Zoom meeting screen
Written by: Jennifer Elia

The Excellence Canada “Thought Leaders’ Round Table” (TLRT) met in October 2020 to discuss two critical issues impacting Canadian organizations: The Future of Work, and the urgent need for Diversity and Inclusion in workplaces. The first-ever virtual meeting drew 48 leaders from private and public sector organizations in government, education, financial services, technology, media, and manufacturing. 

This article summarizes the experiences, challenges, and concerns raised as the nature of work continues to evolve, with a focus on mental well-being, the physical workplace, leadership, and technology. A separate paper will address the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion as a strategic driver, calling on Canadian businesses to prioritize and lead change to improve systems, policies, and representation at all levels.

Part One: The Future of Work is Here

Over the past decade, organizations anticipated the impacts of technology and globalization on how work is performed. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced change almost overnight, with significant impacts and many common themes shared by Excellence Canada Thought Leaders. In some cases, the pandemic was a catalyst to move faster on existing plans where social and financial benefits were understood; in other cases, this year brought unexpected challenges and opportunities. The TRLT conversation primarily looked at changes to work normally performed in an office setting, where employees are now working from home most or all of the time. A future topic will look at impacts on all types of work, including essential services, manufacturing, and other roles where work is performed almost exclusively on-site.

The first theme that was explored was how critical employee mental health and well-being are for Canadian businesses to survive and thrive in these times. Leading up to 2020, we had already seen an increase in remote work. While some organizations have been forced to lay off employees, others are hiring contingent workers to complement their full-time staff. Roles, responsibilities, and expectations are shifting with a steady increase in the use of technology. At the same time as the nature of work is changing, mental illness is the world’s leading cause of disability. It is estimated to cost the global economy $16 trillion by the year 2030. Layer on a global pandemic, which is transforming how, where, and when work is performed.

According to Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index, the mental health of Canadians continues to be significantly more strained than prior to the pandemic. The top concerns are finances, the fear of getting ill, loneliness, and strain or overwork. COVID-19 has put mental health front and centre for organizations, as the safety of employees becomes paramount to survival (Stahl, Ashley, Forbes. October 9, 2020).

Questions and Discussion

The first question focused on the most significant impacts of the pandemic on employees and the workplace. Among the common themes:

  • People are stressed and overworked, as the lines between work and home are increasingly blurred.
  • Employees are struggling with child-care, elder-care, and loneliness; and these challenges are heightened by uncertainty about the future.
  • The nature of how we engage with one another is changing, and it’s more difficult to build new relationships.
  • Historically, it’s been challenging to connect corporate office and front-line employees. Moving to a virtual framework is improving those connections by increasing accessibility for all employees to participate in meetings and town halls.
  • There is a greater opportunity to hire talented, well-qualified people from outside the local community.

 The second question examined how leaders and teams can prioritize well-being. This is where many positive benefits have been noticed, including:

  • Technology is enabling leaders to inspire employees in different ways, by gathering more frequently and zeroing in on important messages.
  • Intentionally carving out time to relate on topics other than work allows for deeper connections; there is an opportunity to learn more about people than ever before.

Next, the discussion pivoted to consider how the physical workplace is evolving to a hybrid model. Common themes were:

  • A significant majority of employees report they like the flexibility of working remotely, and hope it continues.
  • The technology was there before the pandemic to support working remotely, however culture was a barrier in some cases. The pandemic has proven employees can be productive and client needs can be met virtually.
  • Digital transformation is happening faster, with a shift to paperless procurement and service delivery; mobile devices are used more and there is less need for hardware such as desktop computers or printers.
  • Office reopening is happening in phases where possible, often with a “virtual first” approach that allows employees to make choices based on their own preferences.
  • Rewards and recognition programs that have pivoted to virtual have been well received by employees. There is an opportunity to completely reinvent recognition programs where historically, the approach was regional or site-specific.
  • While formal programs have their place, in the current environment it’s essential for leaders to provide recognition immediately and often.
  • Working from home can present challenges around technology, privacy, and occupational health and safety.
  • Onboarding new employees to the work and the culture, to ensure they are set up well and create a sense of belonging, can also be a significant challenge.
  • Training and tools are needed to help employees use meeting technology effectively.

Lastly, the group discussed how Excellence Canada can support organizations during this time of transformation. Ideas included:

  • Build in new processes to engage organizations virtually in their Excellence journey, to foster the same energy and commitment driven by in-person workshops.
  • There is a need for research to quantify how changes to how people work can benefit organizations, employees, and customers.
  • There is an opportunity for the new Organizational Excellence Standard, slated for launch in January 2021, to identify gaps and guide improvements on many of the themes that emerged in the roundtable conversation.

Key Takeaways: Future of Work

  1. The pandemic has changed the dynamics of work, presenting as many opportunities as challenges. To thrive, organizations must find new ways to help employees engage with colleagues and clients while setting clear boundaries between work and home.
  2. The approach to work is forever changed, and it will serve organizations well to develop policies and structure that support flexibility, allowing work to be performed across a range of settings (i.e. a hybrid model).
  3. To thrive in the future, organizations will need to prioritize the human elements of leadership, ensuring employees have an emotional tie-in to the organizational purpose and feel supported to achieve objectives.
  4. Routines that brought value and engagement in 2020, such as supportive check-ins and virtual town halls, should become regular practice as we move into 2021.
  5. Consider how the pandemic can advance your organization’s digital and environmental strategies, with clear plans to reduce reliance on paper and hardware.
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