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Humanizing work post-COVID - get radical, share more and go deeper, says Gartner

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne October 16, 2020
Forget about work/life balance, the new relationship between employees and employers is far closer, yet more flexible. Gartner’s Brian Kropp pitches the drivers behind a post-COVID change.

Image of a person at work wearing a face mask to protect against COVID-19
(Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay )

Work used to be so simple. Employees gave their labor and ideas in exchange for a wage and benefits from their employer. But this no longer fits the COVID-19-19 workplace, according to Brian Kropp, Chief of HR Research at Gartner: 

What we’ve been realizing and what has really accelerated with COVID-19 is the sense that that deal is changing and is shifting from being a transactional deal, where I give you my effort and I get your money (from an employee perspective), to a much more humanized deal.”

This more “humanized” approach manifests itself in three ways, says Kropp: 

  1. Radical flexibility.
  2. Shared social purpose. 
  3. Forging deeper connections with employees. 

The upshot of these three trends should be that both employees and employers are dramatically better off. Or that’s the theory, at least. 

Radical flexibility

Radical flexibility is the idea that employees have the ultimate power over how they work, not just in terms of location, but when and how much they work. Gartner’s own analysis suggests that one third of workers are typically high performers. When given the choice of where they work, the number of high performers rises 7%. Giving them further choice of when they work boosts this high performance number a further 3%. 

Enabling them to work fewer hours - 80% of time for 80% of pay, for example - further swells the number of high performers by an impressive 9%. Kropp explains: 

What we find is that when we give employees the radical choice - the radical amount of flexibility over where, when and how much they work, we are actually rewarded as employers with more high performing employees and our employees are rewarded by having more flexibility over what they do.

Many companies are beginning to adopt this idea of radical flexibility. Twitter and Airbnb, for example, have told employees they can basically work wherever they want to for the foreseeable future, while Siemens has adopted radical flexibility for roughly 140,000 employees across 43 countries, letting employees choose where they work. Target Publishing in the UK and Microsoft Japan have introduced a four-day working week and report success to date. 

Shared purpose

The idea of shared purpose reflects how employees expect their organizations to become involved in the societal and cultural issues of the day, even if the issue has nothing directly to do with their business. 

This involvement is not as easy as a CEO issuing out a public statement endorsing or condemning an issue. Such knee-jerk reactions can backfire, warns Kropp, and actually negatively affect engagement. In a typical workforce, he says, the third of employees excited about a particular issue will be frustrated that the company is saying something is important but not doing anything about it, while the third against this issue will be mad that a statement was made at all:

So we lose on both fronts. Those who care about it are disappointed because we didn’t do more, those who have a different viewpoint are mad at us for doing anything.

The temptation then is to “lean out”, according to Kropp, and not get involved in any issue, but instead, CEOs should do the opposite and “lean in”: 

When we look at the organizations that have moved beyond making statements to making action - they’ve made real investments, they’ve spent real money and changed their customers or their supply chain - what we find in those organizations is the employee engagement levels increase quite dramatically.

Australian telecoms company, Telstra, for example, is working with Aboriginal people across Australia to enable connectivity and help them engage in society. 

Having a shared purpose requires more than just throwing money at good causes - how they do it is important. The idea must not come exclusively from the top, but the strategy must be co-created with senior leaders and employees so that it is very transparent and laid bare why the company is taking a particular action. It must also be more than a one-off donation, but managed like a real long-term business. Kropp says: 

Employees are demanding we get involved in the societal and cultural debates of the day. It’s not enough just to make statements about how we think about an issue one way or another we have to get involved in real actions in a way that’s co-created with our employees, transparent and dynamic. 

While it’s no surprise that this motivates the third of employees who agree with the issue, what’s more significant is that it improves engagement among the third who disagree with the issue, because they understand why it is being done. 

Deeper connections

The third idea is behind this more humanized approach to the employer/employee deal is to build deeper relationships between employees, their families and the community. According to Kropp: 

If we do, we as an organization are rewarded with higher performing employees and those employees are rewarded by having a better life; they are healthier, with better mental health. 

This idea of a deeper relationship goes well beyond the notion of the work/life balance, explains Kropp: 

What COVID-19 has laid bare about the experience that we share collectively, is that that’s just the wrong way to think about it. It’s not work and life as two different constructs: there’s life and a component of life is work. We need to think about how these things work together, how they are embedded together not as two separate constructs that we‘re trying to balance or integrate. 

This synergy between work and life means companies need to think differently, not only about how to support individuals, but also their families and communities. The evidence backs up the success of this approach, says Kropp: 

Organizations that have got more deeply involved in the lives of their employees and built those deeper connections, those employees report better financial wellbeing, better mental health, better fiscal health...and they report better sleep.

There are benefits for organizations too: the number of high performers increases, the number of net promoters also increases, which means those employees are less likely to quit and more likely to say positive things about them more widely and so encourage new people into the company. 

In practice, this means companies opening up their learning resources to employees’ families and the children. But Kropp warns that there’s a danger this deeper connection between employer and employee can become “a little bit creepy” - if your employer, for example, is tracking how much you’re sleeping. While the greatest return for companies is when they create a deeper connection on an individual level, this is also the place where employees are less comfortable. Kropp concludes: 

So we are no longer at a point where we can treat employees work and life separate, to build this more humanized, deeper connection with employees what we have to decide is where along this continuum do we want to participate as an organization: with them as individuals, with their families, with their communities. 

To make this more humanized approach work requires the help of data analytics, shifting the focus from understanding the workforce to understanding the individual and who happens to work for the organization, says Kropp: 

So, when it comes to building radical flexibility, we need to have better data, information, tools and techniques to understand the productivity profiles of each of our individuals employees; to build towards a shared purpose we need to understand the unique causes that our employees care about, to go deeper with them to understand what motivates them and what are their concerns.

My take

While COVID-19 has not caused these changes in the employer/employee relationship, it can be argued to have accelerated and amplified them. For decades, the idea of remote and flexible working has been met with suspicion from many quarters. COVID-19-19 has silenced the naysayers and really opened the doors to the possibility of this radical flexibility Gartner talks about. The move to home working has also broken down the barriers between work and home life in a dramatic way. 

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