What did we learn from 2021?
READ the December 2021 issue of our magazine: Work in 2022: What's Next?
I once came across a great quotation, “Life's about being made to do things and then being glad you were made to afterwards." Doesn’t that just sum up the past two years? The professional press is littered with articles about how organisations are:
- Prioritizing the mental and physical health of their employees;
- Reimagining all aspects of work and looking at employee health holistically to better support their workforces;
- Getting their HR and IT leaders to ensure that technologies, workflows and processes are designed in a way that enshrines worker well-being;
- Responding to employee needs and continuing or expanding WFH and flexible working policies;
- Investing in training and development to ensure diversity and inclusion;
- Finding new ways to support talent development to secure management continuity.
And yet, numerous surveys show that a large percentage of employees would like to leave their current employer and move to a new one!
Employees are not stupid! They can smell when policies have changed because they had to. They can tell the difference between leaders and organisations that genuinely care about them and those that act as though they do but only out of necessity. They can spot when their employers were forced to do something and yet claim that they are glad that they did it.
I contend that virtually none of the things so positively described in the professional press would have happened without the combined pressure from the pandemic, social media, and the workforces.
If these three factors had not combined to create the perfect storm, many of the organisations would have continued with the traditional beliefs, processes, and practices of short-term profit goals; 9-5 working; on-site working; pressure to keep short term absence down; cost-cutting; etc. It’s easy to claim benevolence when you have already been forced to pay.
So, against that backdrop, what did we learn from 2021? Our employees have the measure of us, the taste of power, and high expectations. In no order of priority, here is my list of learnings:
1. It is possible to have substantial parts of the workforce working remotely.
But, we do not yet understand the longer term and unintended consequences of virtual or hybrid working. Many questions remain e.g., What will be the impact on relationships? What will be the impact of the loss of the informal information flow? Will real productivity go up or down?
2. The significant differentiator of any sustainably successful organisation continues to be the calibre of its leadership and management.
Those organisations that have coped best during the pandemic, are now coping best with the JIT supply chain challenges, and are those that will probably cope best with the impact of climate change. They:
- Trained and then selected individuals to be managers because of their proven capability to do just that – not because they excelled at something else;
- Have managers who focus on what is IMPORTANT and not yet URGENT – the strategic priorities of their organisation – and so limit their need for urgent, reactive, and often costly tactics;
- Have managers who excel at bringing out the best in their staff - not because of the policies, procedures, and systems but, because they are great people-managers who genuinely care.
3. We need to focus first on establishing healthy and ethical working environments, because we believe in it and not merely because it is “best practice” or forced upon us.
That will lay the foundation for ensuring employee well-being which, in turn, will drive employee engagement. That will then lead to enhanced cumulative performance. Focusing exclusively on individual performance goals rarely leads to increased cumulative performance and can lead to rapidly deteriorating levels of mental health and ethics.
4. JIT supply chains are great … when they work! But, they are substantially more fragile than we believed.
The knock-on effects of any failure can reach far and wide, and the impacts can be extremely difficult to predict and manage. Will more organisations take long-term contingency planning seriously? We never thought that would happen but it now seems possible.
5. Improved pay rarely triggers and sustains increased engagement, performance, or retention.
The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the issue of, “What really motivates people?” Whilst individual rewards can trigger temporary spikes in motivation, it is an employee’s cumulative experiences that determine their true motivation. And, these experiences are not controlled solely by the managers (although each manager is often a conduit). They are greatly affected by peers, customers, vendors, et al - indeed by anyone with whom the employee interacts. We need all employees to understand this and we need to create HR processes and systems that reflect it. Ironically, many decisions made by organisations at the moment are counter-productive to employee motivation, being driven by financial pressures such as, “We have this expensive building. So, the employees need to use it!
6. Perpetual growth is not ecologically, socially, or financially sustainable.
Perpetual growth can only ever be achieved with a corresponding population growth, and that is a major contributory factor to many of our major global challenges – climate change; water supplies; energy supplies; food supplies. At some point in time, organisations may need to shift from a perpetual growth model (with band-aid Corporate Social Responsibility tactics) to a societal or ecological-impact model, accepting flatter financial performance in the traditional sense.
7. Not all investment in a business is net positive.
It can arrive in a Trojan Horse. People typically invest in you because of what they anticipate being able to take out, not because of what you will gain from their investment. During the last two years, we have observed time and again the negative pressure that investors can exert e.g., over what we would have formerly called essential utilities such as water, gas, and electricity. If there is one major thing that we have learned from 2021 it is that short term thinking has long term consequences. Who would have guessed!
And, here is what I believe we are going to learn over the next year:
1. If managers rarely have one-to-one and face-to-face interactions with their staff, how are they going to undertake valid and reliable assessments or evaluations of them?
Many will be forced to focus solely on the results achieved. We already know from the 70’s that this leads to even more short-term thinking and major issues such as (a) deterioration in how work gets done, and (b) not being able to manage a robust talent pipeline and management continuity plan.
In 2021, we focused primarily on the well-being issues related to virtual working. In 2022, we will learn about and start to understand the longer-term impacts on the quality of relationships, empathy, the quality of communications, and productivity.
We have a long way to go before we will know the true costs and benefits of virtual or hybrid working. Let’s not make the usual mistake of treating this as simple – it isn’t. There are huge opportunities. But there are also serious negative impacts that must be identified and addressed. These will create even greater demand for management mastery.
2019 to 2021 gave HR an opportunity to shine … and, reactively, we did! 2022 will present an opportunity for us to be truly strategic, to not wait for the future to happen, but to create it for our organisations. We know what we need to do and 2021 should have given us the courage, and refined our personal effectiveness skills, to seize the moment – occasionem carpe! Let’s do it.