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First published on Forbes, 01/02/2022
This time last year there was a sense of optimism in the air. The vaccine rollout had begun and, finally, it seemed that a way out of the pandemic was in sight. 2021 was going to be a time of greater stability when normal life could resume, and the future of work would become clear. But the emergence of new variants soon put paid to that.
As we approach year three of the pandemic, there’s still so much we don’t know about how our working lives will evolve. However, there’s reason to believe that some of the changes we’ve experienced in the past 22 months could lead to a more human, people-centric future of work.
One of the biggest and most positive transformations has been in the employer-employee relationship. At a time when quality talent is in short supply, employers have realized just how essential their people are to their business success.
Employees now have the upper hand and they’re using their privileged position to drive change. The upshot is that, to attract and retain the talent they need, organizations are having to up their game. That means offering better benefits and competitive pay as well as the flexibility workers are looking for as they continue to balance their personal and professional lives.
This is encouraging and the hope is that it will push employers to improve the employee experience and raise workplace standards in the long term.
Another positive development we’re seeing is a reassessment of the long-hours culture that has long characterized corporate life. Working long hours was once (and for some companies still is) the ultimate mark of success, with the last to leave the office regarded as the most dedicated to the company cause.
However, during the pandemic, when everyone was working from home and less ‘visible,’ these measures of success had to change, and leaders had to trust their teams to get on with the job. Companies that have successfully implemented hybrid workplaces don’t obsess about the number of hours people put in, they focus on whether they’re meeting their objectives and delivering results.
Ultimately, a workforce that feels trusted and can approach tasks in its own way is more likely to be motivated and, therefore, more productive. Hopefully, this spells the end of micromanagement and the beginning of greater employee empowerment.
Research shows that giving people more autonomy over how they work also helps boost happiness and wellbeing. This is another area that has seen increased focus over the past few years when workers have had to deal with unprecedented trauma and stress. At the height of the pandemic, many felt overwhelmed and struggled with the loneliness of enforced home working. The ‘Great Resignation’ has also taken its toll; as people quit their jobs in record numbers, the staff left behind have had to pick up the slack and take on more responsibilities. It’s little wonder that burnout and stress are at all-time highs, according to the American Psychological Association.
The silver lining is that a growing number of employers now recognize that offering mental health support is no longer a nice-to-have – it’s business-critical.
Some are introducing or considering a four-day working week which the organization behind a new UK pilot describes as a strategy centered on “investing in the wellbeing of the most important asset to any business – your people.”
Others have introduced measures such as ‘no meeting days’ to combat work overload or company-wide mental health breaks. The most significant and impactful change emerging, though, is in workplace culture, as evidenced by Mind Share Partners’ research. It found that employees saw greater investment from their employers in creating safe and supportive cultures for mental health between 2019 and 2021. For example, 32% more study respondents believed that mental health was prioritized at their company, while 27% more believed that their company leaders were advocates for mental health at work.
These changes are grounds for optimism, but they aren’t universal; they won’t apply to every industry and there are some businesses still intent on clinging on to their pre-pandemic ways, resisting the move to hybrid. But imagine what the future could look like if organizations embraced the positive legacy of the pandemic and put people first. Employees would be paid a fair wage; people would work to live, not live to work, and they’d enjoy a life filled with balance in which they felt empowered to do their best work. How great that would be not only for employees but for employers too; a happier, healthier workforce makes for a healthier bottom line. The sooner business leaders realize that and act on it, the better the future of work will be.
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