When the historians of the future begin heir books on the Covid-19 era, 2021 alone will merit entire volumes. A year that began with brutal lockdowns and ended with some semblance of normality has left a different world in its wake. Among the more drastic changes has been the way we view work and think about the finances our occupations yield.
In this piece, we reflect on what these changes have meant, from social connections to the impact of the climate crisis, to the need to engage in difficult conversations around finances and consider how our collective experience of 2021 will inform and influence 2022.
The social dilemma
Though necessary to stymie transmission rates, the various lockdowns removed our ability to socialise in ways we had taken for granted and, already bruised from a lockdown-addled 2020, our need for social contact was painfully reinforced.
Though the great Work from Home experiment was largely successful, the value of face-to-face interaction lost none of its potency and this created a dilemma: Remote working – though clearly effective and a desired option for many – was also a model that few wished to persist with exclusively.
Employers were left asking themselves how they could configure their work environments to facilitate enough social connection so that productivity, job satisfaction and culture could be assured, wherever employees operated from. Balance in navigating through this is essential however creating balance is difficult.
It will necessitate drilling down to the individual and accommodating their personal experiences and desires. For example if they live alone, would they prefer to come into the office more often? If remote working better suits their lifestyle, do they have a space within their home that is conducive to work? How will employers manage the conflict with teams and leaders if they are not aligned? Certainly, in few situations will a one-size-fits-all approach deliver the best results.
This is why we believe connectivity will emerge as a key metric organisations use to measure performance.
The Climate Crisis adds a new dynamic
Against a backdrop of troubling weather events, disruptive protests, and dire climatological predictions, COP26 got underway in Glasgow. World leaders lined up to lay down a net-zero gauntlet and some of the numbers presented to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions were eye-watering.
The pressure on businesses to play their part in keeping the world on track for 1.5C of warming will likely further intensify the impact on working practices. For example, will the regularity and dynamic of events such as tradeshows, conferences, and offsite gatherings have to be re-thought? If reducing the number of cars on the road becomes a key objective, will this push more organisations towards remote working models? And how will leaders who have resisted remote working justify their staff travelling to the office if their operations can be carried out from home?
Leaders will also be drawn into a battle of ethics. Will permanently moving to a more remote model be an environmental action worth taking, knowing that it will contribute to the closure of businesses who rely on their office-based workers for custom?
Whatever decisions they take, businesses will come under renewed pressure to demonstrate sustainability and a clear vision for the future.
Difficult conversations get easier
As the pandemic was an event that impacted everyone, albeit to varying degrees, the toll it took on people’s mental health was widely discussed. As people began to speak more openly about their own struggles, much of the remaining stigma surrounding mental health ebbed away.
Woven into many personal stories of mental health battles was the impact of reduced finances. As a society, we have grown more comfortable in asking people if they are OK mentally, however, a barrier remains in asking people if they are OK financially. Given the direct link between mental and financial health, the importance of finding the way to have these difficult conversations needs to become more widely recognised.
For even the most resource-rich companies, providing tailored, face-to-face financial advice for each of their employees is simply too expensive and logistically difficult to achieve. In the meantime, tech solutions are emerging as a powerful means of getting people to think about their finances and develop better behaviours and habits now to benefit them in the future.
Technology can really play a part in this and with the rise of financial wellness solutions which are available to the full workforce, 24/7, allowing users to configure their own journeys, businesses can provide their people with powerful, low-cost, personalised, access-anywhere services that help them to plan better, assume greater control, and boost their financial wellbeing. The conundrum for employers is which one to choose.
The challenges and opportunities of a new year
Although the various lockdowns brought hardship for many, they allowed others to begin saving in ways they hadn’t before. A key challenge will be to encourage the continuity of these saving behaviours as life returns to a version of normal.
Meeting this challenge will depend largely on re-framing how people approach their finances. Though people can relate to day to day spending and take on hints and tips to help them, preparing for the future does not enjoy an equal footing.
One means of making the financial present relevant to the future is to draw parallels with the climate crisis. For decades, scientists have been warning about the impending disaster and yet meaningful action is only occurring now that disaster appears imminent. Lessons can be taken from this and applied to pensions and other funds that deliver future rewards.
As the importance of sustainability and protecting mental health and financial wellbeing is increasingly recognised, businesses will also need to think about what they can offer their employees beyond attractive salaries. New graduates especially are no longer driven purely by financial gain. They want to work for organisations who are making a difference, and who respects their circumstances outside of the office.
As each business is different, providing specific advice on any of these issues is difficult so those wanting to adapt now might instead ask themselves certain questions.
For example, does your organisation have a meaningful purpose? Are you really seeing you employees as an individuals? Are your actions on sustainability matching your rhetoric? How will you develop a balance between presenteeism, remote working, and sustainability objectives? What are you doing to financially empower your people beyond paying a salary?
They are hard questions but the thinking they stimulate could turn to action that proves to be transformational.