Regarding the ongoing debate in boardrooms about Canada’s future of work and hybrid or flexible work arrangements, I’m disheartened that even three years into our new abnormal, decision-makers at all levels—industry, finances, research, academia and government alike—are still asking the wrong questions.
In their misguided attempts to justify a mandated return-to-office, they ask, “What’s best for the organization?” and “What’s best for the Canadian economy?”
I suspect they’ll remain stuck on these questions indefinitely unless they look around their decision-making tables (or tessellations of virtual-meeting squares) and ask, “Who’s not here?”
The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting
I recently participated in an advisory committee meeting for a quality of work research project, investigating how technology will influence productivity, job creation (or loss) and Canada’s future of work. Unsurprisingly, the topic of hybrid or flexible work was high on the agenda.
“Why are leaders continuing to make the mistake of trying to make decisions about workers without workers at the table?”
The discussion was aimed at generating policy recommendations for industry and government. For an hour, the committee of economists and consultants opined on what was best for the country’s post-pandemic economic recovery. While I sat silent, stunned and pondered this question:
“What’s best for Canadian workers and their families?” More importantly, why are leaders continuing to make the mistake of trying to make decisions about workers without workers at the table?
The impact of this disconnect is felt everywhere, most profoundly in the form of “The Great Resignation” and most recently in the trend of “Quiet Quitting.” Leaders frustrated by knowledge workers’ reluctance to return to the office—where they’re likely to plug in headphones and work remotely anyway—must reckon with the need to make the office worth the commute. Employees have a new “worth it” equation that values time, health, family and purpose over work. They’re not the same people who went home to work early in 2020.
Leaders eager to dust the cobwebs off the old management playbook will be hard-pressed to attract and retain top talent in our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future of work. Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index outlines findings from 31,000 people in 31 countries, trillions of productivity signals across Microsoft 365 and labour trends on LinkedIn. The actionable insights from their data are clear: “The Great Resignation” is actually “The Great Awakening,” and “Quiet Quitting” en masse is actually “Loud Leaving.”
The onus is on leaders to urgently reconceptualize this transition (and approach it with intention and a growth mindset) or risk being left behind.
What are the Trends Influencing Canada’s Future of Work?
The Future Skills Centre recently published its Survey on Employment and Skills, which found that of more than 6,600 working Canadians, 78% said they like working from home much better than their regular workplace. On top of that, flexible work experiences have become more positive over the course of the pandemic. In the case of parents and guardians with children under the age of five, the proportion worrying that working from home would harm their career declined substantially.
“Why are leaders and decision-makers still trying to get workers back into offices they simply do not wish to be in?”
Here’s the kicker: contrary to popular belief, employees who returned to the office actually reported poorer mental health than those who continued working remotely.
In light of these findings, why are leaders and decision-makers still trying to get workers back into offices they simply do not wish to be in?
Part of the problem is the sunk-cost fallacy. Leaders feel compelled to justify expensive leases and reignite business districts with commuters. But, the real issue seems to be gross asymmetry propped up by a fear of change.
Consider this recent finding by Forbes: 89% of leaders think employees quit because they want more money. In reality, the number of employees who leave due to insufficient compensation is less than 12%. That’s a perception gap of 77 points! Reinforcing this gap, McKinsey Health Institute uncovered that, on average, leaders rate workplace dimensions associated with health and well-being 22% more favourably than their employees.
These are but two examples of the thousands of insights pointing to a widening chasm between the realities of employers and employees and between public decision-makers and the public at large. On that note, the findings from Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index continue to disturb me. Of 31,000 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets, it was found that most leaders were “thriving” during the pandemic. All the while, frontline workers, new employees, working parents (especially mothers) and Gen Z employees were “surviving” or “struggling.”
What if Canada’s Future of Work is the Same?
The consequences will be catastrophic if leaders leave this perception gap unaddressed and remain attached to a traditional in-person working style. A recent study shows that 80% of Canadian remote workers are willing to quit if forced to return to the office five times a week.
As is apparent, most Canadian professionals expect flexible working conditions to become the new normal. For leaders who have yet to prioritize hybrid/flexible work arrangements and feel caught up in what seems looks like an increasingly complex problem, I’d like to propose an embarrassingly simple solution: talk to your people. Rather than make decisions in a vacuum, co-create solutions.
Of course, I know that this is easier said than done, for it requires reinvention as a leader. It requires becoming change-friendly and human-centric, addressing employee concerns without overlooking their needs, happiness and well-being. The good news is that the time is perfect for this endeavour.
“There seems to be an increasingly coordinated effort across the planet to throw out the old management playbook and embrace a profoundly “people first” paradigm.”
There seems to be an increasingly coordinated effort across the planet to throw out the old management playbook and embrace a profoundly “people first” paradigm that sees a company’s bottom lines and a country’s gross domestic product as byproducts of thriving people and not the other way around.
For too long, people’s values have been shaped by economic metrics only. For too long, the shareholder has reigned supreme. But in the words of a change-friendly and human-centric leader, Marc Benioff: “The purpose of business now transcends shareholders. We need a reinvented system focused on employees, customers, communities and the planet.”
We have before us a rare opportunity to reimagine a better workplace, and in doing so, reimagine a better Canada. This requires getting in touch with the people we serve as leaders: our employees and the public.
How to Transform Leadership for A Better Future
I propose five leadership values essential to this transformation:
Below, I offer some actions to operationalize and maximize them in the spirit of co-creation.
Transparency is about keeping your employees in the loop, sharing the ups and downs and inviting honest feedback. This value can be practiced through a “listening tour” of everyone who interacts with your value chain. Talk to fellow leaders, employees and other stakeholders. Better yet, set up some “reverse town hall” and ask tough questions such as:
- What’s working?
- What needs to be fixed?
- What are our strengths?
- What are our weaknesses?
- What are the opportunities for growth?
- What are the threats to our organization?
Openness requires being receptive to new ideas and information. It involves looking beyond first impressions, releasing any preconceived notions and approaching each opportunity as though you have never encountered it before. This value can be practiced through improved one-on-ones. Company success stands and falls with the effort managers put into connecting with their team members. Gallup has found that when managers provide weekly (vs. annual) feedback, team members are much more motivated to do outstanding work and are generally more engaged.
When it comes to one-on-ones, ideally, companies should have them weekly or bi-weekly at most. Keep them scheduled and private.
Use this time-tested structure for its format:
- First 10 Minutes: Let the staff share whatever they want.
- Middle 10 Minutes: This is about whatever you want.
- Final 10 Minutes: This should be forward-looking—about the employee’s role, satisfaction and overall outlook on the organization.
No matter how chaotic things get, only move these one-on-ones in case of an emergency.
Understanding is all about mental grasp. It is the capacity to comprehend information, with a bend toward ensuring harmony. The action here is to dive deep with your people and ask big questions, such as:
- Why did you join this organization?
- Are you proud to work here?
- What gets you out of bed every morning?
- Do you respect our leadership?
- What are your personal and professional dreams?
- Are we headed in the right direction?
- How am I doing as a leader?
- Where can I improve my leadership?
- How would you do things differently?
- Do you envision a future for yourself here?
You can ask these during one-on-ones, town hall meetings, coffee chats or wherever.
Compassion is having positive intentions and genuine concern for others. It is a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try and alleviate and prevent it.
To realize this value, I propose three different styles of shadowing your team:
- Observation: Passively study others at work.
- Regular Briefings: Shadow key activities during a single project.
- Hands-On: Simulate working alongside others.
Through this process, we aim to make the journey from pity to sympathy and then to empathy and compassion.
This is what it could look like:
- Pity: “I can tell that returning to the office is causing you stress.”
- Sympathy: “I care that you’re experiencing stress about returning to the office.”
- Empathy: “I feel your stress about returning to the office.”
- Compassion: “I want to relieve your stress about returning to the office. It’s my highest priority. Let’s figure out a solution that works for you.”
Humility is a sense of humbleness, dignity and self-awareness around limitations. It is one of the most uncommon traits associated with well-known business leaders. But, it is the most important of the five traits, as it holds them together.
The action here is simple: normalize the phrase “I don’t know” and pair it up with “I want to learn.”
This last point gets us back to the debate about hybrid/flexible workplaces.
Why Reimagining Canada’s Future of Work is Important
One thing we do know is that revolutions never go backward. Even blue-collar workers, who don’t have the luxury of working from home, will benefit from the people-first approach detailed above. It will accelerate the conversations with their employers about greater flexibility, which will directly influence employee engagement, which in turn will impact the bottom line.
“A ten-year examination of stock market returns for the 20 best-ranked public companies on Glassdoor reveals that 60% have beaten the S&P 500.”
This new workplace configuration is in the people’s best interest. Don’t believe it? A ten-year examination of stock market returns for the 20 best-ranked public companies on Glassdoor reveals that 60% have beaten the S&P 500 and 91% have had positive returns. Behold, Fortune’s Top 100 best companies to work at also outperformed the S&P 500 over the past decade. The top company, Adobe, beat the market by 9.5% each year and returned 1762% during this time.
According to the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, companies that promote a culture of health, safety, and well-being also outperformed the market by 2% per year, with a weighted return on equity of 264% (compared with the S&P 500 return of 243%). So, it turns out that exceptional places to work create outstanding returns for their shareholders.
“What’s best for employees is what’s best for business. What’s best for the public is what’s best for the economy.”
In other words, what’s best for employees is what’s best for business. What’s best for the public is what’s best for the economy.
Canada’s decision-makers at all levels—industry, finance, research, academia and government alike—would be wise to leave an empty chair (or an empty square) at their next meeting and ask: “Who’s not here?”
As a country, Canada has its heart in the right place. I have confidence that we can be a beacon for other countries. Here, we can reimagine the future of life itself by better reimagining Canada’s future of work. But this will require a fundamental rethinking of why we lead—it is not to take care of profits or the economy; it is to take care of people. When we do that, we can rest assured knowing that the people will, in turn, take care of what’s most important for the country as a whole.
Leaders, don’t make decisions about the people without the people.