My research and field of expertise for the past decade is optimal human cognitive performance specifically in relation to trust, psychological safety and intrinsic motivation. In essence I look through the lens of neuropsychology to support leaders and teams, with practical research based tools, to get the best from their brains for cognitive advantage, and to nurture their wellbeing. But the irony of my work is that investment needed to learn and embed new ways of working to boost energy, performance, wellbeing and engagement – all of which deliver huge returns, is often superseded by the threat of other major business challenges. Right now organisations across the world are making hugely difficult decisions to ensure that they remain commercially viable. This inevitably means cuts. Cuts to logistics, operations, real estate and of course people. There are changes that have to be made for near-term survival. But, whilst these cuts are necessary, the only thing any business has, or in fact by definition made up of, is conversation and cash. Cash is the life blood but the conversation is the heart. Without the heart the blood doesn’t flow.
Organisations are a matrix of relationships. How functional the connections are across the matrix, how the conversation travels through the system, is a measure of the sustainability of the business. You may have the best product but, if you don’t have the best conditions for your people to thrive then you will struggle to operate at your best. So faced with the question, often posed as a statement, ‘how can I/I can’t invest in development/wellbeing/leadership right now when we have so many other issues on which we need to focus/direct resources’, my answer is that understand the commercial reality but, without your people you have no business. For every £1 you invest in wellbeing the return is £5. You can’t afford not to foster the conditions in which we thrive. In which we are enabled to access our inherent capacity for creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
We are at a unique time in our history. We are in a colliding context. So much was already significantly impacting how we live and work only to have been amplified by the global pandemic. We have set both feet firmly in the 4th industrial era. Technological change is at an unprecedented speed of growth and will fundamentally change the face of roles and skills needed in the workplace. There are huge demographic and attitudinal shifts, and how we interact, partner and manage the relationship with talent going forward will be vastly different. As part of this context, we need to consider and accept that there is no return to the pre-Covid world. What was has gone. There are elements that we should take from the way we were working, but now is a chance to reshape our working world. If we are going to remain vigilant we need remember that the pre-pandemic working environment was on a trajectory that was unhealthy and counter-productive. The UK disengagement level stood at 85%. 67% of which were not your worst performers, but those that come in each day and go through the motions. Work is ‘alright’ but, there is an indifference and energy is limited to just what needs to get done. The result is lost productivity estimated at £73 billion, and globally at $7 trillion. Workplace stress is now listed as the fifth leading cause of death, due to aspects such as long working hours, uncontrollable workloads and work/life conflict. This is not a picture to which we should want to return.
A longer day does not mean more progress or better work. In fact study after study shows that we go faster if we learn how to take our foot off the pedal. Instead of asking what hours we need and measuring that, we should flip the question and be asking what resource is needed for our people to produce their best? And, we need to give leaders the confidence to know how to lead with trust and to let go of performance measures of availability or presenteeism that are simply false and empty premises and only serve to inject threat.
To reshape, to become conscious architects of the experience we need our people to have, we need to be asking ourselves the right questions – How can our workplace serve us? How can we best resource our people?
The pandemic is one season in our lives; it will end. It will be remembered as an extraordinarily difficult time. For leaders this moment is an opportunity. The steps we take next need to be deliberate and conscious. The challenges and psychological risks ahead need careful planning, but…we have a choice. We have a proverbial blank piece of paper on which we can rewrite how we work. How we can imagine and bring to life a workplace that nurtures the conditions for human performance. To be able to create cultures of trust and true inclusion with wellbeing at the core. I firmly believe that the organisations that build their workplaces in support of human performance will have a significant advantage in this new era of work, specifically cognitive advantage.