The Deskless Workforce: Supporting Remote Workers in a Black Swan Event

Published on Apr. 27, 2020

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is having a significant impact on lives and livelihoods across the world.

To talk about the changing world of work in the context of the pandemic and beyond, we were honored to host  Ravin Jesuthasan, Author and Managing Director at Willis Tower Watson as our keynote speaker for our Deskless Workforce event on April 2. Jesuthasan is a recognized futurist, global thought leader, and author on the Future of Work in Human Capital. He has led numerous research projects for the World Economic Forum and is a member of its steering committee on work in employment.

 Check out the video of the full event:

The Changing World of Work

Jesuthasan explained that a World Economic Forum report in 2019 revealed that less than 10% of business leaders from G20 and OECD countries considered the spread of infectious diseases as a looming global risk. In addition, most companies in these countries, across sectors, had not implemented flexible working arrangements.

"You certainly saw such arrangements being implemented at larger enterprises but in many cases they were more ad hoc rather than systemic." - Ravin Jesuthasan

Now, most businesses are having to put in place new measures for their workforces rapidly – often with no previous comparable experiences. Anyone who can work remotely is working remotely today. Organizations that had no infrastructure in place had to implement digital tools to stay connected. As a consequence, there is a significant demand for infrastructure and communications technology.

Human-Centric Approach for The Business Course of Action

Jesuthasan observed that unlike prior downturns, when the first reactions were reductions in workforces, companies are now applying a more employee-centric response. Some of the actions taken by businesses include: 

  • Taking care of the company's talent and continuing pay and benefits for workers impacted by shutdowns.

  • Paying hourly workers that cannot work due to office closures or remote work policies.

  • Providing stipends to support work-from-home arrangements for impacted staff.

  • Grocery and banking companies are providing stipends or bonuses to employees supporting critical operations, while other companies are providing payments to offset unexpected expenses

  • Several companies have offered extra benefits or expanded leave policies to give employees greater flexibility to deal with the requirements of working from home.

Five Principles for Ethical and Responsible Action

Jesuthasan also shared with us five principles for shaping an ethical and responsible course of action for the workforce from his work with the World Economic Forum: 

  1. See this crisis as the defining leadership moment it is — and continue delivering the best possible outcomes for all stakeholders.

  2. Adopt an agile and continuous learning mindset to ensure your response is (re)calibrated to the circumstances at hand.

  3. Understand the perspectives of and engage all stakeholders (e.g., shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, unions/works councils, healthcare providers, community) in decision making.

  4. Focus on the intersection of employee and company wellbeing.

  5. Make decisions and take actions that take into account medium-term needs and longer-term business objectives.

"None of us has ever been through anything like this. And so the need for an agile and continuous learning mindset to ensure that our response is continuously calibrated and recalibrated for the circumstances at hand is critical." – Ravin Jesuthasan

4 Action Areas For Companies Reconsidering Their Work Design

Shifting from traditional work policies to flexible or remote working isn’t easy. Willis Towers Watson has defined 4 action areas that companies undergoing this change should consider. 

Flexible Work Arrangements

  • Policy and programs: Do we have a comprehensive policy? Do we clearly understand the rules and guidelines for making remote work really work? What programs are available to ensure that people have the resources and support them to work remotely? 

  • Enabling technology: What's the enabling technology required, whether it's hardware or software? Do we have the infrastructure in place to enable that to happen in a secure and responsible way?

  • Work processes: Are roles and tasks flexible? Have we reconfigured work processes in order to enable them to be done remotely? 

  • Leadership mindset and culture: Is leadership supportive of flexibility? Is  flexibility part of organizational culture?

Companies are adapting to a new situation, in which up to 100% of employees are working from home. From Jesuthasan’s point of view, the big shift will be the transition from informal practices that were implemented in response to the crisis to more formal flexible work arrangements.  “The tools, technology and infrastructure required to power a remote workforce are going to be in significant demand”

Responsible implementation of automation. 

Many companies are resorting to automation to reduce costs and improve processes. “It’s really essential, going back to my earlier point about human centricity, that we’re doing so [pivoting towards automation] in a responsible way, ensuring that we are getting to the optimal combination of humans and machines,” said Jesuthasan. From his point of view, “Companies should not just be looking at substitution of human labor with automation, but at the opportunities for augmentation, as well as if there might be new, human work created by the presence of automation.”

Consider cross-industry talent exchange

“We’re seeing many examples of organizations who are  seeing a spike of demand, while others are experiencing a dramatic decrease,” said Jesuthasan. 

How can we facilitate are more seamless  transfer of talent between these sectors beyond the old method of someone being furloughed, then requesting unemployment benefits, applying for a job, going through a selection process and finally getting hired. 

He shared an example: “baggage handlers from airlines..have at least 80% of the skills needed to work in a distribution center at a retailer. Can we transition them and eliminate the frictional costs, time and societal burden of the legacy approach?”

Make progress towards your longer-term upskilling and reskilling agenda

This is an opportunity to make progress against the significant upskilling goals companies have by giving talent the access to the digital and other learning resources that can ensure that when we are through the COVID-19 period, the talent that comes back to our organizations is much more relevant to the future of our business models. 

Learn more about nine solutions for the deskless workforce that will help your organization to adapt rapidly to the new realities. 

We have launched a global COVID-19 accelerator dedicated to scaling the world’s most promising startups who can help address the coronavirus pandemic. Join the platform today.