Picture this. Anita has an 82-year-old uncle who often reminisces about his work life at a manufacturing company in a small town in India, where he toiled for nearly 35 years producing electrical components, working in eight-hour shifts. His life was predictable with a fixed routine, a set of colleagues who were primarily male and came from the same city or from nearby districts.

Anita, on the other hand works as a web designer, fleeting from one project to another. She does not have a fixed office or hours as she works for companies across the globe. She is currently learning coding from an online platform as she wants to move into web development, but her ultimate career aspiration is to be a voice user interface designer.

The story of Anita and her uncle sums up the way our work lives have changed over the past few decades. In the case of Anita, digital technologies have been the key facilitator to her modern, flexible work style.

Interestingly, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic could accentuate many of the changes in the workplace and workforce. For instance, it places renewed emphasis on evolving our work policies to support the existing workforce who are struggling to cope up with working from remotely distributed home offices.

The National HRD Network (NHRD) did a survey of CEOs and CHROs in late 2019 and identified the probable key shifts in people’s attitudes and the consequent shifts in HR practices in the NHRD report, “The HR Function in India in 2030 and The Future CHRO”. These survey findings are as much relevant if not more to the changes that have occurred in the past few months due to the Coronavirus pandemic. HR heads across organisations could look at these if they want to survive the difficult times ahead.

Let us start with the key shifts in people’s attitudes and behaviour. Here they are, ranked by criticality:

An economy driven by skills: A university degree is no longer required or adequate for lifelong employability. As disruptions occur in the market driven by technology, new business models—and now the pandemic—roles are changing, new skills are being demanded, and thereby careers are getting shorter.

No more 9 to 5: With seamless integration between digital and physical spaces, people have the option to work across geographies in different time zones. This has made it possible for a majority of organisations to shift 90% of their workforce to work from homes since mid-March 2020. People are working at any time, from anywhere on different devices. Super specialisation is creating professionals who are offering their expertise on a contractual basis.

Age, ethnicity, gender, social-economic backgrounds are not disqualifiers: A 35-year-old business leader, a 60-year-old data analyst, a homemaker-turned-designer, a farmer who runs a supply chain network—these and an even more diverse set of people will form the workforce of the future.

It’s not just about earning a living: Millennials are not looking at long-term employment or working towards a retirement fund. While the current economic downturn is compelling people to look for livelihood over a career, as humans we are always seeking meaning in the work we do. This pandemic is bringing to the fore the need for purpose and meaning in what each of us does.

New employee collectives: Employee well-being, and welfare of the society at large in a dynamically changing digital world will give rise to new communities of practice such as activist groups and skill guilds. For example, Amazon recently witnessed employee protests over Covid-19 working conditions.

While it is important to recognise these trends, HR managers must also make themselves familiar with the changes that digital technologies are bringing to the workplace and how they can leverage these to beat not just traditional challenges but also those arising from the pandemic.

To cope with the changing shifts in people’s behaviour, HR needs to make the following shifts:

Help employees find purpose: Organisations must provide opportunities to employees that help them find purpose in what they do, which is the biggest motivation for the new generation of workers.

Facilitate continuous reinvention: As old skills go out of demand and new ones are needed, organisations must encourage and enable employees to learn new skills and give them the opportunity to practice these skills. To support employees working from homes during the pandemic, many organisations have come up with guidance ranging from how to set up virtual workspaces, to maintaining well-being and ensuring strong collaborative and knowledge sharing practices. Learning has seen a renewed focus in these times, as companies seek to refocus and pivot.

Provide flexibility and freedom: Access to flexible work arrangements that includes remote working, working with a diverse talent-mix and on demand self-servicing workplace tools makes a workplace very attractive to the new gig generation.

Aid decision making with AI and analytics: Access to insights powered by AI and analytics can make it easier for employees and managers to make the right decisions and at the right time, particularly when it comes to managing talent or performance.

Recognition and rewards always work but linked to value creation: With new skills coming on the horizon, it is important to pay a premium to those who excel at it. Appreciating value creation with rewards, increasing variable components by linking it to performance/innovation will increase the motivation to contribute.

Craft jobs for the individual: Along with work flexibility, it is important to be flexible about roles. Meeting individual aspirations by tailoring roles that meet their needs can go a long way in creating satisfied employees.

Focus on holistic well-being of the employee: As work timings spill over and merge with personal hours, it is important to focus on promoting well-being of the employee with programmes and policies that make them feel empowered.

Develop great managers: It is said that employees don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. Empowering managers with autonomy and a strong set of values and culture can create great teams leading to productivity and collaborative teamwork.

The future of the workplace is going to see more accelerated changes due to the Covid pandemic. While the above-mentioned imperatives stand good for all times to come, they may not be the only shifts that HR has to make. Being sensitive to employee needs and environmental changes is something that will always keep HR looking for new ways to create a talented, productive, and satisfied workforce.

Views are personal. The author is executive vice president and group head of human resource development, Infosys.

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