By Dr Scott Taylor
Professor in Leadership & Organization Studies, Department of Management
In this context, whether people are willing to come back to work in city centre office blocks becomes a detail. Work and workplaces, especially those responsible for managing and leading, face a more significant challenge than that, if there are no people to persuade.
Work and workplaces became key to public health policy right at the start of the pandemic, when governments realised overcrowded rush hour public transport and inadequately ventilated workplaces could be key sites of virus transmission. During lockdowns, policy and debate shifted to macro and micro economic concerns, as global supply chains stuttered and work in sectors such as hospitality disappeared suddenly. As we approach the end of the second year of living with COVID-19, a different conversation is starting, with a very different question at its centre – why are so many people leaving good well paid jobs, or leaving the conventional labour market entirely? And is there anything a manager or leader can do about it?
The second question is the easier one. People management and leadership are fascinating research and study topics in part because they’re simultaneously quite straightforward and impossibly complex. Social science research, especially workplace ethnographies, provides sound theoretical and empirical foundations for practical guidance on attracting and retaining good staff committed to doing the best work possible. Treat people as individuals, trust them to work well, and listen to what they say about how best to organize their tasks – and of course make sure they have what they need to do the work you allocate to them, whether that’s an abstract resource like time or skill, or concrete materials such as tools and money.
While we wait for employers, leaders and managers to commit to these good practices, and put less emphasis on management by algorithm, we can continue to work out answers to the first question. Again, this is something we know a lot about in business schools. Many leave jobs or professions relate closely to organizational absences or managerial errors – a lack of dignity in the work or workplace, motivational techniques that assume they don’t want to work, a lack of good materials to produce good work, even simple boredom at a job that asks very little of them. However, we also know that people, often very skilled and committed colleagues, will leave a job or a profession because it asks an unreasonable and unsustainable commitment from them.
As the pandemic has developed, we’ve been surrounded by examples of the work intensification that produces this experience – healthcare, logistics, and education are the clearest large scale examples in the UK, but many in production and services have found more work waiting every morning, along with the managerial expectation that they can work a little faster or more efficiently. The most dramatic outcome of this intensification is burnout, mental or physical. What we’re observing at the moment on a longer timescale is less spectacular, but equally important – people of all ages and career stages reducing their engagement with paid work in large organizations or prestigious professions, finding more dignified work, or even deciding they can live well enough financially without any paid work at all. Women have been leaving jobs and professions that demand whole life (over)commitment disproportionately for decades; it seems that the realisation that life can be better with work in its place as just one side of life is now coming to many more. In this context, whether people are willing to come back to work in city centre office blocks becomes a detail. Work and workplaces, especially those responsible for managing and leading, face a more significant challenge than that, if there are no people to persuade.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.