[Column] Cathy Smith: The silent war between employers and employees will have no winner
The defining leadership challenge of 2023 will be navigating the silent war brewing between employers and employees. “What war?”, you may ask. Perhaps it is easier to explain it as a series of battles happening on many work fronts.
The US and other developed markets are facing a more obvious foe – “the great resignation” as it has been dubbed. Post pandemic, many people are taking stock of their lives and realising that in the relentless pursuit of career success, they have lost perspective on what really matters. Hours spent behind laptops and steering wheels on long commutes have required sacrifices in other areas of their lives – family, friends, fitness, hobbies, and happiness.
The forced pause in the frenetic day to day activity created by the lockdowns gave people time to reflect and to see a different possibility for their lives. This, combined with a reality check on their own mortality, led many people to say: “it’s not worth it”. Afterall, a missed school prize-giving ceremony or a significant birthday too busy to celebrate, are moments that can not be recaptured. Throwing caution to the wind, many have simply resigned from seemingly good jobs in the pursuit of something more meaningful, leaving employers with a void they are finding difficult to fill.
In Africa, I believe the situation is different, driven mainly by our enormous unemployment rates and a significant slowdown in economic growth. While people may have shared the same reflections as their counterparts in the developed world, they simply do not have the luxury of throwing caution to the wind. A sense of security is keeping them anchored in their jobs. However, the work flexibility forced by the lockdowns, has set a new expectation amongst employees - one that is not easily reversible.
I view this as the silent war or the rise of the so-called ‘quiet quitting’. In many respects it is a more dangerous foe – stealthy and destructive. Employees, many exhausted by the long-term effects of the pandemic and often having given more than double the time commitment to their demanding jobs, are also saying: “it’s not worth it”. However, they are voicing this sentiment more subtly – in the reluctance to come back to the office even part time, and in the reluctance to take on more responsibility than defined by their job scope.
“Quiet quitters” are plodding through their day jobs and, by and large, delivering on expectations. However, they are often disengaged and disconnected from the organisation and its shared purpose. At first glance this may appear relatively harmless, but the long-term effects are disastrous for organisations and for employees.
One of the hallmarks of highly competitive businesses is the dedication of employees to perform their tasks and go above and beyond by meeting additional demands and driving innovation. Companies with a strong workplace culture rely on employees to step up at important moments and bring projects to a successful close. This drives competitiveness and growth. It is also a two-way street with employees having opportunities to shine, to take on stretch assignments, to learn and grow, to build social capital within the organisation.
History has shown us that there are no true winners in war. The only way to successfully navigate through the new normal, and find a win-win solution, is collaboratively. First, leaders need to acknowledge that there is no blueprint for success. The answers lie somewhere between the very real needs of employers and the equally real desires of employees. Success in 2023 and beyond will rely on strong leaders who encourage open dialogue, build trust, collaborate and are willing to fail fast and try again. The successful new world of work will be co-created by employers and employees. It will be one that balances productivity and innovation with enabling employees to thrive in all facets of their lives.