A lot has been said about how companies treated their employees during the pandemic. Often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t anticipate or choose. An unmuted post-pandemic workforce will equip any organisation with the confidence to once again create a sustainable employment experience that will guarantee organisational harmony and business success. Employees need to take their opinions “off mute” and find their authentic voice to inform on a future that is balanced and fuelled with purpose.
We fail to grasp the significance of the current dilemma facing the world of work, if we think that we are simply dealing with an isolated problem, created by a single virus. Unquestionably, employers’ actions during this pandemic will have a long-term effect on their employment brand – and for the next several years, top talent will most likely vote with its feet and go for companies that showed their humanity and genuine care during the crisis. But we are missing a much deeper crisis that has been allowed to simmer in the hearts and emotions of our workforces for years. Enter the scintillating, fascinating, bewildering, bewitching and tantalising subject of Corporate Governance. Yes, the very irrepressible topic of rules and regulations.
Following a series of corporate governance scandals, which involved exploitative treatment of workers, reforms were introduced to the UK’s corporate governance regime in 2018. From the beginning of 2019, new requirements came into effect which aimed to ensure company boards took into consideration the interests of employees, business relationships with suppliers and customers, the wider community and the environment, as part of their strategic decision-making processes. Perhaps the most notable change was the requirement for major Boards to engage with employees and other stakeholders to effectively understand their views and opinions. This was presented both as an attempt to rebuild trust in the workforce and to afford a stronger voice for workers in the design, development and implementation of individual organisational corporate governance models. This new landscape predicted not only a role in ensuring workers’ needs were met, but also as a way of increasing their influence in corporate values, economic performance, environmental sustainability and employer accountability. The hope was that, with greater structured input from employees and their representatives, these governance reforms would broaden most corporate governance frameworks, moving them to a more genuine holistic stakeholder vision beyond the existing tokenistic legal and regulatory nods in that direction.
As for the pandemic, many assumed that every piece of innovation and change in the governance arena – whether in development, testing or its infancy – would find itself stalled on the dusty white boards of empty meeting rooms in abandoned buildings in ghost towns across the country. To some extent, COVID did exactly that, indirectly impacting on the development of a broader understanding and application of modern governance models. However, it did much more to benefit and prepare the ground for a more inclusive environment, where leaders are finally beginning to see and understand the dangers of failing to engage, failing to listen and failing to act strategically on the input received from their workforce. More than anything else during these tragic times, managers and workforces alike have begun to realise that work as we knew it before the pandemic, had become nothing more than adult day care. The pandemic exposed how much work had become numbingly repetitive and unfulfilling, as strategic initiatives poured out of unaccountable boardrooms, removing the ability for local innovation or homegrown redirection. Globalism and a claim of a shrinking world tried to justify a lack of Executive interest in employee input, but it was to no avail. In a pre-COVID work environment millions of workers were already working out that they were governed by a set of rules, that determined that everyone was expected to be in at a certain time, to stay until a certain time, to attend certain meetings and to look busy in between.
Until Boards genuinely appreciate that it is not a platitude when they are told their company’s workforce is one of their most important assets, they will never fully understand the need to garner greater employee input into the core culture and agreed values and behaviours of their organisation. From my experience in both public and private organisations I have repeatedly found that it is the workforce that will have the first-hand knowledge about how their organisation is really performing. It is the workforce that picks up negativity before anyone in the boardroom. It is the workforce that has direct contact with a wide range of other company stakeholders, such as suppliers and customers and can perceive their level of satisfaction months before the sales team. It is the workforce that mirrors the true values and true behaviours of their organisation as they imitate the very behaviours imposed on them by leadership, which they then emulate onto the organisation’s clients and customers. I understand that explaining the rules and identifying workplace boundaries may not be the most inspiring aspects of an employee’s activities, but as many organisations enter this new and exciting hybrid workplace, it is more important than ever that we ensure as many views and opinions are considered in the creation of a governance framework that has to work remotely and, at times, beyond the regular intervention of middle and senior leaders. Hybrid working with a much heavier reliance on collaboration platforms, file sharing and channel creation will make it more important than ever that organisations ensure that governance decisions are not left to the inhabitants of the ivory tower or worse to an individual leader.
Modern, employee-focused holistic governance regimes have the potential to enable teams with diverse sets of deliverables to address critical factors, impacting outcomes more efficiently and operationally – with delivery cadences, customer experience and organisational sustainability – in a manner that garners whole organisational support and buy-in from the outset. History has shown that when a strong governance regime is lacking, inconsistencies and negative surprises will interrupt or even reverse organisational progress. Without effective governance, specific outcomes are left to fate. The rules of the game have changed. In this moment of choice and consequence, it’s critical to set a bold destination. If there’s one thing I believe we can all agree on, it is that the world of work is changing quickly. In this new, rapidly changing world, organisations no longer have the luxury of waiting to see what happens, sitting back hoping to learn from the early mistakes of others. Gone forever are the days when the norm meant everyone patiently waiting for a few executives to set the rules and pass them down to managers who, in turn, would pass them down to employees. With UK resignations hitting a 20-year high at the end of 2021, the war for talent has gone well beyond attracting and retaining a few specifically talented employees. Talent today includes every worker on the payroll and these talented people are seeking out organisations where employees are driving the decisions and conversations. The ‘Great Resignation’ we are all reading about is not a mad dash away from the office. It’s the culmination of a long march towards employee empowerment. It’s time to redesign our governance regimes with a new and vibrant human focus, so that organisations can thrive today and for years to come.”
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