As we close out the year, I am reflecting on where we have been – from life-quakes to the Great Resignation – and considering what comes next for our workplaces. Join me.
Life Quakes – That’s what we called the personal experiences we saw all around us in the early part of the pandemic. Isolation, despair, divorce, job loss, the childcare crisis, isolation of the elderly – this list is inadequate in naming the cracks and chasms that appeared over the last two years. We watched as this slow-motion disaster ripped through our lives at breathtaking speed – rendering time almost irrelevant and eliminating the boundaries between our personal lives and our daily workplace experiences.
Staff meetings were now in our living rooms, makeshift offices in our bedroom, and on our kitchen tables. The impact of each person’s experience was woven into every staff meeting or mundane scheduling activity. It seemed that each conversation was an invitation to be more human as we turned toward personal connections in the workplace because they were unavoidable and because we deeply needed them. I, along with other leaders I know, planned meetings that focused only on personal connections to better support each person while also keeping us connected as a team.
Quakes gave way to aftershocks, which stayed consistent but lessened in intensity. With vaccines and increased attention on accessible health care, hope seemed possible again. We began to think about tomorrow, not just getting through to the end of the workday. We also moved to a time of Re-assessment – asking ourselves what is most important in this newly recognized fragile life. We were able to break the frame on so many assumptions that everything we knew now seemed like a question rather than a statement of fact. We walked around carefully with one another, with a common sense of understanding that most questions and answers were emotionally charged with equal parts exhaustion, hope, and uncertainty.
Many workplaces had seen this before, post 9-11, when we reassessed what mattered most in our lives. We watched as volunteerism shifted, philanthropy shifted, and, yes, the workforce also changed. Making life more meaningful seemed like our collective responsibility. And so, too, in this stage we focused on what we could control. Employees asked for wage increases, title changes, time off, and family leave. Demands for workplace equity were more seen, heard, and heeded (at least more than before). Travel to reconnect with family members became a higher priority, and unspent time off that was loading up our balance sheets was now a conversation. Change was in the air – our tolerance for the intolerable was no longer acceptable as our voices grew louder and more people found their footing and took action.
Maybe we should have seen it coming, but it still seemed to surprise most of us – all the questioning, all the reckoning of how to navigate a world with less health security, fewer childcare options, and less pay than the work deserves and demands. The Great Resignation was in so many ways inevitable, if we had been looking for it. This exodus from the workplace is complicated. On the one hand it is a clear condemnation of our current systems that value the essential work but on the other hand devalues the essential worker. It is also condemnation of a system that requires working parents but undermines the role of parenting. And it is a reckoning of the false choice between economic health and the public’s health and well-being. Woven into this complexity are the pre-pandemic and ever-present workplace inequities and biases that have only been exacerbated. There is no sound bite for all the reasons behind the Great Resignation. What is clear is that true change in our systems is both required and overwhelming for those still in the workplace but is necessary to convince people to stay or to recruit the next workforce to lead the way.
Indeed, if it took only a simple policy shift or a budget adjustment to compete, that would be one thing. But our budgets are baked within grant agreements or contracts or Medicaid reimbursements that have never covered real costs – and certainly don’t now. Add to this that with every staff resignation the work and stress only compound for those who stay. It feels like a lot right now. Really, too much most days.
Even in the midst of this weight and worry, another phase is on our horizon – one of Reimagination of the Workplace. It has already begun, and more is coming as nonprofit board and staff leaders ask different questions about the way forward. Reimagination will not simply be about living wages, but, yes, it should include that, too.
There are signs that we are on the verge of this new era of re-imagination. A nonprofit colleague recently reframed in a social media post that this emergence out of the Great Resignation is actually a great opportunity. She wrote with excitement about how she saw the opportunity for the next generation of staff to truly step-up and step-in to their leadership in ways that simply were previously unavailable. Typically, our nonprofits are so flat that leadership development has often meant that we have to “go-out to go-up.” However, a re-imagined workplace could mean that leaders can now “stay-in and step-up.” What a gift. Sure, maybe all the experience and skills are not there yet. So in our re-imagination we not only get to think about a new worker but a new way of supporting each other.
In this new era, we have to ask new questions about how we bring people into our organizations. Let’s be sure it isn’t just “jump in and see if you swim” but rather conscious support that is more like mentoring and coaching than supervising. All our roles get to change in a re-imagined workplace where the emphasis is on strengths and skills and welcoming new perspectives rather than compliance and constant supervision or worse, doing nothing and hoping that the person doesn’t fail. This takes a different kind of time, energy, and commitment. We may not think we have the time because we are tired and have been doing too much to absorb too few employees. But this is what it takes now to create spaces for leaders to rise, to create possibilities we could not see before, to be flexible in new ways, and to think differently.
I can see this new era dawn in organizations that have struggled to retain front-line staff only to be hammered yet again in the Great Resignation. They are on the verge of thinking differently. Their conversations start with “what if…” and move to exploring a model that does not exist until they invent it. For this to actually occur, their loyalty to the organization will fall to loyalty to those their missions serve. By placing the client in the center of their decisions and not the preservation of the institution or their own egos, the opportunities are powerful. The results could manifest in a chance for a livable wage, real healthcare benefits, accountable and standardized practices of care, and so much more. To be clear, mergers are not necessary for these results to happen but that is one possibility. Moreover, what could be reimagined is a better funded system of services that matches the intentions and the actions of leadership to prioritize front-line staff. What if…
More examples will take form as we all seize the opportunity to reimagine what is possible in our workplaces. What I know now is that we can go there willingly as employers or be pushed by the workforce. What I also know is that we will have to lean on each other to find the energy to think creatively and differently about what is possible, to ask “what if…” together. The temptation to just “go back” to what we knew might feel comfortable, but the consequences now are too great. A welcoming workplace that fosters a sense of belonging, that centers the personal, that focuses on quality results, and that values creative, collaborative solutions is our new normal.
Let’s embrace it together in the new year.