What’s going to happen this year? That’s the million dollar question.
There is no way to know for certain. The future is yet to be written and when we feel too certain that we know what’s going to happen, the universe has a way of reminding us that we aren’t in control.
Today, I’m going to share with you what I expect from 2022 and what you might want to consider in terms of actions as you prepare for the journey ahead.
Let’s dive in.
What to expect in 2022
There are so many trends and variables to consider when looking ahead to 2022. To keep this from turning into a book-length post, I’m going to focus on the two biggest factors that I believe will shape the year ahead for the world of work.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the COVID pandemic.
The best analysis I’ve seen recently on where we are trending is in a recent McKinsey article. The punchline is that there’s little evidence to suggest that things will improve over the next six months, but they could still get worse in terms of infection rates and hospitalizations related to COVID.
There’s also no evidence that sea-change is coming among the anti-vax population in the U.S. to move the needle on vaccination rates. Plus, given the recent fumbling by the CDC in issuing updated guidance about how to respond to COVID exposures and infections, it’s unclear how much we’ve actually learned about how to beat this thing.
Nothing right now suggests that this pandemic will be over any time soon. So, regardless of how “over it” we feel, we need to embrace that we are likely in for another year of pandemic adjusted life.
If you were hoping for a full return to office transition any time in the next six months, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to happen.
FORECAST: The pandemic will persist throughout 2022. The end is not in sight.
Just this week, new data came out showing that we set another record in November for quits in the U.S. This is adding fuel to the narrative that there’s a significant labor shortage.
But is it a labor shortage or are we experiencing a long overdue adjustment?
As you look a bit closer, the story behind what’s happening is interesting. For example, it appears that many of those resigning and leaving the workforce are baby boomers who are opting for early retirement or perhaps are just fed up with the current state of work.
It’s not clear if too many of them have any interest in ever coming back to work.
There’s also a fair amount of evidence that people’s attitudes and beliefs about work are shifting pretty dramatically. Employees are starting to exercise greater agency and opting out of situations that aren’t working for them.
For example, if you aren’t aware of the Reddit “antiwork” forum, you should read up on that now. It has grown from 150,000 to 1.4M users during the pandemic. I’m personally not sure it’s really anti-work, but rather anti the broken way we manage work today. Here’s the money quote from this article.
“The most common issues that members raise on the sub, says rockcellist, are “stagnation of wages, overworking, being expected to be on call on and off the clock.” Overall, he says, “we see a lot of people in the sub who are just frustrated with the hierarchical structures at work and how they’re treated.”
This sounds more like they are fed up with how they are being treated and valued at work, than being against work. They want something different and better and it’s hard to blame them.
When you combine this shift in employee sentiment with the tools of social media, it starts to feel like a movement.
Have you heard of “QuitToks” yet? Give this a read. QuitTok is the name used to describe when people go to TikTok to publicly announce that they’ve quit their jobs. It’s a powerful look into how broken the work relationship is for employees from the employee perspective.
Most people are referring to all of this as the Great Resignation. But, I think what’s happening is more of a Great Awakening. Ever since the success of Arab Spring and the role social media played in it, I’ve been expecting and predicting that a revolution was coming for work.
It is only a matter of time before employees realize that if they claim their agency and unite using social media, they have the power to drive real systemic change for work.
And even if the economy tips back in favor of employers, the attitude and perception shifts of employees is likely permanent. This is a wake up call for all employers.
FORECAST: The Great Resignation and labor shortages persist through 2022.
FORECAST: Employee attitudes about work continue to shift towards demanding better pay, better treatment, and greater flexibility. Organizations that don’t adapt will suffer significant talent loss in the year(s) ahead.
How to Navigate the Road Ahead
Unfortunately, when you take these forecasts together, it essentially means that we are in for more of the same issues and challenges we’ve been dealing with over the past year. To make 2022 look fundamentally different, there is a big mindset shift we need to make.
Our current reality IS the new normal.
Part of what’s making things challenging right now is that too many people are waiting. Waiting for the pandemic to be over. Waiting for this period of uncertainty to end. Waiting for everything to go back to how it was before. Waiting to get back to the office.
The waiting is causing as much harm to work as the external disruptions that triggered the waiting in the first place. Waiting is fear in disguise. The time for waiting is over. A new future of work is upon us and this is our year to adapt to it.
If you are ready to move forward to create an organization that will both attract and retain great people and one that offers an experience where they can do their best work, here are a few things that I’d recommend you focus on this year.
1. Abandon the debate about hybrid, remote, or onsite work. It’s the wrong discussion. Instead, invest your energy in redesigning work in an employee-centric way.
When I hear companies touting their new “hybrid” work policy where employees are working onsite for three days and home for two, It makes me sad because they are missing the opportunity of this moment. And I feel like they are missing the point.
What employees have discovered during the pandemic is that they want flexibility. And not just flexibility, but flexible flexibility. They want to be able to shape their work experience around the needs and preferences of their life outside of work.
While a two days at home and three days in the office policy might seem like a big step in the right direction to a traditionally 100% onsite company, it’s really just a different sort of inflexibility. What about the employee who really can’t effectively work from home? Or the employee who really benefits and makes their best contributions when working from home full time?
What we should be doing is starting from scratch and completely rethinking and redesigning how we organize and manage work. My recommendation would be to use human well-being as a framework to start with. Here’s what that might look like.
This is no small feat. But at its essence, it means that we start with the question “What does the employee need to thrive at this task/role/job?” Reshaping work around what individual human beings need to thrive is challenging to do at scale and that will take time to facilitate.
But, there is a secret weapon you already have at your disposal to help you make progress right away. That brings me to my next recommendation.
2. Reskill, upskill, and liberate your managers.
It’s time to face an uncomfortable reality. Most of our people management practices really weren’t working all that great back when the norm was being in the office together all the time.
Now that people are distributed and employees have very different expectations about work, those old management practices are fully obsolete. If you haven’t been actively working to equip your managers for how to lead in this new era of work, they are likely struggling.
As evidence, recent Gallup data shows that burnout for managers continues to increase. Managers are overdue for some support and guidance to help them find their footing in this disrupted new era of work.
Managers are in the best position to facilitate flexible flexibility for their teams. But, it requires a new set of skills and tools than in the past. For one, it requires that managers are able to build a different kind of relationship with their people where conversations about well-being live at the center of it. This will require developing new competencies in relationship skills, communication, and compassion.
In the past, management was about control and oversight. Those days are gone. The role of the manager moving forward is as a cultivator of human performance. This requires that a manager has the ability to identify the needs and obstacles of each individual so they can get each employee what they need to be at their best.
This also means that the organization has to give managers more agency and trust to take action on behalf of their people. For example, in place of HR or Executive dictated policies for work schedules or office hours should be individual agreements made between manager and employee that might be adjusted on a weekly basis to balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the job.
For this to succeed, managers need a new set of tools and skills for managing performance. Freedom and flexibility can only be optimized for the employee when there is crystal clarity about performance and behavioral expectations. This must be complimented by mutual and consistent accountability processes.
To most quickly and effectively reshape the work experience to work better for employees, start with your managers. Your managers have the greatest ability to impact and shape employee experience. This is why I’ve gone all-in on management training and development in my own work.
3. Prioritize mental health right now (and forever more).
Back in September, I wrote about finish lines and how our obsession will finish lines is part of what is making the pandemic experience really challenging. In the U.S., we thought we’d crossed the pandemic finish line last July and yet, here we are.
I think we are all struggling with this in our own ways. The prolonged periods of uncertainty, constant disruption, and perpetual change is taking a toll on all of us.
We are “over it” and yet it persists.
After being overlooked and stigmatized for so long, employee mental health has been forced to the forefront in the past two years. Given what’s likely to unfold this year, this trend probably gets worse, perhaps much worse, before it gets better–unless we take bold action now.
One of the things that worries me most about this issue is that we think we are making more progress than we are. There have been several surveys (like this one) over the past two years that reveal a big gap between how well executives feel they are doing in supporting employee mental health and how employees rate those same efforts.
We aren’t doing enough.
This isn’t just about providing counseling resources or improved health benefits. It’s also about the issues I’ve already described and designing work to support rather than diminish well-being.
It’s about ensuring workload isn’t excessive. And it’s also about ensuring the employees are connected and forming meaningful relationships through work.
For more information and resources, you can find great resources at WELCOA and Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.
2022 is an Opportunity
While my forecast probably doesn’t feel very optimistic to you, I’m actually pretty bullish about the year ahead. The pandemic has been awful in so many ways. But, the silver lining has certainly been the disruption it has caused to work.
The longer we remain disrupted, the more dangerous it becomes to wait it out and cling to the old ways of doing things. My hopeful view is that 2022 is the year when we finally stop waiting and seize the opportunity to completely reinvent work.
That may mean some short-term pain when it comes to employee turnover and recruiting. But the shifts that are underway will benefit all of us for decades to come.
We must be bold enough to take advantage of this moment.
2022 is the year of transformation. It’s the year that we stop waiting and step boldly into the future.
I’m excited for the journey. I hope you are too.
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