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Gary McCarthy

Gary McCarthy

9th Apr 2024

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Why Sustaining High Performance Urgently Needs A Plan

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to work, there’s a new pandemic at large. This time it’s a social malaise with very real elevated health risks. The social and workplace challenge is loneliness, and up to a quarter of the population of 140 countries surveyed by Meta-Gallup in 2023 have reported being “very or fairly lonely”.

If only it was just a social challenge.

The harsh business reality is that this is another factor adding to the complexity of today’s workplace. Our recent Senior Leaders Breakfast Briefing with guest speakers Dr Marianne Roux, Alan Lyons and TJ Byrne painted a challenging workplace picture and four structural shifts in the management of talent and sustaining high performance.

The panel provided excellent insights and real world corporate examples of initiatives and innovations in these four areas:

  • Hybrid working arrangements
  • Rapid technology advances
  • ESG and D&I reporting
  • Skills based talent management

The physical workplace has become a lightning rod for leadership debate in the areas of productivity and culture, but the panel were emphatic that hybrid work is a permanent structural shift for many sectors. Also made very clear was that hybrid working arrangements need to be ORGANISED. Planning is critical, with the corporate example of Boston Scientific cited as a reference in its investigation of a solution. The Boston Scientific solution campaign showed hybrid working is only effective when it is collaborative across the entire organisation.

Furthermore, all employees should feel involved in identifying which hybrid terms would be best for the business and all employees. This company-wide imperative also served to highlight the role of communication and the creation of a healthy work place.

The work of Holocaust survivor, Aaron Antonovsky, is the inspiration for Healthy Place To Work’s 4 Pillars, one of which is Connection. Antonovsky’s research on Holocaust survivors, and subsequent Salutogenic framework/model of health, places a heavy emphasis on leveraging external resources to overcome adversity.

Access to the resources of an organisation, be it team support, technology, training etc entails connectivity/connection. In fact, some would say “an organisation is communication”. Clearly, loneliness is an unhealthy starting point but a strong message came from the panel that psychological safety is the key building block for high-quality connection. The workplace environment should be conducive to interpersonal risk-taking. Indeed, the work of Amy Edmondson at Harvard has highlighted the fact that employees are unlikely to speak up unless they receive strong signals from leaders and teammates that they will receive positive reinforcement for doing so. And, technology may not be the connection answer that leaders think it is.

As a Chartered Coaching Psychologist, Alan Lyons, amusingly spoke about the stresses of Zoom, Teams or Google Meet venues – with web cameras fixed on individual faces for hours each day – definitely not considered ‘safe’ by many employees! TJ Byrne also made it clear that leaders as communicators and role models are critical to creating a healthy and safe culture. The cues provided by tone, humour, authenticity and clarity were mentioned as helpful ways to encourage engagement, open communication lines and ultimately, trust.

As a measure of successful engagement, the threshold safety question for an employee should be – “Is this organisation/team getting me?”. Also, the excessive use of ‘meetings’ is a problem touched on by multiple speakers. More specifically, relatedness and connection is driven by a shared sense of purpose across teams and organisations. This desire for purpose is even more pronounced in the younger cohorts like Gen Z, who are paying even closer attention to ESG and D&I proactivity. Technology and upskilling have a role to play too. Interestingly, research shows that pay incentives and perks have limited impact as motivational tools.

Marianne Roux gave a powerful example of how AI chatbots were being used by HR teams at a foreign government entity to free up thousands of hours previously used to answer email queries. The saved time was now being put to far more productive use in acquiring better data to drive improved employee experience, including performance management. Furthermore, the role of organised data management is essential for meaningful insights and effective interventions. In contrast, poorly planned data flows and spreadsheet chaos will ultimately have a negative impact on performance. Clearly, the workflow and role of HR is changing, but the upskilling story is far bigger than optimising HR departments.

In 2022, LinkedIn conducted a global survey of its user base and found that 25% of skills within individual job descriptions/roles had changed since 2015. However, the latest survey contains a far more striking data point. Roles are expected to change by 65% by 2030 which in approximate mathematical terms looks like a 90% CHANGE over a 15 year period from 2015. The more worrying news is that the upskilling required to deal with the initial 25% shift is already behind the curve.

Returning to Antonovsky’s external resources, technology upskilling is exactly the solution needed by an organisation’s talent if they are to cope with the pressures of commercial competition and dramatically changed expectations of task timings. In this environment of skills based talent management it is important to be agile, set realistic goals, use shorter project/training timelines (90 days) and track (on a monthly basis) levels of wellness and capability development.

The final message from the panel in sustaining high performance was a direct call to leaders. Senior leaders must ‘walk the talk’. A culture or target for a healthy high performing work place is meaningless if leaders do not follow the same data and measurements. The workplace will not be safe or healthy if managers ignore their own health, avoid upskilling or fail to open up mental health communications. Leaders need to lead, and the bots won’t change that.

But a plan will.

Gary McCarthy is Head of Risk at Spark CrowdFunding and moderator of IMI’s Senior Leader Breakfast Briefings

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