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Will COVID-19 change our attitudes to work?

By: David Brown, CEO of Hays U.S. on July 3rd, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has afforded many people greater time and space to focus on all aspects of their lives, including their careers. Granted, we may greatly differ in our individual situations – many have unfortunately lost their jobs over the past two months, some perhaps have experienced a change in working patterns or other circumstances during this time. Although approaching this moment from different paths, many are united in how we are now proactively using this time to reflect on the trajectory of our professional lives in some way.

Whatever the scenario is for you, you may have found that events over the last few weeks and months have changed or reinforced your beliefs and values about the world and how you wish to live your life. This raises the question: will there be a widespread change in people’s attitudes to work, too?

Seven ways our attitudes to work could change due to the pandemic

As lockdown restrictions gradually loosen and we start to transition to the next era of work, which shifts could we see in how we perceive our professional lives and by extension, how we work? On the basis of what I have observed so far, the following themes may dominate:

1. A desire to work for purpose-led organizations:

The COVID-19 crisis has caused many of us to question our values and what we stand for as human beings. You may have found yourself revising long-held views, or the exceptional circumstances might have reinforced principles that you already had. It may have also led you to evaluate potential employers in different ways and from different perspectives. The pandemic may, for example, have shed light for you on which organizations truly believe in the ethical treatment of their employees and sustainable environmental practices, and which don’t. Or perhaps which fully live behind their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and which may not. Our chief executive Alistair Cox wrote about this subject before the pandemic, observing how many of our career choices are becoming increasingly rooted in a desire to make a positive difference to the world around us. Naturally, the situation could be very different from one person to the next. Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see whether the post-pandemic recovery is characterized by a rise in professionals wanting to work for purpose-led organizations that live their values in an inclusive way, internally and externally, enabling them to find more meaning in their roles.

2. A renewed focus on balance and flexibility:

While the coronavirus crisis has shaken a lot of people’s sense of security, it has also helped us to realize which aspects of our lives – both personal and professional – might have been taken for granted. People may have presumed that they would ‘always’ be in a particular job, for example, or overlooked the damage our focus on our careers may have caused to our personal lives. Throughout this crisis we may have reordered our priorities, realizing that we wish to devote more time to certain things such as family, friends and hobbies. The trauma brought by the pandemic may have also alerted us to just how short and precious life is. Many people are hoping that this strange period will be the ‘reset’ moment they have needed for years, which may mean that they don’t want to go back to their old ways. Perhaps, then, in the next era of work, we will demand more flexibility and balance in our professional lives.

3. A heightened emphasis on mental health:

A lot of us have been more mindful of our mental health during this crisis and have started to understand what bad habits we have formed in the past. Many people are enthusiastic for this renewed focus on the importance of mental wellbeing to continue – as indicated by the 60% of respondents in an Accenture study who said they were spending more time on self-care and mental wellbeing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. This may greatly influence your career decisions going forward, perhaps making you likelier to pursue roles with supportive employers who actively encourage their workers to maintain a healthy work-life balance and place a strong emphasis on wellbeing.

4. A thirst for learning:

The COVID-19 crisis has awoken many professionals to the fact that even the things they most take for granted can change overnight. This, in turn, has caused them to recognize the importance of adaptability and lifelong learning, in helping them thrive in times of uncertainty. I expect many of these professionals to seek out employers who can give them the tools and autonomy they need to commit to lifelong learning, while ensuring continuous development is at the heart of company culture. Professionals returning to the workplace from lockdown restrictions may have already been using the time afforded to them by the crisis to upskill, perhaps by listening to podcasts, reading books, magazines and journals of relevance to their industry or enrolling in online courses. Many will have adopted a growth mindset and see the post-COVID-19 changes in the workplace as a further opportunity to learn and develop. Consequently, they will be attracted to employers that promise to support them in catering to these aspects of their careers.

5. A demand for greater humanity in our workplaces:

Interestingly, many employees are reporting having developed closer relationships with their colleagues via virtual means than they ever enjoyed pre-crisis, when they may have been just a few feet apart from each other in the office. We’ve also seen an increase in empathy and compassion. This leads me to wonder whether we will see workers demanding greater humanity and human contact from their employers in the next era of work – albeit, perhaps more often via online communication platforms and other distanced means, than was the case in the pre-COVID-19 world. Alistair Cox wrote in February, addressing employers: “I think we need a gentle reminder that at the end of the day, you are just a human being, leading lots of other human beings.” Professionals in the next era of work are likely to be attracted to leaders who realize and acknowledge this by taking steps to inject more ‘human’ into the organizations they lead.

6. A rise in side projects:

During this time of lockdown, many people have had more time to dedicate to their passions or to focus on what they really enjoy – perhaps something creative like art, photography or writing, or catching up on their reading list, or teaching or enrolling in online fitness classes via Zoom. Alongside this, the lingering economic uncertainty – amid fears that the post-pandemic recovery will be slower than initially hoped – may heighten a lot of employees’ fears about job security. It wouldn’t surprise me, then, if the period immediately after this crisis sees a growth in side projects as workers decide that they need to have a ‘plan B’. These projects are not as people often presume them to be – a second job that you do for another employer when you get home from your main job. Instead, a side or passion project tends to be a little more aspirational and entrepreneurial, with people being the master of their own destiny. They are often born out of a passion for a subject that their primary job may not cover and can bring both economic empowerment and creative freedom.

7. An increase in complete career changes:

The travails of the pandemic have also given us a newfound or enhanced appreciation for key workers and other people who provide value and contribute to society. As Cox explains, “It’s been truly heart-warming to see the outpourings of gratitude around the world for the key workers, who, just a few weeks ago, were often taken for granted, operating under the radar and under-appreciated. This crisis has really emphasized their true value to our societies. After all, they have contributed the most important job imaginable – saving lives but in doing so exposing themselves to dangerous situations.” So, could this spark a trend of professionals rethinking their career paths entirely, perhaps embracing completely different lines of work that make them feel like they are making a bigger difference to their local community, the environment, and the wider world?

While many of the changing attitudes and perspectives I have referenced above were brewing for some time pre-pandemic, the urgent and critical needs of the COVID-19 response may have brought them to the fore in the minds of many professionals, particularly those who are contemplating what their career trajectory might look like in the next era of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given many the opportunity to seize back a sense of control over their working lives, or at least provided them with more time to reflect on the future direction of their careers. As a result, many of them will decide that they simply don’t want to go back to their old ways. Employers will need to transform their people strategy to reflect these deep-rooted changes in attitudes and perspectives, if they really are to attract and retain the talent they need to ensure their organizations thrive in the next era of work.

For more advice from our recruiting experts – contact us now

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