Last reviewed 7 October 2021

The pandemic has accentuated trends that were already changing how companies operate and skills needed for the future. Health and safety management is not exempt and must be updated to keep pace with changing times. Jon Herbert reports.

It can be difficult to know how to prepare for an uncertain future. Nevertheless, as the pandemic kicks over traces of the “established” economy, it is essential to develop advancing skill sets for new and emerging virtual and onsite working environments.

This potentially presents challenges for health and safety teams, which may need to adapt their own modus operandi while working with staff members who also must bring evolving skills to unfamiliar tasks. Organisational changes are seldom easy.

The McKinsey website offers a variety of insights into post-pandemic working.

Pandemic effects

The Covid-19 Delta variant has derailed a smooth transition to a new normality in the UK and around the world, effectively putting practical herd immunity out of reach for the foreseeable future.

However, experience in the UK at least seems to be that once countries with wide vaccination programmes are able to come to terms with Delta-driven surges, some form of progress towards an alternative or new “normal” is possible.

Whether Covid-19 eventually reaches an epidemiological end-state as a manageable endemic disease, or perpetuates on through successive infectious variants, skills development cannot stand still.

Direction of travel

The move towards a digital economy, automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence was well underway before remote working became commonplace, and was already pushing people to amend their job descriptions and improve their expertise.

This is likely to accelerate as a green economic recovery and switch to sustainable low-carbon products and services, driven by climate change priorities on the back of a new data-driven business base, lead to a new age of growth.

Health and safety requirements can be expected to develop in parallel.

New skills

Current surveys suggest that a nearly 60% of global organisations now give closing their skills gaps a higher rating than before the pandemic. Instead of buying in skills, more than two-thirds indicate that they would prefer to build up skills within their existing workforces.

The skills most prized seem to be:

  • leadership

  • the ability to manage co-workers

  • critical thinking

  • decision-making

  • sound project management.

The good news for many workers is that while algorithms may appear to be taking over the world, the number of jobs based on social and emotional skills look set grow. In the US, this is predicted to be by 25% by 2030. The flip side is that many employees might need to change occupation.

Closing the skills gap

Many companies probably suspect their workforces are already falling behind on high-tech skills in particular, but do not really know by how much. They are also unsure where to begin to catch up.

One suggested way forward is to start by making a comprehensive skills audit that spans the entire business organisation and allows a like-for-like comparison of foundation strengths and potentials, staff professional experiences, and successes and accomplishments.

The point here is that job titles are superfluous; it is underlying skill sets and the capacity to update and move into new skill opportunities that counts. Organisations should be looking to link talent with specific business values.

Once started, the process needs to be revisited continuously to encourage a skills-centric culture; some businesses do this by forming “skills hubs” — a permanent unit charged with consistently matching a moving skills supply with dynamic skills demands.

One way of achieving this is by offering staff members foundation learning courses, plus customised programmes designed to re-skill employees to fit targeted roles. Another function of these units is to actively redeploy staff when existing posts are superseded by new technology.

To overcome staff suspicions of mere cost-cutting, or resistance due to poor motivation, this has to be labelled clearly as an investment in talent.

With existing employees on board and reinvigorated, the additional benefit to companies is usually that reskilling and upskilling existing staff is much more cost-efficient than recruiting new workers.

Another aspect of this approach is that it creates a skills and talent interchange that helps furloughed and laid-off workers into alternative job openings.

The underlying message here for many organisations is that the whole process is likely to be more successful when executives and senior management are willing and ready to question and break the legacy status quo. A laissez-faire approach is apt to be too slow, incremental and not easy to launch on a sufficiently wide scale.

The hybrid workplace

There are new risks for companies working in hybrid workplaces.

They can include

  • a general and gradual decline in the strengths and cohesion of the company culture

  • a similar reduction in productivity

  • a decreased capacity to experiment with new approaches, processes and systems

  • a decreased ability to communicate these ideas.

McKinsey research shows that employees with no clear vision of a future operating model are much more prone to severe burn-out symptoms.

However, a clear vision alone is not enough; the supporting rationale must also be convincing. Otherwise, one in three employees report being ready to change jobs if forced to a make full return to onsite work.

Return to the workplace

In other words, employers must show clearly why they want individual employees to return to the workplace post-lockdown, as polls show that a majority of workers prefer to work from home full time or for some of the time.

Business leaders say workplace collaboration, culture and creativity is affected and must communicate this to their workforce. Although productivity did increase several months into the pandemic in 2020, it seems to have been at the cost of work/life balance and increased stress.

Many organisations are trying to repair frayed social connections with people-orientated policies, and boosting productivity by communicating measurable outcomes, rather than relying on linear inputs such as hours worked.

The other problem that many firms face is knowing how to manage people and processes remotely or in person on any given mixed-environment day. The answer could be a test-and-learn (iterate and tweak) approach.

Why is organisational change an issue in health and safety?

Significant change inevitably puts organisational pressures on companies working in competitive markets. Change may result in reduced staffing levels, or contract workers or less competent staff in new roles. If you add in the human factors involved, this means potentially detrimental effects on safety.

Rapid or continuous but subtle changes can have significant impacts on health and hazard management as well as increasing workforce stress.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) advises that all organisational change should:

  • be planned in a thorough, systematic and realistic way

  • be risk assessed in terms of direct and indirect effects, both in terms of the change itself and the process of changing

  • be implemented in phases wherever possible

  • be discussed with staff

  • involve training and supervision for staff with new or changed roles.

Further information