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February 22, 2021

Preparing for the post-pandemic workforce

By Prasanthi Vasanthakumar, Institute of Corporate Directors
Nearly a year ago, many Canadians packed up their bags and left the office to work from home for an undefined, unprecedented period. Few expected it would last as long as it has. But in that time, a lot has changed, irrevocably so. Prior to Covid-19, 82 per cent of Canadians primarily worked in a place outside the home. But a PwC survey last summer finds that only 20 per cent want to return to the workplace. According to a Leger poll in September, nearly 90 per cent of Canadians enjoy working from the comfort of their homes – so much so that if ordered back to the office, one third would promptly start looking for a new job.
But is working from home working for everyone? What will the workforce look like on the other side of this crisis? In this not-normal world, board oversight of talent management is critical to anticipate and address the challenges and opportunities of the post-pandemic employee.

The next workforce

Our year-long work-from-home experiment has yielded many surprises. Three-quarters of employees say productivity has remained constant or increased during the pandemic, which may surprise leaders who have traditionally clung on to the idea that work only gets done under their watchful eyes. Post-crisis, many workers want a hybrid of remote and office work, and some companies are getting creative with their work spaces.

Image courtesy PwC, Canadian workforce of the future survey.

Employers could have more choice, too. The rise of remote work opens the door to a global talent pool, one unencumbered by relocation costs, passports and immigration laws. A stable internet connection is the only prerequisite.
The conversation around diversity and inclusion has also exploded, with demand for related investigations, restorations and proactive programs quadrupling since May 2020, according to lawyer and HR expert Laura Williams. In a year, where the workforce hemorrhaged parents, primarily mothers, Williams notes that employer support for caregivers is rapidly evolving. Companies that ignore these trends do so at their own peril: Williams expects that maintaining the status quo will draw intense scrutiny and erode trust to further destabilize workplace cultures.1

Giving talent management a seat at the table

Directors have an important role to play at this pivotal point in the workforce transformation – one that goes beyond their traditional HR focus on the CEO and C-Suite. Amid rising investor and stakeholder pressure and calls for greater disclosure, many boards have already upped their oversight of human capital management, which encompasses talent development, diversity and inclusion, and corporate culture. But COVID-19 has added fuel to the fire, increasing director involvement in talent strategy by 70 per cent.

Research shows these “modern boards” outperform their peers in terms of revenue growth, innovation and agility – including how well their companies responded to COVID-19. These boards tend to hold the C-Suite accountable for workforce strategy, respond to important social issues, publicly report diversity and well-being metrics, measure and discuss critical workforce elements at meetings (e.g. health and safety), regularly seek feedback from the Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), and reflect the diversity of the people they serve.2

Questions to consider

As boards mull over how modern they are, asking the right questions can help map a path forward: What’s our strategy for acquiring and developing future talent? Should we hold management accountable for D&I through compensation metrics and goals? If employees insist on working remotely post-pandemic, what options do we have? And what are the risks of tapping into the global talent pool?


Some directors already have front-row seats to the company talent show, but those at the back of the auditorium may have to start by questioning old views on the board’s fundamental role in workforce management. Investing in people as a strategic imperative and leading with support, empathy and transparency can build trust and win the war for talent. As one talent leader puts it, people had to be worthy of working for an organization in the past, but today, organizations have to be worthy of the best performers.

The other side of the coin

As we try to envision the future of work, the only thing that is clear is that nothing is clear. Some say technology is deepening human connections and collaboration, while others argue it’s fuelling feelings of isolation. With uniformly sized boxes for each participant, Zoom calls are the great equalizer, but the difficulty of processing nonverbal cues is exacerbating screen fatigue. Humans working with AI produce better results, but automation is expected to accelerate job losses as COVID-19 pushes companies to minimize costs and human contact.



The economic recovery depends on women returning to the workforce, but will employers be reluctant to hire mothers who could have unpredictable childcare demands thrust upon them? People are working longer hours, but is that good or bad?
The pandemic has put employers and employees in impossibly complex situations. Before boards and management consider the future workforce, they may need to acknowledge how hard circumstances are right now. Developing a strong burnout prevention strategy can pave the way for better talent management in the long term. And when the next crisis strikes, leaders will be ready.3
Indeed, boards have an important role to play in helping build the kind of workplace that confronts difficult and complex HR issues, and creates the strong, productive work environments that attract the talent their organizations need to thrive.

Sources and Further Reading

Compiled by Heather Wilson, Director, Research Services

1 BNN Bloomberg. The future of work: How the pandemic's 'awakening' will shape Canada's labour force (2020)
2 Accenture.  What happens when talent strategy has board oversight? (2021)
3Harvard Business Review. Beyond burned out (2021)

Board oversight of human capital

Cleary Gottlieb.  Fulfilling the board’s expanded oversight role in human capital management (2021)

Corporate Board Member. Human capital management during and after the Covid era (n.d.)

EY. How the governance of human capital and talent is shifting (2020)

Talent management

Harvard Business ReviewThe post-pandemic rules of talent management (2020)

PwC. A deeper dive into talent management: the new board imperative (2020)


EY.  Five ways to enhance board oversight of culture (2019)

Institute of Corporate Directors.  The culture imperative (2019)

World Economic Forum. Company culture is holding up surprisingly well in the pandemic (2020)

Post-pandemic workforce

Financial Post. These seven employment trends show how COVID-19 is reshaping the world of work (2020)

The Institute of Corporate Directors. Governing the future of work (2020)

McKinsey.  What 800 executives envision for the postpandemic workforce (2020)

PwC.  Canadian workforce of the future survey (2020)

PwC.  Returning to the workplace after COVID-19: what boards should be thinking about (2020)
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