Good Work in an Era of Change?

‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste’

Peter Cheese referred to this classic Churchill quote as he opened CIPD’s annual Festival of Work in June 2022.  It was great to be back at Olympia in London for this conference and exhibition in person – all around were lots of people reuniting, greeting old friends and the buzz of conversation. Yet at the same time everything was different – the event felt smaller, but was hybrid with people participating in the event both in person and around the world simultaneously.  The exhibition had many of the same mix of exhibitors, but also a People’s Library, a Genius bar for HR advice and other innovations too.

The keynotes at the beginning and end of each of the two days explored some of the big picture stuff – the economy, ESG – environmental, social and governance issues and AI & the use of technology.  With the three strands of the conference then digging deeper into topics such as: leadership; learning & development; hybrid working; skills; and inclusion & diversity.   Because of my background in L&D, I made a deliberate choice to mostly participate in sessions away from the L&D field – I wanted to stretch and challenge myself and was richly rewarded with excellent and stimulating sessions.  There was challenge, sobering facts, practical experience and stories of hope and positive leadership.

Here are the main themes that I have identified from the conference:

  • The sheer scale of the challenges the world is facing.  Peter Cheese talked in the opening about four simultaneous crises – environmental, the pandemic, geopolitical with the war in Ukraine and all the many ramifications of this, and economic. He used the quote from Lenin, that many will be familiar with ‘There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen’. It is no wonder we feel tired.
  • These are challenges for us in our organisations too. Each of these crises have multiple implications for our organisations. Ruby McGregor in her keynote on the second day talked about how businesses have a responsibility to shareholders, but how our responsibilities are wider and bigger than this.  She spoke about why the ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) agenda was becoming more prominent because of the interest of the public, shareholders and because very many business leaders care and want to make a difference.
  • The demands on leaders are growing.   We need leaders who are able to be calm in turbulent times, whilst acting with agility. Not only do we need to help leaders develop these skills, we need to broaden the diversity of leaders including in diversity of thought and experience.
  • Front line managers continue to be key to the experience that staff have of the organisation.  So much starts with the manager.  We need to support line managers so that they can support their teams effectively. For example when it comes to digital wellbeing, this starts with the managers – are they role modelling positive experience?
  • Diversity and inclusion were threads that appeared in so many sessions – if we want our organisations to be able to survive and thrive with this array of challenges then we need the benefits of inclusion & diversity.  It is great to see this being recognised more fundamentally at last.  Ruby McGregor-Smith put this centre stage in her key note and other sessions focused on developing practical skills to make this a reality.  Jenny Garrett challenged HR with the practical mindshifts needed to become an anti-racist ally and Susi Miller identified what we need to do to make L&D more accessible for people with disabilities specifically.
  • Hybrid working was of course discussed and experiences shared about what makes it work effectively, particularly to enable collaboration.  It is about recognising that this is constantly evolving, we need to be intentional and lose what isn’t working.  So taking the time to reflect and review is crucial.

Alongside these themes, I also identified some more personal learning for those of us in the People Profession:

  • Belief – Ruby McGregor-Smith spoke about the belief that we can make a difference (around inclusion & diversity) and this was echoed throughout the panel on building sustainable businesses.
  • It is OK to start small, the important thing is to start.  This was one of the messages from Susi Miller’s session on accessible learning.  Sometimes the size of the challenge overwhelms us and feels easier to turn away and go back to doing what we have always done.  But we could just start small.
  • Several speakers mentioned the value of ‘letting go’ of stuff that is no longer working or no longer as important.  We can’t just keeping adding more stuff into our day, onto our to do list, onto our plans.  One example, was a global team who could find no good time for a team meeting, so cancelled the meeting and found a different and better way to work instead.
  • It is OK to fail.  We need a work culture where it is safe.  The final keynote was with Elizabeth Day, the host of the ‘How to Fail’ podcast and explored how we respond to failure in ourselves and others.
  • Be purposeful. This was one of the critical skills identified for leaders and helps us to make choices about what we do and don’t do.

I found the Festival of Work this year of real value.  It was challenging, energising, well balanced and has given me much to work with.

About the author

Rachel Burnham

Rachel Burnham held the position of Chair of the CIPD Manchester Branch from 2020-2022. She has over 30 years of HR and L&D experience and runs her own L&D consultancy.

Connect with Rachel on LinkedIn

Location Manchester, England E-mail Hours Our hours vary according to our programme.
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