Labor arena: 10 lessons after two years of pandemic

Note published on March 30 in El Economista, Capital Humano [Human Capital] Section by Felipe Morales Fredes.
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Two years after the health emergency due to Covid-19 was declared in Mexico, the labor arena is still trying to adapt to the changes that were accelerated by the new dynamics driven by the pandemic.

“If in recent years you haven’t learned to play the guitar, haven’t started a business or haven’t written a book, it doesn’t mean you lacked discipline.  It means you were doing your best to stay afloat in the middle of a DAMN PANDEMIC. The fact of surviving is an achievement to celebrate” , Adam Grant

Exactly two years ago, the government declared the “health emergency due to force majeure” as a result of the progress of  Covid-19 in the country. Thinking of those days of so much uncertainty and fear, improvised “offices” at home, suspended hugs, videoconferences galore and many other things still provokes a kind of anguish.

Give or take a few days, with the official acknowledgment of the pandemic in Mexico, many of us had to abruptly change the way in which we worked in order to circumvent the suspension of non-essential economic activities and being able to stay at home. The labor arena was shaken at a global level and there are mountains of figures to prove it.

What have we learned after two years of pandemic in the labor arena? That was the question that we sought to answer in collaboration with the writers at Capital Humano, specialists in talent management, Lyz Escalante, Blanya Correal, Mauricio Reynoso, Juan Domínguez, Alejandro Ureña and Alejandro Sotomayor.

These are 10 lessons from the first two years of the pandemic and its impact on the labor arena:

  1. From employees to people

The changes caused by the pandemic forced companies to see their collaborators as people , not as a simple number on the payroll.  This is because the concern was no longer solely to have people arrive [at work] and completing certain working hours; leadership had to concern itself with such basic issues as asking whether people had an internet connection at home to be able to work remotely.

“We stopped seeing employees as employees and started seeing people. We entered into their intimacy, their home, their emotions and their circumstances”, says Juan Domínguez, a specialist in organizational transformation and Chief People Officer at Clara.

  1. Flexibility is possible

The pandemic led to a massive experiment in home office at a global level to enable companies that conduct non-essential activities to continue operating and many of them were able to do so. This situation led to the launch of flexible work schemes in order to adapt both to the needs of organizations and to the reality of their collaborators.

“We broke the paradigm of remote work; this entailed and promoted the adoption of new technologies to make work schemes more flexible (spaces at home, redesigning our routines, etc.), creating new digital communication channels that facilitate a continuous flow of communication and allowing operation under a certain ‘normality’”, says Alejandro Sotomayor Medina, consultant in digital transformation in Human Resources.

  1. Control leaderships put to the test

The ones who have suffered the most from not having their collaborators close at hand have been controlling bosses. The pandemic put traditional leadership schemes based on the presence of the workforce to the test. The excess of control, in many cases, led people to experiencing high levels of stress and to the extension of their working hours.

“The need to control is probably the biggest obstacle in evolving work systems. Needing to know what employees are doing, beyond knowing what they do it for, diminishes resources, energy and motivation, but that paradigm of control has not disappeared yet”, states Blanya Correal Sarmiento, consultant and expert in the development of labor and organizational transformation models.

  1. Soft skills on demand

We were not trained for an emergency like the one caused by Covid-19. The pandemic made it evident that soft skills are as relevant (or possibly more relevant) than technical capabilities. Effective communication, resilience, conflict resolution, creativity, change management, to name a few, are skills that grew in demand in the las few years.

“We have to continue investing on training in human skills for the entire labor force, particularly in the case of leaders. The companies that were capable of leveraging the changes were those whose leaders showed a greater connection with the people, with a mixture of humility and enormous technical capability. In general, companies are still struggling with communication problems, old-fashioned leadership, interpersonal conflicts and lack of diversity,” says Alejandro Ureña Amieva, a specialist in wellness culture.

  1. Rethinking compensations

The benefit schemes for the workforce had to be rethought in order to take a new integral reality of collaborators into account. Aspects such as health, wellbeing and more focused needs were brought into play to lead companies into redefining their compensation schemes.

“The organization finally understood that there is no absolute power that allows the control of businesses. Humanity had to acknowledge its great fragility and, from CEOs of the most powerful organizations to the owners of small and mid-size enterprises, they have rescaled the value of peoples’ lives; what is more, of the very meaning of life. This is why wellbeing and the redefinition of compensation have taken on so much importance”, explains Mauricio Reynoso, general manager of Amedirh.

  1. Blurred borders

The strong impetus toward labor flexibility has not only allowed people in certain areas of business to have the possibility of getting jobs in other countries, but it has also brought to light new alternatives and options for training and for the development of new capabilities.

“Geographical dispersion has become an unimportant element in an effective transmission of training and the development of capabilities in this digital era”, says Lyz Escalante, an expert consultant in the transformation of capabilities, organizational development and changes in work culture.

  1. A new talent war

Although Mexico has not witnessed a phenomenon like “The Great Resignation” in the United States, people who have had the opportunity of enjoying flexible labor schemes are now more open to seeking job opportunities that allow them to follow this same path, as there is a greater impulse for the balance of work and personal life.

“The threat of losing personnel is not against other companies, it is against the possibility of working in a different way. People realized that we do not need to be employed by a company in order to reach professional fulfillment and success, that we can contribute to companies through much more flexible schemes and, at the same time, fulfill our personal dreams”, states Blanya Correal.

  1. Purpose as a new asset

The new generations of workers are giving increasing importance to work sustained by a purpose which, in spite of being a global trend, is found in economies like the one in Mexico in a lower percentage. Nevertheless, the pandemic fostered this new element, particularly among younger collaborators.

“Work has ceased to be a place that you go to and an activity with the sole purpose of generating sustenance and it is being transformed into an opportunity for integral human development. We have access to all of the knowledge in the world and, with hybrid work, many expenses have become superfluous. There is now a part of the population that seeks projects that boost their beliefs, that connect with their mission in life and brings us closer becoming a better version of ourselves, ideally leaving a better planet for future generations”, explains Alejandro Ureña Amieva.

  1. The relaunch of Human Resources

The pandemic placed the talent management areas inside organizations in a strategic place. From managing talent from a distance to generating effective communication with each member, the pandemic led these areas to play a fundamental role in enabling the continuity of operations.

“The area of Human Resources has become increasingly relevant. For years, the executives and leaders of this area had been waiting expectantly for the fulfillment of their desire and affirmation of being strategic for leaders. The pandemic revealed to us that we are not only strategic, but critical. This has meant that the classic transactional operation of people management has been transferred to a simultaneous activity band that allows us to authentically develop talent”, explains Mauricio Reynoso.

  1. There is nothing new under the sun

As Juan Domínguez says, “the pandemic did not create anything, but it accelerated everything” and we were so focused on talking about the future of work as something abstract that we did not realize that it was already part of our present.  The pandemic accelerated technological transformation in companies and, as stated by Alejandro Ureña, it made us realize that we are not fully ready for a scenario in which work will become increasingly complex and ever changing.

What is more, adds Blanya Correal, we are so unprepared that there were no contingency plans before the pandemic began and there are none in most organizations today, and we think that when people return to work in person things will be the same as what we had prior to the health emergency; “This is why we are still unprepared for assuming what has already changed.”

Has the labor arena truly been transformed? Only time will tell. The lessons that we have talked about today are only a part of the experiences lived in two years during which, as Adam Grant says in the quote that opens this space, we have been doing our best to navigate the pandemic and we must be grateful that we are still here. May we not forget what we have learned!