We have been contending with COVID-19 for almost a full year. Every organization has made shifts in how they work, when they work, and in many ways why they work. We went from celebrating a new year to retrenching inside our homes unable to truly grasp what was happening around us. As we approach the beginning of yet another new year, all of us deeply hope it will be better, different, and in many ways enable us to make sense of what happened in 2020.
As humans always do, we will bounce back from a year of tragedy and mayhem and work diligently to find meaning, or at least meaningful moments that arise from the rubble. As a leader and fellow human, we have new choices as to how we lead, when we lead, and why we lead. Perhaps the lessons of 2020 will give us a stronger sense of who we are, or perhaps who we want to be, and this will invoke a new way to lead because work as we knew it, is gone.
The workforce you had one year ago is not the workforce you have today. Looking back at this year, we can see that the changes we expected to happen within the next few years took place in a matter of months. Our strategies shifted almost overnight to prioritize people while taking the necessary steps to guarantee business continuation. Businesses across the globe had to rapidly pivot in new and challenging directions to adapt to the new COVID-19 reality. And, as we navigated through the pandemic, the workplace changes already well under way due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution were accelerated to a true tipping point.
Welcome to the New Work Exchange
We all knew more remote work was coming, along with digital hiring and onboarding. Today, 2020 has redefined the ways we can work, the way we interact with each other, the way we manage our talent, and the way we approach total rewards, paving the way for the New Work Exchange. Don’t mistake the point, the importance of the exchange between employers and employees has never been more important. The social contract of yesterday isn’t dead, it has just been fundamentally rewritten. My coaching to everyone is to be extremely diligent before you DocuSign on any dotted lines regarding what you will offer and expect of your workforces.
There has been a lot of chatter about going back to work. What will it be like? Debates have ensued about the potential of ever going back to the 9 to 5 corporate schedule filled with commutes, office cubes and politics, and a string of bad bosses that give work a bad name.
More than replacing what we called work in 2019, the New Work Exchange will gain in momentum and power as people begin their own transformations after spending a year in a cocoon. Work isn’t the only thing that has changed, workers also return to the New Year with a different set of priorities, including their well-being and targeted focus on things that matter most.
The New Work Exchange will bring balance to stakeholder groups over the shareholder in ways we have yet to consider. Optimal performance must be redefined to include the purpose of organization and why they exist. It must be for far more important things than chasing profitability. Making money is still very important, but the reasons you’re making money will take center stage and face a new level of scrutiny from workers and customers.
Two fundamental shifts bring this New Work Exchange alive.
1) In times of crisis and loss, people want to know they matter.
2) Work is no longer a place.
Well before COVID we knew that workplaces were on the verge of change. Hierarchies were being replaced with networks, career progression meant more than promotions, people wanted to be heard and included for what they could contribute regardless of their tenure, title, or personal attributes, and a request for more humane workplaces was emerging louder. Technology had already redefined the meaning of the word global and a shift was happening for more authentic leadership. People were realizing that making a difference — to an issue, cause or community — needed to be a part of this thing called “work.”
The Fourth Industrial Revolution had already created several changes to how we work. As did each industrial revolution, all had an impact on work. The difference now is that while the first three revolutions impacted how we worked, the fourth will have the biggest impact on our actual workplaces. Add a year like 2020 to the mix and the momentum of change has accelerated and fundamentally reshaped how, when, where and why we ultimately work.
"Speed will be more important than innovation as organizations learn to infuse their customer experiences more deeply into their organizational life."
– Scott Cawood, CEO of WorldatWork
This New Work Exchange is also fueled by an unprecedented warp speed intersection of people, purpose and technology that makes it especially important to understand if we are to effectively lead within it. Oddly enough, the changes are not always intuitive. For all our Zoom meetings and virtual happy hours of late, the New Work Exchange will make us and workplaces a bit more human. Yes, we will go even more data-driven than we are today, staying connected with all-digital, on-demand dashboards whether we are working in a cubicle or camp site. Speed will be more important than innovation as organizations learn to infuse their customer experiences more deeply into their organizational life.
The New Work Exchange will penetrate all industries and require a new level of leadership that is both fast and transparent. New Work will also mean new life things and will influence how people view what they do, with whom they do it, and for what purpose they provide their talents, and, in the case of consumers, why they spend with you or others.
It was perfectly acceptable for organizations to exist in the first three industrial revolutions to maximize efficiencies, produce better products faster and cheaper, and to create processes to meet the growing demand. Now, however, the New Work Exchange will ask more from us than meeting these types of goals. It will ask us to rethink the purpose of organizations and how the work being done will make an impact on consumers and communities.
The New Work Exchange is here to stay, and numerous factors have shaped, driven and accelerated its arrival. The pandemic, economic crisis, social and racial unrest across the United States, plus a very contentious general election each served as a multiplying catalyst to solidifying the concept.
The New Work Exchange is a vital relationship between organizations and workers that is more humane, less reactive, super-fast, very transparent, equity-focused, and socially aware. It encompasses things that we now value differently, like well-being, flexibility, non-traditional benefits, trust, culture and authentic leadership. It places a heavy weight on core values and increases the pressure of leading with purpose.
The great news is that you are not returning to work empty-handed — a lot of what is needed now we know how to do.
After the pandemic, continue to put your people first. The early stages of this pandemic put a spotlight on how well leadership focused on people. Workers and customers have been anxious for months about their health, families, and their jobs. In addition, many of them are now grieving the loved ones who they lost to COVID-19. People are tired of isolation, social distance, and living in fear. Organizations that have been focusing on business continuity but making people’s well-being a priority are learning how to best manage the New Work Exchange.
The most successful organizations in this pandemic prioritized the safety and well-being of their workers and customers who, in return, have increased the trust they have in their organizations. Our ability as leaders to care about our people’s well-being and safety is closely linked to their ability to focus and respond to the issues in front of them. The New Work Exchange will be defined by making people feel connected and cared for in meaningful ways.
Help your organization find its purpose and don’t settle for simply increasing shareholder value. It may have worked 200 years ago as a management focus, but it has been declining in effectiveness ever since. Push forward into more than making money; lean into what making money enables you to do in the world — that is what matters in the New Work Exchange.
In August 2020, a WorldatWork study found that 67% of respondents reported it being very or extremely important to work for a leader with similar social beliefs. Purpose has become a critical element in the relationship between companies, workers and customers. People are paying more attention to what an organization and brand believe in, stand for, and support.
As we plan for the New Year, we have a unique opportunity to leverage the momentum that all of the terrible experiences of 2020 offer in the New Work Exchange. Now more than ever, people want to know they matter. Leaders need to show their organizations how the New Work Exchange is different and how to adapt to it.
Your workforce may be different as we enter the New Year, but the difference should prove helpful as you work to make an impact that is bigger than money and profit. By doing so, you will do a great service to this thing we call work which ultimately makes the world a much better place to live.
About the Author
Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the CEO of WorldatWork.