The Spotlight: Accelerating Change Through a Positive Outlook

Published: November 2020


Spotlight, our regular Q&A with clients and colleagues, highlights leading viewpoints on trending topics in the world of human resources.

John McLaughlin
Partner, Human Capital Solutions

Pete Bentley
Chief Commercial Officer, Human Capital Solutions

Accelerating Change Through a Positive Outlook

Before COVID-19, the term “future of work” was often viewed as nebulous and intangible. The pandemic has changed everything, and when it comes to human capital, it’s the biggest catalyst to workforce change. Yet, businesses are struggling to juggle priorities. While plans for returning to the workplace and adjusting compensation are top concerns for many organizations, there is much more firms should be addressing.
We recently had the chance to speak with Pete Bentley and John McLaughlin, partners in Aon’s human capital team, to explore various aspects of the future of work in an increasingly complex world. They discuss how to use data and analytics to navigate current challenges to open new pathways of opportunities.

With all the challenges of 2020, it’s no secret that organizations need to create a resilient workforce and be prepared for volatility, which can be daunting. What is the first step business leaders can take?

First of all, focus on the opportunity. Things have been incredibly acute this year, but change is constant. We have lots of statistics that recognize the necessity to be more agile, resilient and adaptive to the way we work. But we knew this even five years ago. The difference is that in 2020, firms have a tangible reason to focus on change and employees are more likely to agree with this reality. It’s also important to lay down foundations now. Doing so will pay dividends in the future. Many firms are focused on return to work, but at the same time, I think all firms are realizing that how we do work in the future will be much more flexible. If your goal is to simply get back to 2019, you are missing the opportunity to embrace what could be in 2021. It’s especially critical to equip your managers with the tools needed to embrace workforce change — which is not only about technology. It’s also about where you focus your attention, how you communicate and how you allocate incentives. – Pete Bentley

How can businesses seize the moment and think of pandemic-related challenges as opportunities as well?

While uncertainty around COVID-19 forces companies to rethink how and where they perform their work in the short term, it also presents the opportunity to rethink work from the ground up. What role will the office continue to play when some tech giants are embracing permanent work-from-home arrangements? And what about working models? Do we need to reconsider how we foster collaboration and bring products to market? What role will our leaders play going forward and what do we expect of them? How do we hire and where do we hire colleagues in the future?

And herein lies the first opportunity. If firms put structures and processes in place that deliver workforce agility and flexibility, they are creating an internal ability to react at speed. If firms foster a culture that bases its decisions on data, the speed and quality of those decisions will increase. There is also a chance for cost savings, as was the case for a client we recently helped to create a strategy around virtual work and reassessing their office locations. Is having a condensed number of regional hubs instead of a dispersed office network more beneficial to your business? The future of work is often described as a nebulous subject, but when you take a step back, it only is if you don’t have the data to prove otherwise! – John McLaughlin

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a top priority right now. What methods should firms use to foster an inclusive workforce and how will this add strength to their business?

Today’s heightened emphasis on DEI can only be viewed as positive, as it accelerates the ability to innovate, fosters broader collaboration and provides companies with the chance to reflect society as a whole. But shifting the needle now can be challenging, as it requires large scale organizational change that must be executed with great caution. Take, for example, enabling remote work at scale. This can drive participation in the workforce for those who previously found it difficult to juggle their work-life balance. We can move that needle. But if we couple remote work with salary adjustments based on where you work, we may create a pay equity issue that wasn’t even there or exacerbate an existing one. It is important to keep the long-term consequences of any short-term action in mind. Yes, it’s about moving the needle — but only the precise amount needed to drive change and avoid the replacement of one bias with another. – John McLaughlin

How will the “new normal” affect attracting and retaining employees?

In an environment where the watercooler conversation is less relevant, employees may no longer model their career against people they see and spend time with in the office. So how do firms offer career transparency? Employees have a limited view of their opportunities in a time when we should be democratizing them. We need to rethink career ownership, management and progression and drive an employee-centric model where the business provides guiderails and managers act as career coaches.

Firms should ensure their job architecture is transparent enough for employees to understand and practical enough for managers. For workforces to move more laterally across the organization versus the traditional upwards direction, businesses need to have supportive rewards structures in place. Similarly, how do firms encourage continuous upskilling and reskilling? Does this get reflected in rewards? What training processes and structures are necessary? To achieve the highest return, firms need to compound their interventions and align their efforts across HR. – John McLaughlin

How do you see the way work gets done changing in five years? For example, is remote work here to stay? Will business travel return?

I often say, the problem with the future of work is it requires predicting the future. Firms spend too much time trying to understand what they want to be and completely neglect what they have now. No one predicted COVID-19. Let’s face it — the future is unknown. That’s why it’s essential for firms to focus on truly understanding their people first, which then presents the opportunity to align to a particular outcome, such as investment, people risk or empowering agility and resilience. Everything else — like business travel and remote work — can only be your best guess.

Where firms end up is driven by their DNA and what they have now, and then the propensity to change. We work with several banks that all have similar structures, products and geographical coverage. But, how they think about change varies depending upon their foundation. Our job at Aon is to help firms leverage data and tools to lay that foundation and then determine how they will intervene, regardless of what events occur. – Pete Bentley

Want more insights into how companies can position themselves now for the future of work? Download a copy of our new client guidebook, Accelerate Your Workforce Into The Future: You can also write to to learn more about compensation trends and our survey products.

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