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Industry leaders weigh in on the Future of Work

An insightful webinar was held last week, on 11 June, to discuss the challenge and opportunities that come with the disruption of the traditional workspace in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Organised by MillionSpaces, an online marketplace where guests can discover, book, and pay for unique spaces and venues completely virtually through the MillionSpaces platform, the webinar brought together a number of industry leaders to share their views on what the “Future of Work” would look like and ways companies and industries can evolve in time to come.

The webinar panel included MAS Kreeda Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sarinda Unamboowe, Virtusa Chief Information Officer (CIO) Madu Ratnayake, Hemas Pharmaceuticals Managing Director (MD) Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, John Keells Holdings Executive Vice President (VP)/Chief People Officer Isuru Gunasekera, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Director Aruna Perera, and MillionSpaces Founder Chairman and CEO Prasath Nanayakkara.

The webinar was moderated by Stax Inc. Sri Lanka MD Ruwindhu Peiris and MillionSpaces Co-founder and Head of Marketing Ganatharan Jeyakumar. 

Where we are now

The panellists each weighed in on how the pandemic had affected their industries, highlighting its impact and how their industries adapted. 

Wilson shared that in the case of conglomerates working across diverse industries, collaboration and empowerment were powerful ways of finding solutions, with different silos like healthcare and FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) working together, and employees being empowered to make situational decisions outside the traditional system. 

Unamboowe explained that while the apparel industry is likely to be impacted significantly, given the hands-on nature of manufacturing as well as the physical element of retail, there are big positives to the way the workplace is evolving. Manufacturing plants, for example, are seeing increases in productivity after adjusting spaces to fit in fewer people. There was also a push in exploring working remotely and other spaces pre-pandemic, particularly for those who didn’t need to physically interact with a product to do their jobs. The pandemic has shown that many employees can work from anywhere and still complete tasks and meet deadlines. 

Tech companies like Virtusa were less impacted by the pandemic because the nature of their work is such that remote working and flexible working were pre-existing concepts and systems. Virtusa CIO Ratnayake explained that the pandemic has served to normalise remote working a great deal, particularly showing international clients that distance is a factor that no longer matters. 

Gunasekera shared that from the perspective of John Keells Holdings, the impact of the pandemic was mixed, with different sectors reacting differently. Operationally, retail models had to change significantly, and infrastructure had to be developed to handle a hugely exponential increase in online orders overnight, from the back-end to the supply chain and delivery network. Difficult decisions like restricting the number of customers placing orders had to be made. Leisure and construction are some of John Keells Holdings’ most impacted industries; the aftermath of the Easter 2019 attacks on leisure industries should also not be underestimated. 

Perera shared that PwC had tested remote working on and off previously, resulting in employees being prepared to some degree. But the scale of the lockdown was entirely unprecedented and extended remote working brought with it issues like avoiding burnout among employees and maintaining work-life balance. Companies would need to step in, providing resources on structuring days effectively, as well as addressing issues like software. 

Where we go from here

Wilson commented that what would set companies apart when adapting to the future would be how companies respond to things like the changing consumer and their needs as well as the need to pivot digitally and maximise efficiency. Creating a culture of innovation and agile thinking will also be key, and pursuing and developing crazy ideas needs to be encouraged. 

Unamboowe commented that marketing approaches and aspects of HR (human resources) will need to shift heavily. Recruitment in its traditional sense will change. Recruiting the best talent from around the globe is now more feasible, given the adaption to remote working in recent months. 

On the long-term sustainability of working from home, Perera also shared that PwC research suggests the ultimate impact will depend on the type of the workforce involved, and if the work is tied to a specific location or not. The general consensus among the panel was that while there were many positives, factors like suitability of roles to remote work as well as how different employees respond to working remotely will play a major part in how companies adapt and implement remote working policy in the long term.

The social aspect of working in an office, and learning from inspired colleagues and leaders is also something that needs to be considered. While connecting physically is not essential, in a remote work setting, interactive measures like social chat rooms for non-work interaction, mental health support, and other virtual workplace interaction will need to be addressed.

There will also be changes felt in the commercial real estate market. Real estate demands will be shaped by this. For example, Unamboowe shared that MAS Holdings is considering reducing its real estate footprint by 35-40%, focusing on building co-working environments within their offices. There are myriad benefits to such shifts, from rent and utility savings to reduced environmental impact and the ability to invest more in technology and innovation. Perera commented that how the economy responds post pandemic will also play a large part in determining commercial real estate trends.

The pandemic has changed the fabric of business, and businesses across the board from SMEs (small and medium enterprises) to conglomerates will need to adapt and innovate to stay relevant. One of the strongest lessons of the pandemic is that any crisis has to be overcome. The best way for companies to come through this crisis is to stay focused, innovate, and learn. A sentiment shared by Unamboowe was that the pandemic is going to be the single largest catalyst for change in our lifetimes.