Crises reshape the workplace. They spark a shift in how people think about their jobs, their organizations and their desire to contribute to the world. As an entrepreneur starting and running organizations during the last two global crises, I have seen that along with all the pain comes an opportunity to advance progress, moving towards a more human workplace.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is leading to profound changes that go far beyond just working from home and the explosive growth of online meetings. This crisis is altering the psyche of employees and making it impossible for leadership to ignore the need to humanize the workplace.
In studying the impact of the last two crises on the workplace, we can begin to see the journey to humanize work and predict how the workplace will transform over the next year.
9/11: Relevance and Purpose
Months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, I created the Taproot Foundation, enabling people and companies to do pro bono work. In the weeks after 9/11, our office was flooded with calls and messages from people across the country wanting to do pro bono work, donating their skills to those in need.
The attacks had awakened people’s desire for meaning and purpose in their work. Feeling helpless as they watched the death and destruction, and in awe of the heroism of first responders, millions wanted to contribute to the world in a positive way. As an NYU study concluded, a newfound “search for relevance and purpose” led people to change how they approached their work or even altered their career paths.
At Taproot, we found that it wasn’t just individuals who were increasingly looking to do pro bono work. Corporations wanted to as well—in part because it was so important to their employees. My wife, Kara Hurst, was an early leader in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement, and we saw explosive growth in the number and size of CSR programs in the few years following 2001.
9/11 had awakened a need for purpose in people and organizations adapted to recruit and retain people. Corporations got a clear signal that the rules of engagement had changed. Employees’ commitment to meaningful work continued to grow. A Chapman University study, produced 10 years after 9/11, found lasting outcomes for “organizational policies, employee attitudes and workers’ psychological states,” which included “employees reevaluating the meaning of work.” The companies that embraced these changes saw significantly reduced employee attrition and became employers of choice.
The Financial Crisis: Autonomy and Self-Determination
The “Great Recession,” which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, brought about “the largest economic upheaval in the United States since the Great Depression,” as one study put it.
Its effect on how people approach work was profound. This time, the “bad guy” wasn’t a group of terrorists; it was corporate greed. A strain of thinking going back to the Reagan era, in which corporations were heroes solving problems the government couldn’t, was turned on its head. Edelman’s Trust Barometer found that trust in business sank to historic lows.
Millennials who entered the workforce during this time found few employment opportunities in corporate America and faced the reality that they were unlikely to match the earning potential of their parents. Their only option was to forge their own path, creating portfolio careers and seeking success in their quest for meaning, something they saw their parents lacked.
They didn’t want to depend on corporations for their livelihoods and stability—or their need for meaning. This helped explain the rise of new economic platforms that defined the innovation of the era. Companies like Etsy, Uber and Airbnb empowered people to make money on their own. And we saw the rise of the co-working space to house a new class of freelance workers and small start-ups. Simultaneously, millions also turned to social media, a forum to speak their own minds.
Now the generation entering the workforce is Gen Z. As David and Jonah Stillman wrote in a column for HRPS, the next generation, Gen Z, “grew up during the Great Recession, so we’re pragmatic, independent and in survival mode when it comes to looking at our future careers.”
Having left Taproot at the end of the Great Recession, what I witnessed was a fundamental restructuring of economy to make personal determination and the quest for meaning the primary form of value creation. I coined the term, the Purpose Economy, to describe this fourth economic era in our history.
In the years since the Great Recession, workers have, more than ever, been searching for their own purpose and control over their path. It has coincided with new HR technology that has focused on meeting the needs of the individual—from the rise of pulse surveying to self-directed learning platforms.
COVID Pandemic: Social Connection, Skills Development and Mental Health
Now, as the world grapples with COVID-19, we are seeing three needs in the workplace come into sharp focus that are the critical next step in humanizing work. Over the next two years, we are going to see significant investments in technology that will build human connection, develop soft skills and address the reality of mental health in the workplace.
Once again, people are feeling helpless and want to contribute in a positive way. Separated from friends due to quarantines and social distancing, they have more time to reflect on what matters most to them.
Remote work is also leading to increases in stress and anxiety. In a recent study, Qualtrics found that people working from home are 54 percent more likely to experience stress and 52 percent more likely to be anxious.
In the same study, Qualtrics found that the top challenge of people working from home is social isolation. While working from home has brought attention to the problem, our own study found that roughly half of employees prior to the pandemic reported that they lacked meaningful relationships at work.
Meanwhile, the skills gap that has long troubled businesses is exacerbated. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that the core skill gap wasn’t with technical skills, as the media assumes. It is with interpersonal and leadership skills. When COVID-19 hit, it became abundantly clear that managers were not trained to have strong enough skills to adapt to virtual management. Recent research found that only 29 percent of leaders had the skills to effectively manage virtual teams. We have learned the hard way that task management isn’t the same as people empowerment, empathy and motivation.
The New Workplace: A Focus on Human Connection and Peer Coaching
How do you scale human connection? Online meetings don’t cut it. Frankly, even meeting for coffee doesn’t cut it for most people who lack the skills and tools to have meaningful conversations. Companies going forward are going to have to invest in the infrastructure to support connection and build it into the rhythm of business.
Peer coaching is one way companies can support those relationships. Not to be confused with mentorship, peer coaching is a system in which two colleagues help each other find their own answers to the challenges they’re facing. As professors from Case Western University explained in a column for HRPS, “peer coaching formalizes a personal, supportive connection for mutual help.” People “come together to help each other with personal and professional development, using a reflective process.”
Over the next few years, we are going to see meaningful conversations between peers become the core mechanism for companies to build human connection, develop soft skills, manage change and care for the mental health of their people. It not only achieves multiple goals with one solution, it is a solution that fundamentally aligns with how our brains are wired.
As Josh Bersin, one of the most respected voices on HR, talent and learning, wrote in April 2020, “Peers offer incredibly fruitful learning experiences.” In an Imperative survey, 80 percent of workers said they learn as much or more from their peers as they do from their managers. People who have taken part in peer coaching are 65 percent more likely to feel fulfilled, 67 percent more likely to report being a top performer, 73 percent more likely to feel a sense of belonging and 50 percent more likely to plan to stay with the company for more than five years.
Years spent helping businesses establish peer coaching has shown me its myriad benefits. Done right, it helps employees find their purpose and connect it to that of the organization. Colleagues also share feelings and find camaraderie that, researchers find, can be especially powerful in reducing stress, while enhancing mindfulness and self-care. Peers also help each other establish learning paths to develop new skills. And they form strong relationships with co-workers of different backgrounds, building a culture of inclusion and acceptance.
Perhaps most importantly, peer coaching also helps employees develop new, innovative ideas. A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that only 9 percent of businesses flourish after a crisis. What do they have in common? Rather than laying off many employees, they create an environment in which employees feel safe and work together to develop new ways to save and make money.
Everything I’ve seen, experienced and studied shows me that peer support is central to the model of a future workplace. When businesses embrace this, they build a stronger, better foundation for their workforce and the business itself.
As awful as this time is, something good can come out of it. In the years ahead, with peer support a standard part of work-life, we will be one big step closer to humanizing work.
To learn more about workplace engagement, fulfillment and learning in a post-COVID-19 world, watch Aaron Hurst's webinar on demand.