The pandemic has been difficult for all, and tragic for many. For business it has been a massive disruptive experiment: it’s uprooted deeply entrenched working patterns; it’s changed markets and it’s accelerated digital and technological transformation. It has also challenged assumptions and forced choices. And for those stuck at home in lockdown, it offered many an unexpected opportunity to step back and reassess what really matters to them and what they want from work.
Much of the deep malaise in the workplace in recent years has arisen through collective myopia where the main focus especially in large companies is only on the job, the activity or the task. Hence the language of people as “assets” or “resources”, or in economic jargon as “factors or units of production”. What has been so often routinely overlooked is that it is a person doing the job. Each person is ‘a someone, not a something‘ as we say at Blueprint – they have intrinsic dignity and value, just as a human being, rather than an instrumental value because they contribute to the business success.
The COVID crisis has shaken us out of this distorted picture in surprising and potentially very positive ways.
A new way of seeing things
One of the striking features of the choices made by many businesses to COVID is that they have been people-centred. In comparison to the response to the financial crisis, many companies are trying to put their people first, are thinking about customers’ needs and are supporting their supply chain.
Firms are trying to address the human needs of their people, and in particular, the rise of mental health challenges many faced. They listened to what people wanted in terms of hybrid working, and have sought new and evolving patterns of work.
As Mark Carney noted in The Economist last year the values of efficiency and competitiveness appeared to have been joined by those of compassion and solidarity.
We should not overstate this: experience has of course been mixed, and the future is not yet written. But there is an opportunity for a more balanced picture to emerge, where more businesses see themselves as social organisations pursuing a purpose beyond profit, part of which is to create value for society through fulfilling jobs that allow people to flourish.
There is still a way to go
40% of the UK workforce – people of all ages – are saying they are “somewhat likely” to change jobs in the next six months, even without another job to go to. The reasons given include a desire for meaning, autonomy, a more balanced life and greater flexibility. As the academic Adam Grant has put it many want “more net freedom rather than net worth”.
And this connects too with the realisation of the crucial role played by many – often invisible and low paid key workers – in keeping the country going while a lot of us were safely working from home. Value to society is not the same as what the market values and COVID have helped us all to appreciate our interdependence on others in society, and the need to put the good of people at the heart of business success.
How can businesses respond?
Business leaders made choices at the start of the pandemic, and they have choices now.
It is vital to resist “going back” and instead seize the opportunity to choose ways of engaging with people which can unleash everyone’s creativity and humanity, to create futures people want and can believe in. To ensure your business is doing all it can, ask yourself and your colleagues these questions:
- Why are people leaving? What do they seek from work? Is it different from before and if so why?
- How can we create the conditions to help people have honest and safe conversations about their needs and desires?
What is the unrealised potential of our business to be better for people and for society, and what needs to change?
The answers might just inform what you do next.