Workplace lessons and silver liningsby Jodi Starkman
Looking back at 2021 and thinking about what to bring with us into the new year.
It’s been quite a year.
A political insurrection, a continuing pandemic, extreme weather events, and a Great Resignation—something I prefer to call the Great Workplace Reinvention.
That renaming might suggest I’m an optimist (or simply naïve). I think it would be more accurate to say that I often first notice what’s wrong about a situation and then immediately look for a related learning or change opportunity. I see the mass quitting in America as a rejection of an unacceptable status quo and a sign that we’re creating a better future of work. In a similar fashion, I recognize the loss and grief of the past year and also see some hopeful new possibilities.
In short, I see workplace lessons and silver linings. Four major ones.
1. From Fixed to Fluid. As painful and traumatic as the Covid pandemic has been, it has shaken us out of old assumptions about what is possible. Allow most employees to work from home? Invite staff to share their emotions during work calls? Raise wages well above minimum wage for front-line workers? “Out of the question!” is how many business leaders viewed these practices a short three years ago. Or as Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, recently put it in an interview with the Washington Post, “If you asked [me] in February of 2020, could the whole company go remote and maintain the same level of productivity? I would have said no. When something you thought was impossible turns out to be possible, you’ve got to ask yourself, what else do I think is impossible that could actually be possible?”
Covid unfroze many assumptions and beliefs. And not only did ‘fixed’ policies become ‘fluid,’ we saw better ways emerge. People could be trusted to work without bosses watching them. Feelings did not get in the way of work so much as facilitate greater psychological safety, and therefore productivity. And not only did we realize that companies can turn a profit when paying a living wage—but we saw evidence that fair compensation can result in greater retention and resiliency. In fact, today’s tight labor market makes raises all but inevitable.
2. From Ego-system to Eco-System Thinking. Another good thing about a global pandemic: it reminds us that we’re all in this together and our fates are mutually dependent. Our collective failure to vaccinate people in poorer countries helps explain why the new omicron Covid variant surfaced and spread worldwide. It’s a similar story with other worldwide challenges. The supply-chain disruptions pulled back the curtain on our highly interdependent global economy. C-suite leaders historically removed from the reality of their front-line employees realized just how dependent they are on cashiers, delivery truck drivers, and janitors. And amid wildfires, floods, and drought, the perils of global climate change became tangible.
Taken together, these crises related to disease, the economy, organizations, and the climate have awakened us to the shortcomings of what I believe has become an overly self-interested approach. As individuals and as organizations, we can no longer pretend to operate in a vacuum. Instead, we have been prodded to embrace the ideas of thought-leaders like Roland Deiser, head of the Center for the Future of Organization at the Drucker School of Management. In research sponsored in part by IRC4HR, Roland has been highlighting the importance of a shift from ego-driven decision-making to focusing on the collective interests of the wider eco-system and its stakeholders.
“Mindsets that are anchored in zero-sum thinking and that pursue egocentric advantage are incompatible with the win-win attitude that is indispensable for successful ecosystem engagement,” Roland says.
I believe this mindset shift encompasses the growing interest in “stakeholder capitalism.” That is, an economic system where companies recognize they can’t succeed unless all their stakeholders—including employees, customers, and communities—succeed. Eco-system thinking, therefore, has broad application to workplace reinvention and creating the future of work.
3. From Transactions to Relationships. Perhaps more than anything else, the past two years have clarified that when people come together to get things done, the quality of the human bonds are central to our success. While there is much to be learned about optimal ways to structure our organizations and work processes, the painful crises of 2020 and 2021 have highlighted how impoverished a purely transactional approach to work is. We’ve seen that workplaces ultimately are about human beings connecting and collaborating. Organizations that demonstrate care and foster trusting ties find rewards. Those who come off as callous are punished.
The increased attention to relationships dovetails with the recent work of scholar Rob Cross. In research supported by IRC4HR, Rob has discovered that positive social connections in organizations not only boost business results but are critical to individual wellbeing. As communicated in the title of one of his papers, Rob’s research has shown that resilience is a team sport. And this discovery is coming just as business leaders are recognizing the importance of employee wellness to organizational success.
4. From Moment to Movement. The Great Resignation has puzzled economists. How could so many people leave the workforce for so long? It turns out that the disruptions of 2020 and 2021 have prompted a profound reassessment of what works means and how it aligns to life priorities. And it’s not just workers. Companies, public officials, and investors also are refashioning their relationship with work and business. They are actively, in real time, experimenting with the social contract that has governed employment in America for most of the past century.
This is what I mean by the Great Workplace Reinvention. It is a hopeful moment in history. But it could be wasted. It would be easy for organizations and other stakeholders to slip back to old ways of doing things. It would be easy for all the wisdom and the experimentation and the energy to dissipate. After all, all these silver linings have been responses to crises. What’s needed next is intentionality—a commitment to preserve the positive developments and continue evolving them.
That has me wondering how we transform this moment into a movement. One with enough momentum to deliver a better, inclusive future that works for all. How do we create a shared vision, with an affirmative story that captures the imagination and fuels reform? How do we gather the right people together? How do we draft and refine a new social contract around work, one that takes into account major forces such as widening inequality, demographic shifts, evolving automation, and other important trends?
What do you think about the lessons and silver linings I’ve outlined above? Do you see different ones? I’m especially curious about your views on #4. Do you agree a movement is needed now? Are you interested in connecting to discuss or convening with others to explore what we can do together to create lasting change? Please comment here or drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In any event, thank you for reading my takeaways from a remarkable year.
I wish you and your loved ones a joyful, restorative holiday season and a healthy, happy, and peaceful New Year.
Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.