At the outset of the pandemic, there was a strong expectation that the whole work-from-home phenomenon would provide a respite from all of the stresses that come with working in an office environment.
The early days of remote work appeared to live up to those expectations. Freed from the stress of things like the daily commute and office politics, working from home seemed like the perfect solution. Initially, productivity surged. And for those working in a truly toxic office environment, it was a chance to avoid bosses and colleagues who create the feeling that we’re constantly under attack.
And then, reality set in.
We quickly learned that many of our assumptions about the nirvana of remote work were simply unfounded. New, pandemic-based stresses replaced some of the old ones we associated with the office environment. The tools we were employing to stay connected created as many problems as they were able to solve.
And most importantly, we learned that remote work is not an antidote for a toxic work culture.
That was certainly the realization one of my clients came to recently. In the middle of the pandemic, I got a call from a C-level leader who was concerned about the dynamics of a team of senior leaders he brought together just before workplaces were locked down. It was an impressive collection of executives, all of them boasting extensive technical knowledge and years of experience.
However, early on the leader started to realize there was a problem. Members of the team clearly did not trust each other. Open dialogue and collaboration were in short supply. Even though they were working remotely, there was an omnipresent friction that started to drain the team of its strategic and problem-solving energies. Work was simply not getting done in the manner that moved the team forward.
What started out as a promising initiative to make the company more agile and productive quickly turned into an episode of Survivor, with small groups of allies breaking off into cabals that worked to undermine each other.
Listening to the leader and others, I started to realize that not only was his team not benefitting from remote work, but the whole experience of virtual collaboration may be amplifying the problems that existed when teams were being formed or transformed.
It all started to make sense. Many of our assumptions going into the pandemic have been largely undermined by the fact that the social and economic restrictions that prompted remote work have gone on much longer than anyone anticipated. As our virtual work experience became more the norm and not the exception, stress fractures began to appear.
As I started talking to more leaders, a few fundamental issues started to come into focus.
Toxicity had manifested in many teams in a number of ways: passive-aggressive or aggressive communication (either through emails/texts or in video meetings); frequent off-hours communication often to criticize or even undermine team members; toxic leaders who take all the credit for successes and absolve themselves of any role in a setback; cliques that seek to exclude certain members of the team from key conversations; a lack of balance from increased demands and expectations at work.
Many teams have also suffered from the fact that, despite the dramatic increase in the frequency of texts and emails between team members, there were far fewer “detoxifying moments” of interaction: casual conversations; social events; the opportunity to tell a joke or an amusing family anecdote.
Like a safety valve, these moments help to de-escalate conflicts that may be brewing. Unfortunately, even though we’ve tried to use things like Zoom happy hours to replicate these important contacts, it does not have the same beneficial effect.
I started to wonder how I was going to help the leaders that I work with.
Although there are solutions for team toxicity, they are much more difficult to deploy in a virtual environment. Ultimately, I began to modify some of the solutions I would recommend to teams who were able to meet in person. While some were easily amended, others required a significant shift in approach by the senior-most leaders who oversee team dynamics and performance.
1/ Virtual should not mean less contact. In a virtual world, one-on-one contact between the senior leader that oversees the team and its members is more important than ever. Leaders need to connect with key team members one-on-one to find out if there are any problems. And it has to be done at much higher frequency; the twice-a-year performance review just isn’t going to cut it in the Zoom era. You need to reach out for quality time with key team members at least bi-weekly, and the entire team at least once a month. Make social interactions part of team meetings; make it part of the agenda every time you have a virtual gathering.
2/ Team members still need to know who they are working with. It is essential to set aside time for team members to share some personal details so they get to know each other. Does anyone have kids and are they home-schooling? Do team members have spouses also working from home? Are some being asked to care for elderly parents? Do they have any particular health problems to deal with? These may seem like mundane details, but they help to humanize the team members. Sharing personal information builds trust, which leads to less interpersonal conflict and better overall performance.
3/ Preach independent problem solving. You need to make it clear that the team must be chiefly responsible for problem solving. Senior team leaders can provide oversight and feedback, but it’s essential that your team can focus on finding its own solutions. A team that is constantly asking a senior leader to mediate disagreements or choose from a range of solutions is a dysfunctional team. Independent problem solving is the hallmark of a healthy team.
4/ Problems need to be fully aired. Good teams do not hide from their setbacks or flaws. But to do that, they must be in a space (even a virtual space) where people can talk openly about problems without fear of reprisal from colleagues. Some of this can be accomplished in the one-on-one sessions mentioned above. But at some point, team leadership needs to create a safe environment for team members to speak openly about problems. Set aside time in every meeting specifically to discuss setbacks or mistakes and what could have been done better. A truly safe team environment is one where everyone can discuss each other’s mistakes without fear of recrimination or embarrassment.
It is important to note that in some instances, a team can only become better by removing one or two members, or even a team leader, who are particularly toxic. Overall, however, most teams do not require invasive procedures to go from dysfunctional to functional, or even good to great.
In this topsy-turvy world of work that we all find ourselves in, all that most teams need is a focused, methodical effort to build the healthy interpersonal relationships that are the foundation of all great teams.
As a leader of a fast-growing global company in the HR space, I am passionate about helping companies realize the full potential of their people, no matter where they are in their career journey or which industry they operate within. The events of 2020 have caused us to adapt personally and professionally in ways none of us could have predicted, and have proven why upskilling and reskilling are so important; we need to evolve at lightning speed to survive, as discussed in our recent article. Businesses are having to rethink how they approach and invest in talent management, with the focus shifting from replacement to redeployment of people.
Investing in career development has become increasingly important as companies seek, retain and develop talent. The way we choose to nurture new and existing skills within the workforce can also help build human-first, future-proof businesses. At LHH, we understand that how we invest in and develop people will result in whether a company thrives or not. We follow the philosophy of the “Return on the Individual”—investing in the development of people at key moments in a person’s career. From when they first join to when they have opportunities to move into new roles or senior leadership positions (or even when seeking roles outside of the organization), this approach has revealed itself to be of prime importance this year.
Reskilling was at the center of the talent conversation in 2020, with several companies, including JPMorgan, Accenture and Verizon, having evolved their approach to reskilling, launching million and even billion-dollar programs to help Americans improve their knowledge and skills during the pandemic. Indeed, the current health crisis has prompted a surge in interest in reskilling among both employers and employees looking to contribute to an adaptable and future-ready workforce. With technology like AI and machine learning automating jobs in many sectors—and the new roles emerging as a result—it’s important that employees stay agile in their skills and engage in continuous learning.
After speaking with Deanna Mulligan, CEO of Guardian Life Insurance Company of America, it soon became clear that fostering a culture of learning within the workforce was already a priority for some businesses pre-pandemic; so much so, that Mulligan wrote an entire book on the subject: Hire Purpose: How Smart Companies Can Close the Skills Gap. Exploring what defines a "learning and growth mindset," Mulligan discussed the organization’s work with General Assembly—a global leader in upskilling and reskilling—and how this investment has already paid off. From the creation of more sustainable roles for graduates to reskilling call center workers to be coders—and even dedicating a day to micro-learning for employees across the business—Mulligan’s advice was to “start small and keep moving forward."
Organizations are waking up to the fact that investing in reskilling and upskilling to prepare employees for the future is ultimately good for their people and their business.
Why make upskilling a priority?
To put it in terms we can all understand, many leaders see little value in investing time and money in staff members when they have no guarantees that they are even going to stay. To them, upskilling is not an investment – it’s a cost, and one that will always be pushed to the bottom of priorities when push comes to shove.
But according to Gartner, managers who are good at developing their direct reports’ skills are known to boost their employees’ performance by as much as 26 percent—yet almost half (45%) of managers say they don’t feel confident doing so.
So, while upskilling might be a trending topic, adaptability must be the primary focus. The old hire-and-fire model for evolving companies is no longer the socially-responsible approach—and even if it was, the volume of expertise needed simply isn’t out there anymore.
Ensure upskilling doesn’t slip through the net
Ambitious people are motivated by personal goals; they are on a journey towards their ideal working life, with all the different stops planned out before them. As a leader, it’s almost impossible to know what that journey might look like. If your team member feels like their journey is being set off course by a lack of communication, personal development opportunities being pushed back, or conspicuously absent pay raises and promotions, they might start to feel lost—and begin looking for another way to get where they need to go.
Of course, while it’s one thing to develop a reskilling plan for your employees—it’s quite another to prioritize (and stick to) amidst trying times. With the usual barriers of being too busy or with attentions diverted elsewhere, the added challenge of effective communication from behind a screen—and knowing when a team member might be ready to engage in that conversation—is one of the reasons why upskilling might fall by the wayside. Ultimately however, this won’t make a difference to your employees. If they feel they aren’t being supported, they will start to feel disengaged; bad news for them, their work, and the business at large.
The bottom line? Upskilling and reskilling can save a company more money than the initial investment involved in delivering it. It sounds like a big undertaking, but not if we view it as a continuous investment. To simplify things and work towards a new vision, I would suggest approaching the challenge in the following three ways:
While it’s crucial that things are kept equitable, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the upskilling and feedback process. Best practice for career development varies from sector to sector, role to role—and of course from person to person. It all depends what stage an employee is at in their career journey—and what their destination might look like. As one of the best ways you could invest in your workforce, both from a personal development and productivity point of view, I anticipate a bright future for those businesses willing to embrace this positive change in 2021.
“Why in the world do you need all of that shampoo and conditioner?”
I was unpacking from a week on the road after staying in four different hotels in four nights when my wife noticed me unloading my toiletry pack with four mini shampoo bottles and four mini conditioner bottles. She stared at me with a puzzled look. In my bathroom closet was a bin full of similar bottles that was growing out of control. And while I never really needed any of it, I knew why I had hoarded it.
As I have noted in earlier blogs, I grew up in a pretty poor family and to this day, I know what it is like to not have enough of the basic necessities in life. It is this experience that I think conditioned me to have a scarcity mindset – a fear that if I don’t get something I want or need, there might not be enough of it later.
Author and businessman Steven Covey first coined the terms “scarcity” and “abundance” mindset in his best-selling 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey said that people with a scarcity mindset “think there is only so much in the world to go around. It’s as if they see life as a pie. When another person gets a big piece, they get less. Such people are always trying to get even, to pull others down to their level so they can get an equal or even bigger piece of the pie.”
Okay, so perhaps my toiletry addiction is a mild example of what Covey is talking about. But I still understand that feeling that comes when scarcity mindset takes hold and can recognize it in others.
Do you remember the toilet paper hoarding that greeted the earliest days of the global pandemic? That is a perfect example of people taking aggressive – if not irrational – action to get something for themselves with the knowledge that in doing so, others would go without.
I’ve also worked for leaders who were dominated by a scarcity mindset. These are the leaders who hoard the credit for business successes and aren’t willing to accept any blame or accountability when things go wrong. These leaders analyze every task and challenge in terms of what they can get out of it for themselves, without any consideration for what that mindset will do to others.
What are some other obvious signs of a leader with a scarcity mindset?
How can leaders escape the scarcity mindset and develop more of an abundance mindset?
There’s no secret recipe for defusing a scarcity mindset. As a business leader, you need to focus on creating a psychologically safe environment for your teams, where people can embrace a fail-fast approach to problem solving and learn from their mistakes. One where everyone carries the burden of failure and shares in success.
A whole bunch of people have tried to define the characteristics of an abundance mindset in business leadership. Here is a list of what I think distinguishes the abundance leaders from the scarcity leaders:
Above all, you need to develop and support your people to be the best they can be, and then help them pursue other career opportunities. In essence, you need to give people the kind of support you would want to have from a leader.
I’m happy to say that I’ve stopped hoarding toiletries from hotels. I still feel tempted, but for the most part I have managed to keep my scarcity tendencies in check. And if I can do it, I feel as if there is hope for all of us.
Everyone is looking for the fastest and most effective way to green our economies. Companies, governments and public institutions are all devoting increasing amounts of financial and human resources to meeting the climate targets set both by the Paris Agreement, and by individual nations.
And as is almost always the case, the smaller players in this global race are watching the bigger players to help mark the best route.
At the end of 2019, the European Commission unveiled its Green Deal—an ambitious plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 through innovation, incentives and mitigation of its social impact.
Great expectations are also building around United States President Joe Biden’s $2-trillion plan to transform the economy by creating millions of new jobs connected to clean energy, energy efficiency and, in particular, the growing electric vehicle (EV) industry.
However, not everyone sees the logic or the potential in these initiatives.
All over the world, we’re seeing skepticism, alarm and even hostility about the whole idea of taking people from traditional industries into new jobs with new skills and a lower carbon footprint.
A recent story in The New York Times graphically demonstrates the magnitude of the skepticism.
The New York Times interviewed Shawn Steffee, one of the leaders of the Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh, PA, who quite passionately argues it is not possible to reskill and redeploy well-paid union workers who have been involved in traditional manufacturing and resource industries into greener, cleaner industries like solar or wind power generation.
“They keep saying, ‘We’re going to transition you into solar jobs,’” Steffee said. “That’s not how it works. We build power plants, petrochemical plants and maintain steel mills.”
Steffee’s comments speak volumes about the poor job that employers and governments have done in explaining the pressing global need to transition workers into more sustainable jobs.
The UK government recently caused an uproar with an advertisement for a jobs reskilling campaign that featured a ballet dancer and suggested her next job could be in cyber security. Not surprisingly, many people in the cultural industries cried foul over the ad and the suggestion that theirs was not sustainable work.
The human face of the transition
These examples highlight the deep need for all green transitions to treat human beings as people and not commodities that can be moved arbitrarily from one job to another. The only thing that everyone should agree upon is that many of today’s jobs will soon be obsolete, either because of climate concerns or their incompatibility with the leading edge of technology.
According to McKinsey, the United States oil industry alone lost more than 100,000 jobs in 2020 due to the OPEC price war and the COVID-19 pandemic. The automotive industry’s aggressive move to electrify its fleets will no doubt continue to force the oil and gas industry to shed even more jobs.
The Adecco Group, in their recent “Skills for the Green Economy” publication, further points out that “without skills development, it is estimated that the global economy could shed as many as 71 million jobs in its move towards becoming circular. On the other hand, smart policies and investment in reskilling could reverse this prospect, so much so that the energy sector alone could produce a net growth of 18 million jobs.”
Undeniably, there is an urgent need to unleash a new generation of re-/upskilling initiatives to enable as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to prepare for the jobs of the future.
Towards a people-centered transition
To ensure that the green transition can be a success, we need to pay more attention to the role human capital and skills play in delivering a sustainable change.
Notwithstanding the big-ticket initiatives in Europe and the United States, most of the world’s leading green technology initiatives don’t do a good job connecting environmental targets with human capital targets.
The Just Transition Fund, a major component of the European Union’s Green Deal, will provide up to €150 billion over the next 10 years in funds for reskilling and loans or loan guarantees for employers that want to shift to green technology.
China has also made progress in this area, retraining workers to take on new jobs in the clean energy sector. Continuing efforts to ween the country off coal-fired electricity generation, China already accounts for nearly 40 percent of all the jobs worldwide devoted to renewable energy.
However, even with all this attention, there is still an enormous amount of disconnect between climate goals and the needs of workers.
Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” plan proposes US $100 billion for workforce training programs and to double the number of registered apprenticeships. However, the details of exactly what kind of training and support programs have not been made public. And although it does often reference things like “skills development opportunities for workers of all kinds,” a White House fact sheet on the jobs plan does not include a single reference to reskilling or upskilling.
Biden’s plan is not alone when it comes to this disconnect. The International Labour Organization noted that among the 183 countries that have committed to the Paris Agreement’s targets, less than 40 percent include “any plans for skills training (or retraining to support their implementation) and (…) more than one in five have no plans for any training or capacity development measures at all.”
Opportunities for businesses
This lack of connection between climate policies and workforce goals represents an opportunity for employers to be proactive for their own competitive brand advantage. From our work supporting organizations and their workers globally as they transition, there are two clear strategies that can help us bring environmental and workforce goals into alignment.
1/ Facilitate work transitions in small increments
Even though the issues are global, the solutions need to be local and individual. While there is no silver bullet, the solutions can be found when all parties involved sit down and find the most logical path from unsustainable industries to fit-for-future industries and jobs.
That is essentially what happened with Spanish energy company Enel-Endesa when it closed the Litoral thermal electricity generating plant. To mitigate the social impact on the region, it collaborated with LHH, public authorities and other partners to look for new opportunities for the infrastructure and the workers. Ultimately, the company launched 20 new renewable energy projects throughout the province to replace the electricity being generated by the decommissioned thermal plant, which in turn created more than 300 jobs for former plant workers.
2/ Put a “people” spin on your Environmental, Social and Corporate Goals strategy
Environmental sustainability goals are no longer in conflict with job creation goals. Look for partners who enable you to elevate the dialogue around environmental, social and corporate goals to your workforce strategy and consider your workforce as renewable power and not as a replaceable asset.
This is what the German automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen has recognized. Instead of proceeding with their original plan to lay off several thousands of employees, they have implemented a transformation plan to reskill and redeploy the affected people into entirely new jobs. In recognizing the potential in their own employees to transition, this company was able to offer sustainable employment while speeding up the transformation towards e-mobility.
The green transition will never accomplish its climate goals unless it can fully align with the human needs of workers. While this is no easy challenge, smart green policies can and will lead to a faster and more inclusive transition.
Together, we can make the green transition into a gHReen transition.