We started exploring the Future of Work a few years ago, and it’s a topic that has only become more relevant in the past 18 months. We’re living in an era of rapid and fundamental change, and it will be imperative for managers and business owners to adapt in order to survive. This is the first in a series of posts by the Taylor Group’s business coaches that explores the emerging business environment, and provides practical knowledge you can apply to help your business innovate and thrive in the years ahead.
Structures are sticky. Economic paradigms, political regimes, and belief systems all develop an inertia over time that makes them seem impervious to change. Even when it is unpopular or has outlived its original purpose, a structure persists. Then an external shock hits; an economic downturn, a war, a pandemic. Now the system’s flaws become glaring, dissatisfaction turns into demand for change seemingly overnight. These are revolutionary periods where new structures that were previously unthinkable become psychologically and socially possible. We are living through just such a period around the ideas that shape our relationship to work.
Many of these changes were already bubbling under the surface due to advances in technology and changes in the workforce, but only a small number of companies took advantage of them. When I started working remotely in 2014, it was viewed as a novelty by most of the people I interacted with, something that required a rare constellation of skills and work circumstances to be viable. The pandemic has demonstrated that entire sectors of the economy can be run via remote workforce. And the changes since March of 2020 appear to be permanent. The relationship between businesses and employees, and between manager and worker is undergoing a fundamental reassessment as a result.
Thanks to the economic disruptions of the past few decades, long-term commitments to employers were already loosening. People are now changing jobs faster than ever, and playing hardball when negotiating the terms of their employment. I have talked to several clients and friends who have moved far from their employers’ home offices (in one case all the way across the country) during this period of uncertainty. All have articulated some variation of “If they try to make me come back to the office, I’m quitting”. For knowledge and creative workers, this is not an idle threat. Their skillset is fungible, and the market is now full of companies that are set up for a remote work environment. For now this is a phenomenon of high-skill workers, but in the long run elite signalling inevitably influences expectations across the wider culture. Additionally, the labor crunch of the past year demonstrates that service and other workers are growing bolder about exercising their options and seeking work on better terms too.
It would be easy to chalk this up to lack of loyalty, work ethic, or some other character flaw, and many loud voices out there have done just that. It’s worth noting that capital and big business have spent decades outsourcing, automating, and keeping wages flat despite unprecedented growth in productivity by the average worker. Then the pandemic happened, with its lockdowns, school closures, and generalized fear and uncertainty. Rather than blame workers for being burnt out and frustrated by these systemic realities, businesses would be much better served by acknowledging that we are now in a fundamentally different business and social environment. Many of our assumptions about management are based on outdated paradigms from a more hierarchical era. It’s time to begin building new ones that are a fit for a 21st Century labor market.
So how does your business avoid being impacted by The Great Resignation? First, to counteract burnout it is important to consciously normalize a culture of wellbeing around work. Acknowledge that your team members are human beings outside of their role, allow for greater flexibility to attend to family, health, and personal needs, and trust them to still do their work. When people feel trusted and respected, it builds a sense of mutual obligation and camaraderie, while providing greater peace of mind for everyone involved.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different work structures either. There have been very promising studies around 4-day work weeks and other innovative models. The emerging consensus is that businesses are best served by adopting an orientation towards tasks rather than time. This requires more upfront direction and prioritization from managers, but your people will be more efficient and productive in the end. As one participant in a recent Icelandic study around a shorter work week said: “I think because people think that [a shorter week] is a very positive thing, everyone is trying hard to keep this up…..We are also urged by our bosses to take advantage of our day and take the time off.”
Most importantly however, it is essential that businesses listen to employees. A recent study found that the primary driver of resignations can be summed up in 4 words: Feedback that goes unheard. Employees already have skin in the game for the companies they work for. They want to contribute to make it a better place to work, and many are actively trying to help by providing feedback. Too many companies are stuck in an old paradigm where management is disconnected from workers, and making policies in a bubble. High-performers thrive with a high level of engagement – talk to them, listen to them, treat them as partners in generating the future of your company. Flattening the hierarchy and participating in a genuine give-and-take will not only make people feel included, but is an excellent way to leverage the operational and market knowledge they have gained through daily experience with your customers.
Later in the series, we’ll dive deeper into some of the other new paradigms and practices out there but we must start by acknowledging that we are in a new reality, and the old ways just won’t do anymore. We can lament it, get mad about it, and reminisce about the way things used to be. But as business coaches, we would recommend embracing the new reality and all the possibilities it brings. If business leaders get this right over the next few years, the future of work can be more productive, fulfilling, and human-centered for everyone.