Two years after the pandemic began, business leaders are playing catch-up. Like a wobbly Olympic skier looking to build momentum, leaders are seeking growth. Much depends on creative and productive employees, millions of whom are looking for a new relationship with work. The Great Resignation showed how far many will go to find it. For leaders looking to navigate the new approach to work, a practical three-step strategy will protect job retention, support growth and pave the way to the future.
What can leaders do to address dissatisfaction, preserve loyalty, protect job retention and focus on growth? To find meaningful answers, it’s important to know why so many people were simultaneously looking for something new.
New mindsets at work
Tom Cassidy, Head of Executive Coaching at Working Voices, believes that widespread concerns are rooted in cuts in costs and staff following the financial crisis of 2008. He says that “businesses were extremely good at managing for targets but they haven’t been brilliant at managing people.”
As roles were merged, frontline staff had less time to deploy their specialist skills and experience. Many felt ‘despecialised’. Others felt expendable, particularly people in the gig economy. Businesses were associated with a culture of long hours and a lack of trust and transparency. Together, these factors eroded personal identity at work. In 2019, for the first time, a definition of burnout was published by the World Health Organization.
When the pandemic struck, things changed. Bureaucratic practices were shelved, transparency increased. Staff working alone were trusted more than before, there was more flexibility and humanity – between them, these developments reinvigorated personal identity. Last summer, when economies reopened, employees were reluctant to go back to the past.
1. Nurturing personal identity
Over the last year at least, personal identity has evolved. Oracle’s 2021 survey of 14,600 people across 13 countries found that 93% had re-evaluated life choices over the past 12 months. Leaders consented to hybrid working, but have they gone far enough in recognising the needs of individuals?
Other options include investing in professional development skills. Oracle’s Yvette Cameron believes that “companies that do not proactively offer innovative and rewarding training, education, and other creative ways to keep employees engaged will see their ranks depleted even more by the Great Resignation.” Leaders looking to grow their business can hang on to stability by investing in their people. Where should they start?
- Employees want tangible evidence of commitment and trust. Investment in professional skills is a sincere way of meeting this demand.
- Foundation skills are beneficial to both employer and employee, skills in leadership and communication are a good entry point for investment.
- In particular, critical thinking is a skill that enhances self-understanding, confidence and expression, and can pay swift dividends.
What is critical thinking?
During lockdown, employees working in isolation resolved problems independently by taking responsibility and thinking things through. Critical thinking, the ability to critically assess your own thoughts and actions, develops these skills. It encourages first reactions to be reassessed, particularly the biases and assumptions that can lead to incorrect conclusions.
For example, the famous Müller-Lyer optical illusion leads to an instant thought.
The top line looks shorter than the bottom line. By looking more closely at our first reaction however, we can see that the two lines are actually the same length. Structured thinking leads to logical conclusions, which are easy to communicate and can be consistently relied on. This is the kind of thinking that makes it easier to make decisions.
Critical thinking also helps employees better manage the deluge of information available online. By asking questions (about origin, veracity, value and intent), individuals can decide what to believe and what to reject.
Skills in clarity of thought are fundamental to a hybrid environment. When people are working in isolation, personal resiliency is essential. What does this mean for an office-centric company culture?
2. Developing business identity
It’s not just individuals who are evolving, companies face existential questions too. New flexibilities mean that people can be hired without actually meeting anyone in person. A study by Glassdoor Economic Research, shows that online searches for remote working opportunities grew 360% between June 2019 and June 2021.
With personal identity at work becoming stronger, and employment terms becoming more flexible, the social contract between employee and employer is shifting in favour of employees. In her book The Squiggly Career (co-authored by Sarah Ellis), career development expert Helen Tupper believes that for the first time in a decade, power is shifting from corporations towards staff.
Leaders can restore balance by updating company culture. The heart of a company might still beat in head office, but these days its lifeblood reaches far and wide.
Reshaping company culture
Culture is no longer about a centralised way of thinking. What might leaders consider instead?
- A centralised, office-centric culture will be left behind in a hybrid environment. Changes in company culture are inevitable, own them by reviewing current values and future ambitions.
- Bring company culture up to date by focusing in particular on the values that employees have come to expect, such as trust and transparency.
- Strengthen your future by helping your people become more resilient. Embedding critical thinking into your culture will help employees adapt to whatever 2022 might throw at them.
3. Preparing for the 2020s mindset
Last year there was a demand for hybrid working, working permanently from home was less popular. This suggests that employees still seek the inspiration, encouragement and results that come from working alongside other people. The benefit of working in an office is an example of common ground shared by leaders and employees. It’s a good place to start in preparing for the future. In practical terms, this means combining thoughts on both personal and business identity:
- Encourage loyalty and job retention through tangible evidence of investment in people. Developing skills such as critical thinking will benefit both employers and employees.
- In a hybrid environment, companies are evolving as much as employees, company culture must remain relevant by recognising the new relationship with work.
- By embedding critical thinking into company culture, leaders can help employees develop the confidence and resilience to bridge hybrid’s gaps and challenges.
Beyond hybrid and the new way of working, the 2020s will be shaped by a new mindset, a new approach to work. Employees, enjoying new freedoms and re-connecting with old values, are unlikely to go back to the ways of the past. In accepting the direction of travel, leaders will promote stability and growth, and escape being left behind.