Whether you call it the “September Shuffle,” the “September Scramble,” the “September Scuffle,” the “Big Quit,” the “Great Resignation,” the “Great Reset,” or the “Big Reboot,” as Bob Dylan sang, “the times, they are a changin’.” Regardless of what YOU are calling it, the question is: How ready are you for the chaos, confusion, and conflict that is about to ensue?”
For me, with summer quickly winding down and as I think about the “September Shuffle,” this is the musical playlist that is currently echoing through my head:
“9 to 5” (Dolly Parton)
For many people, the pandemic made them realize that “working 9 to 5 is no way to make a living.” Once they got off the hamster wheel of “get up, get dressed, get to work, and get home,” they realized that there was a better way to live…and to work, and that there were tremendous benefits to replacing a four-hour round-trip commute with a four-minute one. And having lunch with your spouse instead of your coworkers, and being able to make it to your kid’s soccer game after work? Not too bad! And if you happened to have gotten yourself a “pandemic puppy” (as we did; Lucy just turned one year old last week), EVERY day is “Bring your dog to work day!” So who wants to go back to the old grind?
Many leaders seem to think they can simply turn the calendars back to 2019, and pretend this whole thing never happened. As one CEO said in a Zoom breakout room (and I quote), “It’s time for everyone to put on their ‘Big Boy Pants’ and get their fat butts back to work. Playtime is over!” There are so many things wrong with this statement that I don’t even know where to start. But when I asked him HOW he was planning on luring his employees back to the office, he started talking about putting in ping-pong tables and offering free Friday lunches. Unfortunately, however, (with apologies to Prince), I’m not quite sure that what people want right now is to “party like it’s 1999”; they want to be part of a culture that treats their people with dignity and respect, as opposed to one that treats their employees like spoiled children who can be seduced into returning by free beer.
“What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye)
With all the unknowns out there, especially as the Covid variant continues to spread, neither leaders nor employees have any idea what to expect. In the past, conversations about “the future of work” tended to focus on years down the road; but these days, “the future of work” is next week. We are living in a hyper-VUCA world, one that is more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous than ever. And in times like this, leaders need to (as George Costanza from Seinfeld might recommend) “do the opposite.” For, in times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, leaders need to project and provide – to the best of their ability – a sense of calm, certainty, simplicity, and clarity. And so many leaders out there are failing to do so. Additionally, this song, one of the anthems of the Black Lives Matter movement, reminds us that a focus on diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity is more important than ever.
“Changes” (David Bowie)
Where to start? Over the past 18 months, for most people, pretty much EVERYTHING has changed, and there is no going back to “The Way We Were” (*throwing in this Barbra Streisand song reference as a bonus!). To me, the biggest change is that during the pandemic people had more flexibility and choice than ever before in terms of when, where, and how they did their work. Research has determined that in terms of productivity, employees working from home (“WFH”) got more done than ever before, often working longer hours than ever before; and they now want the freedom and the flexibility to continue to “WFA” (“Work From Anywhere”). However, for many “command-and-control”-style managers who were used to “MBWA” (“Managing By Walking Around”), they desire to have their people return to the office as soon as possible because it makes it easier on them than dealing with the complexities of a hybrid workforce…even if that’s not what their people want. But the bottom line is that the cat is out of the bag, the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and the train has left the station. Whatever metaphor you choose to use, leaders and organizations who fail to acknowledge this new reality do so at their own peril.
“Freedom” (George Michael)
In a world of the “4 Anys,” where Anyone, can do Anything, at Anytime, from Anywhere, many employees have discovered that they like their newfound freedom, and have no interest in giving it up. In his classic book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink determined that what people want and need is AMP: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. We all want the freedom and flexibility to do our work in a way that works best for us; we want to be continuously learning, growing, and mastering our craft; and we want to do work that matters. As such, many people feel that, as long as they are achieving the desired results, then When (*the title of Dan Pink’s latest excellent book, by the way), where, and how we do our jobs should not matter. The original management consultant, F.W. Taylor wrote that “People do best what they like best to do.” If he was around today, he might have added, “…AND when and where they like best to do it.”
“Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” (The Clash)
But what happens when the leadership of your company does not exactly see things this way? What happens if or when, despite your having proven that you can do your job just as well from anywhere, your organization starts calling (and, in some cases, ordering) employees back to the office? This is more than just a matter of personal preference or convenience; this is an issue of both physical safety and psychological safety, as many people do not yet feel comfortable taking mass transportation and/or working within the confines of an enclosed office. So, when faced with this dilemma, this is one of the most challenging questions that people are going to need to answer.
Take This Job and Shove It (I Ain’t Workin’ Here No More)” (Johnny Paycheck)
All indications are that there is a “war for talent” going on, and that employees are, in great numbers, retiring, resigning, relocating, and/or reconsidering their options. And with the “September Shuffle” about to commence, they have more options available to them right now than ever before. Ultimately, in terms of supply-and-demand, workers seem to have the upper hand. So, leaders need to ask themselves: What do I do if anywhere from 10 to 25 to 50% of my people (metaphorically) walk out the door? As one longtime sales rep who’s been working remotely for the past 18 months said to me, “If they think I’m going to go back to flying all over the country and living out of a suitcase again 200 nights a year, they’re crazy! I’ve shown that I can do this job virtually, so why would I want to go back out on the road again and live that insane lifestyle? And if they say, ‘You have to’, then I’ll just say ‘See ya’.”
“Independence Day” (Bruce Springsteen)
Yes, it is true that for many people, they cannot wait to get back to the office, and to be, once again, in the company of their coworkers. Others may prefer to come in a few days a week, on an as-needed basis. And others, not at all. Again, there is no solution that will fit everyone. However, one of the key (of many) trends that emerged during the pandemic was people taking on “side hustles” and/or starting their own gigs. Working from home was very much like working for oneself, and many people caught the entrepreneurial bug, realizing that they are fully capable of hanging out their own virtual shingle from their home office – no longer having to report to anyone but themselves. As a result, the gig economy has taken off exponentially, as more and more people realize that going off on their own is a realistic option that, pre-pandemic, they might never even have considered, and they are much happier working, “On My Own” (*Patti LaBelle & Michael McDonald song tossed in at no additional charge).
“Peace, Love, and Understanding” (Elvis Costello)
And, lastly, one of the universal themes that both companies and employees are talking about these days is that of stress, anxiety, and burnout. My colleagues Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick even wrote a whole book about it entitled, Anxiety at Work. In this hyper-VUCA world mentioned before, and after enduring this 18-month global pandemic with no end in sight, we need to realize and accept that this is “the new normal” for now, and we all need to figure out a way to deal with it…together. As such, now, more than ever, leaders need to lead – not manage, but lead – with empathy and compassion, and seek to see things from the point of view of others – what I refer to as “Flipping the Eye” – realizing that everyone is experiencing today’s realities and challenges differently.
So…these are some of the songs that have been playing in MY head.
When the summer comes to an end in just a couple of weeks, what tune will YOU be singing…and what’s on YOUR “September Shuffle” playlist.