Article: What a year – last & next!

Life @ Work

What a year – last & next!

As difficult as 2020 has been, it also presented us with multiple opportunities to learn, improve, and better prepare ourselves for the uncertainties of the future. What are the most important trends we need to look out for and, more importantly, act on?
What a year – last & next!

What a year 2020 turned out to be! The global pandemic has changed the face of business; changed the face of society; even changed the very hopes, fears, and values of individuals across the globe. And, we have only just started to see a glimmer of the longer-term effects. We can only guess at whether this is the first, last, or the only such catastrophic situation we will have to face. 2021 could be worse. Nobody knows. Literally, nobody knows! 

Despite that, we have to face 2021 and beyond. So, as HR professionals, what should we do? Many experts are revealing their apparent psychic powers and, in the spirit of Nostradamus, telling us that:

  • Empowerment and remote working will be the theme;
  • Stop managing processes; focus only on output;
  • Mentor and harness the power of those in your team;
  • That way you may well achieve the maximum throughput.

Sure, in this renewed age of space exploration, it does not take a rocket scientist to make some reasonable predictions, for example:

  • more people will be working remotely than ever before;
  • organizations will have to focus on rebuilding their liquid assets;
  • growth plans are largely shot—many organizations need survival plans;
  • employee wellness, including mental health, will remain a top issue;
  • managing performance will become even more challenging.

Indeed, there is serious learning on which we need to capitalize and trends that we need to watch out for. First, some of the learning that we have gained:

1. Never say, “Never.” How many organizations claimed that working from home would “never” be acceptable to them? How many organizations said, there will “never” be a pandemic in our country? How many companies said that they could “never” collaborate with competitors. Most of our “nevers” have now been disproved time and again.

2. We have long known that the significant differentiator of a sustainably successful organization is the quality of their management and leadership. Those organizations that have weathered the pandemic best, even improved their businesses through it, already had excellent management. They had invested in people-management skills i.e., high levels of skill in terms of:

    • Leadership—Creating a vision of the future, bringing it alive, and securing the commitment and resources to deliver it;
    • Management—Optimizing the use of resources to deliver the vision in line with the mission, strategy and values; making things happen;
    • Personal Effectiveness—Optimizing personal contributions and impact;
    • Business Acumen—Demonstrating the knowledge, skills and aptitude to operate in a complex and changing environment.

We have learned that investing in important tasks such as risk assessment and contingency planning is not an academic nice-to-do. It is the very essence of excellent management.

3. Novelties wear off and after-effects kick in! Initially, there was great excitement about using Zoom and the many other platforms. But the novelty of remote and virtual working has evaporated and we are now seeing the consequences of cognitive disconnect and emotional distance. As with most changes, we need to monitor closely and look out for unexpected consequences. Some organizations are crashing ahead with single-source tech platforms to manage every aspect of team interactions, without giving due consideration to whether this is the optimal solution or the inevitable dependency, cost escalation, and lack of control that arises with single-source solutions.

4. Many staff want to learn and develop. Time saved by not commuting has often been invested in online learning. Unfortunately, much of this learning has been ad hoc, unplanned, and thus more interesting than it has been useful. We must equip our staff to accurately diagnose their specific learning and development needs, and to identify and select learning options to meet those needs. Random access to a wide range of interesting materials probably does not advance the individual’s or the organization's capability.

5. Agility, resilience, and empathy, whilst not sufficient on their own, have proven to be extremely useful managerial skills in a crisis. These are skills with which we can equip managers.

So, what might some of the trends be that we need to watch for?

  • Despite the inevitable reduced levels of employment, talent shortages could well increase. As organizations seek to survive, and to rebuild their liquid assets, the demand for highly skilled, highly motivated, and highly independent staff will probably escalate. We will need to excel at attracting, assessing, selecting, recruiting, on-boarding, developing, and retaining those who fit our needs.
  • Performance management will continue to attract attention. Sure, many staff can be expected to work well remotely. But, clearly not everyone is convinced—sales of software to monitor remote performance is one of the fastest growing tech sectors. Let’s hope that the trend to rely on technology, for what really should be an interpersonal process, does not continue. Let’s hope that organizations will demand excellence from people managers, resource them to work in a virtual world, and only appoint those who truly want to do the job, not just those who excel at something else.
  • We have experienced a few decades of self-interest and individual motivation to acquire “things.” Much of this has been driven by largely western capitalist thinking and, for example, a belief in the incentive effect of individual pay-for-performance. With the combined effect of COVID19, high levels stress and mental health issues, renewed attention to climate change, and increasing litigation related to “equal pay” rather than “fairer pay”, we may need to rethink our recognition and reward strategies before we are forced to do so.
  • Inclusion looks to continue to be a high priority area. We already see high levels of litigation related to employment discrimination. Reduced levels of employment, greater attention to wellness and mental health, and pressure on training and development budgets will probably sustain sensitivity to true inclusiveness or the lack of it. 
  • For the past three decades, Talent Management (managing a sustainable talent pipeline from recruitment to retirement or exiting) has been the poor relation. Many organizations have invested in technology to create databases of information about critical roles, critical people, ready now successors, etc. But, now, we have the perfect storm! On the one hand, given current economic outlook, we must make excellent decisions about all appointments. We struggled to do that before because the quality of much of the raw data about individuals, such as performance, potential, likelihood of attrition, aspirations, etc was of highly questionable quality. Now, with increased remote working, and the cognitive disconnect and emotional distance that this causes, we have lost the background noise of ad hoc data, anecdotes, etc that used to inform our formal talent reviews.

Like Nostradamus, I claim no prophetic power myself. I merely state what I observe happening right now. And, just like COVID19, those who pay acute attention to what is happening and act on their observations will be far more successful than those who cling to tradition, deny contra-evidence, or use hope as a 2021 strategy. 


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Topics: Life @ Work, #Outlook2021

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