Priorities changed on Sept. 11

By Barbara Moses
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/13/2001

I typically start my workshops and speeches with an overview of key work trends — the search for work-life balance, high-octane free-agent workplaces, intense productivity pressures, bold cocky workers who will vote with their feet if their need for learning and life balance are not met.

But the events of Sept. 11 have left this kind of rhetoric sounding if not exactly hollow, then somehow beside the point. Although these workplace trends have not come to a screeching halt, the way people feel about their lives and work has changed.

Have the events of Sept 11 affected how you think and feel about work, and what you expect from it? If your answer is “yes,” then you are like the approximately 75 per cent of people to whom I have posed this question in recent weeks.

Here are some of the key changes in people’s values.

The new loyalty

For the past several years I have been talking about the New Worker, an empowered free agent in a transformed workplace where loyalty to the organization and job security have become obsolete concepts.

Intellectually, people understand that job security is less attainable than ever, as the economy continues to downshift. But emotionally, many yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Metaphorically, they are looking for a kind of “Father Knows Best” type of employer who will put an arm around them and protect them. They want to be loyal. They want to identify with their employer and believe their work is important. As one young professional observed, “I want to feel proud of my employer and I want them to feel proud of me.”

This is not to suggest that we will see a return to the compliant 1950s style worker, unswervingly loyal to the corporation. Today’s workers maintain an independent stance, defining for themselves their value and how responsive they’re prepared to be to corporate expectations.

Work as a cocoon

In response to the events of Sept. 11, social observers have noted an increase in “cocooning” — the desire to stay close to home with family and friends, eating comfort foods, watching tired but familiar sitcoms and surrounding oneself with small personal luxuries. But for many, work has also become a kind of cocoon — a source of reassurance and routine, an oasis of stability and sanity in a hostile world.

It’s also, more than ever, a source of a sense of community. In my workshops and speeches over the last several years, I have asked people to rate their primary motivators at work — choosing between personal development, work-life balance, career-building, personal autonomy, self-expressiveness and collegiality. Most people described their primary motivators as personal development or work-life balance. Only a small number of people described themselves as being primarily motivated by collegiality — the opportunity to work with others and to be part of a group.

In the last few weeks, I have noticed a radical shift in values, with approximately one-third of people ranking collegiality as their most important source of satisfaction at work. In a time of crisis, they have learned to appreciate the comfort of being with people who care about them.

A search for simplicity

The new cocooning at work reflects people’s desires to reduce the ambiguity in their lives. As well as the predictable comforts of colleagues they know and care about, people want work they understand and can control.

Several people have told me that they have recently turned down exciting new career opportunities. There is only so much change and unpredictability people can deal with.

One globetrotting young management consultant was delighted to discover that his new assignment was in a dowdy Toronto suburb, a half-hour’s commute from his apartment. “I just love getting my Tim Hortons to go, getting in my car and getting stuck on the parkway,” he says. “It’s as much excitement as I can handle right now.”

People are also increasingly impatient with long-term projects that require strategic thinking and massaging ambiguous information. Grappling with a deep unease with both the economy and global events, they want bite-sized projects they can see through to completion with a minimal amount of ambiguity and abstraction.

Tempering of generational differences

Every year, I deal with a new crop of twenty-something knowledge workers whom in the past I have profiled as being cocky, confident of the value of their skills and who will vote with their feet if their needs for fun and learning are not met. Their demeanour has often driven their forty-something managers to distraction.

Generational differences are deeply rooted in people’s socialization in very different historical eras. Such differences do not disappear overnight. But the enormity of the Sept. 11 events have had such a significant impact on our collective psyche as to temper, if not entirely obliterate, many of the usual generational markers of behaviours and expectations.

Older ideas, like job security and a feeling of belonging to an organization, are coming back into the forefront. Rather than work they can feel passionate about, younger people are looking for a workplace where they can feel safe and comfortable. As one newly qualified CA put it, “Loving my work seems irrelevant given the current economy and what is happening in the world.”

A campus recruiter observes, “Last year, I promised great learning opportunities, a hip environment, work-life balance, big dollars. This year my value proposition is going to be nice people to work with, interesting but not overly demanding work, a place where you can hang your hat for the next few years and still have enough left over for friends, family and personal interests.”

Worthwhile work — but leave it at the office

As so often happens in the wake of a trauma, many people are taking a fresh look at themselves and their lives, and questioning the importance of their work. They are asking “Is my work worthwhile?” and “Am I engaged?” And in some cases they are considering making serious changes in their lives.

But whether people want to be intensely engaged by their work, or do work that is merely pleasant, they want to be able to leave their work at the office. They simply don’t have the emotional resources to work 24/7. “I don’t want hassles,” as one vice-president of human resources told me. “I want to be able to do my time easy and go home and be with my family.”

For many, work is no longer the centerpiece of identity. Although still prepared to give their best at work, it is time with family and friends that provides greatest sustenance. Having moved past valuing the obsessive boastful busyness that characterized pre-Sept. 11 lives, they have been brought back to core values — a desire to do work in sync with personal values rather than those associated with traditional definitions of success.

The emotional seesaw we’ve been on has left many depleted. Human resources will have to come to the plate to support staff through these troubled times. Here are some strategies:

Emphasize continuity

. I was bemused when a client said she was putting a large department through a change management program to help staff cope with a restructuring. The jobs themselves would not be changing but people would be reporting into a new function.

In the past weeks all of our assumptions about life and work have been transformed, all of our expectations challenged. An intervention to address something so seemingly minor struck me as silly at best, and counterproductive at worst.

People have had quite enough change already. Rather than emphasizing change, organizations should build on resources people already have. By the same token, organizations should re-think human resource rhetoric such as “be a risk-taker” or “embrace change.”

Remember the looming skill shortage

. Many organizations are cutting training and development as part of cost-containment efforts. This is shortsighted. Organizations are already suffering from a lack of bench talent, and have not fully recovered from the widespread loss of middle management jobs in the last recession. When you cut training and development, you undermine your future.

As Bill Pallett, senior vice-president of People and Quality for Delta Hotels and Resorts, observes, “If we cut customer service or other training we will be weakening ourselves now and in the future. Organizations who continue to develop their people and who are sensitive to their current malaise will be best poised in the recovery against their competition.” Arguably in fact, this may be more important now than ever before.

Make work manageable

. We have been besieged by a never-ending barrage of unimaginable news that has left many struggling with uncertainty in their day-to-day lives. Make work feel doable in the face of so much ambiguity by parsing it into manageable pieces and providing routine markers for success along the way. Giving feedback after goals have been attained is particularly important now.

People have long memories

. In the current economic climate, organizations are cutting back, putting the squeeze on people, slashing resources they need to get the job done, while increasing productivity demands at a time when people are feeling emotionally depleted.

Because people are worried about their jobs, they may swallow some of these pressures for now. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother them or that they’re going to forget about it.

There will be a recovery, and then the previously much-touted looming skill shortage, with all its implications for retention, will again raise its ugly head. People have long memories, and they will vote with their feet when they feel more economically empowered to do so.

Barbara Moses is a best-selling author, international speaker and noted authority on organizational career management. Her books include

Career Planning Workbook

and

The Good News About Careers

(Stoddart). She has just launched Career Advisor, an online career management tool for organizations. She may contacted through www.bbmcareerdev.com.

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