A team of business experts and workforce advisors provide insight into the people management issues leaders face in the modern global economy.
How can we prioritize people in our approach to work? In Work Different: 10 Truths for Winning in the People Age, business and workforce experts Kate Bravery, Ilya Bonic, and Kai Anderson help leaders adapt to address shifts in labor models and employee sentiment and prioritize sustainability and resilience for profits, people, and the planet.
In this excerpt from Chapter 1, the authors discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional decision-making structures and emphasize the importance of creativity and collaboration between leaders and employees to build a better workplace culture.
Working in Partnership Is about Hearing, Not Listening
The buoyant labor market post-pandemic—and the job switching it sparked—certainly encouraged leaders to listen more; digital focus groups, pulse surveys, and workforce sentiment analyses all burst onto the scene in response. As the data came in, it was clear that many employees felt their companies didn’t respect their lives outside of work, failing to appreciate the sweat, angst, and safety risks that workers endured through the pandemic. As the workforce made way for the next generation—one that really got digital working, breathed equity and inclusion, and learned at school to call out the bullies—it was clear that the old working habits and mindsets were no longer fit for purpose.
We needed to operate under a new paradigm. Welcome to The People Age!
As jobs became more complex and new technology tested everyone’s adaptive capacity (and sometimes their patience), it was clear that knowledge was no longer residing at the top of the house. Traditional decision-making structures threatened to stymie corporate agility. To survive, organizations would need to operate as sensing organisms rather than hierarchical institutions. It was clear that organizations needed less directive leadership and less siloed working to keep up with the demands of a faster-paced working world born out of crises. At the same time, workers also needed clarity on direction, more accountable teams, and leadership that was centered around enablement. The prevailing sense was: Yes, we survived the Pandemic Apocalypse, now give us a roadmap to Utopia.
By way of example, as contributors showed interest in fully flexible work schedules, compressed work weeks, job-sharing programs, or various hybrid options, many companies listened and empowered their workers to make it happen. And that empowerment was huge because if contributors didn’t believe their asks were being taken to heart, there would have been a heck of a lot less contributing.
At Mercer, we sought to listen, and our colleagues seemed happier and more productive with work-from-home options. But being a partner is not only about meeting employees on their terms—it’s about working together for a shared outcome and about being honest as to which jobs lend themselves to different work models, all while being open to considering new ways to deliver results. An unexpected benefit of this listening practice and discussion of flex working was that it drove more conscious thought about where we spend our time, who we spend our time with, and an examination of how we work together asynchronously across temporal and physical boundaries.
But it was hard. Great cultures don’t just emerge, they’re intentionally designed, and they only stick with shared values and multiple discussions around ways of working and interacting. Like any good relationship, it takes work to go the distance. People who felt their companies were lagging on these new a-ha’s sought to take their skills elsewhere, and those who stayed voiced their dissatisfaction. Employers around the world realized they’d better change things up and, if they hadn’t already, become vastly more employee-friendly. They needed to take the lessons in empathy honed during the pandemic and give them solid form (metaphysically speaking) with more effective partnering skills for every people leader.
While we needed greater partnership and design thinking to solve problems at the height of the pandemic, we had differing views on how we should partner in the aftermath. Take the much-talked-about chasm in expectations around flexible working. In 2022, 66% of executives globally believed that work essentially gets done in the office, with 78% concerned about employees’ ability to build solid interpersonal relations if these new practices remained.
Employees, however, saw it differently, with 74% globally believing their organizations were more successful with remote/ hybrid working, and 80% confirming that their teams collaborated well with a mix of remote and onsite contributors.
Many leaders recognized this disconnect in outlooks immediately, while others sat on their hands. . .and the hand-sitters got burned. Look at what happened in the United States: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee turnover rate in 2021 was a staggering 47%, which included both voluntary and involuntary turnover.6 In 2022, the cost of voluntary turnover set businesses back over $1 trillion.7 And guess which industries were most impacted globally? According to LinkedIn data, it was Professional Services, so we at Mercer had a vested interest in figuring out a new way to partner.
Don’t get us wrong, we are not naïve work-from-anywhere advocates; we are champions of dialogue and testers of the art of the possible. Amid the economic headwinds in late 2023, the pendulum swung back again, and many organizations started bringing their people back into their work sites. The effects of large-scale virtual work are complex and not necessarily positive—cultural, learning, and engagement issues all sprung forth. The question is how leaders tackle these issues and preserve the opportunity that flexible work models can deliver for contributors, for organizational agility, and for companies’ diversity and inclusion ambitions. The genie is already out of the bottle, and when digital-first workers combine with digital-first businesses, the true cost of turning our backs on this opportunity to work different will become more evident.
Excerpted from Work Different: 10 Truths for Winning in the People Age by Kate Bravery, Ilya Bonic, and Kai Anderson, published by Wiley. Copyright © 2023 by Kate Bravery, Ilya Bonic, and Kai Anderson.