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Preparing for the workforce of 2021 – A lot has changed in a year

Chris Parke, CEO at Talking Talent

While the end of lockdown restrictions and potential office returns suggest a welcome shift to ‘normality’, it’s important that business leaders reflect on the events of 2020 and the valuable learnings they’ve taught us. Whilst readying ourselves for the next challenge – the return to the physical workplace, we need to be conscious that the workforce that is emerging from the pandemic is not the same as the one that went into it.

The easing of restrictions brings with it a heavy sigh of relief, but the hard work begins now. In March 2020 organisations and individuals up and down the country had to adapt to working from home. A year on and it’s now become part of our daily lives. It’s brought about both positives and negatives, and many will be apprehensive of the transition back into the workplace.

The coming months of 2021 are the perfect opportunity for a ‘factory reset’ of inclusion efforts, to support workers with the new challenges they face, ensure we bring forward the ‘best’ of what we’ve learnt over the pandemic, and create a workplace that is consciously inclusive. We need to enact real change and leaving box-ticking exercises firmly in the past.

Consider each individual, not just the team

Throughout the pandemic, leaders have had to focus on the engagement, wellbeing and productivity of their staff like never before. Employers need to actively engage with their employees, not just provide them with the tools and leave them to fend for themselves. In organisations where there was already an environment where employees are left to “sink or swim”, engagement, productivity and ultimately staff retention will be major issues. In contrast, organisations that have an intentional focus on purpose, inclusion and belonging will see profoundly different levels of engagement and productivity. After a year of adjustment to home working, employees may feel daunted at the prospect of returning to the office. Organisations and managers need to consider this and provide support as they plot out any potential returns.

While existing employees needed additional support last year, there was also the issue of new staff joining in the middle of a pandemic. A whole generation of individuals have started their careers, or have rapidly adjusted early careers, as remote workers. They have missed out on the critical experience of interacting with colleagues and forming all-important professional networks in person. Existing employees have had the chance to adapt to the new ways of working with established colleague relationships. New starters may have had to face this challenge alone which is why they are far more vulnerable. In addition, while new staff could be ‘virtually’ welcomed while remote working, it is likely that staff will need to be inducted again in person, so they do not miss crucial experiences and knowledge sharing that their colleagues have been privy to.

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The importance of psychological safety

There has never been a more important time for leaders to work hard on creating safe environments in their organisations so that colleagues can share suggestions, raise concerns, speak openly about how they are feeling and collaborate effectively. Without this, you stifle agility, diversity of thought, creativity and the ability to think outside of the box when we need to respond to fundamental challenges to our ways of living and working. It makes an already stressful situation, a pressure cooker with resulting impacts on lack of purpose, engagement and mental health.

The only way to drive true psychological safety is by modelling it as a leader, and fundamental to a leader’s accessibility and authenticity is showing their own vulnerabilities.  None of us have all the answers, not least during an unprecedented pandemic, so why fake it? We are all experiencing the ebbs and flows of energy as we move out of lockdown. Leadership is not about having all the answers or being super-human. A far more humanist approach that does not hide vulnerabilities as weakness, clearly demonstrates that others can also be honest about the challenges they face and how they feel. It encourages a collective, human response. This is key to the mental health and wellbeing of leaders, themselves a community that has been under intense pressure for over a year now and are feeling the strain.

If this is too radical a shift from the existing status quo then you may need outside support. Trust and safety are hard to win and easy to lose. If it doesn’t exist now, it may require a neutral third party to set the right conditions to hit the reset button and build that back in.

Be there for working parents and carers

Many working parents were juggling remote working and full-time childcare throughout the day before the schools recently reopened. Businesses must actively engage in conversations about how they can support their working parents and help them to establish a healthy work-life balance and avoid burnout. Flexible working has proven to be a valuable workplace policy, with employers confirming productivity remained high in lockdown, partly due to flexible working, and many workers want it to remain common practice. The precursor to this is effective job design. How can roles and teams be structured in a way that allows for a sustainable level of activity where key tasks and objectives are achieved to the requisite standards. This is so often overlooked, resulting in system breakdowns where teams or individuals are set up to fail on the delivery of projects or objectives that are totally unrealistic in the given climate.

The past year pushed everyone to their limits, and that’s why, now more than ever, companies must focus on bringing teams together in an inclusive environment. We need to demonstrate strong values, ethical practices and, above all, bring the human element back into the heart of the business. Employers must make this conscious effort towards true diversity and inclusion and use innovative strategies – such as coaching – to keep workers close to the centre of the business. Those that do are more likely to maintain a motivated and engaged workforce.

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