Off the Map: Navigating the Uncharted Waters of Human Resources Post-COVID


By Jamie Hoobanoff Savage, Founder of The Leadership Agency


The world of work was forced to change drastically with the pandemic, the lockdowns and the rise in remote working that came along with it. As restrictions ease and the worst of the COVID-19 crisis seems to be behind us, many organizations are looking for a return to the normal way of doing business.


However, we're hearing from more and more clients that as HR professionals try to navigate the shift back to the office, the old ways of working just aren't going to work anymore.


The length and scope of the pandemic changed more than just approaches to remote work and managing virtual teams, it has created a cultural shift in the way people feel about their lives and careers. We are in uncharted waters.


The challenge for those of us in the human resources and recruitment industry is to understand these changes and to adapt to the new reality of work post-COVID.


Three workforce trends that will not return to the pre-COVID norm:


Work from where? This seems like an obvious place to start discussing the pandemic's impact on work, but it has wide-ranging implications that are only beginning to be felt. People have learned that their jobs can be done remotely, but it’s not quite how we thought it would be. Whether they wanted to work from home or not, staff were forced into remote work in order to keep their organizations afloat through a global crisis.


This wasn't always the smooth sailing of work/life balance that many thought remote work would offer. Children were home from closed down schools, and workers tried to manage childcare and homeschooling, all while keeping up their own workload. Surveys have shown that under these circumstances, many people ended up working longer hours than ever before.


We were also labouring under lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Shops and restaurants were all closed. The home became the workplace and largely the only place people spent any time. People started looking for larger properties and many had moved. This meant that remote workers relocated further from their traditional workplace. Should these staff members be called back to the office, their commutes would be much more arduous than they had been.


I know of a sales representative who sold his downtown condo and moved to South America. He continued to meet his quotas and conduct business via online demos and video calls. When his company advised that it was time to return to the workplace in Toronto, he resigned.


That is the issue. People have adjusted so many aspects of their lives to fight through a crisis and keep their employers successful at the same time, that they cannot be asked to immediately switch back when it suits the company.


Well, you can ask, but we're seeing the results in record high turnover rates right now. Experts are calling it "The Great Resignation."


The office isn't the lifestyle anymore. The traditional commute into the workplace with all of your coworkers in cubicles or sitting at their desks for eight hours a day from Monday to Friday just isn't suitable to the way many people are living now.


Not only have some workers relocated their households further away, but also many have taken on added responsibilities in caring for family members, such as children and elders.


The pandemic created the proof of concept. People could look after their families, live outside the city, and successfully do their jobs without commuting into a central workplace. It works. So why would they go back?


The idea of remote work was at one point a 'perk.' It was an added level of flexibility employers could use to entice a candidate to sign an offer. 2020 wasn't a perk. It was a monumental change in the way business is conducted. Workers adapted, and this led to lifestyle changes that go far beyond just working from home.


Off-setting the in-office culture. Organizations that want to keep their talent and avoid "The Great Resignation" need to tread carefully. Telling staff that it is 'time to come back to work' isn't going to sit well with people who have been working harder than ever under difficult circumstances this whole time. COVID wasn't a paid vacation.


Companies have traditionally used perks related to the working environment to attract staff. These include free food, hip workspaces, and games rooms. None of these are relevant to a remote workforce and are unlikely to be on the list of priorities of new hires. The pandemic has taught us that where you work isn't the physical space. It's the work itself, the brand, and the culture of the organization.


Great workplace cultures should be focused more on the genuine needs of the employees. People care about the flexibility to arrange their own hours of work around competing demands on their lifestyle, support for family care issues, and compensation. Good pay and benefits still matter, perks not so much.


It's a complicated time to be an HR professional. HR departments are busy trying to keep up with the demands – demands not brought about by growth but by change. Managing periods of expansion and ramping up staff quickly are situations that we train for and practice.


The current cultural shift is unprecedented and traditional practices don't apply. The challenge is to adapt with the changes. There is no one-size-fits all solution. Staff turnover is going to be high and there will be attrition for the foreseeable future. Attracting new talent requires understanding how people's priorities and lifestyles have been impacted by the past year and a half.


Because the change is ongoing and the impacts are still being felt, there is no linear path for what comes next. We're off the map. Savvy staffing professionals will need to steer carefully, because providing a workplace culture that doesn't revolve around a place, offering meaningful compensation and benefits enhancements over perks, and giving recognition and visibility to people who you almost never see in person are just the tip of the iceberg.

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