Cast your mind back to April 2020, let’s be more specific, 2 April 2020. You might not remember what you were doing, I’m not sure I do, but I guarantee that even amongst the steeliest of you there was a growing sense of anxiety. In the UK we were in lockdown, lockdown 1. It was, and I think this is the absolutely perfect application of the word, discombobulating. And whilst I don’t know what you were doing that day, I can have a bet on what you were doing that evening at around 8pm and I reckon I’ll have a 1 in 2 chance of getting it right.
2 April 2020 was the first clap for key workers, in recognition of the “healthcare workers, emergency services, armed services, delivery drivers, people who work in shops, teachers, waste collectors, manufacturers, postal workers, cleaners, vets and engineers”, who were keeping the country going as many of us were confined to our houses. As the founder of the movement in the UK wrote at the time, “tonight we will show our appreciation again! For ALL that go out to work so that we can stay in!”
Fast forward less than 18 months and we are in a situation where mile long queues are forming outside of petrol stations, with many limiting the supply and many others closed. And whilst there is absolutely enough fuel to go around, whilst there is no need for panic, it has become a complete and utter free for all. Meanwhile the warnings are growing that the individual actions of many of us are likely to put those very people that we clapped for at risk of being unable to get to fulfil their essential roles in society.
It didn’t take long for us to forget.
If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the last year or so, then you’ve either a sucker for punishment or you’ll have noted that this is becoming something of a familiar refrain, but I’m not one to let a good argument go. The moment the worst of the pandemic was seemingly passed, we collectively dropped all focus on those essential workers and went back to our fetishisation of the white collar knowledge worker. From the mainstream press to our professional bodies, we dropped them like an embarrassing fat friend and are once again pretending that the only people that exist in our economy work in multi-storey offices in Central London or cool converted warehouses on the outskirts. And quite frankly, the HR profession missed a fundamental opportunity to shift the debate about good and meaningful work, because they were caught up in the rainbows and unicorns and blinded by vested self-interest.
Work, and therefore by definition organisations, has a fundamental role to play in the fabric of society. That stretches beyond our own employee base and our workforce, it stretches into the role and influence that we can play in shaping our communities and making a better and fairer world for all. To give an environmental parallel, when you’re making decisions as an organisation you’re not just interested in the physical environment directly around your workplaces, but you take a broader global view. So why when it comes to society do we think our obligations stop at funding a local football team and painting a school?
So, I hear you ask, what the hell do petrol queues and HR practices have in common? As I’ve written before, it is the increasing, pernicious presence of neo-liberalism in our workplaces, driven by the desire for HR departments and leadership teams to be popular rather than thoughtful, to serve rather than lead. It is the very same logic that leads a person wants to work from wherever they want and to fill up multiple jerry cans of petrol with little or no concern for others. They are putting their needs and their desires beyond those of society. And we, in our desperate search to be wanted, are willingly facilitating that shift.
We have to stand for something bigger and better than just giving people what they think they want. We have to believe that we can play a more important role than just appeasing the short term needs of our employees. We should do better, we must do better. But the track record of the last 18 months suggests we have a long long way to go.