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The Post-Pandemic Workplace

This feature originally appeared in Eastern Workforce Innovation Board’s October 2021 Newsletter, with thanks to the author Diane Soucie. 

As Ontario continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, workplaces are slowly returning to normal while labour market demand in most sectors is escalating. Currently, there are 225,000 jobs going unfilled in Ontario. 

Locally, in the period between April 1st and June 30th, 2021 there were 3,067 online job openings posted in Frontenac County and 848 in Leeds and Grenville. At 1,092, the greatest number of job postings are found in the Sales and Service group followed by Business, Finance and Administration occupations (518 postings) and Trades, Transport and Equipment Operators and related occupations (399 postings).

At the same time as labour market demand escalates there are thousands of individuals collecting Employment Insurance. As of May 2021, 6,370 individuals in Frontenac County and 3,840 in Leeds and Grenville were collecting regular employment insurance benefits.

So, What Is Happening in the Labour Market? 

To better understand what is taking place, the Eastern Workforce Innovation Board (EWIB) led a survey of workers across Eastern Ontario conducted during the month of April, 2021. More than 1,000 workers responded – 203 of these respondents resided in Frontenac and Leeds and Grenville Counties. Of the 203, 149 (73%) had some post-secondary education. Only one in three of these local workers indicated their intention to continue in the same job post-pandemic with 33% identifying the need for long-term training (over 3 months) to improve their employment opportunities and another 27% indicating the need to update their skills. The most frequently identified barrier to education and training were the lack of financial resources or simply the lack of knowledge on what training is available and how to access it.

This occurrence is not unique to our area. Employers in Canada are now seeing a trend first observed in Europe and the United States – workers are quitting their jobs either because they are burned out or they are re-evaluating their lifestyle. Generally, in Canada, approximately 12 to 13 percent of workers quit their job each year. However, recent statistics have shown that 20 percent of people are actively looking for a job with indicators pointing to the likelihood that this number will grow in the months ahead. Kevin Stoddart of KBRS executive recruitment firm believes that “employers who just 18 months ago could use wages and advancement opportunities as lures [to attract new employees] are now finding that flexibility, work-life balance and being able to work from home are the ‘competitive advantages’ employees are looking for”.

In a survey of Canadians distributed via social media by Randstad Canada between October 14 and November 2, 2020, respondents indicated they valued remote work because of the enhanced work-life balance the arrangement provided (42% of respondents), reduced commuting time (26%) and greater control of their schedule (18%). In a subsequent Ipsos poll of workers conducted between April 30 and May 4, 2021, respondents were asked to rank the top three criteria necessary to create a successful remote work environment. Flexible work hours (45%), managers who trust and listen (44%) and proper equipment (39%) were ranked the most significant contributors to success.

Global management consulting organization, McKinsey and Company, summarized an overview of employees’ priorities presented this year at the World Economic Forum. These four themes emerged about the future of work: 

  1. Work-Life balance is key. More than half of employees are looking for a more flexible, hybrid virtual workplace combining on-premises and remote work. 
  2. Flexibility. Most workers want to work from home three days per week and they are willing to consider leaving their current employer if this flexibility is not offered. 
  3. Clear Vision. Employees are looking for companies that clearly communicate strong, understandable policies. This clarity reduces employees’ anxiety. More than one in three workers ranked clear hours and expectations for collaboration as one of their top five policies. Collaboration tools and reimbursement for remote-work office set-ups were also a priority. 
  4. Mental Health Focus. Well-being and mental health are crucial for employees. More than one half of employers reported an increase in the use of corporate mental health benefits during the pandemic.

So, What Does This Mean to Employers? 

Many employers, eager to put the volatility and uncertainty of the past year behind them, are focusing on a ‘finish line’ to the pandemic and simple logistical questions that give them a sense of control. For example, how many days a week will employees be working remotely; what collaboration tools will they use, norms for meeting behaviours; and policies on pay levels. 

However, messaging focused on their enthusiasm for a return from remote work may inadvertently accelerate what’s already been dubbed “The Great Resignation” of 2021. 

“Communicating that some magical finish line is just around the corner isn’t going to eliminate the disconnect that some employees feel between themselves and their employers – it will simply make it deeper ... The ‘finish-line effect’ could drive more attrition, making things even worse for companies whose leaders are raring to go. In fact, executives who don’t expect more waves of attrition may well be kidding themselves”.

So, what’s an employer to do? The Human Resource Professional Association (HRPA), recognizing the role of human resource professionals in re-imaging the future of work, consulted with Michael J. Reidy, an expert in training teams in safety culture and Sharon Confessore, Ph.D. known for helping organizations develop effective leadership and workplace processes. Together, they shared three strategies for a ‘future-ready’ workforce

  1. Be a high-trust leader. Trustworthy leaders were needed to steer through the challenges of the pandemic and they will be the lifeblood of an organization’s success in the future. When employees trust their leaders, they feel valued, engaged and productive. If the leader is viewed as dishonest or disingenuous, the result is disengaged employees, high-turnover and low productivity. Trust is gained by offering opportunities for employees to communicate, listening carefully to what is being said both explicitly and implicitly, sharing with employees transparently and authentically, and acting on their feedback. 
  2. Set clear expectations. Remote working and in-person working both have benefits, but these can only be realized if the organization has a clearly defined structure in place. Expectations for both situations must be communicated and adhered to so that a feeling of fairness exists in the workplace. 
  3. Build a culture of safety. Burnout was identified by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon in 2019 but during the pandemic, rates of burnout and emotional exhaustion amongst workers skyrocketed. Supporting employees by creating a psychologically-safe workplace will earn their loyalty and includes encouraging time away from work and not expecting your employees to be available 24-7; providing the resources and benefits to your employees to support their physical and mental well-being and continuing the transparent and authentic communications that invites the sharing of thoughts and opinions and makes you a connected leader.

What Does Labour Market Instability Mean to Career Development Pros? 

The economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is being threatened by labour market shortages. Knowledge of the priorities of workers and insights being passed on to businesses will help career development professionals support both parties during this time of recovery and transition. There are other potential changes which may impact those providing advice to jobseekers. A global survey of 2,000 business executives conducted by Ceridian between April and May 2021 revealed that companies in developed countries are turning to automation and the gig economy to address an increasingly tight labour market. The majority of company executive surveyed believe gig workers (self-employed contractors) will substantially replace full-time employees within the next five years and more than 45% plan to use Artificial intelligence tools for recruiting and talent management.

If this survey is correct and gig workers are going to replace a proportion of full-time employees in the coming five years, this will have a significant impact on career development. Rather than self-employment being one small area in an array of career development services there may be an increasing shift to preparing workers with guidance on preparing business plans, sales proposals and marketing skills development. Only once in a generation (if that), do we have the opportunity to reimagine how we work. In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution moved many from fields to factories. In the 1940s, World War II brought women into the workforce at unprecedented rates. In the 90s, the technology explosion rapidly increased productivity and the speed of decision making. And in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic drove employees out of their offices to work from home. The return to the workplace is a chance to create a new, more effective operating model that works for companies and their employees. Business leaders and workers can embrace this singular opportunity for change, learning together and discovering a new and better way to work.

 

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