Our theme for December is ‘a year of change’ and, whatever aspect of work life you choose to focus on, chances are some element of it has been reinvented.
If 2020 was characterized by disruption and panic, by overused terms like ‘the new normal’, then 2021 has been the year when organizations across the world have been forced to take on and plan for the unknown – what optimists might call the ‘next normal’, or pragmatists the ‘never normal’.
Our defining topic at UNLEASH this year has been the ‘Great Resignation’, a very real movement of workers leaving their jobs, ostensibly because of sub-optimal working conditions, but perhaps also through a sense of existential urgency, mindful of what they might be missing out on elsewhere in their lives.
From an industry’s point of view, what will cause short to mid-term pain for businesses across all industries should, SHOULD, in the longer term result in a vastly improved social contract between employers and their staff: improved benefits, working conditions, flexible hours and more generally, a greater consideration of workers’ lives outside the office.
As Sammy Rubin reiterates in this piece for UNLEASH: “The ‘Great Resignation’ is egalitarian, sidelining preexisting workforce stratification and casting its shadow over various sectors, blue and white-collar alike.”
It’s true – the ‘Big Quit’ has cut across class divisions as easily as it has state lines, but the opportunity for a better work future is right there in front of us. Rubin continues: “…in pursuing and defining flexibility within their own organizations, employers would do well to engage compassionately with those who work for them and seek to understand how their employees see hierarchy and structure within the organization.”
But, after the ‘Great Resignation’, what next? An increase in so-called ‘boomerang workers’ is one possible trend.
UNLEASH’s Allie Nawrat asks a pertinent question in the first of her recent analysis pieces about this phenomenon: “Do the signs that this trend is gathering pace now, in this highly competitive labor market, mean that employers who were served during the ‘Great Resignation’ could now experience the ‘Great Return’ of former employees?”
With the very real possibility of a Great Return in the medium term, it means the ‘year of change’ tag could equally be ascribed to 2022 as well.
Other notable trends and changes have been the move to ‘work from anywhere’, a largely positive step towards a fully globalized and distributed workforce.
Organisations completely free of a central office have sprung up everywhere, and existing businesses have moved to a remote and digital-first strategy that has flattened hierarchies in many cases.
But, as Dee Coakley points out in this recent opinion piece, there are admin issues you can’t avoid: “Employment laws, tax codes, and statutory benefits all differ from country to country, creating a plethora of compliance concerns that every organization must address when they’re looking to open an office and become a registered legal entity in a new country.”
And this is, of course, assuming you can do your job from home. For those in sectors who can’t, work often remains unsafe, underpaid, and disproportionately staffed by people of color and other minorities.
Let’s hope the result of the ‘Great Resignation’ brings more equity to the production lines.
Also on the 2021 agenda
Month by month, stories would surface that became increasingly harder to ignore, creating a disruptive but perhaps much needed tension in boardrooms the world over.
If we look at the most popular UNLEASH pieces published this year, a few clear themes develop: the first is an employee experience focus, particularly on remote and hybrid work, and another is on company culture.
Add in increased diversity awareness, and vaccine mandates, and it’s not a stretch to see that these are all related. The collective vision of a new work reality is coming into focus.
The question is, what comes next and how can we all make the most of our new world of work?
Pushing back against a tide of change has proved not only fruitless but actively damaging for previously progressive organizations such as Basecamp, whose decision to ban politics from the workplace suggested a tone deafness that was never going to stand up to basic scrutiny.
If there’s one idea that appears time and again, but not overtly spoken about, it’s of a new power dynamic in the workplace.
Top-down hierarchies may still exist in many businesses but workers are exercising their power through collective bargaining and direct action like never before.
Along with the Netflix walkout, gaming giant Activision Blizzard has also suffered reputational damage thanks to the indiscretions of one of its figureheads.
The difference between those two companies however, is that at least Activison Blizzard appears to be listening.
HR and business leaders ignore their workers’ concerns at their peril. More change is almost certainly on the way.