Tell Me What You Do

COVID’s head-spinning turn served to showcase some very foundational problems in the world of work.

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By Melissa Swift

Conventional wisdom tells us that COVID-19 has been a counterintuitive boon to the working world. As organizations were called upon to pivot quickly, they benefited from a quasi-magical burst of agility?…?suddenly throwing off the shackles of bureaucracy to work in new, fluid, futuristic ways.

Or did they? Increasingly, we’re hearing from our clients that after a productive initial burst, the COVID sprint-turned-marathon has racers staggering along—or dropping by the sidelines entirely.

For many organizations, the head-spinning turn from in-office work in a robust economy to remote work in a troubled one has, in fact, served to showcase some very foundational problems in the world of work. What’s scary is that these aren’t sophisticated issues—they’re simple and fundamental. Here are some striking examples:

Organizations aren’t sure what people do all day. I’ve lost count of how many organizations I’ve heard discuss, in serious or anxiously joking terms, better ways to monitor their employees as they work from home. It isn’t really “Big Brother,” and it is understandable. But when you probe leaders, you realize the worry actually emanates from a very fundamental knowledge gap. These leaders lack any sort of clarity on how these jobs are actually conducted—what the substance of the workday truly consists of. They want to track their folks not to see if they’re doing what they should be doing, but because they were never sure what they should have been doing in the first place.

No one can pin down what “performance” means. That lack of clarity has spawned another issue: organizations aren’t sure what doing a good job really means. One of my clients almost bounced right into her webcam at this idea: “That’s what we’re missing—a performance philosophy!” she said. “We have tons of performance management?…?but what is performance itself?” In retrospect, years of diversity and inclusion data should have clued us into this phenomenon. The skewed performance reviews for women that Frances Frei and Anne Morriss memorably labeled “dopey” in their book Unleashed could only take place in organizations that couldn’t measure what performance is. Now organizations are eager to define performance in more precise terms. This is not a bad thing at all.

Work and life are in a more precarious balance than any of us thought. What looked like a humming machine of families and individuals balancing work and life has been exposed by COVID to be a rickety Rube Goldberg machine where any shift in a single element throws everything off. This conflict is showing up in highly visible ways—such as closed schools and a lack of childcare leading women to depart the workforce at four times the rate of men in September—but also less noticeable ones. For instance, with many workers not commuting, our clients report that employees’ workdays have stretched to fill all waking hours, revealing an uncomfortable push-pull between work and life that had lurked beneath the surface for quite some time.

So the question now becomes obvious: How to fix what COVID has exposed? First, many organizations should start with a reset on what the actual work of the organization is. A lot of the recent, aggressive shouting about “we’re a tech company!” from every sector of the economy has meaningfully obscured the work of what these companies actually do. It’s OK to be a banana company. There is no shame in growing bananas. There is shame in trying to grow bananas while focusing on a million other things that have nothing to do with growing bananas.

Second, a modest proposal: maybe we discard the word “performance” altogether and replace it with a word that means something and can be measured. “Results,” perhaps?

And finally, as organizations consider the future of work, it’s critical they move from the point of view of a shareholder to a stakeholder, taking into consideration the needs of their employees and the world at large. Work should no longer be the ravenous beast that it became in the industrial era and continues as now. We wouldn’t run a piece of equipment to the point of breaking; why do we do so with people?

So COVID didn’t fix work. But it didn’t break it either. It just showed how it was breaking already. Let’s seize this opportunity to fix it.

COVID’s head-spinning turn served to showcase some very foundational problems in the world of work.

Swift is a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global leader of workforce transformation.