficult; it requires a thoughtful approach and reliable execution. But when it’s done well, the reward is high: increased productivity, satisfied employees and cost savings (which you can invest into growing a better business). With significant moves in the workplace, such as the large increase in Millennials and the fading line between work and life, WFH will become an even more critical benefit for recruitment and employee engagement.

However, what about the bad and the ugly aspects of remote working, then? There is a broad consensus that the future is hybrid and that more workers will spend more days WFH. However, there is much scope for disagreement on the details. How many days, and which ones? And will it be fair? Experts say that women are less keen to return to the office, so they risk being passed over for promotions. Debates also loom over tax rules and monitoring of remote workers.

How will the pandemic change the business practices of tomorrow?

The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way many organisations operate. It has provided an object lesson in business model innovation. Businesses often change their approaches only when faced with disaster. However, unless they are well prepared to begin with, they may find themselves too far behind to compete successfully when a crisis hits. They need a process to regularly re-evaluate their current approach, protect against vulnerabilities and gaps, and establish a corporate culture of experimentation. The ability to experiment and accept new business models in a company will be critical for responding well to future crises. The fundamental changes to business practice beyond the pandemic that I see include:-

  1. The pandemic will provide senior management with a huge opportunity to develop a trust-based culture.
  2. Remote work will become strategic.
  3. We will see dramatically reduced travel, more WFH for workers, and changes in business operations to reduce human contact and improve workplace hygiene.
  4. In the past, companies have used the lessons learned during periods of disruption to improve their standard operating practices. For example, the great recession forced employers to revisit their staffing models. The result was a permanent shift in the ratio of part-time workers to full-time workers across the economy. The covid-19 pandemic may yield similar changes.

Why are some organisations reaping benefits but others not from WFH?

Many companies focus too much on technology and not on people and processes. This is similar to fixing a football team’s performance by buying a better football kit. These adjustments alone might result in minor improvements, but real change requires a return to fundamentals. That is recognising that the success of WFH is based on three pillars: communication, coordination and culture. Here, communication is the ability to exchange information, coordination is the ability to work toward a common goal and culture is a shared set of behaviours that foster trust and engagement. For WFH to be successful, companies (and teams within them) must create transparent processes that support each of these pillars.

What should employer priorities be: flexibility or autonomy?

When I speak with CEOs from start-ups to FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies, I hear that flexibility now dominates how their employees talk about the future of work. However, flexibility is conditional upon their autonomy to exercise it in whichever way is best. We know autonomy is a key driver of our motivation, performance and job satisfaction in the context of hybrid working. It is also directly correlated to the amount of flexibility an employee has access to in their work arrangement. By turning the dial on autonomy up or down, we increase or decrease employee flexibility. For companies wishing to remain relevant in the hybrid future, enabling and empowering employee autonomy will be the most critical enabler of flexibility. By investing in competence and giving employees the tools to do their job well regardless of location, leaders can create a culture of autonomy and flexibility to benefit the company, teams, and individual employees.

How will leaders address “Back to the office” nervousness?

Many professionals are anxious about returning to the office full-time after WFH during the pandemic. Employees need guidance and flexibility to decrease their anxiety if they return to the office. Leaders can, for example, provide regular updates about precautions they are taking and be transparent about the number of Covid-19 infections in the building. Providing a safe environment and allowing employees to feel heard can decrease anxiety. Employees will expect compassion and flexibility from their leaders during this challenging time.

How will companies approach hiring in the “new normal” economy?

Workplace and workforce have been separated, while work, home and school have been brought together. Technology is moving humanity away from the office and back into homes across our nation every day. We are building culture outside of buildings, with work supporting life on a more even playing field, with talent that can come from anywhere. As we look beyond the pandemic, it’s time to unleash this new way of working for the long term, focusing on wellbeing, equality and productivity that can work for both employers and employees. It’s time to embrace the truly global talent pool available to drive growth, regardless of where those people call home.

How should companies conduct remote interviews?

Remote interviewing isn’t going away soon, as the pandemic and its evolving offshoot, the Great Resignation, continue to reshape the workplace. Today’s job hunters aren’t just looking to increase their salaries; they are also seeking flexibility, wellbeing and a workplace culture that aligns with their values and ambitions. Interviews that delve into these topics can give both parties valuable information about whether a prospective employee will likely feel fulfilled and engaged at a particular company. We can have these conversations “face to face,” even when we’re not in the same physical room. Here are six tips for employers seeking to identify top talent remotely:-

  1.     Focus on emotional intelligence;
  2.     Leverage the intimacy of the screen;
  3.     Be honest about the challenges of the pandemic;
  4.     Notice reactions to distractions;
  5.     Set your candidates up for success;
  6.     Don’t forget that you are being interviewed as well.

Will hybrid work set back companies DE&I Efforts?

Hybrid work is likely to exacerbate diversity and equity challenges and gains that we saw during remote work. By measuring the following five aspects of the hybrid workplace, talent managers can ensure that career advancements and employee benefits accrue equitably:-

  1. Who’s spending time working at the office versus WFH?
  2. Who gets to choose when to be in the office?
  3. Who gets promoted?
  4. How are remote management tactics used? and
  5. Who is engaged?

How will the business be conducted in the post-pandemic era?

It is almost two years since the first wave of Covid-19 forced the world into a mass experiment in WFH. Yet, as UK office workers are once again told to hunker down at their kitchen tables, there is still no consensus on how a lasting move to remote work might affect the basic structure of developed economies. What is certain in my view is that the revolution in remote working will boost productivity, narrow regional inequalities, help blue-collar workers win more flexibility and usher in a new era of globalisation in services, such as outsourcing and off-shoring.

What will be the future of the UK’s economy beyond the pandemic?

Today, even as Omicron spreads across the developed world and the delta-variant rages across poorer countries, the developed world is on the verge of a post-pandemic boom. Governments have lifted stay-at-home orders as 2nd, and 3rd jabs reduced hospitalisations and deaths from the virus. The historical data suggests that GDP does bounce back after periods of massive non-financial disruption such as pandemics. It also offers three further lessons. First, while people are keen to go out and spend, uncertainty lingers. Second, crises encourage people and businesses to experiment, upending the economy’s structure. Third, as “Les Misérables” shows, political upheaval often follows, with unpredictable economic consequences. History also guides what people do once life gets back to normal. Spending rises, prompting employment to recover.

The other big lesson from post-pandemic booms relates to the “supply-side” of the economy; how and where goods and services are produced using labour-saving technologies and practices. Businesses are starting to invest in huge numbers. Pandemic also accelerates robot adoption, especially when the health impact is severe and is associated with an economic downturn.   The big question is whether the emerging CAPEX boom augurs a broad and lasting shift away from the austerity of recent years or is simply an enthusiastic but temporary response to reopening.

How should business leaders grow their businesses in the global markets?

Since smart business decisions depend on accurate perceptions of the environment, business leaders should begin with a clear-eyed view of how globalisation measures are trending. We cannot confidently predict whether 2022 will bring a higher or a lower level of globalisation. However, we can safely say that international flows and the constraints imposed by borders and distance will both continue to matter. So, regardless of whether globalisation goes up or down, the biggest winners are likely to be companies that embrace globalisation’s complexity rather than rely on the rehoric of “Global Britain”.