We just entered a new year and that means a year ahead to look forward to. What better way to tackle the challenges and opportunities head on by anticipating what’s to come. Once again, Debra Adey and Lisa Schmidt share what they are reading, hearing, and intuiting about the work year ahead. Here are their predictions of what challenges organizations and leaders deal with and the top trends we expect to see in 2023. From the dysfunction in the US political sphere, the COVID raging in China, to leaders leading their organizations to a slow death and dealing with hybrid work. All of these and more in this episode! So tune in now!
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Workplace Predictions 2023
Welcome back readers for our predictions episode. We did one of these in 2022 and now we are looking ahead to this new year that we’ve started, 2023. Happy New Year, lisa.
Happy New Year, Debra. It’s a new year.
New year, new me.
I was joking with a friend of mine and while joking we were reminiscing about Y2K, which is several years ago, which came as a shock to both of us. Time has marched on. The working world has, but I’m not as convinced and still, we’ll offer our predictions of where we think things will be going given where we’ve come from in the last few pandemic years.
Time waits for no one. I mentioned going into this episode that I reviewed what we talked about in 2022 to remind myself. We talked about some of the same things still. The tone of it’s changed a little bit and some of the urgency around some things has changed a little bit, but a lot of it’s the same.
I thought I might start us off by talking about the overall climate before we step into workplaces and what’s happening, and what we predict will continue to happen or will start happening. We don’t have to think too deeply when we think about the sense that many of us have right now about the world. There’s some major geopolitical turbulence and some issues are happening in economies around the world. There’s Putin’s attack on Ukraine. There’s dysfunction as we speak in the US political sphere. COVID is now raging in China. Tech companies and places that were pretty solid opportunities for employment are now laying people off. I read that Amazon is letting go of 18,000 people. Crypto seems to be tanking.
We’re living with the aftershocks of the pandemic. There are issues around inflation and global supply chains, and we can’t do an episode without mentioning the ongoing environmental devastation that is impacting our planet, but also everyone on it. Given this overall climate, work is a big piece of how people spend their time in this world with all these different things going on. You and I have done quite a bit of reading on what some of the big-box consultants, prognosticators, and pundits are talking about for 2023. With all that, what are some of the things that you’re reading, hearing, and even talking about in your work?
I’ll kick it off with an extension of what you talked about in terms of the environment and the theme that comes up for me there is how much change is happening and has been happening over the last couple of years. What we also know about change and what you and I have learned a lot more about over the last couple of years is how change-resistant our brains are.
When we talk about change resistance, traditionally, that’s something that’s been looked at like employees are change-resistant, but somehow leaders are visionaries and got it all figured out. I would argue. We’re all from the same human species and leaders are showing some change resistance too. There is so much push for workplaces to change and adjust to these pressures that you’ve talked about and it relates directly to what I propose as one of the first major trends that I’m reading a lot about, which is workplace mental health and well-being.
All of those factors that you talked about are making it challenging for people to navigate their lives. I’m seeing a breakdown even in the community where I live. I’m seeing more people in crisis. You and I aren’t in the same city, but you’re up to date on news and current events and so forth. One that comes to mind is the TTC, which is the Toronto Transit Commission here in Toronto. We have a very large transit system here. The amount of violence on the TTC has significantly increased. I’m talking about broad daylight in rush hour, people being pushed in front of trains or stabbed on a train. Not related to the workplace per se, but it’s an indication that people are not doing that well. There’s real pressure in the workplace now and on leaders to address these concerns.
In fact, the one other thing I thought was interesting is that the US Surgeon General, for the first time ever, released what they’re calling a framework for workplace mental health and well-being, where they have laid out this framework and based it on human needs. We think about the most basic needs, for example, safety. Some of the needs that were interesting that they address there, which we don’t often think about are things like autonomy. Autonomy relates to flexibility, which is something that we’re going to talk a little bit about.
This is a conversation that is being had in many organizations and will continue to be had in many organizations. It is going to be a challenge. Part of the challenge is to not be so judgmental about people because we can’t keep calling younger generations snowflakes, weak, and don’t know how to handle stress. I’ve heard all of these comments being made.
It’s no wonder people are struggling when we talk about all these things that are happening around us as you mentioned. We need to have a lot more compassion and empathy and think about how we are going to be supportive of people who are struggling in that area. Also, in well-being.
We want to thrive. We don’t want to put Band-Aids on wounds, so to speak. We want to have people thriving because there’s so much evidence that thriving and happy employees are more productive and do better work. That’s where we’re ultimately going and that’s where the organizations that will be competitive are going ahead. How about you? Any thoughts on that?Thriving and happy employees are more productive and do better work. Click To Tweet
People feel unsettled in this unsettled world. To me, that’s a perfectly valid and appropriate reaction to everything we’re living with. People with full-time jobs are unsure if they can continue to pay the rent or heat. We see a lot of this in the UK with the energy crisis in Europe. There’s a lot of uncertainty. We’ve talked in previous episodes of David Rock and the SCARF model. If we set status aside for a second, the C in SCARF is Certainty.
There is so much uncertainty that our brains are being multiple hamsters on multiple wheels to get through the day and make sure that all our needs are taken care of. The needs of our families are taken care of. To have also the sword of Damocles hanging over us of, “Maybe I’m going to lose my job. What if I’m forced to back to the office given my employer is highly resistant to creating opportunities for me to continue to be productive while working remotely?”
A lot of these things are tied together, but I do want to touch on this wellness piece to start off with because you and I are familiar with employers having employee assistance programs. This is farming out to these organizations that they can provide counseling and support to people, whether it’s coming back to the workplace after a mental health or a physical health issue. I don’t think that sending people to these programs or offering these programs is enough because workplaces are where much of our mental health problems are stemming from.
We’ve been saying this for the whole year, leaders have to start creating environments that are not injuring people and their mental health, and providing unrealistic levels of stress and workload. We can figure this out. We know how to figure this out. This keeps being one of my biggest hopes around work and around workplaces.
I think of the beginning of The Six Million Dollar Man because I’m a child of the ’70s. “We have the technology. We can rebuild him.” It’s the same thing about the workplace, we know what the brain needs in order to feel safe, happy, and contribute. Let’s start doing it. When you talked a little bit earlier about the resistance that leaders feel, I can’t tell you how many times and then how many organizations I’ve been part of a so-called transformation team where all the people who are supposed to be doing the changing and transforming are in the level below the C-Suite or the director level.
It’s the people at the frontline who are told to get with the program. That’s another stress when you’re seeing the people above you not doing anything to create the conditions for success and being told what you’re supposed to do or not do. I’m hoping that that continues to die a slow death. As you and I know, people are voting with their feet.
To touch on flexibility, half of the employees say their decision to stay in a job depends on their ability to have flex around their location and their hours of work. A lot of the flexibility is for protecting their mental health. I’m with you. For 2023, well-being, wellness, and focus on mental health are going to be critical for the workplace and for employers to pay some serious attention to.
Let’s go into that next one, which is hybrid, remote work, or just flexibility at work. This relates to this basic need that humans turned out that we have for autonomy and some control over our day. You and I have talked about this before as well, but the workplace isn’t designed for modern-day working lives. It’s designed for someone who has a 1950s-style housewife at home, and wouldn’t that be fantastic?
In terms of modern-day living where people need to take care of all their own needs, clean up after themselves, make their own food, take care of elderly parents, and take care of children. There are lots of people with caring responsibilities on top of taking care of your own stuff. There remains this tension around offering flexibility. I’ve talked to a number of people who are working and I’m seeing this more so in large companies. They’re trying to enforce three days a week in the office and there’s still resistance. They’re not having a lot of success doing it necessarily. It’s hard to say where exactly this is going to go.
The more cynical side of me thinks that these employers and the decision-makers in these organizations are waiting and secretly hoping for a recession that will give them power back so that they can start making more demands. This is not an evolution of the way we work. This would be incredibly disappointing and I hope that’s not the way it goes. The other thing to remember is that every people are different.
Another basic need that we have is social because we are social beings and have a sense of belonging. We can’t ignore that. How do we meet these needs in the future of work if we are also going to lean into this flexibility piece? That means re-imagining and being a little bit more creative about how and why we gather people because we do still need to do that. We still do want to have people developing a connection, rapport, and relationships, having a sense of belonging, collaborating, and getting to know each other.
We have the newer generation entering the workforce now that has never worked in a space where they’ve had to go to work every day and will start to now move through the ranks in an organization. We have people who have started new jobs and have never, in some cases, seen their coworkers in person. It’s looking at a blended approach and being more creative and open to how we’re addressing these things. I am confident that it can be done. We just have to be open to rethinking it.
We call our show the Work Revolution. I feel like I’m becoming increasingly revolutionary in my thinking on these things. Partly, because as you mentioned, you have to be at the office three days a week. “Are you paying for me to sit and put my ass in a chair in an office or are you paying me to contribute my skills, knowledge, and experience to advance the mission and the vision of this organization? Do you want both? Why do I have to do it in the office? I’m happier at home. I’m more comfortable at home.”
We’re hearing senior leaders say things like, “It’s about the culture. We want people back in the office for the culture,” but people need emotional connections. As you say, people do need a sense of belonging, but they don’t need to physically be in an office in order to have that. Look at how we’ve gotten through the pandemic. I’m not saying that Zoom is ideal. I’m not saying that hours and hours of video conferencing is where we want work to be, but we can create a human connection without having to put on our nylon stockings and pay money for public transit in order to sit in a place where it’s highly distracting.
You said something to me before we started and this is so true, which is coming back to the office. If you’re a leader, you’ve got a door you can close. You’re probably in meetings most of the day talking. Are you contributing or making anything happen? By the way, I’m not dissing the vast majority of leaders who do make stuff happen, but for people who are trying to sit at their computers and do stuff, they don’t need to be in the office. Frankly, in any experience I’ve personally had of being an open concept, I’m probably 50% less effective than I would be if I could close the door or have some space on my own.
This whole idea of culture is not a place, but it’s the environment and how you treat people like the psychosocial environment, not the physical environment and how people are treated. Organizations that get this right and create ways for people to have a sense of belonging and connection tip me over into one of the other things we’re going to see increasingly, this sense of people desiring purpose and meaning out of their organizations.Culture is not a place, but it's the environment and how you treat people. Click To Tweet
Let’s say I work for a company that makes ball bearings, surgical masks, or whatever, I might not feel this huge sense of connection to the product, but I might feel a sense of connection to an organization that, for instance, contributes to environmental causes, if employees are identifying that their families around their vacation policies, or those kinds of things. Organizations that pay attention to what employees want and need to thrive are the better places to work in 2023.
That goes back to what I would call values alignment. Whereas a lot of what we’re seeing around meaning and purpose is people discovering what’s important to them and what they value, and wanting to live in accordance with that. That’s part of our evolution as human beings. Our basic needs are met. Where do we go from here?
We start getting to know ourselves better. We start wanting to utilize our skills and strengths or contribute in a meaningful way. We want to live in accordance with our values. When there’s a values conflict at work, that contributes to some of these more negative side effects that we see when we talk about some of the health implications and so forth.
In career coaching, I saw that so many times where people were like, “I worked for 30 years in the bank.” “Did you like it?” “Not really. By the way, I have carpal tunnel syndrome and sleep apnea. I’m on anxiety medication.” I’m not a medical doctor or anything. I can’t say these things are connected, but I believe that they are connected based on the many experiences and conversations I’ve had over the years.
Related to what you said though, I want to take it to the next step, which is connected to productivity, but also leadership and how leaders have accountability. That is the word I’ve been using a lot more lately. We want to be accountable for results, but also, accountable for the impact that we have. I want to see more leaders held accountable for their impact. That includes behaviors or the way they treat people.
I have come across a couple of situations in 2022 with leaders who are considered untouchable for some reason while they’re considered smart and get certain results, but also, create carnage around them. Traditionally, people like that have been protected. We’re going to start seeing less and less of that because of this mental health and so forth, where leaders will be more accountable for the impacts they have in terms of people around them.
Somewhat related to that, I’ll try to segue it anyways, whether it’s a good fit or not, it is productivity. You mentioned this, “How are we measuring productivity? Is it time spent in a chair or logged in front of a computer even though maybe I’m online shopping or whatever while I’m sitting in front of my computer?” Thinking about productivity in new ways and having actual good ways of measuring productivity will be something that we see leaders focusing on more so. Also, thinking about productivity is a design problem. It is not about forcing people into a certain way of working or crunching them to spend extra time and texting them on the weekends and so forth.
In fact, there is mounting research to suggest working less time may equal more productivity, which relates to the research coming out of a four-day week globally. We had an interview with Andrew Barnes, who’s one of the leaders in that organization about the pilot programs that they’re running all around the world and all of the evidence that they are now accumulating that shows that you can see a significant increase in productivity by having people work fewer hours. Anything on that, lisa?
I’m looking at this report that I was reading by Future Forum. The evidence is pretty clear that people are more productive when they’re not distracted by all the stuff going on at the office. By the way, we’re not even talking about organizational politics here. That can be highly distracting when you’re in the workplace and somebody leaves a meeting crying and all that stuff. Now, we don’t get to see that, which frankly, is a bonus. Although it does also have me ask questions about whether is bullying on the increase when there are no other people around. There’s some touchy ground there.People are more productive when they're not distracted by all the stuff going on at the office. Click To Tweet
You reminded me of one of the leaders I’m coaching who’s a director level in a mid-sized company. The person that they report to is in the C-Suite. The leader basically is highly transactional and demands results. It’s all, “Can we measure the numbers? Are we selling?” The people who report to this director want empathy and support, to be developed, heard, listened to, and treated like human beings.
This particular director and I were talking about the real pressure as a leader to manage that interstitial space between an organization trying to grow and meet its profit objectives and employees who are not willing to put up with changing priorities all the time. The thing that the leader and I talked about specifically was that their engagement scores had been lower than they had been through the pandemic. By the way, they haven’t lost any employees. These employees are loyal to their leader. The engagement scores went down primarily because the employees were saying, “You’re not setting clear priorities for us.” Again, this leader’s caught in the middle. He’s not getting clear priorities from above.
You touched on this at the beginning, and it relates a bit to wellness, but there are many middle leaders who are struggling. They’ve been keeping their teams together through the pandemic. They’re the people who have been there emotionally for their teams. They’ve had excessive workloads often. I talk to people who are in meetings from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM at night. This is unreasonable. It’s stupid. How do you expect people to be productive and contribute to your organization if you’re putting them in these situations? They’re not humane, frankly. Didn’t we have an industrial revolution that afterward brought unions in to prevent this thing?
The last point I’ll make about this is that leaders in organizations’ scores for well-being and productivity are dropping because they are feeling a lot of stress and anxiety. We would love people to be better and stronger leaders, but we don’t develop the kinds of leaders that our organizations need. We continue to send people to one-size-fits-all. “Here’s how you have a performance conversation. Here’s how to think strategically,” and the workplace doesn’t need that from leaders anymore. The workplace needs something profoundly different.
I was reading about this. Middle manager crunch and burnout amongst middle managers are pretty significant. In fact, one of the articles that were one of their major trend predictions was this is an area that needs to be addressed. That’s absolutely spot on. There’s a great deal of tension for people who are in those roles, which we’ll segue into another prediction and that’s around the trend of coaching.
You and I are experiencing this. It’s never been a better time to be a coach in some ways, and even the uprising of coaching organizations, CoachHub, BetterU, EZRA, and a few that are in Europe and spreading into North America. Many of these organizations didn’t exist a few years ago and have grown very rapidly.
First of all, the democratization of coaching, offering up coaching to more people at a variety of levels. Not something that’s exclusive to the C-Suite anymore. It is probably one of the best ways to address another trend that I’ve read a lot about, and that is the focus on soft skill development. I’d love to hear your view on this, but it seems to me that coaching is probably one of the best ways to help people to develop in terms of their sense of self and those soft skills.
We can train people on techniques and interject maybe bits of inspiration, but working with people where they are at and providing that mirror or reflection and time out in a way to focus on self and development is so valuable for people. This is something I’m happy to see that is increasing and that organizations are providing more so for employees. I hope that this continues. It’s also competing for training. Organizations that are looking at coaching as an option are dipping into their training budgets for that, most likely. There are some decisions being made. “Do we invest in training or do we invest in coaching?”
One of my mantras, since I’ve been working as a coach and an organizational development, is training does not equal performance training and culture. Training is training. Training is you are an empty vessel and I will fill you with a font of knowledge, and thou shalt go forth and employ the skills and knowledge that I have imparted on you. How often does this work? Not a lot.
If you’re teaching someone to drive, then yes. If you’re teaching somebody to have difficult conversations in a highly politicized work environment, you can’t train that. You have to help people step into courage and manage their own saboteurs. This is stuff that coaching can support. I play hockey and I love hockey, although I’m yet again disappointed at the Montreal Canadiens this season. However, a team does not coach their goal scores. Organizations typically will only coach their top-tier and high performers. A hockey team will coach everybody. They’ll coach defense, the goal tenderers, and the interplay between the front lines and the backlines. You’re coaching everybody.
What I love about this democratization of coaching is we value everybody’s growth. We want everybody to succeed. I love that these doors have been opened. Some work for one of these coaching organizations is that many organizations are now not developing their leaders to become coaches. They’re outsourcing to people like me. I am often a surrogate leader to people who come to me for coaching because they’re not getting what they need from the leaders above them. I find a lot of the coaching I do is helping people manage the ineffective people that they report to.
For years, organizations are saying, “We need to invest in our leaders.” If we keep expecting most leaders to be focused on productivity gains and results, and not on creating good cultures and environments for people to thrive, and bring their skills and expertise, this does not solve the fundamental problem of poor leadership in workplaces. Good for you and me that we can support people and give them something not getting in the workplace.
I don’t have a strong view as to whether somebody’s certified as a coach or not, but a lot of things are passing off for coaching that is not coaching and giving advice, for instance, “This is what you should do,” or people who don’t have good ethical boundaries. There’s some of this stuff going on like let’s say you’re coaching somebody as an external and you’re in cahoots with the person’s leader without revealing it to the employee.
As you and I know coaching is not a regulated profession like psychology, social work, or other things. I don’t know that it needs to go that way personally. Many people can be effective coaches, but I do think that organizations need to be very careful about whom they hire into roles as coaches for their employees because you might not be getting what you think you’re getting. I’ll add one other thing to this. Those of you who are employers, I also want you to know that many of the people that I coach don’t want to work for you.
Even though I’m hired to help them be better leaders in your organization, it’s almost inevitable that at least half of the people I coach are trying to figure out how to either tolerate better the organization that they’re in or find a better place to work. Employers beware, your employees might not be getting the coaching to contribute to your organization, but might be using the time with me or with other coaches to figure out where they’ll be happier.
The number of times we have conversations with people and it’s about, “How can I arm myself to tolerate this or how can I prepare to get out of here?” It’s why we do this work. It’s what prompted me to go this route and share insights. The last thing on my list and it’s something I can talk all that knowledgeably about is a bit of a push upward trend in terms of compensation and benefits and employees being in a better position to negotiate these things for themselves.
Part of that is a real push, which is in some places becoming legislative, but that’s around pay transparency. This is a trend that we’re seeing and is a good thing. This will go a long way in terms of equity, and equality, and getting rid of pay gaps, and pay discrepancies. It’s also an important part of organizational retention strategies at the moment. This could change depending on what happens with the economy, but generally speaking, we are seeing a trend in compensation and benefits.
Now, part of this is throwing money at a problem instead of being a little bit more creative in terms of workplace culture solutions that could be implemented. Instead of, “If we pay people enough, they’ll come to work and hopefully ignore all those other issues.” I don’t know that it’s an effective long-term strategy, but at the same time, generally speaking, in most places, salaries have not necessarily kept up with the cost of living, inflation, and so forth. It was probably a change that needed to happen. Do you have anything to add to that one?
Yes, but in a very tangential way. When you talked about pay transparency, to me, this is very much linked to equity in the workplace because I don’t know how often we hear these stories or we’ve experienced them ourselves, where there’s either a man and a woman doing exactly the same job and there’s a discrepancy in the pay. Guess who’s getting paid less to do the same work? We hear this for people of color, people with disabilities, and people who represent different diversities in the workplace. I love this idea of pay transparency. It’s important.
Where I am a bit alarmed is that as we look at all the trends coming forward, much of the stuff that I’m reading shows a decrease in importance around diversity, equity, and inclusion. You probably remember this. I don’t know how many jobs I would see posted on LinkedIn and elsewhere for directors of diversity, equity, inclusion, and a big push and organizations to set up teams, committees, and all kinds of stuff. These organizations were performing diversity, equity, and inclusion by creating these roles and didn’t put the money where their mouth was or maybe put someone in a leadership position, but there was no sponsorship at the senior table and a lack of strategy. “What are we going to do?” “I don’t know, maybe we’ll honor Martin Luther King Day,” or whatever.
Frankly, they’re very facile and insulting initiatives. People who went into these roles, many of them are leaving because of what they were promised and would be able to do. I am a little bit concerned. We talked about the payment part, but there’s been a lack of governing mechanisms. How do we make sure things are changing? To me, pay transparency is a mechanism by which we know whether or not we’re achieving greater equity in the workplace. There is so much more to do to change people’s thinking about what it means to treat everybody equally.Pay transparency is a mechanism by which we know whether or not we're achieving greater equity in the workplace. Click To Tweet
I’ve said this before, but it’s not an accident where we ended up with a lot of White men in positions of power because we didn’t let anybody else in or they didn’t let anybody else in. I’m heartened that the world is becoming more diversified and we are hearing more voices, that there is a push, but we can’t let the people who are marginalized do this work. We all have to be doing this work. I’m a little bit saddened and alarmed that this is less of a priority in many organizations right now. I’m hoping we can shift that tide in 2023.
There’s been a backlash in this area. That’s what I’m sensing. I would go back to my first comment about change resistance. People are so overloaded and resistant to change that even bringing up that topic has people rolling their eyes and I’ve seen that firsthand. “I don’t want to talk about gender anymore. I don’t want to talk about anything to do with it. I don’t want to hear people whining and complaining.” It also connects to our values. We’re in a tumultuous time. There is a push for change, but there’s also a push to stay the same.
That’s one of the first things you learn as a change practitioner. Anything you try to move, there’s an equal force keeping it where it is.Anything you try to move, there's an equal force keeping it where it is. Click To Tweet
You had one more, think before we wrap up.
It was around diversity, equity, and inclusion. You said this and I don’t know how you said it, but what popped into my head was this idea of a MeToo Movement for the workplace. We all know this stuff is not working and we’re being forced to endure. We all know that being forced back to the office isn’t working and there are some very courageous people who are saying, “I’m not going to stay. I’m going to go elsewhere.”
Some of these touch on recruitment as well because if you can’t keep the people who’ve already made a commitment to your organization by forcing them to come back to the workplace, you’re not going to find anybody out there in the environment who’s going to come to your organization if they’re forced to be in the office three days a week.
This idea that we perpetuate that there are these unicorns or these perfect candidates floating around in the ether that are going to come and save us, and bring their productivity and enthusiasm are not out there. Those people who are great employees who want to contribute are choosing to work for places that honor who they are as humans and as people with needs, families, and all of that.
When I talk about putting the revolution into a work revolution, I am heartened by the fact that people are planting a flag for their own self-care and well-being. Those are going to be the employees who thrive because they are the hardest workers and they expect in return, the respect to be treated as adults who can manage their own lives. Whether they’re sitting in an office chair that is uncomfortable because nobody paid for an ergonomic assessment or they’re at home on their beanbag, in their fluffy pajamas, helping this world work well because of what they’re contributing. That’s my last point.
You’re right. This is partly a generational thing. Millennials are the majority of people in the workplace and then Gen Z coming behind them, so there is this continued push. Being yourself in the world and staying true to that is stress-inducing and anxiety-inducing because it means not conforming. It turns out that our society and our workplaces do function on conformity. There’s a non-conformist push that is certainly there and will continue. I don’t know that there’s any way of putting that genie back in the box.
E.E. Cummings said it best, “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you like everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle, which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.” I am here to support anybody who wants to be that contrarian or rebel. You are changing the world of work for the better and we are here to cheer you on. We’re looking forward to hearing again, more of the stories that you share with us, either through the work we do or when you reach out to us. Debra, have a great start to the year.
Thank you, lisa. I’m looking forward to it. Thank you everyone for reading.
- Future Forum report