Doing the ‘COVID’ shuffle

The dance with your top talent you didn't know you were about to have.

Metaphorically, the sun is shining on Australia right now. Here in my home town of Melbourne we continue to reap the benefits of our hard COVID lockdown and, along with our neighbours in other parts of Australia, we’re enjoying the privilege of a more normal Christmas and Summer than most other parts of the world. Whilst it certainly feels like the significant hardships of the past year, with its’ bushfires, floods and pandemic, are beginning to fade, we all know the acrid residue will be at the back of our throats for quite some time.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve sensed something starting to shift in the labour market too. Unemployment remains high yet falling and the latest business confidence index is up, now at its highest level since May 2019, that’s way before the pandemic started to infiltrate our lives.

The market for top talent is hot and on the move. The ‘COVID shuffle’, as I’m calling it, is coming our way. This dance is my way of describing the frenzied moving of people (especially top talent) in and out of roles that I think is going to characterise the market over the traditionally quiet Christmas / New Year time.

What’s going on here? Surely those who have secure roles are going to be happy to keep them? Surely organisations are going to be more careful about how many new people they recruit, in order to keep a lid on their costs? Surely people are just going to want to have some ‘normality’ and not be changing jobs at this point in the year?

In my mind there are a number of factors which are driving this trend.

Rightly, or wrongly, the pandemic has laid bare the true culture and quality of leadership in your organisation. You saw what you saw, you heard what you heard, you experienced what you experienced. Yes, the circumstances were once in 100 years but you can never unhear, unsee or un-experience this. This now forms part of the landscape of your life in your organisation. Some leaders really rose to the challenge, some cultures really mobilised their best strengths and sadly, others did not. Many people I’ve spoken to this year bemoaned the vacillation of their senior leadership teams, their inability to make coherent decisions in the face of ambiguity and their startling lack of unity as a team in execution once decisions were finally made.

Most people have really liked having more flexibility at work. Sure, most would like to be able to actually return to the workplace and have more direct human interaction, but the rules of the game are forever changed. No longer is it only the domain of the working parent to ask for flexible work arrangements, it’s now the domain of everyone and top talent will seek it out and demand it. If your senior executives are still holding onto the notion that the workplace flexibility was a ‘temporary’ measure no longer broadly available then I can assure you that your competitor (who may be down the road, or on another continent) will delight in being able to deliver this for your top talent.

Levels of empowerment and opportunity for grass roots innovation have increased during the pandemic. Many people experienced this through necessity and are now asking themselves whether it will be enduring in their organisation. They enjoyed bringing more of their potential to bear, being creative and resourceful and not being stymied by rigid bureaucracy. Your top talent, no matter how loyal, are looking for an outlet for their skills in order to truly manifest their potential. Now, more than ever, they have a thirst for what’s possible as they have achieved more through having ‘room to move’ in their role.

The well of overseas and imported talent has completely dried up. Due to international border restrictions, we don’t have our usual amount of skilled labour coming into the country. Neither do we have the temporary influx of secondees and earlier career professionals who see a stint in Australia as a rite of their career progression. It’s a simple supply and demand equation. Those talented earlier career professionals are being hunted and snapped up by your competitors at alarming rates, and sometimes for alarming salary increases too.

And finally, but most critically, what about burnout and fatigue? The levels of exhaustion amongst working professionals are immense, the demands have been relentless and quite frankly, many need a good, long rest. Can they get this rest at your organisation? Can they be supported to take an extended break, or sabbatical? Or will they be forced to leave in order to get the rest they really need, to be the best they can be?

There are a lot of things we’re learning through our experience of living and working through a pandemic. Here the lessons fall into the domains of:

  • how leadership shapes culture (consciously or by accident);
  • how we need to re-think what our employee value proposition (EVP) needs to look like now;
  • how there is no substitute for proper role design which provides the right amount of discretionary space; and finally
  • how, as human beings we can survive, but we certainly can’t thrive, in an extended state of hyper-arousal. Sometimes enough is enough, and we just need a good rest.

I hope your Christmas and Summer brings you rest, recovery and rejuvenation for an amazing year ahead. I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts below.


About Fiona Stewart

Fiona Stewart is the Managing Director and Co-Founder of LTA People, a specialist Organisation Development consultancy based in Melbourne, Australia. Fiona defines the critical people levers that drive strategy execution, and translates these into actionable people and culture frameworks, plans and programs that are woven into the fabric of the organisation.

LTA People