The COVID-19 pandemic has caused extraordinary disruption to the world of work. What have companies learned and what do those lessons tell us about the post-COVID future? A group of senior executives share their thoughts.

In April, FU.SE brought together a virtual panel to discuss the implications of COVID-19 on how we work and how companies and workers can cope with the pressure. Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, Daniela Seabrook, CHRO of Philips, Rainer Strack, Managing Director from BCG, and Cristina Wilbur, CHRO of Roche – led by BBC broadcaster Emma Nelson – shared their experiences with a global online audience.


Collectively, they identified three key areas of challenge: people, customers and leadership. The disruption in those areas points to a fourth theme: the foundations of a ‘new normal’ that will emerge once the pandemic is over.

Daniela Seabrook, CHRO of Philips, Rainer Strack, Managing Director from BCG, Cristina Wilbur, CHRO of Roche & Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group

#1. People


“People first” has been the Adecco Group’s guiding principle through the crisis, Dehaze said. He said that every decision has been focused on insuring that staff were safe, healthy and looked after. The other panelists agreed with this central focus.


“We have a triple duty of care,” said Seabrook, ” to employees, customers and to protecting the business.” She added that Philips’ most recent employee engagement survey had the most positive results ever, which the company was keen to sustain. Philips has learned from colleagues in China, where the virus hit first.


At Roche, Wilbur said, people stay very connected leveraging all available technologies – for example via interactive town halls or small coffee meetings. A global recognition program is used to send ‘thank you’ messages to deserving colleagues as a sign of appreciation. She added that it is important to take what has been positive about the current changes and to bring that into our normal way of working. This appreciation culture, said Strack, is good for staff morale and attractive to potential employees. He said companies should seek to build on this after the pandemic.


Strack identified several areas where disruption responses could be the seed of future initiatives, including emphasizing employee wellbeing as a key value, and creating a purpose-driven culture.


#2. Customers


It’s important to not only look inwards, panelists agreed. Wilbur said that amid the current economic challenges caused by COVID-19, Roche is focusing on the future and on its purpose of improving people’s health.


Companies must look up and down the value chain to see how they can help suppliers and customers. Dehaze said many of the Adecco Group’s customers are facing extraordinary challenges. Some must lay-off workers as business contracts, while others, such as those supplying essential services, are scaling-up as demand escalates.


Seabrook said that, as a company that works in both technology and healthcare, Philips had looked for ways to meet critical needs, such as pivoting production to make ventilators.


She added that the shift in how people work and socialise during the pandemic is likely to lead to new opportunities for business, particularly in technology, because many consumers and B2B customers will change their behavior once things return to normal.

Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

#3. Leadership


Successfully navigating this period of disruption depends on leadership. Seabrook said Philips had needed to think creatively about a process for onboarding staff remotely. Wilbur said that those companies that have handled the crisis best are likely to be those where the leadership culture is creative, rather than reactive.


Leaders have had to develop lots of new skills, Strack said, from empathy and flexibility, to managing a remote team. None of this has been wasted and companies should work to retain these skills after the pandemic.


In some areas, the lockdown is beginning to ease, Dehaze said, with Italy and Spain already look at which sectors can start to reopen. Handling this period safely will be the next major test for leaders.


#4. The ‘new normal’


There was broad agreement among the panel that things will not just return to normal after COVID-19. Wilbur said that Roche talks about going “back to better”, rather than back to normal. She added that there were many ways through which companies can connect with colleagues and people to send the message that we’re all in this together. Seabrook said many firms will shift how and where work is done in future, based on what they have learned during this period.


This is just one of the changes to the world of work that will have been accelerated. As Strack argued, the move to smart working methods that has been slowly advancing in recent years has taken a leap forward during the pandemic. The boost to digital transformation has created the potential for a new kind of ‘bionic organization’, Strack said.


Dehaze concurred, saying that while digital transformation is one opportunity presented by the lockdown, another is to rethink how different types of workers are treated. In the US, Dehaze said, almost half of graduates already enter the workplace as freelancers and this is only likely to increase. However, COVID-19 has shown that the safety net for gig workers and freelancers is insufficient.


If there were to be just one measure to take so as not to waste the COVID-19 crisis, it might be to rethink our social contract so that it protects all workers equally.


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