Uncertainty defined 2022, a tumultuous year in which war, pandemic and climate change reigned over the stage. While a new cycle looms large, the unpredictability that shaped the past 12 months lingers on. With momentous possibilities on the table — a deep or a shallow recession, the continuation of a costly war or peace, new vs. old leadership and much more — four workplace trends have the potential to make or break organizations in 2023.
It shouldn’t be news that Gen Z, the youngest generation to join the workforce at a time of turmoil and complex changes, craves security. The need for stability is especially pronounced among new job seekers who are entering the workplace right now. For this cohort, security, well-being and mental health are closely intertwined — a trend that companies on the hunt for new talent should address not only through wellness but also belonging.
For a generation that’s learned that workers are disposable by watching older cohorts get wooed and dumped, work-life balance is not a perk but a basic expectation. Notably, employees may prefer a workplace that respects their personal lives (e.g., reasonable schedule, flexible work arrangements, extended parental and family leave and others) more than one filled with amenities.
While work that doesn’t spill over to other domains is an imperative, newer generations also seek a fuller sense of belonging and the security that stems from fitting in. Culturally, this trend calls for more systematic efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, especially across male-dominated job categories and roles. Still, it also underscores the importance of career stability and the net negative value of survivalist cultures.
Unsurprisingly, new job applicants give brand recognition and ambitious placements less attention, further signaling that experiencing less uncertainty is their most critical need. In search of empathy, collaboration, ethical conduct and other emotionally intelligent behaviors, these workers are likely to keep away from organizations that foster hyper-competitive, toxic work environments.
2022 was also the year of the activist employee. Encouraged by the need for social justice that the pandemic brought to the surface, demands for a fairer workplace – one that makes space for all its tenants' rights and needs – persisted over the past 12 months. While political decisions such as the reversal of Roe v. Wade clarified that civil rights are also at stake at a time of unforgiving change, employee activism is not merely the fruit of ideological passions. Deep down, it reflects employees’ quest for identity, meaning and authenticity.
"Quiet quitting," a trend derided by some commentators, became a core part of the workplace revolution currently underway. In spite of a work culture rooted in hyper-commitment, employees signaled the end of the "paid puppet" era by admitting to leaving work while on the job. Who they are, the meaning they create and the values they bring to the workplace are not hats to hang on the wall; they are inalienable rights. To these new workers, if the choice is between being whole and leaving the field, the latter is a preferable, more dignified option.
Threatened by these new behaviors, companies have swung between courting their workforces and putting the muzzle on them. Some have even set boundaries around what employees can discuss at work. But since employees seek self-expression and authenticity, engaging in a game of top-down power may give organizations a Pyrrhic victory.
As a recession looms, employees may comply. Still, even if companies temporarily succeed in quelling the disobedience, they risk reinforcing the perception that work is where self-determination dies. Over time, workers may respond more antagonistically, driving productivity down via more disengagement, "quiet quitting" and turnover.
In a panic, companies are also re-evaluating their engagement models. Even in tech, where the frame of "work hard + play hard" seemed the only way to attract and retain talent, organizations are resorting to practices their grandparents used. Haphazard cuts to buoy shareholders, return-to-the-office mandates, performance evaluation based on bogus quotas and pitchy hymns to efficiency and technocracy are part of the “innovative” recipe to stop workplace progress.
Besieged as if they had lost their say on the future of work, organizations embracing these practices may feel more in control but suffer the fate of those who age too fast. Indeed, as change is determined to shake even the most brilliant businesses to the core, this trend should give pause, not reassurance.
Whether companies like Meta and Google, endowed with unparalleled experience and resources, were supposed to be the ones launching Tik Tok or Chat GPT may be an unfair question. But now that tech is asking employees to put their heads down and get it done, such a Tayloristic vision is bound to receive closer scrutiny. Right now, instead of a new spring of ideas, only linear improvements seem within grasp.
The revanche workplace may soothe organizations' need for security and stability. Still, it’s not geared toward creating a problem-solving mindset, challenging the status quo and unleashing the transformative power of purpose. Its low potential further shrinks when we consider that employees may easily choose to retreat emotionally and simultaneously scale down their cognitive engagement.
Despite the weight of ushering change under the threats of the status quo, employees have not shied away from the responsibility to push for a new playbook. But they certainly wonder where the adults in the room are. In the face of existential challenges like climate change, not only are the current leadership ranks failing to demonstrate a sense of urgency but sounding the retreat.
Unsurprisingly, leadership remains one of the most sought-out antidotes to the chaos and growing complexity. Yet, in this new time of turbulence and rapid change, it's also a mystifying challenge to those who try the role.
On the one hand, uncertainty increases the craving for heroic leadership, thrusting iconic figures into the role of unlikely savior. On the other hand, fiascos like FTX, a sorry way to wind down the year for crypto and a sector of tech, proves that the thirst for vision is unrequited as much at the bottom as at the top. Everybody wants certainty and shortcuts, magic solutions, predictable growth, a stop to the clock and a happy ending.
So, where are the leaders that can produce this casting?
Few are working on delegating, empowering, problem-solving and organically adapting to the gargantuan changes underway. Even fewer are raising ethical questions and addressing them. As the world unravels, leadership is a necessity so critical that, despite the havoc, those companies that have it and cherish it, foster it and grow it may be the only ones sailing into the future. Meanwhile, the rest remain stuck, trapped by outdated methods of control, overwhelmed by the pace of change, off-balance and destined to wade through the present.