How COVID-19 has tested the concept of value, meaning and purpose in business and ourselves

4 minute read

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated change in working practice. But, argues Katie Jacobs, it has also forced us to question what purpose means in reality

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Before this crisis hit, how many of us could honestly say work was working well? Many of our ways of working had remained pretty much unchanged since the third industrial revolution of the 1960s. While advances in technology meant that the phrase ‘work is a thing you do, not a place you go’ was possible, it wasn’t all that probable. And as we were waiting patiently for the fourth industrial revolution – the era of smart technologies – to impact, instead it took a pandemic to speed things up.

Since March, our working lives have changed in obvious ways: some 20 million people in the UK are currently estimated to be working from home (only about 1.7 million UK workers classed themselves as home workers pre-COVID). This enforced home-working has also brought an enforced integration of home and work life. If you are working from home you are likely to be schooling, socialising and everything else from home as well.

But a less obvious impact of this crisis, and one that I have been reflecting on through my conversations with HR leaders, is that COVID-19 has tested our concepts of meaning, value and purpose. It is forcing us to question what we find meaning in, what we value and what purpose actually means. We were talking a good game about all of these things (before COVID, ‘purpose-led’ could well have become the business phrase of 2020), but coronavirus has made it real.

Take being furloughed, for instance. While some unkindly suggest that being on furlough is akin to a paid holiday, many have not found that at all. It has in fact clarified that work brings meaning beyond a pay cheque. Extended time off has for many been challenging, finding themselves without structure and purpose. That could have a lasting psychological impact, something HR leaders need to be mindful of as people are integrated back into work.

Clarification of what really matters and what one values from work is already having an organisational impact. One chief people officer told me her firm had been preparing for the worst in terms of redundancies, but that natural attrition has already been higher than expected, with people making life-changing decisions such as wanting to work in a frontline job or move closer to their families. Another HR director told how a CEO successor who was planning to relocate his family to a different continent changed his mind after catching COVID and – presumably – having an epiphany about what he wanted out of life.

Then there’s the fact that some jobs have literally been classed as ‘essential’, suggesting others are not. These essential jobs are, rather ironically, those on which society doesn't place much value. But those are the ones that have kept us all safe, fed and watered during lockdown.

Having a ‘non essential’ job then can lead to some serious soul searching, especially when you also aren’t benefiting from the perks that come with the job (a fancy office, large expense account or company car, for instance). Without those trappings, when a role is boiled down to its barest bones, does it provide meaning and purpose? Or is it, in the words of David Graeber, ‘a bullshit job’? Do you feel fulfilled and like you are contributing if you are having to empower and trust your people from afar? Or do you miss the comfortable busyness of micromanagement? Such realisations are leaving some feeling lost and unmoored.

As offices begin to reopen, the challenge for HR is keeping some leaders away from the place they associate with self-worth and self-importance. Several (female) HR directors have confided that some senior male colleagues are struggling without the office and are desperate to get back in, even as the nation is told to keep working from home where possible. For them their sense of identity is bound up in the physical place as much as the role. For others, anxiety abounds over not being ‘seen’ to be present and productive. Handling this requires sensitivity – or you could go the way another chief people officer jokingly suggested and put a lock on the door of your leaders’ offices.

For HR leaders, there are a number of lessons to take here. One is around the importance of job quality and especially job design, ensuring that meaning comes from the content of the role. According to the CIPD’s latest Good Work Index, which explores job quality: “Perhaps the most central part of ‘good work’ comes down to the nature of the work that people do.” The survey also finds that while 73% of people find their work meaningful in terms of being useful for their organisation, only about half believe their work is useful for society. This is the kind of realisation that comes into sharp relief in a post-COVID world.

It also brings home the need to consider the interface between business and society. Responsible business was having a moment pre-crisis, but how companies have behaved and continue to behave makes it pretty clear who was all talk, no action. The CIPD has just kicked off a project with Veronica Hope Hailey from Bath University School of Management looking at responsible business through Covid-19 and the role of the people profession, so watch this space.

Coming out of lockdown makes going into lockdown look easy. But, ever the optimist, I believe we have a once in a generation opportunity to rethink and reset our relationship with work for the better. We as individuals need to face into that moment and deal with challenging questions around meaning, value and purpose, rather than mindlessly snapping back to how things were before.

Katie Jacobs, pictured below, is senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD and a business writer/journalist

Katie Jacobs, CIPD

Published 24 June 2020

One chief people officer told me her firm had been preparing for the worst in terms of redundancies, but that natural attrition has already been higher than expected, with people making life-changing decisions such as wanting to work in a frontline job or move closer to their families

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