Workforce innovation in times of uncertainty

Workforce innovation in times of uncertainty

The future of work is upon us and nothing has made that more apparent than the changes society has faced in the past few weeks.

The Workforce Innovation in Uncertainty series presented by RMIT Activator explored a range of issues facing the workforce as COVID-19 forces businesses to consider how they can best support their people through significant change and great uncertainty.

Industry experts and academics explored the challenges and opportunities of online collaborative environments and discussed what skills, tools and techniques people can use to adapt during the current transformation.

Building and enhancing trust in remote working and virtual environments, keeping people motivated and excited by the opportunities that change can bring and managing mental and physical health and wellbeing were just some of the topics considered by the panellists.

Common threads emerging across the three events were the criticality of human connection, the importance of shining a light on mental health and wellbeing concerns, and the opportunity to embrace digital maturity.

ThoughtWorks’ Nigel Dalton, a social scientist, described the current environment as “the greatest unsupervised sociology experience in business history.”

“What was impossible three weeks ago is now suddenly a reality as we have experienced an event that has made us change the way we work,” he said.

Co-panellist Claire Macken, RMIT Deputy PVC Learning and Teaching said many organisations had asked their workforces to step to the highest levels of digital competencies literally overnight.

“There’s a sense of unimaginable shock in the sense that every single person is now working from home, but some organisations are definitely better placed than others,” she said.

“But there is also excitement at the opportunity to embrace disruption and move toward a new way of working.”

Seismic shift

According to Lee Hickin, National Technology Officer at Microsoft Australia, the current environment is going to result in a seismic shift forward with a huge impact long term. While acknowledging some of the difficulties and challenges in working flexibly from home, he said the ground had been set for positive change.

“If we can work remotely like this, then suddenly job opportunities and communications and collaboration opportunities with remote communities open up; the tyranny of distance is broken and we are able to work in these globally and nationally collaborative teams,” he said.

Hicken said the necessity of dealing with COVD-19 meant that many organisations had started to think about how they need to distribute their workforces.

“I think one of the bigger impacts – and this is one to watch over time – is that businesses will reconsider their investments in real estate, he said.

“While that seems like an obvious statement, we must consider the butterfly effect behind that: what does it mean for our economy, for our cities, for our communities that build up around those businesses, the cafes that sit next to those businesses?”

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Human connection

Many of the experts involved in the series mentioned a change of perspective that had come through dealing with colleagues online.

Director of RMIT / CISCO Health Transformation Lab, Professor Vishaal Kishore conceded it was difficult to keep the ball rolling in a situation of decentralisation and disaggregation, when all our experience has taught us that so much about creativity and collaboration comes from having an intensity of interaction.

However, he said he’d observed himself and others dialling into online meetings, asking how colleagues were going and really meaning it in a way that they hadn’t when seeing each other daily was a given.

“I think that’s helping us to understand that our next horizon of investment needs to be on the human based elements of collaboration and cooperation and compassion,” Kishore said.

For Hickin, it’s led to him having a far better understanding of his colleagues’ personal lives.

“In the past three weeks, I’ve learned about their pets, their families, I’ve seen them be distracted, I’ve seen them be annoyed with little kids tapping on their shoulder, I see the rooms they live in,” he said.

“For me it's actually creating a far deeper personal connection – I feel like I know them better than I possibly did when I saw them at work.”

Importance of mental health and wellbeing

 Kishore said the current situation had made people think about mental health in different ways.

“We’ve always talked about mental health in a particular way,” Kishore said.

“Now we’re talking about how CEOs are coping, how are front line workers coping, how am I coping, how are you coping?

“I think there’s something really interesting and good about shining that light on mental health and wellbeing concerns and making it part of how we think about our daily routines and our daily work because it is that central, we just sometimes find ways to distract ourselves or ignore it,” he said.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Innovator for Bupa, and Chair of social enterprise STREAT, Dr.Jane Burns, with an extensive background in suicide prevention and mental health promotion said it has been known for decades now that social connection, meaning and purpose is critical to our mental health and our wellbeing.

She said there were some great examples within the defence industry where groups had pivoted to provide civilians with apps that outline quick and easy ways to keep mentally fit and well, and used technology to support vulnerable people.

“The Swiss 8 group [a health promotion charity, founded by combat veterans] very quickly pivoted and have provided a wellbeing and fitness app to the civilian community, Burns said.

“Redsix is another one where they do geospatial mapping to connect people in meaningful ways when people are at risk.

“It is really interesting to see that shift and the use of the technologies but also how you might grow and provide that in a quick and easy way to keep people mentally fit and well.

“It will be fascinating to see how quickly we can adapt and how industry can engage with academia to get things done.” Burns said.


Story: Mark Moffat and Karen Phelan


  • Society
  • Business
  • Industry
  • Future World of Work

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.