How did we do?

At the tail end of 2020, I got curious. I wanted to understand whether or not companies got kinder during COVID. I launched a simple survey on LinkedIn to get a read on whether or not one of the most challenging years in human history changed work for us. Specifically, I was curious to know did companies become kinder? Nearly 300 people responded (thank you if you were one of them!) and nearly 70% said “my company got kinder during COVID.”

My optimistic heart skipped a beat when I read that nearly 70% of respondents said YES- their companies had become kinder. My first thought was that something amazing had come out of such a trying time. The way we showed up and engaged with each other made the difference. Then I offered this prompt to understand what happens to us when there’s an absence of kindness at work: An absence of kindness at work makes me feel…Disengaged, mentally stressed, physically stressed, undervalued and disloyal were the choices. Nearly 50% said all of the above.

If understanding why kindness at work is essential, that 50% number may help us connect a few dots. Kindness changes us. My survey results mirror what the data and research show about the relationship between kindness, people and business. Very simply, kindness makes people better and when we are better (happier, healthier physically and mentally, more satisfied) we show up authentically. We build trust. We collaborate more fluidly and effectively. When we are better, everything about work, including the outcomes we create, gets better too. 

What will we do?

Our world is beginning to wake up. We have an opportunity to reinvent what it looks like, how we experience our lives, how we take care of one another and how we define work. Imagine this. What if you looked forward to work? What if the hours you spent working became some of the most enriching hours of your day? What if you could share your talents, interests, experience and passions at work and know you were valued? What if your workload was balanced so you could rest and enjoy the rest of your life? How would that change you and the way you defined work? Would we be so bold as to give work a different name?

Some of us may be fortunate enough to experience those things now but for most of us, that’s not the norm. In a recent Forbe’s article, workplace burnout- caused by factors such as stress, a lack of alignment, control and toxic working environments, is rising. Even though some companies got kinder, we are not where we need to be.

Business is a human thing. It’s time for a change. Being nice or randomly kind will not get us there. We have to develop new muscles that shift our way of thinking and doing. What can we learn from our past that can help us write our new chapter where kindness is the very foundation of this thing we call work? 

An Old Mindset

Work: defined as effort done to achieve a purpose or result- something a person has to do- synonymous with slog, drudgery and toil. Whoa! Is that how you want to spend 8+ hours of your day for 90,000+ hours of your life? We all deserve better. Across the last four industrial revolutions, production, output and energy have been the driving factors for doing more and making more, faster and cheaper. The machines and technology that make faster and cheaper possible became commodities and slowly, so did we. Machines, technology and people became one and the same.

The last 260 years have solidified a mindset about work and the role we play in the success of the companies who employ us. That mindset led to decisions around labor and manufacturing that further minimized the humans doing the work. That mindset that dictated our past does not have to be our present. It cannot be our future. If companies want to thrive in the 21st century, leaders will have to shift their mindset and give particular attention to the human beings at work. 

Redefining the Future of Work

This is our new chapter to write. How exciting is that? Over the last 14 months, we have adapted, grown, thrived and learned that we can effectively work in ways we did not know were possible before. I believe work will be forever changed by what we have endured and that gives us an enormous opportunity to stay kind and humanize business. We have a chance to redefine work now and for the next 100 years but it won’t be easy.  Redefining work will challenge us to adopt a new mindset that results in new actions. We will have to disrupt and even break in order to create better. At times, that will mean we may have to forsake revenue and market share to get it right because this new chapter is about something far bigger and deeper than the measures we’ve traditionally used to define our success. This chapter is about social good and taking care of each other and the planet we share. Just take a look at the rise in B corporations and you’ll begin to see what I mean. We have an appetite for change.

Authoring our new chapter in the history of work will require us to get curious and explore ways to merge our technology, labor and manufacturing strategies with particular care and emphasis on our human strategies to ensure we never get lumped into the commodity bucket again. The future is about nurturing, inspiring and empowering meaningful human connection locally and globally. By the way, GenZ is expecting these things and so much more. Every business leader should be listening to what they have to say, learning and shifting old mindsets and practices. The viability of the companies they lead just may depend on it. This growing population of 88 million humans has very clear ideas about who they buy from, who they work for and they have power. They want to be part of something that matters. These are the people who will help us build and inherit what we begin creating together now. 

The effort that will be required is extensive. We will need to work together and support one another as we build our new work muscles and share our best ideas, habits and practices. If we do, we will begin to create the unimaginable. Change will not happen overnight.  It will be slow but we will be able to feel it all the same. Building a strong foundation that prioritizes people at work is the launchpad and that foundation is kindness.

A Shared Definition

Kindness is an ambiguous word and one that has a different meaning for nearly every person you ask. It’s also a word that’s never historically been associated with work. We don’t understand it. Maybe that explains why kindness lacks meaning and relevancy in the context of work. While we’re reinventing work, why not redefine kindness too? What does it mean for you? If you’re unclear or coming up short, I invite you to borrow my definition if it speaks to you. For me, the definition is simple. Kindness is a commitment to do no harm in thought, word and action- to leave everyone and everything better. How can we go wrong if we start right there? By adding intention to guide us, our actions and decisions, as we break and disrupt, we will build a human centric future for work that will have far reaching positive impacts. On this launchpad, we will need to support our efforts and mindset with continual attention (care and feeding) to make the changes real and to make them last. This is our moment to redefine work, the experience we have and to create what we want work to be like now and for the next 100 years. What will we choose to do?