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Two Hearts that Beat as One: Sustainability and Disruption

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People are at their absolute best — happiest, most engaged, and most productive — when they are truly able to make an impact, and that outcome has a great deal to do with the workplace you are creating in a COVID-19 world.

Workplace sustainability is about reimagining the people experience in your organization to deliver the highest economic, social and environmental value. This shift must be more than a lagging response to a changed and forever changing world. Creating strategically designed workplaces for how people need and want to work is a required capability as we enter this new work environment. Are you ready for the challenge?

Sustainability and disruption are two words we tend to hear a lot in business interactions. In fact, hardly a day passes without someone dropping one of these terms to contextualize how we now need to think, act and work. On the surface, it may seem that these concepts don’t fit together, but in reality, they are critical to your future. Sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. Disruption is when an innovation displaces an existing constant. To sustain, you will need to disrupt. To disrupt, you will have to out-innovate an existing product, service or business.

Organizations do not live forever, but when they die too young, we are shortchanged by their departure. The lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 is about 15 years in 2020, down from 67 years in 1920, according to Professor R. Foster at Yale University. This lifespan is the result of many variables, including the ability to sustain and disrupt, and the resulting outcomes.

What happens in our workplaces (virtual or not) determines everything! We all must begin to think of workplaces as strategic differentiators in every part of our business. People are your business, but workplaces are your future.

Those unable to build sustainable workplaces are less likely to survive in the 2020s and beyond – even among great brands that still have value to offer. When you consider the modern-day value that Borders Books, PanAm, Blockbuster, Standard Oil, Woolworths, Tower Records, Circuit City and Toys R Us could still be adding to society, it seems a shame that they were disrupted into oblivion. Many of these organizations were household names with massive brand recognition. Each of them failed to create a workplace that enabled them to get the results needed to keep going. You could argue there were other factors involved, but given that other organizations facing similar circumstances were able to pivot, we have to look at why the workplace of these late, great brands did not allow for the necessary innovation, disruption, insight, or perspective that may have added to their longevity.

If you are like most leaders, you spend more time working in the business and not enough time working on the business. Sustainability and disruption won’t be achieved by attending to only the more traditional aspects of business but will require creating workplaces that enable people to authentically and seamlessly create meaningful value.

Today we have a unique opportunity to bring the work of advancing sustainability from the periphery of business into its core functioning to fully leverage your workplace and your people. Workplaces can be the best enabler to most everything you want to do — likely more than even leadership.

The next decade of workplaces will likely seem counter to what we know — they will be more chaotic, inconsistent, less rule-based, fluid, and elastic — all to keep pace with the extreme market volatility taking place on a global level. COVID-19 has made the term “unprecedented” seem tired and overused, but the speed, change and turbulence to come are truly unprecedented.

"If our workplaces do not do their part to accelerate innovation, agility and the insight to know when to pivot, they have failed us." – Scott Cawood, president and CEO of WorldatWork

The answer is not to “batten down the hatches” and ride out the storm, but to reimagine how people want and need to work within these new parameters. The Workplace Revolution will undoubtedly be one of the largest opportunities for human resources and total rewards professionals to make an impact on the business. There will no doubt be winners and losers, and all indications point to technology and speed as the continued culprits — which means most of our traditional people processes are not dynamic enough to keep up. If our workplaces do not do their part to accelerate innovation, agility and the insight to know when to pivot, they have failed us. 

Honoring the Sustainability Champions

We know that sustainability is important on several levels, and we should pay tribute to some of our oldest organizations that have been able to pivot to stay relevant and alive as disruption continues around them:

  • Cigna (1792)
  • Jim Beam (1795)
  • JP Morgan Chase (1799)
  • DuPont (1802)
  • Citigroup (1812)
  • HarperCollins (1817)
  • Brooks Brothers (1818)
  • Macy's (1843)
  • Pabst Brewing Company (1844)

We also need to remember that sustainability doesn’t always guarantee the most value. In fact, companies with the world’s greatest market value have only been around a much shorter time:

  • Apple April 1, 1976
  • Google Sept. 4, 1998
  • Microsoft April 5, 1975
  • Amazon July 5, 1994
  • Facebook Feb. 4, 2004

To show what is possible, we can take a look at the oldest company in existence today, which is Kongo Gumi, a construction firm that, having been founded in 578 AD, has been continually operating for 1,442 years in Japan. Following a liquidation event, they were purchased in 2006, and still build and repair temples like they have for more than 14 centuries. When asked how they managed to sustain for so long, the family cited their ability to find a balance in maintaining tradition while still being able to pivot with changing conditions.

Disrupting Your People Programs

Workplace sustainability will require you to disrupt many of your existing people programs such as hiring, job descriptions, job titles and onboarding. This internal disruption is needed to attract and keep the very best people — the changes may seem daunting, but they are coming, and our goal should not be to deflect, but rather align so we can offer our people the best experience possible.

In addition to your efforts to find great new hires, you also must work diligently to keep them. This is trickier than it sounds. New hires are an at-risk group often with the highest turnover of all tenured groups. New workers’ decisions to join, stay or leave are heavily influenced by the interview and on-boarding process. According to Bamboo HR, if a new hire has a bad onboarding experience, they immediately become a heavy retention risk. Their research purports that the major reasons new hires leave within the first six months are that the work was not desirable, the job was different than what was shared in interviews and their manager was a jerk.

Employee referrals are terrific programs that can yield better overall performance than no referral. However, the reason new hires may be more successful than other hires is that those who referred them do a great job of ensuring their success by taking responsibility for the onboarding themselves. This means extra attention and support for the new hire.

Research by Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, found that if the referrer leaves before the new hire starts, then performance is not any better than other hires. This is important to note because it shows we are not paying enough attention to many disconnected parts of the hiring process and even if we were, the escalating pace of internal changes will require additional support if we want sustained performance and tenure.

If you need a place to start, go directly to the basics. Examine whether your hiring process is really serving your needs in a way that allows you to build sustainability. Also ensure you are currently providing fair and equitable pay, giving your people a sense of purpose in your organization’s mission. Do you provide a broad offering of flexible rewards that support the most important moments in your employees’ lives? Do you provide opportunities for continuous development, professional growth, recognition and an assurance that they are encouraged to be themselves?

If sustainability is, in part, nurturing those talented people in your organization, how do you best develop them so that they are prepared for the work that will come? Are they prepared to evolve with changes in the marketplace, changes in technology, changes in the in the types of jobs that are and will be available? Even when a particular job is going away, you don’t have to lose a creative, intelligent person if you have a plan in place to reskill.

Sustaining and growing your own talent pool will play a very prominent role in long-term success, especially as more routine skills become less valuable and needed in workplaces. When you unite these factors, you have a formula for your organization’s sustainability, and the stronger you get, the more disruptive you can be!

About the Author

Scott Cawood Bio Image

Scott Cawood, Ed.D, CCP, CBP, GRP, CSCP, WLCP is the president and CEO of WorldatWork.


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