During the pandemic, it became quite de rigueur to suggest that while we were ‘all in the same storm’, we were ‘in different boats’. The point of the phrase was to demonstrate that, while we optimistically thought we were all ‘in this together’, actually everyone’s experience of living and working through the COVID-19 period was deeply personal. 

Indeed, employees within just one organisation could have endured hugely varying scenarios: single parents juggling homeschooling and work, front-line workers putting their lives on the line day after day, young professionals taking calls from the end of a bed in an overcrowded house-share, and furloughed staff anxiously awaiting the fate of their long-term job security. The disparity of experiences made creating a sense of ‘oneness’ a formidable task for leaders, especially as the months rolled on and people became increasingly jaded. 

The shift in employee expectations

Three years later and the impact on how we feel about work and employment remains both profound and still in flux. For many, it forced a reassessment of what matters, including the role of work in their lives. People have chosen to change careers, to move countries, to shake up their lifestyles or to opt out of work entirely. In its most basic terms, this shift is being played out in a single debate: how to get people ‘back to the office’. However, the fact is that most of the UK population don’t have the luxury of choice about where they work; indeed, the challenge is far more nuanced and complex than that. 

In our last research report, leaders talked about tensions between individual preference and collective benefit, and raised employee expectations around what an employer ‘owes’ them. They felt a need to re-engage and reconnect with their people, amid a rise in employee relations cases and an increasingly adversarial tone around certain issues. The question over how paternalistic an employer can afford to be during an economic crisis remains a difficult one to answer. These challenges require leaders to get beyond the binary argument about the right number of days to spend in an office, and instead reflect on how to foster a sense of community and shared purpose. 

One fascinating statistic to come out of the CIPD’s recently published Good Work Index is that people are feeling increasingly transactional about work. According to this annual benchmark of job quality, 43% of employees now say they work ‘just for the money’, compared with 36% in 2019. The proportion of those who say they would work even if they didn’t need money has dropped from 58% to 55%. While there is certainly more to life than work, leaders have cause for concern if their people are deriving less intrinsic meaning from their work. This can be directly linked to the worry some leaders have over a lack of collective energy, often simplistically traced back to whether or not people are physically present in a workplace. 

Creating a shared purpose

The question instead should be: what does it mean to be a workplace community? This is a question not just for leaders and managers but for any of us who are employed by an organisation. The Cambridge scholar and philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill observes that, as a society, we have become increasingly concerned with our rights at the potential expense of our duties and obligations. To channel O’Neill, thinking about what you ought to get is often more enticing than thinking about what you ought to do. In the workplace, we should be thinking about what we owe others around us in terms of our behaviour, what we put in and how we show up (both physically and metaphorically). 

According to Jane Cathrall, Executive Director of People and Culture at the Bank of England: “That sense of community has to stem from a sense of shared purpose, and that means really focusing on why we exist as an organisation. It’s that sense of shared purpose, together with those personal connections, which are really key. The role of a leader, even more now, is about creating the environment where people can thrive and make that connection with the organisation.”

How people feel about work has changed since early 2020, and some leaders are fundamentally wrong in thinking we can ever go ‘back to normal’. Instead, we need to think about three distinct and separate stages:

  • the way we worked before the pandemic
  • the way we worked during the pandemic, and
  • now, where we’re in the midst of a negotiation for a new stage that involves different ways of operating.

While it is uncomfortable for many leaders because we are in the middle of a change process, we need to manage that process like any other – by defining the direction of travel, being transparent about the challenges, and focusing on giving people meaning, purpose and connection to something both bigger than themselves and the sum of its parts.

None of us are the same people that we were at the start of 2020. We all need to recognise that and move towards designing a future of work that works for everyone.

Responsible business: Leading
the way

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey, the CIPD's Katie Jacobs and the Bank of England's Jane Cathrall discuss the role leaders play in creating a workplace community

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Responsible business: Leading
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About the authors

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey

Professor Veronica Hope Hailey is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and inaugural Dean of the University of Bristol Business School.

Veronica is mainly known for her research on trust and trustworthy leadership. For the last 30 years, Veronica has worked all over the world to deliver leadership development at the most senior levels in the private, public and third sector. Her latest research, conducted in collaboration with the CIPD, focused on responsible business and leadership through crisis. 

Katie Jacobs 

Katie Jacobs was senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, where she rans the CIPD’s HR leader network for HRDs/CPOs. She is also a business journalist and writer specialising in business, workplace/HR and management/leadership issues.

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