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2020: Clouds and silver linings for work and careers


2020 has been a year of change, disruption, and adaptation for everyone. Whilst we are still navigating our way through the pandemic and its effects, now seems a good time to pause and reflect on where 2020 has taken careers and people strategies.

Through our consulting work, regular virtual roundtable with HR leaders, and hearing directly from employees in our ‘Be Bold in your Career’ courses, I’d like to share some observations and hopes for 2021.

1. Unlocking human potential

There are so many stories to tell about how organisations and individuals have risen to the challenges brought by COVID-19. The HR function became central to sustaining business operations with a need to put people first. Organisations have cut bureaucracy and empowered individuals to step up and apply their skills in different ways, revealing hidden talent, offering new access to learning opportunities, or helping furloughed workers seek voluntary experiences to grow their skills.

Let’s continue to unleash the potential of employees by providing stretch and growth throughout the organisation, and not revert back to siloed or process-led ways of working, that box people into fixed roles and levels. This inclusive approach to talent will underpin the upskilling and capability-building we need in 2021 and beyond.

2. Purpose

During the peak of the pandemic, employees looked to their employers for leadership. Many acted quickly to safeguard their employees and maintain business continuity, building the trust that at times was lacking in politicians. Organisations that repurposed their business to support the response to COVID19, also built the respect and loyalty of their employees. Some are still struggling to survive and are making tough decisions, others continue to flourish and expand. Either way employees need to feel connected with what that means for them. Many employees have stood back this year and re-evaluated their life and career.

Can executive leadership create the conditions – amongst all the disruption – which help employees feel proud of their employer, see a career future, how they can contribute and find renewed purpose? And, where there is no future, support them to transition to something else?

3. Conversations that matter the most

Organisations have been ditching traditional performance management processes for some time. 2020 has seen a bigger shift towards more inclusive approaches to talent management, where career development is for everyone and all talent is nurtured. Will this be less about ticking boxes? I think so, but in practice organisations still need to build internal capability. Watch out for fixed assumptions and biases around talent and career routes. These inhibit the sorts of conversations that provide empowering feedback, surface potential and align career aspirations.

“These moments for a conversation offer tremendous opportunity for building connection between employees and managers, reinforcing a positive reputation for candid, clear and compassionate communication in the business, and the results of handling these well will be felt long into the recovery, when that comes.”

Valerie Rowles, Learning and Career Development Consultant

A continued focus on equipping both employees and managers to understand their accountabilities for career development, and the skills needed to have effective, high -trust conversations continues to be a priority.

4. Taking a strategic approach to careers

The need to focus on employee well- being and resilience during the last year was clear. Such support provides employees with immediate coping strategies, yet resilience is also tested by feeling out of control, and concerns about future job insecurity. Sadly, many have lost their jobs already, but organisations need to focus on their future workforce to maintain engagement and productivity. At the heart is a compelling career proposition that answers the question ‘what does it mean to have a career here now?’.

“Translating the rhetoric of your career proposition into reality is a critical challenge. It involves stopping doing some things, as well as starting doing others, and that’s why you need a strategic approach and a change plan”

David North, Senior Consultant

A focus on careers addresses the needs of employees, but it needs to be more than ad-hoc interventions or promises. A strategic approach aligns careers with talent management, workforce planning, talent attraction, internal mobility, future capability needs, rewards and flexible working strategies.

5. Remote learning and working

We have embraced both remote working and learning. For some it has been liberating, for some isolating, for many exhausting. Time will tell the extent to which remote working will become the norm, as organisations consider hybrid operating models and reward strategies. HR will be challenged by this going forward. One downside is that some people are spending too much time in back-to-back screen meetings, causing fatigue, an erosion of work boundaries, and a loss of the ‘micro-exchanges’ that are fundamental to building relationships and learning. This is particularly important for careers, as individuals struggle to build their exposure, spot opportunities and make connections with colleagues.

I hope that organisations start to acknowledge this problem to avoid burn out, and steer better practices around on-line meetings, encouraging breaks and creating opportunities for employees to be able to ‘network’ with others remotely. Virtual career fairs are becoming a feature along with using tech to match employees for ‘coffee chats’.

6. Making career opportunities visible

This year, we’ve heard employees increasingly frustrated about a lack of career pathways and internal hiring processes. They struggle to know how to move internally to grow their career. A move towards using tech-enabled solutions to build internal job marketplaces is rising. These platforms allow employees more visibility of the skills and experiences needed for roles, and potential career pathways. But culture and behavioural change is also needed for these to succeed. The platforms don’t equip employees with the mindset and skills to navigate their careers in a disrupted workplace, nor do they change the attitudes of managers about being willing to support internal career moves.

Employees and managers benefit from understanding the external and internal context for careers – with organisational drivers for skills of the future. Traditional expectations about typical career pathways should be challenged and replaced with a new narrative about future careers, supported by enablers that empower employees to drive their own careers.

7. Diversity, Equality & Inclusion (DEI)

Our final virtual roundtable of the year addressed ‘Enabling a diverse & inclusive career proposition; from rhetoric to reality’. There is no doubt that in 2020 Black Lives Matter has been a catalyst for change, and there is momentum to address all aspects of DEI.  Organisations are increasingly making the link between careers and inclusion, where energy had previously been focused on attraction. Eliminating biases in spotting and nurturing potential, and championing diverse career routes and experiences are central to DEI and careers, and will work towards much needed diversity at senior levels. Will the drive of 2020 endure? Have we been here before?

DEI has a strong link with careers because fundamentally it is about access to opportunities, a sense of equity and a belief that everyone has potential. Like careers, DEI needs to be addressed at strategic and structural level and have a firm business-led rationale. It needs to be led from the top of organisations to affect real change. I hope that 2021 sees a move away from the rhetoric towards real actions.

Overall, I hope that we can continue to try and put people first in organisations, to inspire hope as well as realism, bringing humanity to difficult decisions, as many organisations continue to manage the challenges of pandemic. I hope that 2021 will build on the positives that have emerged.  As individuals it’s time to reflect personally on what you’ve learnt – and how you want to take this forward in your own career.

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