Re-setting How We Think About Work with Willis Towers Watson

May 13, 2020

COVID-19 Roundtable Discussions

This summary covers two recent iterations of Executive Networks’ COVID-19 virtual roundtable series. On May 7th, Sue Cantrell and Ravin Jesuthasan of Willis Towers Watson joined to lead a conversation on re-imagining jobs as a response to the crisis.

On May 6th, members in the APAC region discussed some of the pressing strategic and operational challenges surfacing at this stage of the crisis. Thank you to the members who participated in these virtual roundtable discussions. This document summarizes calls from May 6th & 7th. Some approaches discussed may have since changed.

Wellbeing Remains a High Priority

  • Back to work plans focus on employees: The consensus remains that the return to work for office employees will be an extremely cautious and measured affair, with safety the top priority. Phased plans are the norm, starting with small groups of employees most essential to an office’s function. Temperature checks are more prevalent than not. Several members reported that they are either requiring or offering testing for employees, while others are not testing at all because of accuracy concerns.
  • Safe means different things to different populations: A pair of members noted a split between essential site workers, many of whom haven’t stopped working and are now satisfied by the safety procedures in place, and the newly remote who don’t yet trust that they will be safe in the office.
  • Pulse surveys, Wellbeing apps, psychologists on call and other practices in use: Several members shared details of wellbeing apps they have employed, the most sophisticated of which offers a profile of stressors that can be addressed outside the app, coupled with full coverage of mental health care for all employees. Multiple members also reported that they’ve made 24/7 psychological hotlines available, and several are doing pulse surveys focused on mental health (which are showing positive results despite the crisis). Two members reported less-than-expected adoption of some of their mental health resources, with one noting higher rates of use in Canada and the U.K. than in other markets.
  • Most member companies are spending on home offices: The majority of members on the calls are fully equipping remote workers and new hires, some with a furniture stipend in addition to the tech needed to perform work. A few reported difficulties in actually delivering equipment amid the pandemic.

Accelerating the Shift to Digital

  • Large employers self-report agile, digital-first crisis responses: Sue and Ravin shared some results from Willis Towers Watson’s April 22 survey of 514 “global employers,” which revealed that 63% of respondents had redeployed at least some workers to another internal function during the crisis. Another 48% say they have automated certain aspects of work since the pandemic began.
  • Expanding the real of possibilities: Ravin sees the pandemic acting as a trend accelerator, similar to prior crises. Technology and the crisis are combining to expand the map of possibilities. One example: A member in the financial services industry shared that her company had been 0% remote prior to the crisis—a policy rooted in the company’s deep cultural history. The company now has almost 100% of its 40,000 employees working remotely for the first time, and there’s no firm decision yet on how many employees will in fact return to office working environments.
  • Thinking digital first: A member said the crisis has led him to think ‘digital first’ by default—rather than trying to take a physical process, like onboarding, and “make” it digital. He cited a successful internal virtual conference, with more participants than the planned physical event it replaced. The digital design enabled vastly more segments, modules and breakouts than would have been possible in an auditorium.

Re-setting How We Think About Work

  • A portfolio-based approach: Ravin believes a sustainable reset of work in the post-crisis world will include workforce design that maximizes flexibility and risk Work will be done by traditional employees, outsourcing, free agents, corporate alliances, talent platforms, robotics, volunteers and AI—and Ravin predicts most large global organizations will use a mix of all.
  • Automation Trails Recessions: As Ravin put it, “Every time we have a recession, we come out of it with much more automation.” He said companies need to think about automation in a much more responsible way than in the past.
  • Some companies are borrowing talent: According to Willis Towers Watson’s April 22ndsurvey, 20% of global employers have either borrowed or leant talent to another organization since the onset of the pandemic. As Sue put it, the crisis has highlighted how we can collaborate across industries and how quickly large employers can shift.
  • Doing more with less: As HR leaders redesign work, some will have fewer HR colleagues to help with the task. Several members reported moving HR talent internally by reducing head count in COEs and recruiting. Some have redeployed to HRBP-related roles in the field. One member on the APAC call shared that she anticipates her talent acquisition budget to be cut by at least 50% in the next fiscal year.

Stakeholder’s Voices are Louder

  • ESG-related metrics on the rise: Willis Towers Watson’s April 22nd survey revealed that 21% of companies are adding new or additional ESG-related performance metrics to director short-term incentives this year or next. Long a factor for many European companies, these metrics gained significant traction in the U.S. in 2019 with the urging of BlackRock’s Larry Fink and others. Sue anticipates the pandemic will only accelerate the trend, as workers and employers reexamine the social contract in the pandemic’s wake.
  • The most trustworthy will win the top talent: Pointing to a recent Edelman Trust Barometer report, Sue highlighted that 78% of respondents “expect businesses to act to protect employees and the local community,” while 62% trust their “employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the virus.” Many employers are in fact stepping up, Sue stated. But others are not. She anticipates a “new top tier of employers” coming out of the crisis: namely the ones who best took care of their own people during the pandemic. It’s a sentiment echoed by several member CHROs during prior COVID-19 Roundtables.

Thank You

Thank you to all who participated for your energy and enthusiasm! We will have more of these Virtual Roundtable Discussions to continue the conversation and send out surveys and resources on specific topics concerning COVID-19.

If your team is dealing with similar issues or have questions you’d like answered please fill out the form below!

May 6-7 COVID-19 Roundtable Recap: Wellbeing Remains a High Priority

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