Out with the Old, In with the New:Innovative Work Practices for Navigating the Unknown
Chapter And Authors Information
During an extended crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, human resource (HR) practitioners play a key role in assisting management and employees to navigate the unknown. This pandemic has forced organizations to reconsider alternative work arrangements as employers are exploring innovative approaches to allow for business continuity. The importance and use of technology through virtual work has been the ‘lifeline’ to businesses when national lockdowns were implemented by governments around the world. Moving forward, HR practitioners must be innovative in their approaches to work. Organizations should reconsider their rigid views of flexible work arrangements such as remote work, flexi-time, compressed work schedules, and work and job sharing that have been implemented by some organizations on a smaller scale prior to the pandemic. HR practitioners need to adapt workplace practices and policies to continue to keep workers engaged and motivated while finding the right ‘fit’ for employees to complete their work tasks and maintain a work-life balance.
flexible work arrangements, remote work, flexi-time, compressed work schedule, job sharing
Technological advancements have been revolutionizing the business landscape for the last four decades with companies adopting innovative digitalized work practices to varying degrees. The traditional brick-and-mortar workplace continued to persevere as many Human Resource (HR) leaders were wary of adopting innovative work practices such as remote work, flexi-time, condensed work schedules, and job sharing. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Like the flip of a switch, organizations were scrambling to maintain productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness, while moving entirely to a virtual remote work model to keep workers safe and protected. First classified as a global health concern and then gaining the label of a pandemic on May 11, 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2020), this shift was almost instant, requiring HR departments and personnel to render assistance to workers in rapidly transitioning to new methods and approaches that allowed for work to continue remotely, in most instances.
As organizations struggle to survive and thrive during the pandemic, they are recognizing that the ‘old way’ is forever gone, requiring accelerated transformation in their corporate strategies to align to the ‘new normal’. In doing so, the question remains, where do we go from here? Within the European Union, in the first quarter of 2020, 3 million people were absent from work because of temporary lay-off, with a sharp increase in the second quarter to 13.8 million. By the third quarter there was a drastic decline to 2 million but this rebounded to 3.1 million in the fourth quarter (EuroStat, 2021). In the United States of America, the unemployment rate peaked at an unprecedented level in April 2020 at 14.8%, before declining to 6.7% in December 2020 (Frank et al. 2021).
In charting the way forward, Human Resource Management (HRM) plays a crucial role in creating innovative work practices for employees that align with the strategic plans and goals of the organization. Business success is hinging on the ability and motivation of employees to transition into the new workspace. The complexity of navigating the unknown requires HR leaders to embrace innovative methods and solutions to issues never experienced before. This is an opportunity for HR leaders to work with management in restructuring initiatives to develop and implement creative and innovative business operations and practices for success. In practicing social distancing, providing reasonable accommodations for high-risk employees, and ensuring compliance with occupational health and safety requirements and protocols, while keeping costs down, innovative practices can lead to a ‘win-win’ situation for both the organization and the employee. Some of these include using the virtual mode for employee selection and onboarding activities, promoting flexible work sites (via telecommuting), offering flexi-time or staggered work hours, condensed work weeks, creating virtual work and training/development spaces, and ergonomics for remote work.
Against this context, the Chapter aims to address the following objectives:
1. Describe the impact of COVID-19 on work practices.
2. Discuss the various innovative work practices to keep workers safe during the pandemic and beyond.
3. Evaluate the role of HR personnel in transitioning employees into new work practices.
4. Propose recommendations on how HR can continue to engage and motivate employees in embracing new work practices.
2. Impact of COVID-19 on Workplace Practices
Traditional work approaches have focused on employees being centered on using their time for work tasks at a central, on-site location. Here, organizational agents, such as managers and supervisors coordinate work activities, primarily through face-to-face and electronic communication. Employees are able to probe requests and directions received in real time, where there is almost immediate feedback. Co-location allows for face-to-face communication and mutual awareness, which creates a space for positive social relationships, collaboration, and quickly adapting to change. Human beings are naturally social creatures, where relationships and work are among the major contributors to individual well-being (Diener & Sligman, 2008; Lieberman, 2013). This is in keeping with the Agile Manifesto, a document created by software developers that outlines the key values and principles of agile philosophies, which prioritizes face-to-face collaboration for efficiency and effectiveness. These principles have been adopted by many organizations who are applying the agile principles in other sectors beyond software to drive success. Through social interaction, employees can interact with other organizational members to engage in meaningful discussion and clarify any uncertainties. Rooted in positive psychology, these social experiences allow for building trust among organizational members and is shaped by the organizational culture. Research has shown that there is a strong link to health and close relationships as they build certain biological systems (such as brain networks for social thinking) and reduces the negative impact of stress (Gable & Gosnell, 2011). The outbreak of the coronavirus, COVID-19, has quickly become the most revolutionary ‘shock’ or ‘black swan’ that organizations are facing. The impact of the pandemic is evolving in all spheres of society as new information is shed. Organizations worldwide have been experiencing rippling effects of the pandemic on their operations. It is requiring a paradigm shift in the way of thinking and doing business where organizations are grappling with adopting alternative business practices to shape their success. To enable such change, employers are relying more on their human capital, that is, there employees, to make the transition into the unknown. Agile and effective adaptation of business practices by employees are central to business functioning (Sidky & Arthur, 2007). The role of HR professionals is increasingly paramount in assisting employees with transitioning work practices and operations into the ‘new normal’. People management is central to business continuity and organizations are recognizing the critical roles of their employees in adapting expeditiously for business operations to succeed.
However, many employees are experiencing challenges to adjust as well as striking a balance between their work and personal commitments in this new landscape. Persons have been working harder and longer where productivity can be affected if not managed properly as the demarcation between work and private/personal time is becoming increasing blurred. In the traditional business setting, co-located teams were the norm. Now there are dispersed teams where team members are at different locations and work alone. To mitigate this within the realm of the ‘new normal’, HR practitioners need to understand its impact on work practices and devise innovative strategies to allow work to continue, while ensuring that workers are engaged and motivated to perform at their highest potential.
3. Innovative Work Practices
Through strategic HRM, HR practitioners must align the work practices to the strategic direction of the company. There are various innovative and flexible work practices that employers can adopt to keep workers during a pandemic such as COVID-19. Here, workers are able to control their work times and location that are offered by their employer. In this chapter, four practices are explored. These include telecommuting/remote work, flexi-time, compressed work weeks, and work and job sharing (see Figure 1). These various alternatives have been around for quite some time where in some industries they are more commonly incorporated as part of work-life balance policies, while in other industries and sectors, such options have never been afforded to workers. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing employers to become innovative, moving away from rigid systems and formalized procedures, to trusting workers by allowing greater autonomy and flexibility to complete their job tasks and achieve their goals.
Figure 1: Innovative Work Practices for the post-COVID-19 Workplace
3.1 Telecommuting/Remote Work
The COVID-19 crisis has skyrocketed telecommuting, also referred to as remote work, around the world, where lockdowns have forced many employees to switch to working from their homes. Telecommuting is working from a location other than the physical place of employment or on-site, for instance, at home or a designated space. The use of the internet, electronic devices such as computers and cellular phones, as well as the use of electronic mail and virtual communication platforms are required to create such a virtual workspace for employees. Virtual work is not a new approach as it has become quite prevalent in the last decade with some companies being early adopters to this method to working. The flexibility that workers are able to enjoy as well as the elimination of commuting to a work location has positive effects on employee motivation and engagement, resulting in improvements in performance. If this is done properly then it can boost productivity and employee motivation (Bick et al., 2020; Deshpande et al., 2016). However, if this is done poorly, it can result in poor productivity and demotivate employees (Mulki et al., 2009).
There are challenges to remote work for both the employer and the employee. From the employer’s perspective, there is reduced supervision, greater levels of accountability on the part of the employee, delays in making decisions, communication noise that may distort the communication process, such as internet issues, and computer issues (technological issues), and having to coordinate work schedules for all employees. From the employee’s perspective, some of the challenges of remote work include overcoming workplace isolation, finding that balance between work and life, the lack of face-to-face communication, the lack of visibility, and job insecurity (Mulki et al., 2009). One of the major challenges with remote work is work-life balance as this can adversely affect productivity and employee morale. Often employees perceive that they will be able to better juggle work and family demands, however, this is not always the case. While remote work can offer workers greater autonomy, and the flexibility to schedule their work, it can cause higher levels of distress if not managed appropriately by the individual. Mulki et al. (2009) found that professionals who worked remotely often worked on holidays and weekends, as well as commute hours. Further persons often checked their emails and voicemails before going to bed and worked even when they were sick. Family and social distractions can also be a major challenge since persons have familial obligations that they are required to fulfil during work hours. For example, employees who have school aged children may be coordinating home-schooling together with performing their job duties. Social isolation is another issue that employees may experience because they may be unable to connect with fellow employees and their superiors as they would usually do in co-location, on-site work settings. The work-based social support is eroded in virtual work settings. One study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found that personal habits, ergonomic issues, and work schedules had a significant influence on employees’ work-life balance (Muralidhar et al., 2020) .
With the COVID-19 pandemic, telecommuting has become a ‘life-line’ for businesses. Therefore, considerations must be given to the challenges where approaches are developed and implemented to prevent or address such issues from arising. Virtual work arrangements offer workers greater personal flexibility and autonomy as well as the economic benefits to the organization where they are able to continue to operate and function, while closing the physical office door. This approach reduces or eliminates the number of persons that are required to be present on the work site at any point in time. In restructuring their operations, organizations need to consider the increasing family demands of workers where this approach allows for workers to have more control over their time. There are some key areas that should be considered when organizations devise strategies for workers to engage in remote work against a foundation of common purpose and unified goals (Bick et al., 2020). These are as follows:
– Structure and guidance: when employees are working remotely, HR needs to ensure that the process is properly structured. With remote work, employees may feel isolated and are unable to query issues that they may be experiencing. There needs to be clear reporting lines to reduce any ambiguities. Role ambiguity should be reduced as much as possible to eliminate any misconceptions that individuals have about their revised duties and responsibilities. To allow for greater levels of collaboration, having smaller work teams can also be beneficial to keep information flow simple and open.
– Trust: there must be a trusting relationship between workers and management for performance to be effective.
– Communication: clear lines of communication should be established as well as the process for decision-making should be identified. Workers need to know who they should contact to clarify any queries that they may have or any ambiguities. The preferred mode of communication should also be established. For instance, does an individual prefer to be contacted via email or telephone? Further, HR must be mindful of information overload as workers can easily become overwhelmed with the large volume of information that they need to process. Therefore, an information sharing strategy that includes methods to prevent information overload should be implemented (Mungly & Singh, 2012).
– Infrastructure: the organization should ensure that the employee has the right tools to get the job done. For instance, are employees required to purchase their own electronic devices, use their personal devices, or will the company provide one for the individual, is there any specialized software that is necessary for the individual to access remotely? The company needs to establish clearly the type of device that is required, such as a desktop computer or laptop, and whether this will be supplied by the organization or the employee.
– Physiological factors: ergonomics needs to be considered when employees are setting up their workspaces. If done incorrectly, various physiological issues may arise that can cause increased health issues in the short to long term. Workers should be provided with guidelines on the various factors that they should consider in creating their work spaces, as well as a schedule which includes breaks, and the amount of time that should be spent on the computer at one time. The mental health of workers is also important as social isolation can have implications of the individual’s capacity to function efficiently, including burn-out and stress. Organizations should consider providing counseling services to assist all workers.
– Employee interaction in the online environment: Management also needs to monitor the way in which employees communicate with each other in the online environment. This is becoming increasingly necessary since issues such as workplace cyberbullying can become a problem if left unchecked. While workers can distance themselves from the perpetrator(s) when they leave the physical location, cyberbullying behaviors can persist beyond work hours virtually (Ramdeo & Singh, 2020).
– Promote social interaction among workers: to reduce work isolation, managers should have one-on-one informal interactions with their subordinates, and coworkers should also be encouraged to meet virtually at a designated day and time each week. Here, persons can share and exchange their non-work-related personal news to engage socially with coworkers.
Flexi-time is an innovative work practice that HR practitioners can seek to implement which allows for internal workplace flexibility, functional flexibility, or flexible working hours. There are 2 strands to flexi-time: one where it is used by employers as part of their work-life balance policy (Kelly et al., 2014, den Dulk et al., 2013), and the other where it is part of an employee-oriented arrangement where workers are able to determine their work schedule rather than follow a rigid work schedule (Lyness et al. 2012; Ortega 2009). In this work arrangement, the employee is given a choice of the hours for a period that is equivalent to their normal work hours. Research has shown that it increases worker loyalty, job satisfaction, affective organizational commitment and employee engagement, reduce turnover intentions, has been used as a recruitment and retention tool (Kiran et al., 2018; Masuda et al., 2011; McNall et al. 2009) and boost organizational productivity (Uglanova & Dettmers, 2018). In limiting or staggering the number of workers on the worksite at a given time, this allows workers to use their discretion in determining where, when, and how they work. With flexi-time, workers should be allowed to choose the times they work, when they work, and their location. This flexibility allows workers to have choice and control when performing work duties and responsibilities and has been replacing the standard work hours for some time. With the pandemic, employers are encouraged to allow workers the opportunity to determine their work schedule. In devising a flexi-time option, there are five constituents that should be considered (Rubin, 1979; Wickramasinghe & Jayabandu, 2007):
1. A band: this is a period of time where all employees are required to work.
2. A core time: this is when workers are required to be at the work location.
3. Flexible time: this is when workers are allowed to freely enter and exit the workplace
4. Banking: the ability to carry over any surplus or deficit of their working hours
5. Schedule variability: this is when workers do not require prior approval when making changes to their schedule.
One alternative to flexi-time is staggered work hours where there are variations in the start and end working hours per day for employees. For instance, working 8 hours where there is a time frame in which all workers have a core time, but there are variations in their start and end times. The flexi-time work schedule option aids in creating a culture of trust between management and workers (Ortega, 2009) as well as work-life balance (Kelly et al., 2014; den Dulk et al., 2013). The flexibility of such working arrangement where workers have discretion in scheduling work that suits their needs and preferences is positively related to employer performance concerns and work-life balance (Ortega, 2009). There are various organizational characteristics that will influence an organization’s decision in adopting flexi-time such as work composition, structural factors, agency factors, institutional factors (such as family and social policy, and industrial relations), socio-economic factors, amongst others (Chung, 2014; Lyness et al., 2012). Employers will need to consider the nature and type of job to realize the performance related goals and objectives to be achieved by implementing a flexible work arrangement.
3.3 Compressed Work Schedule
Another option available to employers is the compressed work schedule or compressed work week. Compressed work schedule is an alternative work arrangement where the employer implements a shortened work week with an increase in the work hours in a day. Through this arrangement, the number of days are reduced for workers to report to work, and they are required to work more than the typical 8 hour per day. This allows employees to have more days off and can vary depending on the cycle of work. The most common schedule is a four-day week with 10-hour days followed by the fifth day off or even up to three 12-hour days and four days off, or nine-day rotations with the tenth day off. Variations can be applied depending on the occupation. For instance, the latter schedule is common among the nursing profession. Research has shown that compressed work schedules reduces job stress, which enhances work-life balance and work productivity (McNall et al., 2009; Paje, et al. 2020). Further, research has found that the availability of flexible work arrangements such as flextime and compressed workweek help employees experience greater enrichment from work to home, and they experience higher job satisfaction and lower turnover intentions (McNall et al., 2009). For such an option to be made available to workers, their job duties and goals should be assessed to determine the schedule that is most appropriate for the individual worker. This can be applied to blue and white color workers as well to allow for greater flexibility and work-life balance during a pandemic, while limiting the number of persons at a given time in the workplace. It is important for HR to monitor workers as it can lead to stress and burnout, if not regulated (Van der Heijden, et al, 2012).
3.4 Work sharing and Job sharing
As more organizations revisit their goals and strategic plans during the pandemic, restructuring is one of the primary means through which changes are being implemented. Companies are coupling this with downsizing activities by laying off workers. While this is a short-term means to quickly reduce costs, organizations should carefully consider the implications, by addressing the ‘survivor syndrome’, promoting fairness and transparency in the process, and conducting a comprehensive impact analysis (Singh and Ramdeo 2020, 298). In redesigning jobs, HR practitioners should explore feasible alternatives to job positions. One flexible work option and powerful solution is work sharing where there is a reduction of working time where the work is spread over a larger volume of work and is coupled with cuts in wages and benefits (Hamandia-Güldenberg 2004). Another solution is job sharing. This is where two employees voluntarily perform the tasks of a single full time individual and is done on a part-time basis where the hours are split. The two employees should be compatible for such an option to be successfully implemented as each individual is accountable to the other for getting the job done (Hamandia-Güldenberg, 2004). Two common job sharing options are (1) the job share model where the two employees share one full-time position and perform the same work tasks on different days of the week; and (2) the job split model where the two employees share one full-time position and perform different work tasks where employees possess different skill sets. From an economic standpoint this approach can be strategically implemented as a short-term measure by companies where millions of jobs can be saved. Further, there are various advantages for both the employer and employees. The company can tap into the knowledge, competencies, and skills of two employees, while providing them with an opportunity to continue to remain gainfully employed and on the payroll. In such instances, while each individual will receive a reduction of their net pay, each individual may or may not continue to receive fringe benefits. Companies should carefully consider their retention strategy while implementing cost-saving measures as the loss of talented employees can be detrimental to productivity and profitability. For the employees, they are able to balance personal responsibilities such as family commitments where children are being home-schooled due to the pandemic. Here, employees would experience less stress, while being more committed to the organization for this flexible option, and the ability to retain some form of employment. However, employers need to monitor employees’ motivational levels as too much job sharing can compromise this.
4. The Role of Human Resource Personnel
The role of HR personnel is critical in redesigning jobs to determine the combination of innovative approaches to work that are afforded to workers for their safety and protection. The pandemic has triggered large-scale shifts that is changing the business landscape and how people work. HR practitioners need to respond effectively to retain the company’s competitive advantage. In evaluating the impact of shifting trends on the organization’s operations, some areas for consideration when devising alternative work arrangements are as follows:
– Policies: to formalize the process by ensuring that there is little ambiguity, organizations should formulate policies on various aspects of flexible work arrangements (including remote work, flexitime, compressed work week schedules). This would aid in creating a more structured approach, enhance perceptions of fair treatment by workers, and formalize the lines of communication.
– Employee career advancement: employees need to be informed of how the HR practices such as the performance management system (goal setting and performance evaluation), training and development activities, and career development activities will be adjusted to match the new work environment. Employees may raise concerns about a career bottleneck where they are uncertain of promotional opportunities and career advancements within the organization.
– Evaluation of flexible work arrangements: these work arrangements should be reviewed on a regular basis to evaluate whether the benefits are being realized. Further, external factors such as the respective government’s COVID-19 regulations would directly influence the decisions taken by organizations on the alternative work options made available to workers. Further, HR needs to monitor the psychological and physical impact that alternative work arrangements are having on workers, especially as it relates to burnout, stress, and engagement.
Indeed, HR leaders need to reassess and adjust the HR practices and approaches to align with the evolving business landscape following the COVID-19 pandemic.
5. Recommendations to Engage and Motivate Employees
social implications of an extended crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic have far-reaching consequences for persons in general. Kahn (1990, 700) defined engagement as “the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s preferred self in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional) and active, full performances”. When individuals are engaged, they are connected with themselves and others, thereby bringing their ‘full self’ to perform. To ensure that workers continue to be engaged and motivated require a plan of action by HR leaders. The more highly engaged employees are, it is positively related to their task performance and organizational citizenship behavior (Rich et al., 2010).. In fostering a sense of belongingness, employees should feel cared for, that they are being heard, and that they are valued. Communication is vital where HR acts as the liaison between management and employees to convey to employees that the organization cares about their well-being, and not only productivity. Bogusky-Halper (2020) conducted a survey about leaders’ communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. From their findings, the top 6 responses were as follows: leaders need to communicate with honesty and transparency; staying calm and leading by example; helping employees stay safe and healthy; being factual; checking in and caring; and being clear and direct. Employees should continue to be involved in contributing their inputs and suggestions to decisions on flexible work arrangements on an ongoing basis. Further, HR should do regular check-ins to solicit feedback on flexible work practices and improvements that can be made. Further, employees should be given the flexibility to maintain some sense of power and autonomy where their psychological and safety needs are being met.
This chapter provides an overview of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on work practices. HR personnel must be innovative in their approaches to work as the pandemic continues to persist and is revolutionizing the way businesses operate. The corporate culture is also being re-evaluated, with innovation being at the center of all spheres of business operations. Four innovative work practices which are not new, however prior to COVID-19 were largely underutilized as job design options, are resurfacing as viable alternatives, specifically, remote work, flexi-time, compressed work schedules, and job sharing. Interestingly, there has been modest research in the academic literature on these as well as being implemented by organizations on a smaller scale, but now the pandemic is forcing companies to move away from their rigid systems to more flexible work options. The role of HR personnel continues to be critical in assisting workers in transitioning and navigating the unknown, as they must continue to keep workers safe, engaged, and motivated where the organization is able to stand out from its competitors.
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