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Employers and Covid-19: Optimising the role of technology for workplace wellbeing

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

As parts of the world begin to relax stringent lockdown conditions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, businesses face the responsibility of protecting employees in this unfamiliar ‘new normal’. Technology is playing a crucial role, and the enormous growth of remote working has accelerated digital transformation investment in many businesses. Yet, that’s only part of a wider wellbeing picture, with employer responsibility for protecting their teams from localized virus outbreaks under increasing emphasis and scrutiny.

It’s clear that employers in every sector will need to remain proactive in addressing employee wellbeing, given the highly unpredictable situation and the constant possibility that additional outbreaks will occur. As explained recently by PwC, “This uncertainty means employers should continually revisit and adapt their approach for helping to support their people’s health and well-being, especially as needs change as the situation continues to evolve.”

Technology has become central to every effective Covid-19 mitigation strategy, and this remains true for employers operating or reopening their workplace. In particular, there are several key areas where technology in general, and Workforce Management (WFM) solutions in particular, can play a vital role in the short and long term:

1 - Reconnecting disrupted organizations

Effectively connecting both white- and blue-collar workers across teams and locations has always been a challenge, but the problem has been hugely exacerbated by lockdown and remote working. For instance, there is a traditional problem with blue collar workers being separate or even sidelined from other areas of their organization, whether due to field work and fleet management or erratic shift patterns. Widespread remote working across whole organizations brings a whole new dynamic and complexity. Add to this the disconnect now affecting their white-collar counterparts and we have an entire working population suddenly disengaged from systems, and with limited learning opportunities.

This is particularly significant given the current need for new operating procedures relating to cleaning and hygiene that need supervised learning and compliance. Using WFM to provide the underlying engagement and learning infrastructure can ensure that organizations remain cohesive and leaders can be confident that no employee is being ignored.

2 - Proactive processes for employee safety

Organizations that were existing users of WFM systems derived a huge range of operational and developmental benefits before the pandemic. But now, these systems have become essential for keeping employees safe. For instance, using WFM with Learning Management has enabled organizations to drive compliance for training and required courses. For example, when someone clocks in at the factory or supermarket and their training is out of date, an alert can pop up telling them they need to complete it within a certain time frame. This drives compliance and in the current circumstances can also integrate with controls and processes, preventing access to systems or areas if they are no longer certified to enter.

But that’s just the start, and by applying these proven technologies post-Covid-19, employers also have a whole range of important WFM options, including:

- Contact Tracing - If an employee contracts Covid-19, their employer needs to know who they were working with on the production line, on the same shifts, and in the same building. They need effective track and trace processes and technologies so the employee can be tested, isolated and cared for. Collecting this information in a WFM solution means the employer always knows where each employer has been working and who they were with. 

- Social Distancing - When members of staff have a break in the canteen, which normally accommodates 100 people, for example, not all of them can be present at the same time. WFM systems allow employers to proactively schedule breaks and shifts to ensure social distancing rules are observed at all times. This organizational flexibility can also be applied to production line social distancing, so instead of utilizing production lines at 100 percent of capacity, employers can schedule 80 percent or 70 percent to enforce social distancing efficiently. Similarly, white collar employees can be scheduled with remote working vs office working times, splitting groups consistently and ensuring minimal social mixing. This level of control can be easily accomplished on a daily basis.

- Paid Sick Time - By defining Covid-19 sick pay and setting up a specific balance to track it, employers can integrate insurance or government cost rebates. This is essential for employers who need precise visibility over the costs they have incurred.

- Track Health Checks and Testing - Employers with large numbers of workers need processes in place to test them, should the need arise. If the risk level is low, for example, testing can be periodic, but if the risk level is high, more regular testing via a robust scheduling system is needed. Matching employees to other groups of tested employees, depending on their risk profile, can also help minimize risk and ensure efficiency. But whatever the frequency of testing, it must be accurately monitored and tracked.

- Time Off and Shift Trading - Across many organizations, this is becoming a really important issue for employee engagement. People have lots of commitments, including going to appointments, looking after family members and non-Covid-19 illness where they need to trade shifts or make use of working pattern flexibility, including time off. In addition, the real possibility of local lockdown means employers will need to adapt to sudden changes in circumstance. Employees need the flexibility to do this without going to work.

3 - Delivering business value in uncharted territory

Managing the impact of Covid-19 has brought with it significant cost. But as society moves forward, employers also need to consider the additional expense they may face. Consider the complexities of payroll compliance caused by the pandemic, for example. More than ever, employers need reliable and accurate tools. As EY put it back in 2015, “Successfully delivering an accurate payroll across a variety of legal frameworks, labor contracts, government reporting and compliance requirements without the benefit of a single technology solution can be difficult to navigate.” That requirement is even more acute now, and will remain a serious issue for employers for months and possibly years to come, with potentially huge fines being handed out to organizations that fail to meet their obligations.

Indeed, without automation, inaccuracies and fraud (such as employees adding hours onto manual timesheets) or time cards with physical mistakes are an area with significant potential for additional cost. Put it this way - if a large employer can save 2 percent on payroll costs, that equates to a windfall financial benefit. The bottom line is that the cost of a WFM solution is typically much lower than these additional payroll costs it will save.

Technology has played a huge role in enabling organizations to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, and that agility remains key to effectively working through the remainder of the crisis. Companies need a return to work plan covering social distancing, testing, tracing, backed by the ability to deliver training and employee engagement. As Deloitte recently argued, “This will not be a typical recovery. . . organizations must plan for multiple scenarios and time horizons, as they shift from crisis response to recovery. For workforce strategies, organizations need to establish critical priorities for the next 12 to 24 months as they position themselves for new realities.”

Ian Rawlings, Regional VP EMEA, SumTotal