So What’s Normal Anyway ?

Don’t worry it’s not another article about “new normal “or returning from lockdown.

I‘ve been working with organisations on wellbeing in the changing workplace for the last couple of years. While some trends might be accelerated by Covid we were already going through a period of deep and profound change. Here’s a look at some of the key changes

Values are changing

Understanding trends in values is key for attracting and retaining talent. Suddenly the invisible army of low paid key workers are centre stage from delivering the post, to emptying our bins, from caring jobs to supermarket checkouts. We didn’t seem to value them before, at least not through pay, or offering job security, or being concerned about their wellbeing. As the Taylor report said it matters that we have “good work “because 

  • those on low incomes must be able to boost their earning power and be treated with respect and decency at work
  • the quality of people’s work is a major factor to staying healthy and happy
  • better designed work that gets the best out of people and increases productivity

We were lucky that most of those who were on zero hours contracts in care homes continued to work when their employment contract didn’t require it. So too those who are not even employed, including the many delivery drivers bringing the mountains of online shopping.

The postman or woman who had Covid symptoms would have taken time off on full pay sick leave. Can we be sure that all those delivering takeaway food and parcels, who must be self- employed to work, would always do the same?

We have long relied on the economic benefits of a flexible labour market. But it now sits at odds with our values of recognising and caring about our key workers. HR needs to be at the vanguard of improving their wellbeing and we need to step up as a profession to lead this work to reflect the changing values of the workforce.

It would be all too easy to use the supply and demand impacts of the looming recession to go the other way. As a society and for the longer-term economy we can’t afford to make that mistake.

Leaders we want to follow

In both the private and public sector, we have seen the stratospheric increase in the gap between the pay of top leaders and the average employee pay.  At the same time there is more and more cynicism about the behaviours of our leaders.

We have high profile leaders in both politics and business becoming increasingly remote and not trusted. How do you gain the trust of those you are asking to follow you if they can’t relate to you, your lifestyle, and values?

I remember after the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand our business leader sent every employee a request to give a day’s pay to the charity fundraising for relief work. He kicked it off by donating the few thousand he earned in a day. We had to point out that many employees who were on minimum wage needed every pound they earned to feed and house their families! It’s so easy to enter a bubble and stay there.

We need our leaders to show more humility, to listen and act on the voices of key workers. The clapping, volunteering, and fundraising  for the NHS shows the public mood and the public are our employees so let’s create more common purpose across the organisation. Let’s have a more inclusive culture which truly reflects the values we have long had in our corporate blurb.

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At least in mental health we continue to see leaders speaking out on their lived experience. Not long ago it would have been unthinkable for a future King to speak out, even though that family had obviously had mental health problems. Nothing is more powerful in reassuring employees that it is OK to be open and honest about mental health than leaders leading by example.

Action on diversity not tokens

At the time of writing it is too early to say how much lasting impact there will be from #I can’t breathe. I’ve seen some welcome statements from organisation leaders but too often in the past these have been token gestures or become commercialised as some of Pride has been. Coming at the same time as the shocking data on BAME deaths from Covid there may well be more momentum for change.

For HR and business leaders the tangible and practical actions to take include listening to the BAME network in the workplace and driving change in the attraction, retention and development of those who are underrepresented. We know that there are strong links between the experience of employees at work and their mental health. Mentoring for those in minority groups, by others with shared experience, is an effective way to identify mental health problems and direct them towards specialist professional help. There’s now low-cost technology to match mentees and mentors as well as automating the admin.

At last we have traction on flexible working

Many companies are rapidly rewriting their flexible working policies. No longer will they be able to turn down flexible working requests from carers or parents to work from home when they have already proved that it worked during the lockdown.

We need to be very careful to not see home working as a one size fits all. We know that work has an important social purpose bringing people together in teams and creating communities. For some this is more important than for others who may have a lower need for inclusion.

More home working was already a trend- just look at how fewer commuters there were on a Friday. We need to understand individual needs and preferences – for example some like to wind down from work by commuting to their home.

I know in some organisations they have seen an increase in productivity with home working which is badly needed given very low UK productivity. Sometimes this will be at the expense of work life balance as hours worked seep into family or friends time and “always on” technology reduces the quality of life. Let’s research and measure the impact on wellbeing and make sure there are options for employees.

On the plus side it’s great news for couples with dual careers because employers should be more easily persuaded that you don’t need to relocate just so you can travel to the office. That’s a boost for wellbeing because so many have had to sacrifice their career for their partner’s career or face separation while they worked away from home putting strain on relationships.

The good news for HR is that our skills of coaching, mentoring and facilitating are needed more than ever to support people through change. At least the people dimension of business and wellbeing has never been so centre stage. We can go as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said “The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change “and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

About the author

As well as being a Coach, Consultant and writer on many aspects of HR, Martin Kirke NED is a Non- Executive Director for the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and a Non- Executive Director at an NHS Trust where he is also Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He is Chairman of the Advisory Board for PushFar a tech based mentoring and career progression company.

Martin is also an Independent  Arbitrator at ACAS and a Trustee at the Institute of Conservation and works with the Centre for the Future of Work at the RSA on the follow up to the Taylor Report. Martin is a member of the CIPD Policy Forum which advises government on the world of work, employment policy and legislation.

He is a Mentor with the Prince’s Trust and an International Coaching Federation qualified executive coach. He was previously Diversity and Inclusion Advisor to Macmillan Cancer Support. 

Martin was Group HR Director at the Post Office reporting to the Chief Executive and a member of the Executive  Board. He played a major role in the transformation of the Post Office including a digital skills transformation, culture change, award winning diversity and inclusion programmes and high growth of employee engagement.




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