Based on conversations with clients and professional colleagues, I think we all know that workplaces will not return to what they were in March of 2020 – we have learned things about ourselves and our society that are shaping what happens next. I also believe most of us are still grappling with how ‘what is next’ will look and feel. Some organizational leaders sound like they intend to get as close to their old template as possible; but responding to the pandemic is not the only transformational influence that we need to factor into our plans. The systemic disparities laid bare over the past 15 months have created additional new considerations for talented people, and organizations – of all sizes – that miscalculate the seriousness of the emerging consciousness fed by those considerations will pay real penalties in recruitment, retention and organizational performance.
Racial equity is, of course, the big driver of new urgency, as it should be. That we may finally be grappling at scale with the human and economic consequences of systemic racism is a reason for pride in our collective capacity for fairness and justice. But it must be acknowledged that we are at the very beginning of some really challenging work, and we are so far talking baby-steps. Righting 400-plus years of an economy built on the enslavement of some people and the dispossession of others is going to take some serious realignment of power, of opportunity, of wealth; all with the goal of ensuring our competitiveness for the next century. And those who control those things (power, opportunity, wealth) now are not going to give them up easily – no matter how enlightened and well-meaning they come into the work. Importantly, multiple surveys and studies highlight the increasing expectation of employees and customers that companies must take at least some of the responsibility for progress to improve access to capital, opportunities to build generational wealth, eliminating disparities in health and educational attainment that are the culmination of generations of racism. This is work that business has historically viewed as ‘extracurricular,’ with commitments made that fit into its capacity to deliver financial results. To be held accountable for these societal goals is a new playing field for most business leaders.
Beyond racial equity, we should also be noting heightened activism around the stratification of wealth that has occurred over the past thirty years – and then made glaringly obvious by the pandemic. As we have all learned in the past twelve months, health of ‘the economy’ cannot really be measured by watching the Dow Jones averages. Most working people rely solely on their salaries or wages – which have not come close to keeping up with the growth of the wealth reflected in top corporate and start-up compensation that is tied to stock price performance. When I worked in corporate America (1990), the compensation of top executives was 60 times that of the average compensation for their employees. Today, it is common for that ratio to be more than 400 times. Measured another way: average total CEO compensation grew 1000% from 1978 to 2018; the S&P market grew 700% over the same time frame. Average wages for workers over that time frame: up just under 12. Political leaders and social activists are paying new levels of attention, however. Leaders wanting authentic relationships with colleagues at work are increasingly needing to grapple with how to create a sense of ‘team’ with such stratified approaches to value.
Technology, as well, has continued to create possibilities for re-thinking what it means to work for an organization. The fact that millions and millions of us did not miss a day of work over the past year is truly remarkable; that many companies have concluded that their employees were MORE productive working remotely is transformative. But the reality that millions of other workers were required to show up on the frontlines of factories, hospitals, warehouses and processing plants irrespective of pandemic risks is another recognition of disparities that we cannot ‘un-recognize.’ Both technology and labor organizing can and will be deployed to lessen the risks that too many workers were exposed to last year, because we had not effectively imagined those risks and what it would take to mitigate them.
After more than thirty years working to help organizations ‘take responsibility for being understood,’ I expect the next few years to be an extraordinary period of re-invention in organizational life. Effective communications about and around these dramatic developments will be critical to future success. It is what we’ve specialized in doing throughout the history of our firm: using the power of effective communications to navigate change. Let us know if you’d like to explore working together in these exciting times.