There is no downplaying the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic on lives, livelihoods, and mental health. The loss of life is a human tragedy of epic proportions, while the harm to jobs and careers in many sectors has been immense. It is no surprise that the majority of people surveyed say their stress levels are higher than before the pandemic; in some countries, one out of every three people has experienced moderate to severe depressive symptoms over the past year.
Yet, in our work with leaders and organizations across the world, we find a surprising silver lining: the disruption to old ways of working has unlocked new energy, innovation and even inspiration among talent at all levels. For example, when our Egon Zehnder colleagues spoke to leading global CEOs in 2020, the large majority said they felt energized by the crisis, not overwhelmed by it. Many said it was prompting a greater focus on purpose and new degrees of curiosity and emotional commitment across their organizations.
The pandemic-driven rise in remote working has had similarly paradoxical effects. On one hand, it has increased isolation, put strain on many parents, and made it harder for many people to maintain work/life balance. On the other hand, many professionals have found working from home more productive than office-based work – indeed, several studies have shown a 5-10 percent productivity gain attributable directly to greater use of remote working. And, across age groups, most people who have worked from home during the pandemic say they want to continue to work remotely for two or three days a week.
One reason that working from home has proved to be so popular and productive is that it has allowed people to be more authentic at work – and to gain a glimpse not only of their colleagues’ kitchens, children, pets and artwork, but also of their humanity. The pandemic, along with work-from-home videoconferencing, has allowed many workers to remove their “professional mask”. As management thinker Frédéric Laloux remarked to our Egon Zehnder colleagues before the pandemic, “We hide so much of who we are – our joy, our hopes, our doubts, our longings, our quirkiness – behind that mask. [And so] we cut ourselves off from a huge amount of our energy, of our creativity, of our passion.” When organizations enable their employees to “show up whole”, Laloux said, they can unlock extraordinary vibrancy and aliveness.
We believe that the pandemic, amidst all the pain and challenge, has created a unique opportunity to shape more human, and more vibrant, ways of working.
We might call this Human Work… or even “Hum Work”, because people hum when they are in flow, in synch with themselves and the world, and focused on what they are good at and what they find meaningful.
Hum Work is about enabling people to create a fulfilling work and life experience that draws on their full potential and their true strengths – and empowers them to perform and create from within, rather than being externally driven by bosses, bonuses, and blame. For most companies, that will require a fundamental shift in mindset and management behaviors. But the consequence of sticking to old ways of working could be that many talented people simply move on: there is evidence that the disruptions of the pandemic have sparked unprecedented “wanderlust” among talent.
What are the practical steps that leaders can take now to unleash the power of Hum Work in their organizations – and to retain and engage talented people who might otherwise wander off? The empirical evidence suggests three key thrusts:
- Explicitly connect the organizations’ work with higher purpose: firms that do so effectively report a 33 percent increase in engagement among their staff.
- Demonstrate care about your people’s life experience: firms that do so experience a 23 percent increase in employees’ mental health and a 21 percent rise in the number of employees who are high performers.
- Make work flexible, including by supporting a blend of remote and in-person work. Companies with flexible work environments typically experience significantly higher proportions of high performers.
If is to succeed, the transformation to Hum Work needs to be led and embodied by the CEO, HR leaders, and other senior executives. As Egon Zehnder’s research on CEOs shows, when leaders embrace authenticity, they can connect the company’s purpose to what gives them personal meaning and energy – which in turn unlocks natural commitment to their organization, its people, and its stakeholders.
That means shifting from the traditional command-and-control approach to a mindset of constant personal growth, embracing curiosity, adaptability, and focus on building strong teams. As Egon Zehnder Chairwoman Jill Ader puts it: “Now is the time for leaders to choose vulnerability over invincibility.” Hum Work calls for leaders who are deeply connected with their own humanity.
In a time of great human suffering and unprecedented complexity, a pathway to future flourishing is emerging from the mists. That pathway is human-centered work.
HBR, A guide to managing your (newly) remote workers (2020); Ozamiz-Etxebarria et al., Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Levels in the initial stage of COVID-19 (2020); Mental distress among U.S. adults during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020); Unemployment, isolation, and depression from COVID-19 (2020); Gesundheitsreport 2020: Stress in der modernen Arbeitswelt (2020); Office for National Statistics, Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: June 2020 (2020); Shift collective, The future is hybrid; HBR, 9 trends that will shape work in 2021 and beyond; The Effects of Job Autonomy on Work Outcomes: Self Efficacy as an Intervening Variable; Job Autonomy as a Predictor of Mental Well-Being: The Moderating Role of Quality-Competitive Environment; The overlooked essentials of employee well-being; Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.