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"Hopefully the mindset of our leaders changed as a result of this crisis” - HR Leader discussing COVID-19.

The move to remote work caused by the COVID pandemic created one of the largest global work transformations in recent history. While this transition created challenges, it is striking how little productivity was affected despite its abrupt nature. In many cases, productivity increased and  most employees liked the flexibility to work remotely. The fact millions of people switched to virtual work in a few weeks also showed companies had access to technology for remote work before the pandemic but had chosen not to use it. So why didn’t they do it? The answer is people’s beliefs about remote work and its impact on productivity were based on false assumptions.

The following five assumptions should be challenged as we move toward a new future of work. They reflect beliefs about work that date to the 20th century before the internet. They are no longer true given current technology and socio-economic conditions. The false nature of these assumptions was exposed by disruptions created by the COVID pandemic. Our willingness to continue challenging these assumptions will determine whether we go forward to a better world of work or simply go back to the old way things were.

False Assumption #1.  People must be located together to work together. 

COVID forced companies to accept that people do not need to sit together to work together. This does not mean in-person meetings are not valuable. But commuting every day to a shared office is not as important as people thought. Many companies have stated they will not be returning to the office-based work practices of the past. This is good for employees who want more flexible hybrid and remote work models. It also means companies can recruit from a wider and more diverse talent pool without worrying about people’s ability or willingness to commute to a building.

False Assumption #2. People must work the same schedule to get the same work done

For decades companies required employees to follow standardized work schedules. Inflexible schedules create significant challenges for employees who must balance time commitments at work with obligations at home. As a result of COVID, many companies gave employees more control in determining when they work to help balance childcare responsibilities created by closure of schools and day cares. This is a practice that should continue after the pandemic.

Standardized work schedules were created in the industrial age to ensure workers were available in factories and stores at different times of day regardless of employees’ personal needs or preferences. The tyrannical nature of standardized schedules led to industrial jobs being called “prisons of measured time”. We now have technology solutions so employees can collaborate to balance company staffing needs with personal schedule preferences. This enables employees to cover work shifts without conforming to the same schedules. These tools give employees more ability to control their own time, which in a very literal sense gives more control over their own lives.

False Assumption #3. People will not accept lower levels of pay.

With the exception of highly transactional work, pay is best viewed as an investment in potential rather than a reward for past accomplishments. Companies pay people for the contributions they will provide in the future. Yet most companies do not treat compensation like an investment.  Compensation is something that either stays flat or goes up, but almost never goes down. Even though there are situations where it makes sense to lower pay levels. Money is an important part of work, but it is not the sole reason why people work. People frequently accept lower salaries to move into jobs that better fit their career interests or life preferences. The financial value of an employee’s skill set can also change based on job demands.

The economic impact of COVID led to questioning the assumption that compensation levels cannot be lowered.  Employees will naturally be wary of decreases in compensation, but employees will accept lower pay levels as fair if they believe the decision is based on valid criteria, consistently implemented and appropriately communicated. Allowing compensation to go both up and down also changes workforce downsizing. When a company lets someone go, they are implying the person’s contributions do not justify their cost. But it is unlikely the person has no value.  An alternative would be to adjust compensation down, so employee contributions justify their pay. Many employees would view this as fair provided it was done in a truly honest manner provided compensation also went back up as conditions changed.

False Assumption #4. People should be hired based on what they have done in the past.

Past performance is a good predictor of future performance provided what we want people do to in the future is similar to what they were doing in the past. But companies increasingly hire people to perform tasks that did not exist in the past. In these situations, past experience is less relevant than future potential. This requires rethinking hiring methods to focus on assessing people’s ability to acquire future skills instead of screening people based on past accomplishments. COVID led to examples of this sort of staffing. Where companies transitioned employees furloughed by decreased demand in the hospitality industry into significantly different roles in the healthcare and grocery industries. The future of work will require more of this form of reskilling where job candidates are selected based on what they could learn instead of what they already know.

False Assumption #5. Employees must choose between prioritizing life or work.
In the past, taking time away from work to attend to personal  health or family issues was often punished by withholding pay or denying career opportunities. When the pandemic started many companies changed sick leave policies so employees could stay at home to fully recover from the flu without losing pay. Prior sick leave policies did not provide adequate time to recover from illness, so employees often worked while sick rather than lose pay. The practice of working while sick is so common it even has a name: presenteeism.

Research has show that employee wellbeing significantly impacts business performance. There is a difference between missing work due to health or family obligations versus missing work due to lack of motivation. Yet corporate policies and norms often treat them as the same. This leads employees to hide family and health challenges from work colleagues lest they be judged as not being “fully committed”. COVID brought work literally into our homes and forced leaders to confront the reality that life and work are intertwined. Going forward, we should challenge the false assumption of work and life being something that can be kept separate. And help employees manage the complex integration of the two through open conversation and empathetic problem solving.

The COVID pandemic is hopefully a once in a lifetime event. It is up to us to also make it an opportunity to improve the way we work. We only gain from experience if we seek to learn the lessons it teaches. This requires challenging assumptions about work based on beliefs rooted in a past that no longer exists. Moving from old ways of working that emphasize standardization, requirements, routines, and work-life compartmentalization to new ways of work that emphasize flexibility, learning, potential and work-life integration.  We have the technology to embrace these changes. But we must be willing to challenge pre-existing beliefs to realize these changes.
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