Pulling back the curtain

For London businesses locked in a battle for workplace talent, now is the time to reimagine how work gets done

Photo: Terry Gillis, CEO, Ahria Consulting

THE WORKPLACES OF the world have a $7.8-trillion ­problem on their hands: employees who have grown disengaged with their work, their productivity waning, their anxiety and stress levels rising.

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Those conclusions come courtesy of Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workplace report, which may come as a stern wake-up call to the corporate world that all is not well, and that emerging from the pandemic demands new strategies of leadership and management.

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Globally, workplace engagement stands at a torpid 21 per cent, Gallup’s study found — a slumping figure that, by their calculations, exacts a nearly $8-billion toll on economic output, “roughly equal to 11 per cent of global GDP.”

Here in Canada, the trends are not quite as dire as the global average — but are nonetheless worrying. Only 33 per cent report feeling engaged at work, and an even half say their days are mostly spent dealing with stress and worry.

And though by other metrics we’re doing alright — 70 per cent believe there’s a lot of jobs available — local ­management and leadership experts still want Canadian leaders to wake up and pay attention to a slow-roiling problem.

“I would say the state of the employee right now is completely gong-show” ―Terry Gillis

“I would say the state of the employee right now is ­completely gong-show,” states Terry Gillis, CEO of London-based Ahria Consulting and author of Desuckify Work: Doesn’t Everyone Deserve a Great Place to Work?

At a basic level, Gillis says, there are too few employees to meet the needs of a lot of businesses, many of which seemed completely blindsided when employees quit in search of higher pay or better conditions amid the so-called Great Resignation of 2021. Years of ­post-2008 slack in the labour market vanished, and many employers lacked answers to employees demanding more compensation or improved ­work-life balance.

“The pandemic took the veil off,” he says. “The demographic pressures that people have been screaming about for years reared its ugly head.”

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Now it’s mid-2022 and “people are stressed, but people are stressed for different reasons,” Gillis continues. “We’ve got inflation going out of control, and the wheels are going to come off the housing market.”

These are the type of stresses that inevitably trickle into the workplace and labour relationships, Gillis warns. “We’re overwhelming a system that’s teetering already.”

London is no stranger to these trends; Gillis says that everything the world is dealing with is present here in the 519. “I don’t think there’s anything uniquely remarkable about London — it has the typical problems we’re seeing throughout the western world,” says Gillis.

“Some of our customers are thriving. They have people who are empathetic, who give a shit, who are checking in on people not checking up on people. Our customers who have embraced that are seeing tremendous returns on investment” ―Terry Gillis

“We definitely have seen an increase in employees ­bringing up issues of stress,” adds James Norris, ­franchisee and sales manager at the Express Employment London office. “It seems to be something that has increased, and dramatically so.”

What, then, will it take to break the logjam? For Gillis, the path out of this tense, stressed environment demands new approaches from leadership and management — an explicit turn away from top-down management towards viewing workers not as a labour cost to be minimized but as people investing their talents in your business.

It isn’t possible to go back to 2019 normal, he says. Times have changed, and businesses need to change with them.

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“Some of our customers are thriving,” he says. “They have people who are empathetic, who give a shit, who are checking in on people not checking up on people. Our customers who have embraced that are seeing tremendous returns on investment.”

Specific remedies are hard to articulate. A disengaged workforce can’t be re-engaged with modifications to the hybrid work policy, nor can it be re-engaged with simple salary increases. What is missing, Gillis says, is so often a shared sense of purpose. When workers are alienated from their place in the value chain, or when their compensation doesn’t seem to reflect the value they create, disengagement is soon to follow. Good leaders, he says, will know to fix that problem at the level of purpose.

Think about Greenpeace, Gillis suggests. Whatever you think of them, Greenpeace has clarity of purpose, he posits, and its employees are all rowing in the same direction as a result.

“Greenpeace’s employees will go and ram a whaling boat off the coast of Japan and put their life on the line for a cause,” he says. Greenpeace isn’t struggling for employees, or with a ­disengaged workforce.

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But even if your business isn’t like Greenpeace, there are lessons to be learned, Gillis says. “When your organization is not aligned to its purpose — I don’t care if it’s Covid, a recession or the greatest gold rush in the history of humankind — people will feel a ­disconnect,” he says.

And for London businesses, who are locked in a battle for talent, it’s even more important.

“When there’s a lot of competition for the resources, you need to double down and triple down on getting it right,” Gillis says. “Londoners are a tolerant bunch to an extent, but then that tolerance runs low — and then people will vote with their feet.” Pulling back the curtain workplace Human Resources Kieran Delamont

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