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Will Companies Remain Empathetic After the Coronavirus?

President, Career, and Head of Strategy at Mercer Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted — and reinvented — the notion of business as usual. For many organizations, working life is a new, home-based reality. Others are innovating safer ways to deliver essential services to the public, while still others have had to suspend operations. In a climate of such turmoil and uncertainty, the capacity to focus on the well-being of employees and the economics that underpin the enterprise has never been more urgent.

For now, the fallout of COVID-19 may overwhelm our sightlines and operations. Yet, when business and society move past the pandemic and toward a brighter future, the impact — and opportunity — of artificial intelligence and technology will have vastly accelerated. So will a more expansive, empathetic view of organizational purpose. More than ever, workers expect their employers to look after their health and deliver positive outcomes for customers, society and all stakeholders by utilizing data and analytic insights. 

Change has rarely come so quickly, and new data underscores that profound workforce transformation was in the air before the pandemic. As AI, robotics and remote-working technology race ahead, Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends study — which surveyed 7,300 senior executives, human resources leaders and employees from nine industries and 16 geographies — told us that 77% of executives see contingent workers playing a far greater role in the future. Meanwhile, 34% of employees expect their jobs to disappear in the next three years — and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Winning with Empathy

Indeed, concern about job security has risen during the COVID-19 crisis. These concerns challenge businesses to proceed with empathy in relationships with employees, and there is evidence everywhere that they are heeding the call. For example, organizations have been quick to enact work-at-home policies supported by the digital technologies that make the change as seamless as possible. 

A home-based workforce needs policy flexibility to deal with crisis health care, childcare and societal restrictions. Major organizations are even pledging not to lay off workers during the COVID-19 unemployment surge, or are beginning to explore temporary talent swapping to both lend support and offset costs. Global concerns about expatriates or business travel have added layers of complexity, foreshadowing changes in the housing, hotel and airplane industries. 

Public-facing organizations have had to enact new safety routines. Companies are trying to extend maximum empathy not only to employees facing furloughs or lay-offs, but also to customers whose ability to pay may be disrupted by job loss. Examples abound of banks and automotive companies adjusting grace periods for mortgage or car payments, and numerous executives have taken pay cuts. Companies that can are adjusting their severance policies — for example, to soften the blow for workers who may lose health care coverage — and instilling hope in furloughed workers via alternative work schemes and plans for “reboarding” once the pandemic passes. 

It will pass. When it does, there will be renewed pressure to recruit, or re-recruit, talent. Importantly, the 2020 Global Talent Trends Survey noted that thriving employees (defined as prospering in terms of health, wealth and career) are twice as likely to work for an organization that balances economics with empathy in their decisions. For businesses, winning with empathy will be a measure of how well they master three crises: a health crisis, most obviously; but also a digital crisis, as work technology ramps up and requires new skills, and an economic crisis brought on by the disruptions of COVID-19.

U.S. businesses face such financial consequences as the pandemic’s impact on 2020 self-insured health plan costs. Empathy and economics must guide the hands of self-insureds: How will they respond to announcements that major U.S. health insurers will waive cost-sharing for all COVID-19 care and treatment for insured plan members? 

Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends research identified four trends that will shape the future for organizations and the people who comprise them, beginning with a focus on the future. 

In a recent poll of 650 self-insured employers, more than a third said they were very likely or likely to waive cost sharing as well, while just under a fourth said they were unlikely or very unlikely to do so. But 39% had not yet begun to consider the question, facing a number of considerations, from in-network/out-of-network treatment to billing, quality and time-frame issues.

Four Trends for Tomorrow

These complexities are, perhaps, just the tip of the long-term iceberg. Mercer’s 2020 Global Talent Trends research identified four trends that will shape the future for organizations and the people who comprise them, beginning with a focus on the future. 

For one thing, 68% of executives want to accelerate progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics in 2020. But at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on productivity makes it imperative that good financial advice for all generations in the workforce will be a key part of today’s and tomorrow’s value proposition. As for M&A activity, sustainability will be a core part of due diligence in the future. This is also the time to embrace multi-stakeholder empathy as societies face challenges to the social safety net and welfare. 

Then there is the race to reskill. Nearly 100% of organizations said they want to pursue transformation in 2020, but report significant skill gaps. The C-suite regards reskilling as its top talent investment for business success, and one that has come sharply into focus as companies seek to prepare their people to emerge effectively from the downturn. The new work-at-home paradigm prompted by COVID-19 adds further urgency to the reskilling race. It’s an opportunity to dedicate more time to learn digital skills — as well as other skills cited in the Global Talent Trends report — and more than 75% of employees said they are ready to learn them. HR leadership can play a major role in readying the workforce for a reskilled future.

Just as urgently, the trend toward predictive analytics has gathered strong momentum in recent years, but workforce science insights should be used more widely. Only 43% of organizations use metrics to identify likely-to-leave employees, while 18% know the impact of their pay strategies and just 12% use analytics to correct inequities of gender, race and age — all valuable data in times of change. The key question today is, what data is required to enable executives to make decisions with empathy? 

In the current disruption, HR has the opportunity to lean in to analytics to answer strategic questions raised by the COVID-19 downturn: What are the best strategies for enhanced performance? Which departments need more contingent staff? Where should skilled talent hubs be located?

Ultimately, delivering on the employee experience could be the most important — if most difficult – trend to build on in 2020. While 58% of businesses are trying to become more people-centric, only 27% of C-suite executives believe their investment in the employee experience will yield a business return. 

Regardless, employee well-being ranked as a top workforce concern by nearly half of survey respondents, but only 29% of HR leaders said they have a health and well-being strategy, although this is likely to be changing as the COVID-19 crisis continues. With two-thirds of employees globally feeling at risk of burnout in the year ahead, how likely is that risk to mushroom in a time of social distancing, remote working, closures and prolonged quarantines?

Energizing employees at a time of unprecedented crisis is the challenge of our moment — and our immediate future. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for action beyond business contingency plans and safety measures, and the data shows that employees who say they feel energized by their job are more resilient, more ready to reskill and more excited by the changes ahead. 

Only an empathetic culture can keep employees energized amidst so much uncertainty, enhancing the stability and agility organizations seek in these tumultuous times.

Ilya Bonic

President, Career, and Head of Strategy at Mercer

Ilya Bonic is a senior partner, president of Mercer’s Career business, and head of strategy at Mercer. With 25 years of experience in human resource consulting, Ilya has worked with leading multinational companies to build human capital information resources and tools that allow them to make informed decisions on strategic people issues.

Kate Bravery

Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader at Mercer

Kate Bravery is a Global Advisory Solutions & Insights Leader for Mercer. She has more than 20 years of experience in human capital consulting and helping organizations achieve a talent advantage through people. Bravery has expertise in people strategy, talent management, assessment/leadership development and HR process design.

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