It used to be easy. Businesses existed to make money. Beyond a few rudimentary health and safety rules, all we really expected from our employers was a pay packet, a polyester uniform and a party at Christmas.
I’m exaggerating. But in some sectors, it used to be broadly true. Today, businesses are faced with an array of rapidly-changing responsibilities, including mental health provision, diversity and inclusion initiatives, gender pay development, sustainability pledges and pandemic support. For leaders and organisations still mired in the bad old ways, these can be challenges they feel unqualified – and even unwilling – to embrace.
Jennifer Potter is a coach and consultant who works with leaders and business owners to help them create places to work that put purpose and people right up there with performance. I asked her to help me understand how our workplace cultures – and the people who lead our businesses – will have to change if they’re going to succeed in the new world of work.
Sideswiped by change
You’ve all heard it over and over; it’s the mantra for our times. But I’m sorry – I have to trot it out again: we were heading that way, but it’s all been accelerated by Covid-19.
Yes, we’ve been inexorably moving in a more caring, inclusive direction for years. Changes in attitudes, better research and legislation have all played a part. But it’s definitely ramped up in the latter months of the pandemic. Today, we’re proud to chat to our clients about their provision of online resources for the children of colleagues working from home. We’re discussing bespoke mental health solutions, vaccination support programmes and training in allyship.
But we’re still not seeing those forward-facing initiatives everywhere. Or sometimes we’re hearing them from excited HR or comms professionals, who go on to face a brick wall in the boardroom.
“Businesses can locate themselves on a kind of continuum from reactive on the one hand, to cross-industry co-creation on the other,” says Jennifer. “There’s even a point before the scale starts, which is denial. Some organisations are still denying that they need to do anything at all about, say, mental ill-health. They still think, ‘Your mental health is your problem, go see a doctor.’
“I think the surge of external movements over the past 10-15 years has sometimes felt like a pincer attack on organisations. Initiatives such as mental health first aid have been great for creating awareness. However, I have massive questions about whether they’ve really prompted any significant change in the way we work. Have they simply created another pinch point in our workplaces? Have they just left managers to navigate difficult conversations they’re not equipped to deal with?
“Recent events have done a lot for diversity and inclusion, but managers may feel it’s a daunting issue to tackle properly - especially with so many other challenges vying for attention. Reality can be hard to face, and change is difficult too, so it’s often easier to paper over the cracks and pretend everything is fine. Those organisations willing to speak truth to power and inequality will be the ones who attract the best talent and survive the turbulent times.”
Change from within
A well-written corporate social responsibility page, or membership of a few schemes that let you plonk an impressive badge on the website can create a thick enough smokescreen to fool the outside world for a while. The internal landscape, though, is a place of keener scrutiny.
And if the footloose nature of remote working means everyone’s going to flock to the ‘best’ employers, how can we make the genuine shift to a culture and an employee value proposition (EVP) that will help us to keep our best colleagues? Let alone stand out enough to attract new ones.
US-based consultancy Mercer’s 2021 Global Talent Trends Study found that career development was the factor most associated with five employee outcomes (motivation, satisfaction, advocacy, commitment, intention to stay). The survey suggested employees are more likely to go the extra mile if they’re doing work they feel is personally meaningful – a calling or vocation. And when it comes to retaining people, a sense of belonging and support for wellness are both important.
So the message is that employees are looking for a mix – they’re not only motivated by money. Development opportunities, wellbeing support and memorable experiences are all important. And making sure your values are aligned is key. Today’s workforce is piping up to say they want to believe in what they do, do it with like-minded people and plot a path to being better.
And it’s here that the sticking plaster approach isn’t enough.
“These topics are massively impacted by your culture,” explains Jennifer. “And culture is both implicit and explicit. Yes, you have a values sticker on the wall, but stickers can tell you you’re working in a conscious, loving, kind and caring place, while the reality is that nobody speaks to each other. That gap between what we say our culture is and what it really is can result when organisations don’t commit enough energy, time and focus on the challenging stuff that would make the difference.”
From buzzword to benefit
Generations – as ever – are either side of that gap. KPMG’s 2018 CEO Outlook study discovered that almost half of the CEOs surveyed don’t understand the needs of younger generations – specifically millennials and the hot-on-their-heels Gen Zs. It’s a puzzle that spans both colleagues and customers, with a third of the CEOs surveyed believing they should reposition their businesses to respond to changing demands. But how?
Sticking doggedly to traditional cultures and ways of working isn’t going to cut the mustard for the generations that have grown up on the web – and woke. And if the new ways (and expressions) feel uncomfortable to you, remember one generation’s buzzword is another’s no-brainer.
But with an aging workforce pulling at the other end of the divide, it’s a delicate balancing act.
“Businesses can choose whether or not they want to take a proactive approach to new attitudes – but I believe those that don't will eventually get left behind,” says Jennifer. “Wellbeing is important for many of us, regardless of our age. But those bigger ideas about work-life balance, whole person authenticity, truth-speaking – all those things that sound like buzzwords at the moment – are really being brought in by the younger generations.”
The bridge over the generation gap is right there in the organisation, in front of our noses. But if employee experience and changing values aren’t on the agenda for the CEO or other senior leaders, it’s going to be a tough gig to persuade them to embrace initiatives that will give younger colleagues the chance to feed back fearlessly and spark meaningful change.
Leaving the legacy
At least with net zero targets now enshrined in law, heads are beginning to surface from the sand when it comes to environmental change. But that’s not always easy either. On the plus side, eco-friendly changes can actually save money in the long run. And it’s true that investors (except for a few notorious examples) now favour businesses that score big on environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG).
But shaving a few quid off the energy bill over the next 30 years is cold comfort when you’re a 50-something CEO to whom profitability is mother’s milk. Especially when you’re the one being asked to stump up for massive capital projects that aren’t going to look good on the balance sheet in six months’ time. The long-term benefit of having a planet to live on – after you’ve retired, or even after your lifetime – can be hard to love as a legacy.
The ripple effect
But that willingness to shift to a new version of your vision could be the difference between the thrivers and the divers.
“There's usually a pinch point in organisations when they realise they have to bring in new initiatives,” says Jennifer. “And that’s when the people in the middle, the managers, start to creak. That’s when they start to go, ‘Oh, you've introduced all these things, I'm having conversations I’ve never had before, my one-to-ones are taking twice as long ,and I've got less time than ever. I’m struggling here, I need support and training.’
“When that happens, if leaders haven’t already taken a proactive approach, they need to step back and think strategically about how making these changes properly will benefit their people, their business and the planet.”
(Whisper it: the new normal)
If the post-lockdown return to the office (whatever that might look like) is met with an equal return of old-school tyranny and micromanagement, instead of gentle compassion and continuation of trust, there’s likely to be trouble brewing.
Psychologists are scrambling as hard as the rest of us to understand what long-term effects the past months have sowed. But good habits are slowly emerging, and more businesses are forming policies that outline and insist on healthy home working.We’re all beginning to understand that our collective wellbeing has taken a kick in the teeth and that support will have to come from sometimes unexpected sources –including the workplace.
“Change takes courage,” says Jennifer, “And unless you're willing to be vulnerable, as well as brave, nothing will change. Time and time again, I’ve seen organisations get consultants in, and they just want them to outline what's brilliant, because they're not willing to face what needs to be addressed.
“Even when you’re brave enough to identify where things might be different, you've got to have a way of working with change throughout the whole organisation in order to see it through.
“It's easy to look for quick wins and do what everyone else is doing. But I don't think you can achieve real change unless you're genuinely addressing the difficult issues.
“The old-school leader at the top with their dictatorial approach has a very different skillset to the person who’s painting a picture of the organisation as a place where people feel human and whole.
“That means other people with different skills are going to emerge through the ranks. People who have a strong, deep and genuine sense of self-awareness, who know what’s brilliant about them and where their blind spots are, so they can flex within that to have the impact they want.
“In the business workplace, we've only been interested in the neck upwards for too long. We don't want any feelings or any gut instinct. We make decisions based on facts and data. It makes us feel comfortable when we're facing uncertainty like never before. But tomorrow’s decision-maker will have to be able to embrace more than just what you can compute; we’ll need a balance of facts and feelings.”
Journalist and communicator with more than 25 years experience in straight-talking internal and external comms, spanning digital, print and TV. Currently helping big businesses to power up their sustainability, responsibility and engagement goals by telling stories that their employees will love – and get behind.