Report from the Front Lines of Workplace Disruption

Athletic female rock climber.

As the son of a vaudeville entertainer, standup comedian Jacob Rodney Cohen had showbusiness in his blood. But his father was also a deadbeat dad, so Cohen was always worried about supporting his family. Before becoming a regular on the late-night talk show circuit in the 60s, he sold aluminum siding as a backup plan. Nobody will ever know how far he could have gone in business. But if Cohen had failed as an entertainer, and hadn’t made it in sales, there is reason to believe he would have felt right at home in human resources. After all, on stage, where Cohen was better known as Rodney Dangerfield, he used the catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!”

Anyone who cares about meeting workplace objectives should seriously value human resources, especially today. But for years, HR professionals have been undervalued, and not just by colleagues. Any Google search for “HR jokes” will produce millions of unflattering attempts at humour that belittle the profession. Consider this gem: “Why should I hire you?” the HR manager asked an interviewee, who quickly responded: “Because this company needs someone who knows why they should hire people.” As an SHRM article by workplace journalist Dana Wilkie pointed out in 2017, the popular media also routinely dumps on the profession by depicting “HR managers and consultants as villainous, frosty, conniving, deceptive, ineffectual and bumbling.”

Other internal-service functions are underappreciated, a price paid for indirectly serving the bottom line. But while there are plenty of high-profile bad actors in other professions with reputational woes (take a bow, finance/accounting), it is relatively hard to find HR people who don’t strive to serve the greater good. The whole profession is about caring for others. And as noted in SHRM’s article on HR’s reputation, most people in the profession are not real-life versions of Toby Flenderson, the ineffectual HR manager on NBC’s The Office. They tend to be more like Janine Davis, the capable HR administrator on “The Big Bang Theory,” who had her hands full dealing with entitled and politically incorrect kooks who repeatedly did outrageous things at work.

A more recent SHRM article by SAP executive Steve Hunt looked at why HR workers are the Rodney Dangerfields of capitalism. Among other things, Hunt pointed out that most outsiders have no clue about how much effort goes in to building, deploying, and maintaining HR practices, not to mention what it takes to ensure they are effective, which requires staying “on top of the technological, cultural, and economic forces that constantly reshape the nature of HR.” True enough. And this was the case before 2020 presented HR with new and unprecedented challenges that almost appear insurmountable.

As the second wave of COVID-19 was ramping up last year, a virtual summit brought together senior HR professionals from across Canada to discuss working on the front lines of organizational disruption. Organized by the Ivey Academy—the executive development arm of Western University’s Ivey Business School—the event was spread over three days, each with a different hot topic on the agenda.

The gathering in question produced no concrete answers. Organizers certainly did not provide any set strategies for managing people during these chaotic times or the post-pandemic world. This, of course, was by design. Because there are no clear solutions to the challenges faced by today’s organizations, the summit was run like a support group, offering attendees an opportunity to take comfort in the fact that they are not alone as they try to maintain productivity along with the health and morale of employees isolated by social-distancing measures, while also being tasked with somehow figuring out the future of work during a time defined by uncertainty, not to mention how to deliver on all the corporate promises that have been made surrounding equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

One attendee, an industry veteran who has helped organizations navigate various forms of workplace disruption over three decades, set the tone for the event early on by somewhat playfully suggesting that no amount of therapy could help HR professionals maintain composure as they ride the “emotional rollercoaster” that comes from being at the nexus of the workplace issues brought on by the pandemic and last year’s human rights protests.

But the summit wasn’t just about enabling senior HR managers to blow off steam in a safe place. Hosted by Ivey Academy executive director Mark Healy, along with Ivey faculty members Martha Maznevski, Tony Frost, and David Loree, the immersive and interactive event provided HR workers with an opportunity to break free of their own isolation and share insights and lessons learned with peers from other organizations while collectively looking beyond the mainstream for new ideas in breakout groups.

Ivey Business Journal attended the summit as an observer, but because of the nature of the event, this publication can’t report on specific problems discussed or attribute comments made by attendees. General insights along with Ivey Academy takeaways and graphic illustrations of each day’s discussions are presented below with some reporting on the current state of the workplace.

DAY 1: EQUITY, DIVERSITY, AND INCLUSION

The Ivey Academy HR summit began by challenging participants to ideate radically new approaches for addressing the long-standing issues around bias and respect in the workplace. The key term in this challenge was “new approaches” because—as last year’s civil rights protests demonstrated—all the institutional programs conducted around EDI in the past have failed to deliver what is expected today, not to mention what justice demands.

Simply put, when it comes to EDI, HR has been tasked with transforming organizational rhetoric into organizational reality, which will involve further raising stress levels and workplace tensions during a global health crisis that has many people uninterested in making behavioural adjustments. While acknowledging this, summit attendees nevertheless expressed an “If not now, then when?” consensus, noting that waiting to initiate meaningful EDI initiatives was not a viable option, since the momentum that exists today for meeting internal and external expectations can be lost.

In addition to respectfully collecting the data required to effectively implement programs that will help ensure organizations better reflect the communities in which they operate—which requires making all employees feel safe openly being themselves—the need to weave organizational tensions into positive cultural change while assuring everyone across the organization sees supporting cultural change as a shared responsibility was discussed.

Listening to employees impacted by bias and racism and then respectfully telling these stories (with permission) across the organization, reaching others blinded by privilege, was one summit attendee’s suggested starting point. This was considered particularly important for Canadian organizations, which need all concerned to understand that systemic racism and bias are as big an issue here as they are across the border in the United States. Doing this without creating an “us-versus-them” environment or putting the onus for driving change on employees impacted by cultural failings was talked about as an obvious must.

While leadership support was considered critical to EDI initiatives, HR summit attendees discussed having the immediate focus of cultural change initiatives target people-facing managers in order to drive progress as fast as possible. The need to ensure equity and inclusion are in place before launching significant diversity initiatives was another key summit takeaway.

Graphic artist Sam Hester created the illustration below highlighting the insights and issues discussed on Day 1 of the Ivey Academy HR summit. It can be accessed for clearer viewing here.

Equity, diversity and inclusion

DAY 2: FROM STAYING AFLOAT TO CHARTING A COURSE

The second day of the Ivey Academy HR summit examined the operational issues and foundational shifts in work habits that followed last year’s pandemic-driven great displacement, aiming to help employers plan the future of work. Some organizations have already decided what their new or next normal will look like. According to a tweet issued by Shopify CEO Tobias Lutke in May, “office centricity is over.” Whether this is true or not, the Ottawa-based e-commerce company plans to take on the challenge of moving forward as a “digital-by-default” organization (with some offices kept for recruitment and face-to-face collaboration) despite reportedly experiencing issues related to social connections and collaboration. Meanwhile, other companies are looking at splitting office-based and remote work, and some have already decided how they will do this. Open Text, for example, has announced it will only reopen 50 per cent of its offices, leaving the Waterloo, Ont.-based software maker with a different challenge than Shopify: managing two distinctly different employee experiences without turning anyone into second-class employees. But most organizations are still trying to figure out what level of remote work makes sense for their future operations.

As noted in the IBJ Insight “Cultivating Virtual Competence,” while plenty of executives and employees dream of pre-virus norms, and some major real estate investors are betting on their return, nobody really knows what remote will mean in terms of employee performance down the road. Keep in mind that the remote work of today will not be the remote work of tomorrow. As things stand, being stuck inside has people frustrated with pandemic safety measures, not to mention each other. According to a public opinion survey by Research Co., more than one-in-four Canadians say outside noise has increased over the last year, leading to an increase in complaints about the quality of home life (and work life) being impacted by traffic, car alarms, dogs, and noisy neighbours.

As the IBJ article on virtual competence points out, virtual work “will become much more attractive to many individuals once they are free to spend personal time with friends and family, not to mention with strangers in gyms, restaurants, theatres, and so on.” As a result, the only thing certain about the future for many employers is that it “will include a level of virtual work significantly greater than during pre-pandemic times—even if vaccines free organizations to return to their offices without investing in ventilation upgrades and distancing-related redesigns.”

When examining the future of remote work, HR summit attendees noted long-term office space leases will have a say about what’s possible at many organizations, along with operational concerns, employee wellness and engagement issues, and the ongoing de-humanization of work (more on this later).

Ironically, organizational responses to the pandemic have some long-time remote workers feeling more connected than ever, but this just highlights the WFH divide that exits when operating with a mix of employee experiences.

To better manage the current normal, summit attendees discussed the need to further develop employee support initiatives, virtual working skills, and leadership empathy, which was widely seen as key to maintaining trust. Beefing up remote coaching and mentoring (including reverse mentoring), and moving to break down virtual silos were also seen as important measures that could mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Immediate priorities discussed were figuring out how to better help employees currently struggling with work overload and mental health issues. This identified a common problem. According to Statistics Canada, about a third of Canadian adults experienced a decline in mental health last year, but while most employers offer support programs, many employees resist using them, especially men.

To help maintain effective communications and transparency during the pandemic, one summit attendee suggested leaders hold virtual “Ask Me Anything” sessions, noting they would have to be prepared for “white knuckler” discussions full of “raw” interactions. To improve recruitment, which is currently hampered by the reluctance of targeted talent to jump ship amid unprecedented uncertainty (especially if probationary periods are on the table), another summit attendee suggested redesigning recruitment documents to make them more interactive.

Looking longer term, summit attendees discussed the need to accept that change itself could define the new normal, and move to foster cultures with a greater love of learning along with more organizational resilience (see the IBJ Insight “Building Corporate Resilience”). Shifting mindsets by rethinking processes and operations across the organization in virtual terms was also seen as a “must do” in order to better understand the big-picture pros and cons of making remote work permanent.

Keep in mind that when running remotely, organizations can tap into a much larger talent pool, but hiring for remote positions impacts other things, ranging from individual operating hours, benefits, and taxes to onboarding and corporate culture.

The graphic illustration of Day 2 of the Ivey Academy HR summit is below. It can be accessed here for clearer viewing.

from staying afloat to charting a course.

DAY 3: RE-HUMANIZING THE WORKPLACE

The final day of the HR summit took a deep dive into the impact of the pandemic on trust, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and wellness.

Being physically separated by physical distancing measures and lockdowns has affected families and friends, but at least they have strong bonds. Organizations have weaker glue, which is why developing a shared sense of purpose and humanity is key to running a productive workplace, not to mention making it sustainable, equitable, diverse, and inclusive. And unfortunately, today’s displaced workplaces have lost informal in-person interactions while having their corporate cultures put on life support by COVID-19.

For years, alarms have been raised over the impact of technology on employee engagement. In 2011, Peter Voyer, a retired Canadian artillery officer, published an IBJ Insight entitled “Courage in leadership: From the battlefield to the boardroom,” which noted: “Modern managerial techniques, introduced in the name of efficiency and economy, often tend to dehumanize the organization and its constituent individuals. Because machines obey instructions consistently and without questions or complaint, many managers assume that people should respond in the same way. They don’t.”

While these alarms were largely ignored, the digital age accelerated the dehumanization process, which has been further fueled in recent years by increasing political divides, growing economic inequality, and the treatment of individuals as commodities. The pandemic, of course, has now essentially stripped the workplace of direct human-to-human interaction as work hours rise and worker stress soars.

Pandamic causes staggering loss of working hoursDespite the lack of commuting, working days for Canadians lucky enough to keep their jobs have increased by about 2.5 hours on average, according to a recent report based on virtual private network data, which is partly due to the loss of working hours created by layoffs (see Statista chart). While working longer days and facing uncertainty about their future, employees who live alone are also struggling with extreme isolation. Meanwhile, parents working from home are not just being distracted by their kids, they are worrying about them. According to a SickKids study of more than 1,000 parents and 350 children during the first lockdown, about 70 per cent of children experienced a deterioration in mental health last year.

Considering all the above, it isn’t surprising that employee mental health issues are on the rise, along with drug and alcohol consumption, all of which impacts employee engagement. During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis—when media headlines were more about people coming together than leadership failures—Gallup tracking found that employee engagement in the United States had jumped to the highest point since tracking of the metric began in 2000. But “following the killing of George Floyd in late May and subsequent protests and riots on top of a pandemic, unemployment, and attempts to re-open some businesses,” it plummeted to 31 per cent—with leaders and managers reportedly affected the most—in what Gallup called the “most significant drop” in its history of tracking employee engagement.

According to HR summit participants, while employees who need to work together are virtually transacting with each other, they are not always listening to each other or caring to understand each other or showing real interest in each other or capable of accurately reading each other. Meanwhile, employees who don’t have to work with one another might as well work for different organizations. In other words, in many organizations, meaningful cross-functional interactions have come to a screeching halt.

Noting a decline in both professional courtesy and caring about other perspectives, summit attendees discussed dealing with an increase in problematic and inappropriate behaviour.

Furthermore, as organizational leaders promise to deliver on EDI, HR professionals say losing the diversity that existed in offices before remote work became the norm—along with the loss of serendipity and spontaneity—has weakened organizational creativity and innovation.

The ability of many workers to focus on their jobs has also seriously suffered because everyone is booked, or double booked, into a seemingly endless string of daily meetings that do not foster collaboration because everyone just wants them to quickly end so they can move on to the next one.

While re-humanizing the workplace should have been a priority before the pandemic, it is now even more urgent as organizations strive to meet expectations around EDI, and figure out how to maintain the engagement of significant numbers of remote workers going forward.

While there is no single best practice for doing this, HR summit attendees discussed the need to serve as workplace liberators by using new ideas to go well beyond offering flexible hours, technical training, and mental health support programs (all of which remain important).

With free time currently as valuable as bitcoin, one idea that could go a long way toward immediately increasing employee productivity and engagement involved introducing blackout periods in which no company meetings would be allowed. Using high-end virtual events that don’t feel like a bad party (such as cross-function trivia nights run by professional comedians or team cooking lessons offered by professional chefs) to boost energy and drive more informal interactions between business units and employee families was also discussed.

Other ideas for improving organizational connectedness ranged from sending out Uber Eats vouchers to encourage informal team lunches to having senior executives conduct virtual check-ins with employees to chat about things like corporate purpose and life in general, not performance.

Looking longer term, HR summit attendees discussed rewiring organizations to put people back where they need to be—above brands and financial results.

The graphic illustration of Day 3 summit discussions is below. It can be accessed here for clearer viewing.

Re-humanizing the workplace

IVEY ACADEMY TAKEAWAYS

When it comes to the current state of HR, the following comment from one summit participant said it all to Ivey Academy executive director Mark Healy: “HR can be lonely at the best of times and it is not the best of times.” The virtual event was “almost off-putting,” according to Ivey Professor David Loree, who observed that it offered a temperature check of the HR community that indicates pressure on the profession has never been higher. “The things we were talking about were not just nice-to-haves,” he noted. “I put them in the bucket of imperatives, and I have a feeling that everyone is exhausted.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Canada’s HR leaders haven’t given up. Despite feelings of isolation and burnout, they came to the table with plenty of excitement and optimism as they collectively confronted their common challenges. Ivey Professor Tony Frost called this HR’s pandemic-induced “yin and yang,” and it is only natural since HR is tasked with keeping our workplaces together during a global health crisis while planning the future of work in an unstable environment of unprecedented unknowns. As Ivey Professor Martha Maznevski put it, HR is stuck in the middle of a massive storm, but it isn’t like operating in the eye of a hurricane—because there is no calm.

That brings us to more bad news with a potential silver lining. When it comes to doing what it takes to create equitable, flexible, and humane workplaces, one of the big takeaways of the HR summit was that the challenges are a lot bigger and more complicated than most organizations want to admit. As a result of these same challenges, however, Canadian organizations might just have a significant leg up on foreign competitors in the post-pandemic global economy.

While noting that meeting expectations is “going to be a really big task,” Loree thinks Canadian organizations might just be “best set” to rebuild the workplace in ways that best foster EDI, innovation, and humane cultures thanks to our nation’s underpinnings as an economically advanced, culturally diverse, and relatively tolerant country with a well-educated and skilled workforce. With both Brexit and the Trump administration in the world economy’s rear window, collectively setting the global standard for equitable, flexible, and innovative workplaces would help Canada as the global competition for talent heats up.

Maznevski warned that Canada’s business community has a reputation for being complacent. But she was encouraged by what she described as the collective sense of urgency she witnessed during the HR summit, and she was impressed with ideas put forward, particularly a suggestion that HR must frame the goal of rebuilding the workplace as a mission of liberation, rather than control, which recognizes that “people have the capacity to deal with some of these things if we don’t weigh them down with other things.”

“2020 didn’t just disrupt the workplace, it rewired thinking about what’s possible.”

Admitting this analogy sounds a bit cheesy, Loree described the workplace as a snow globe that had just been shaken with unprecedented force. When everything that has been disrupted settles, the inside of the snow globe will look different. But organizations have a say in how things will settle, so there is the chance to improve things across the board, which is a huge opportunity.

And 2020 didn’t just disrupt the workplace, it rewired thinking about what’s possible. In the pre-COVID days, as Frost pointed out, plenty of companies were making headlines with digital transformation plans, but with limited scope and 18-to-24-month rollouts. Thanks to the pandemic, these projects were super-sized on an accelerated clock with project managers often working remotely. In other words, 2020 reminded everyone that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that reminder now has a legacy of its own since corporate eyes have been opened to magnitudes of change with timelines that would have seemed impossible less than a year ago.

Another legacy of the health crisis, Frost points out, is the increased attention paid to values, purpose, and relationships, which has far-reaching implications for corporate cultures, operations, and governance, as well as the demand for work–life balance.

The HR community clearly has a full plate—and it is not just piled up with opportunities for change. Following last year’s civil rights protests, public protests made EDI a real business priority. But putting social justice on the corporate agenda took longer than anyone can justify. As a result, as Maznevski explains, 2020 did not just hand our organizations an opportunity to change dramatically, it created an obligation to make things just.

Based upon Ottawa’s response to COVID-19, a Globe and Mail editorial recently noted, there may well come a day when the term “let’s Canada this project” will mean to slowly roll out a new measure well after it’s needed, but in the knowledge that it can still do some good.

The Canadian private sector doesn’t have to display this native incrementalism when facing its challenges as employers. As we redefine the workplace, some companies are creating new C-suite positions like chief diversity officer and chief of remote work. But if today’s businesses want to make the most out of the opportunities being presented and meet expectations for social justice, it is time to give HR the C-level respect it deserves. Put simply, any book about being an HR professional today could easily share the title of Rodney Dangerfield’s autobiography—It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me—so let’s bang some pots and pans together for the front-line workers of workplace disruption and give them the support they need to effectively perform their mission-critical jobs.

About the Author

IBJ Editor Thomas Watson is an award-winning business journalist with significant experience in the corporate world, where he headed investor relations (and served as a whistleblower) for a global….Read Thomas Watson's full bio

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