This January marks three years since the World Health Organization first started reporting on a cluster of viruses that we would soon know intimately as Covid-19. In that time, we’ve seen workplaces — and our expectations of work — transform. But in some ways, the change has only begun. What other changes may be in store in 2023?
If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that predictions are largely futile in our unpredictable world. Instead of predictions, I’ll offer up trends to watch, and I suggest considering how you might want them to evolve. If you want to see a change, why not consider what that might look like in your organization or how you can impact one of these trends as a leader?
The first trend is that diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) will be increasingly pressure-tested in the year ahead. Despite growing support at both the leadership and employee level for progress, the threat to — and likely overturning of — affirmative action in the US could lead to a chilling effect on corporate DE&I initiatives.
This will test the ability of organizations to act on their DE&I promises and potentially require some creative rethinking of how to do this. This may also include a reckoning of why, even in more open legal conditions and with the resurgence of commitments in the past two years, we haven’t seen as much progress as we would like or expect.
Another aspect of this pressure-testing: the current wave of corporate layoffs in American business are hitting DE&I and HR teams hard, which is impeding momentum on key programs and initiatives. Other functional business leaders may need to pick up the mantle. Though this could be a challenge at first, it may also help DE&I programs to become more integrated and, therefore, more sustainable in an organization.
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At the same time, we may expect another less dramatic but still fundamental 2023 HR evolution: the end of the language of “soft skills.”
The issue is that the language of soft versus hard skills can devalue the importance of soft skills in the workplace by suggesting that they are easier to learn or even somehow innate to certain people (for example, women). Today, more and more leaders recognize that hard skills (i.e. technical skills like computer programming) and soft skills ( like being able to motivate a team or express empathy) are equally important; in some cases, soft skills are even more important to effective leadership. When these skills are subtly devalued through language, that may mean organizations don’t invest as much in helping leaders acquire them. Increasingly, we see this changing: More organizations are breaking out of the binary and referencing these skills in ways that more clearly articulate their value, like “relational skills,” “essential skills” and “power skills.”
We’re seeing a renewed focus on these skills due to a confluence of factors: an expanded skillset for managers necessitated by the shift to remote work, the prioritization of DE&I inside organizations, and in particular, the importance of inclusive leadership at a time of economic uncertainty. These have all made it even more important for leaders to guide and inspire their teams through ambiguity.
But managers and leaders can’t do it all alone. As we all settle into new patterns of work – hybrid, distributed, remote – everyone needs to be equipped with relational skills to strengthen or re-forge team bonds. The research is clear about the strong influence relationships have on workplaces: In organizations where people report having strong work relationships, we can see increased performance, innovation, engagement and retention.
Positive interactions in the workplace have been shown to improve job satisfaction and positively influence staff turnover, as employees who experience support from colleagues are more likely to remain in an organization long term. But strong connections don’t happen automatically, particularly in remote/hybrid environments. Organizations are beginning to realize that they need to help their people develop the kinds of relational skills required to create and deepen their links with colleagues, like active listening and effectively sharing feedback.
Workplaces, after all, are built on relationships. 2023 will be about getting back to the foundation and making sure that it’s stronger than ever before.