It has been said that the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown experience has caused people to reassess what is important to them, but what does that really mean and how might it impact the way we work in the future?
If we are thinking about what is important to us in life, we are examining our ‘values’: unconscious beliefs that dictate our actions, our motivations, and how we feel about our own behaviour and the behaviour of those around us. Our values are the things we spend time, money and energy on and knowing this may help you to recognise your own life values if you are not familiar with this idea already. For example, if education is one of your values you will spend money and time on courses, books and put your energy into learning. If freedom is one of your values, you may spend time on hobbies that give you a sense of freedom like surfing or climbing or perhaps spend money on travel. I imagine in the ecology and environmental sector, a lot of us have values around sustainability, service and compassion doing the work we do to protect the natural environment.
Values are highly linked to our emotions, so when we are doing something that goes against our intrinsic values, it can feel uncomfortable, conflicted and tiring: working out of alignment with our values can use a lot more energy than working in alignment with them. Lockdown gave us a chance to pause from the normal state of ‘busy-ness’ that many of us find ourselves in. It gave us a chance to be at home, to stop and breathe, spend more time with ourselves, our loved ones, our local area, our pets, our hobbies, and something shifted. I do not believe that the experience changed our values particularly, rather it gave us insight into what life is like when we spend more time on the things that are important to us. When we live more in line with our values we do not experience as many uncomfortable emotions or conflicts, and we feel better.
The engineer for whom family and connection are life values, was home for every mealtime instead of working long hours at the office. The ecologist who has health and well-being in their top five life values, now has time for a run every morning. The planning officer who values creativity highly but does not get much chance to fit this into their day job, now finds crafting in the evening an excellent antidote for spending the day on Zoom calls. Once you have experienced that better alignment and it feels good, why would you want to go back to a life of compromise and inflexibility that does not make time for you?
And, where does this ‘busy-ness’ badge of honour come from anyway? How often do we ask people how they are and they respond with “busy”, and not “satisfied”, “inspired”, “content” or “fulfilled”; just “busy”.
Prior to the industrial revolution, people’s work was valued by what they accomplished, the quality of work, the effectiveness of delivery. When people started getting paid by the hour, time became a measure of someone’s worth. Over the years this has led to a cultural belief that longer working hours are a measure of one’s value, are a sign of one’s loyalty and a suitable way to measure an employee’s contribution. Companies often reward staff for working long hours and promote people who forego their outside interests and dedicate all their time to work, thereby perpetuating this way of being as a measure of success.
The Covid-19 experience has, for some, shifted what they will now find an acceptable work-life balance and employers will need to review their flexible working and agile working policies if they want to retain and attract a diversity of staff. There will be other shifts in the workplace too. In the ecology sector, for example, there is an expectation that we are always available, always ready to respond to somebody else’s lack of planning and forethought that protected species might be an issue. Is it time this was challenged? For reports and tenders we are often working towards a Friday deadline or sending people away from home surveying Monday to Friday which makes a choice to do a four-day compressed week or go part-time at best a difficult ask, at worst, frowned upon and or outright rejected. But what if consultancy, in the advent of new survey technology, for example, could be a little less rigid? We must be one of the most flexible work forces already with night working, weekend shifts, early mornings and seasonal workloads a given. How can this sector not offer flexible working policies that allow people time to spend on what is important to them outside of work?
I believe companies with the most flexible working policies, who encourage people to work in line with their values would balance any resourcing headaches with the following benefits.
- Attract the best people.
- Retain staff, with associated reduction in cost of replacement.
- Reduce sick leave.
- Have a healthier, more energetic workforce.
- See their people more engaged and motivated when they are in work, and benefit from the greater efficiencies and effectiveness that will bring.
- Increase creativity and innovation; it is well-rested minds stimulated by a variety of activity that produce the best ideas.
- Enhance their reputation within the environmental sector and with clients who will also be facing their own culture changes.
Employers offering real, genuine flexibility (i.e. where having strong boundaries around overtime, or being part-time, is not associated with loss of status or lack of opportunities for progression) is what a future workforce will demand. It is the only way that workplaces will become attractive to a diverse workforce and be truly inclusive. Companies who embrace this now and get used to working within a new system of beliefs will be far more resilient to this inevitable cultural change in the long run.
*Values description adapted from One of Many training materials www.oneofmany.co.uk
Sarah had worked in ecological consultancy for 17 years and has been a line manager / team leader for 14 of those prioritising wellbeing with management and resourcing. She is currently Associate Technical Director for Arcadis, based in the Cardiff office. Her life values include sustainability, contribution, connection, self-expression and joy. Sarah also runs a community wildlife group where she often gets to top all these up simultaneously.
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