Two years into the pandemic, we’re in a moment when both leaders and employees are trying to make sense of how the experience has changed them and imagining what comes next. In a webinar I led in early February with 250 people from over 100 companies around the world, many leaders expressed that they are feeling “betwixt and between” the certainties of the past and the unknowns of the future.
Three messages came through loud and clear. The first is that in this time of sensemaking, individuals right now are looking inward — working through the impact of their changing habits, networks, and skills, and beginning to imagine other life trajectories and possible selves.
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The second message is that leaders and the organizations they manage are looking outward more than usual — analyzing how talent markets are changing and what their competitors are doing. This is creating momentum and a force for change, but also frustration and anxiety, given institutional lag. Leaders are worried about inertia holding their companies back.
The third message is that as this momentum for change is growing, it is those individuals and organizations that are acting now that will pave the way and become role models for everyone else.
The Inward/Outward Dichotomy
I’ve been struck by how deeply individuals have taken their experiences of the past two years and used them to look inward.
Take John, a team leader in one of the financial companies I’ve been studying. He is not alone in telling me, “I feel like I am beginning to change who I am. I don’t commute anymore to the office every day, I’ve spent less time with my colleagues and more time with my neighbors, and I’ve surprised myself with my digital skills — in fact, the whole team is using virtual collaborative tools in new ways.”
Like many people I have spoken to, John has found that along with his new routines, connections, and competencies have come changes to his sense of identity — his sense of who he is and the alternative lives available to him. For instance, John told me that he now regularly has lunch with a neighbor who is an entrepreneur running a small business. Over these lunches, they’ve been talking through a side project they could do together that would broaden John’s business startup skills. He is tentatively exploring the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur.
Many organizations, meanwhile, are looking both inward and outward. They’re grappling with what they need to do differently to attract and retain talented people and what their point of view about work should be. But many tell me they’re also deeply concerned about what kinds of precedents their competitors are setting.
Social Pioneers and First-Mover Organizations Paving a Way Forward
Organizations are right to feel uneasy if they aren’t yet knee-deep in their own experiments. In my interactions with leaders and companies in recent months, I’ve heard talk about a wide range of trials that have been grabbing their attention that involve where people work, when people work, and finding people to work.
Expect the next moves to come from both individual social pioneers and first-mover organizations. These are the people and places responding to this pressure right now with creativity.
Individual social pioneers include those who are working a four-day week, switching from a high-powered job to working for a social enterprise, going part time to spend more time with their kids, ditching their job to start their own business, or taking a sabbatical to explore the world. By making these choices, they become role models for people like John — those who are primed for change but unclear about what to do next.
Social pioneers are showing what these alternative life trajectories and possible selves actually look like. And as more people (particularly those who are highly talented) engage in this inner journey, collectively they create real pressure for organizational change. Some are asking for more flexibility when it comes to when or where they work so they can proactively create a new work-life path. Others are simply resigning — causing executive teams to ask, “What did we do wrong?”
In parallel, the leaders of first-mover organizations are meeting this moment in inspiring ways. Among them are these examples from the U.K. of companies and new policies:
- Yo Telecom, Hutch, and MBL Seminars are among several companies participating in a six-month trial of a four-day workweek that’s being overseen by academics from Oxford and Cambridge universities and Boston College.
- Deloitte has encouraged its 20,000 U.K. employees to decide “when, where, and how they work.” As the region’s chief executive, Richard Houston, said, “We let our people choose where they need to be to do their best work, in balance with their professional and personal responsibilities.”
- Saga, an insurance company that focuses on serving the needs of people over age 50, has begun allowing staff members to take a week off from work, with pay, to celebrate the birth of a grandchild.
- Linklaters, a U.K. law firm, has added a four-week sabbatical once every three years to its list of employee perks.
These kinds of corporate initiatives, combined with the individual actions of social pioneers, will shape the outer boundaries of what’s possible. Their examples will illustrate new paths for working and living. My guess is that any young consultant who feels frustrated by the edict that “everyone has to be back in the office every day” will look at what Deloitte is offering and wonder whether they are at the right company.
I acknowledge that this is not straightforward. Right now, many leaders are stuck between two sources of tension: the tension of enlightenment, where they can begin to imagine what is possible, and the tension of denial, where they are concerned that more flexible working arrangements will negatively affect performance. They grapple with whether change will be necessary or possible. These are legitimate tensions that are only exacerbated by the sense of exhaustion many people feel.
But leaders have a chance now to ease this tension. They can do this by being open to listening to and acknowledging the inner journeys their employees are on, and by looking outside to other companies for inspiration and ideas.
Editor’s note: An adapted version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 print edition under the title “Making Sense of the Post-Pandemic Future.”