People are the greatest assets of any organisation. While companies are at various stages of realising this and implementing the appropriate strategies to nurture, retain and grow their most valuable assets, the disruptions of 2020 and 2021 massively changed how people feel about work and in turn, employers are focusing on employee experiences, happiness and effectiveness. It is a top priority, now more than ever. With more workplaces going remote, more employees experiencing burnout and huge waves of resignations making an impact, companies have to pivot quickly to keep their employees engaged and effective. It is indeed the age of employees.
In 2022, the pandemic is very much still a fact of life for many of us. However, it’s fair to say that we’ve learned to adapt to new behavioural patterns and expectations as we do our jobs.
Here are the workplace trends shaping our professional lives in 2022:
- The Emergence of a Hybrid Work Model
For a while, COVID prevented professionals from leaving their houses to go to work. Instead, working remotely became the way to do business. The use of collaborative platforms like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams and others allowed organisations to function virtually while employees worked from the comfort and safety of their homes.
As organisations moved back to on-premise operations in 2021, not every employee was willing to go back to the conventional mode of work and return to a full time office environment. This has given rise to a hybrid workplace — where the team includes employees working remotely and ones working on-site, as well as some employees dividing time between the two environments. This is a flexible approach to work that allows employees to come to the office or work from their homes. Some employees may choose to work in the office for a few days and then remotely on other days.
Not only do employees want the increased freedom that goes with hybrid work, but this more fluid approach to location also stands to benefit organisations. Employers can pivot more easily during crisis situations, gain access to bigger talent pools, and even lower their carbon footprints.
Yet, hybrid work also comes with new challenges, particularly for people managers. Employee burnout, for example, can be more difficult for managers to detect and address among people who work from home. Managers also run the risk of creating uneven employee experiences, and face pressure to ensure all members of the team feel included—regardless of where they work. Managers also run the risk of rewarding stretch assignments and promotion opportunities to people with whom they have more face-to-face contact.
All of this means people managers have to work even harder and make decisions about their teams in a more deliberate way without operating with old tools, like semi-annual performance management reviews. Hybrid work doesn’t always work, and managers need better ways to not just cope, but uncover new opportunities to promote equity and keep people engaged.
2. Focusing on Mental Health, Preventing Employee Burnout and Building Employee Resilience
Before the pandemic, the competition for talent was high, but employers were slow or reluctant to make large-scale changes that put their employees first. Work had to be done largely in-person at the office and mental health was talked about only when burnout had already led to employee absences or resignations. The contract between employee and employer was one where employers made the decisions—and employees were merely on the receiving end.
Employee health and well-being has shifted now. Pre-pandemic employees often had a strict line between work and home; post-pandemic employees are finding that they can be more productive accomplishing both work and personal chores—e.g., throwing in a load of clothes, running out to do errands, taking an exercise break mid-day. However, burnout became common as a result of juggling and, add to that, worrying about staying healthy and caring for sick loved ones. Many employees questioned whether they wanted to continue doing the work they do—and doing so with their current employers. Many chose to not continue, resigning in droves in 2021.
While nobody can predict with exact certainty what the workplace might look like post-pandemic, it’s important for employers to keep employees informed about their current thinking, to be proactive and transparent, and to seek input from employees to best understand what they most value and the type of work setting that best serves their personal and professional needs.
While no two employees’ experiences will be exactly the same, it’s fair to say that most have been negatively impacted in some way due to the pandemic. Mental health issues are increasingly prevalent—and relevant to the ability of organisations to foster strong work practises with employees. It is important for employers to consider different approaches for different employee demographics. There will be key distinctions in needs and preferences based on employee demographics—full-time vs. part-time employees, years of service, age, etc. Home situations also vary and in this new hybrid environment impact employee experiences, engagement, and preferences. For instance, part-time employees may be less concerned about flexibility than full-time employees. Those with fewer years of service may be more concerned with job security than those with greater tenure.
Employers are coming to understand the critical importance of building employee healthcare and wellbeing (including mental health) strategies into their game plan. Many are now trying to take more responsibility for helping their workforce maintain physical, mental, and financial wellbeing. A challenge here that companies will come up against in 2022 is finding ways to do this that hits objectives without being overly intrusive or invasive of employees’ privacy and personal lives.
3. Using data to make work more human – Leveraging insights the right way
Managing people through informal interactions won’t happen by chance in a hybrid work arrangement, meaning that every aspect of managing people from performance to inclusion and growth must be approached by design.
Controversial though it may be, research shows that employers are increasingly investing in technology designed to monitor and track the behaviour of their employees in order to drive efficiency. One way leading organisations are achieving this is by setting up continuous listening posts, enabling employees to voice their concerns in real time through micropulse surveys, video, or questions that are integrated into existing workflows. If a number of employees are reporting a spike in stress, survey results can feed into an analytics platform which helps managers see these insights and compare them to their peers’ teams at an aggregate level. Based on this comparison, the manager can determine if the stress spike is due to a problem within their team or if it is an issue that is more widespread across the organisation. They are also distinguishing between positive and negative stress. Negative stress leads to health problems and ageing, whereas, positive stress can foster wellbeing, resilience and confidence.
The right insights can also help managers make more objective decisions. Leveraging the right insights, managers can make work more human and inclusive—whether people are two feet away from each other or an ocean apart.
Of course, it seems that it would be easy for companies to use these tools in a way that would be seen as overbearing or intrusive by their workers. However, the idea is to use them to gain broad oversights into workforce behaviour rather than focus on individuals’ activity and use them as tools for enforcing discipline. Companies that invest in this technology have a fine line to tread, and it remains to be seen whether the net effect will be a boost to productivity or a threat to individual freedoms. If it’s the latter, it’s unlikely to end well for the companies involved. However, for better or worse, it seems likely that this kind of technology will play an increasingly large role in the workplace during 2022.
4. Measuring productivity using meaningful metrics
Managing employees in multiple locations—especially as managers themselves may be working remotely—has created a number of challenges, chiefly the ability to measure, maintain, and improve productivity. Managers tied to the philosophy that productivity can only be ensured if they actually saw employees working are now challenged to come up with new, and more appropriate, ways to measure how work gets done.
Some employers are implementing digital means to monitor employee activity, which are, understandably, ruffling employees the wrong way since they see it as unnecessary surveillance of their work. Organisations must measure and improve productivity at the same time they’re maintaining a focus that is empathetic and engaging.
Hours worked, overtime worked, and payroll costs are all common metrics used by organisations to measure productivity. These measures are useful for daily activities, but leaders and managers need the full picture to gauge productivity. This requires access to metrics such as customer satisfaction rates, production rates, and project completions, while also leveraging 1:1s, employee listening, people analytics, and other tools to get the full picture of the work and business results their teams are producing.
In 2022, organisational leaders and their HR and management partners need to adopt a “humanistic management” approach, which focuses equally on business outcomes, productivity, and employee engagement and experience—this new management style starts with a quality over quantity mindset.
5. Targeted retention strategies to stem rising resignations
Forced remote work has taught both employees and employers that many jobs can be done anywhere—meaning employees can be sourced and hired from anywhere. That opens up the potential for more mobility among employees as they realise their work options have changed significantly. Now that there are more jobs available around the world and in positions that were once considered to be “in-office” only, demand in certain industries is predicted to grow significantly around the globe, according to McKinsey.
Employers need to take steps in 2022 to protect their high performers and establish a climate conducive to long-term employee engagement and retention.
Analysing data on past turnover, employee tenure, employee satisfaction, engagement scores and other key metrics can help you determine which areas may be most at risk. Using people analytics and employee experience technologies, employers can better tailor their retention solutions to employees in specific roles or certain demographic groups. Data can show whether top employees are leaving for higher pay, new hires are leaving within their first six months, employees in key positions are nearing retirement age, and more.
Leveraging employee experience insights, and offering options and flexibility for employees to design experiences that they most value is important to prevent resignations. Research clearly demonstrates that there are wide variations between employees needs and preferences based on age, sex, income, race, ethnicity, and a range of other factors.
Building connection between the company and new employees early by establishing regular and frequent check-ins between managers and new employees, making an effort to facilitate social interactions between new employees and their colleagues (especially for those in hybrid or remote roles), and actively seeking input and feedback from new hires on what’s working and not working in terms of their job satisfaction and engagement are important approaches to employee retention actions.
Whether you’re looking to retain your top talent—or level up the skills of those who stay—employees are increasingly interested in more meaningful careers and opportunities for personal and professional development. Upskilling existing employees not only helps address their needs, but also ensures a pipeline of potential successors for open roles in an uncertain employment market.
6. Focusing on people to manage change the empathetic way
Change can be scary, with new working environments, processes, and tools to handle. This can leave people with the desire to hold on and defend the status quo. All of this can create the kind of resistance that prevents initiatives—like shifting to digital or embedding new DEI practises—from quickly taking hold.
Fear of the unknown is a fundamental fear. High anxiety levels prompt people to be more self-centred, which is a definite setback in collaborative work environments. In the early stages of a transformation, it may be okay for leaders to not have all the answers, but as a change initiative matures, people will have higher expectations for a well-thought out plan so they can feel secure. It is essential to train your leadership team to manage uncertainty effectively through clear communication, expectation-setting, and listening.
Change is not just a top down initiative—it comes from everywhere. That’s why selecting change ambassadors who will help evangelise the change is a crucial part of any transformation. Look for those people who are “connectors”—those within the organisation who like to bring disparate groups together to collaborate on a problem.
Organisations can go further than just giving people a sense of ownership over a change initiative. When appropriate, they can make concrete changes based on employees’ opinions. People generally see critical things that leaders don’t see, and have unique insights into how to help with micro-changes that can add up to a larger strategic outcome.
As change management becomes a more prominent and pervasive feature of business transformation, more leaders will leverage their people analytics capabilities to manage uncertainties and refocus plans regularly. In Sales, people analytics help managers identify top sales leaders, hone in on building the right teams, and refine tactics for shifting the entire team to a new playbook. In Finance, data-driven people decisions help leaders identify opportunities for reskilling, while staying nimble with one of the biggest line items in the budget: their employees.
7. Strategic microlearning to reskill teams
The current pace of change presents a challenge for organisations that are stuck in the old paradigm of one-and-done corporate learning programs. Traditional seminars, off-site training, and traditional classroom settings just weren’t designed to support on-the-job learning.
High-performing companies are shifting away from this old approach and embracing a new model for skills building that is focused on bite-sized learning content. With in-the-moment learning, employees develop at their own pace and can access content in short bursts via their desktop or mobile device. Content can cover everything from technical skills for coders to soft skills managers need to lead teams through uncertainty.
Increasingly, employee performance reviews are being replaced with personalised career coaching sessions. From an organisational perspective, career coaching helps ward off potential skills gaps by aligning personal aspirations with the broader business direction. Leverage career pathing data—which shows how employees can transition from one role to the next—to help people see how they can create a new future. Getting people excited about the new direction, not scared of it, will motivate them to grow with you into the new roles you’ve defined.
The skills needed in a post-pandemic world are the more human skills that are harder to automate like agility and flexibility, teamwork and collaboration, as well as global and strategic thinking. These innately “human” skills are all teachable and widely available on various platforms, such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, and Udemy.
Consider how micro-changes add up to bigger outcomes. With a unified analytics platform that connects learning, employee, and business data, all leaders—from the C-suite to people managers—can instantly see the impact of learning programs on business results like productivity. When people managers especially have this data-driven approach, learning becomes less about making sure your completion report looks good and more about guiding employees to learning that is proven to enhance their results.
8. Deploying responsible AI to fuel fair and strategic people decisions
Success in the future of work means embedding AI decision-making into an environment that fosters employee well-being. Study after study has shown a strong connection between employee wellbeing and organisational performance—and an increasing number of employers are factoring AI into this equation. The US Army, for example, is developing an AI model that identifies personnel at the highest risk for harmful behaviors such as suicide.
Aligning intelligent machines with human values is an important part of producing ethical AI systems. And if HR practitioners can’t explain how the system arrived at a decision, they can’t really trust it—nor should they use it. The good news is that conscientious technology vendors are taking these concerns seriously. Transparent platforms enable business leaders to see the top factors that lead to a given prediction.
Capitalising on AI’s benefits and promoting a better employee experience need not be mutually exclusive. Even with the most ethical systems in place, you still need to get people comfortable working with AI. They need a basic understanding of how it works so that they can be effective in their jobs. It is also likely that people within your organisation will have varying attitudes towards algorithms along with different levels of awareness. Pulse your people to gather sentiment data, design your communications effectively, and be transparent. This will help you overcome resistance and ensure people understand how the application of AI technologies directly benefits them.
Designing frameworks not only help organisations plan ahead and ensure individual technology decisions align with broader equity and employee experience considerations, but help leaders ensure they are better prepared for future changes in the regulatory environment. Current regulations like the European GDPR, for example, ensure AI processes and analyzes personal data in an ethical, responsible, and trustworthy way.
We are arriving at an era of technology and business where we have the opportunity to make work more humane, broaden the use of people analytics and data, manage change and decision making with greater clarity and efficiency. However, the start of the era means teething troubles for all organizations, and the companies who manage to navigate this era and capitalize these trends will bear the fruits.