Workplace dynamics - Seven trends in 2024 employers need to address

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We speak to people in workplaces most days – across many industries and around the world.

We hear about how they are feeling, about their leadership challenges, and much more.

It allows us to put some of the global trends one reads about in context. And as business leaders and HR teams alike prepare their budgets for the new financial year, we think there are seven major themes relating to their people that they should have an eye on.

1. A growing number of workplace disputes

Literally without exception, all employers (whatever their sector) report dealing with a serious uptick in the number of complaints about the behaviour of colleagues.

As the job market tightens, it’s always been notable that people tend not to leave a secure job. Research shows that the main reason people leave jobs is dissatisfaction with colleagues, and particularly bosses. Because no-one is going anywhere, what we are seeing is the animosity factor increasing. There's more hostility, formal complaints rise.

All together, the byrne·dean team has hundreds of years of combined experience handling workplace grievances. And very few of us can point to even one single complaint handled through formal, internal process that was resolved in a manner that satisfied both parties. It’s, therefore, refreshing that this year, possibly for the first time, we’re also seeing a serious increase in the number of requests for help from our mediators, to help before things escalate to a formal complaint or irreconcilable positions.  

We think this is all connected to another trend, that workplace investigations seem to be even more high profile than normal. The CBI and McDonalds followed Dominic Raab, Partygate and Sue Gray. The Post Office scandal has recently gained notoriety through a TV dramatisation. This has encouraged people to speak up more, and employers to take complaints more seriously. This heightened level of publicity and sensitivity will no doubt continue as the election cycle intensifies and politicians continue seeking to make capital out of the culture wars.

2. Less tolerance of others’ views

Without doubt, the increasing polarisation of society is impacting workplaces. People have less tolerance for others’ views; seem increasingly unwilling to accept that situations are complex and contain shades of grey; and have little or no interest in understanding different perspectives.  

We’re viewing this tendency as related to both the rise of Populism and increased social media use. We’ve certainly noticed that it’s online, particularly on a channel like Slack, that workplace disputes often seem to flare up. Workplace social media channels seem to lull people into forgetting that they are at work and owe their fellow workers duties of respect and to protect their dignity (their sense of self). What’s the real-life version of 20 people liking a derogatory post, if it isn’t workplace bullying?

For a deeper dive on these first two trends, I wrote at length in Personnel Today in mid-2023. My piece was written before the deeply polarising events in Israel and Gaza; a macro-event that’s required all employers to think very carefully about where they stand, the statements they make, how quickly they can or should have reacted to the escalating situation, and the support they can offer to employees who are deeply troubled by events.  

3. Increased duties on employers to prevent misconduct, and encourage speak-up

Most employers probably thought that it would be a Keir Starmer Labour government that would introduce legislation supportive of workers’ rights. However, the Worker Protection Act (a Private Members’ Bill) has put in place perhaps the biggest pro-worker change since the Equality Act in 2010. From October, there’s a legal requirement on employers to show they’re taking reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment. This is basically an acceptance that the previous legislative approach has not worked.

The timing is apt; certainly, we have been approached by many employers saying that people seem to have forgotten some of the rules of socialising after work (especially where drink is involved). Social media channels and intergenerational tensions have only added to this.

Employers are waking up to the reality of this requirement. Yes, the Equality Act has always required more than some ad hoc training for an employer to successfully mount a defence to a harassment claim. But defending a sexual harassment complaint now looks like it will require the alignment of your Board and clear accountability for a holistic preventative initiative. The experience of Australia (that introduced similar legislation a year earlier than the UK) could be instructive; are your processes people-focused and trauma-informed? 

The FCA’s revised expectations on non-financial misconduct within financial services feel similar in many respects; the need for DEI strategies will also require an increasingly holistic approach. We await the FCA's conclusions, but many clients are already receiving questionnaires seeking detail of how individual grievances have been handled historically. Expectations on employers are rising. 

We have a dedicated page with resources for anyone wanting to learn more and prepare.

4. The hybrid work debate is far from over

We often hear that hybrid is ‘so last year’ - which is to say that HR teams feel they have adjusted to a new way of working. However, workplaces are still very much adapting and wrestling over what their stance on this is, often in conflict with many of their team. A KPMG survey of over 1,300 CEOs in October found that 2 in 3 CEOs “expect most staff to be back in the office full time, within the next three years.” We’d like to see more alignment between Business and HR leaders on this subject and a realisation of what forced return to work could look like.

We predict that resentment will continue to be widespread in 2024. For anyone who is a primary carer for children or loved ones, flexible and/or remote working may be a necessity rather than a perk if they are to have an equitable opportunity to progress.  Often this will be women – many in very senior roles – who are increasingly feeling that their position is not understood by their (typically male) colleagues.

It will be interesting to see what happens in April, when a new law gives a day one right to request flexible working. Extensions of this type have often proved to be something of a damp squib. Perhaps in 2024 the stars are aligned for more action – and from workers who businesses cannot do without.

5. The manager skills gap

Many of our financial and professional services clients are finding themselves in similar positions. Over the last 20 years of our existence, we’ve regularly commented on a management skills gap – stemming in the main from a tendency to promote top performers to management positions, rather than focusing first on peoples’ aptitude for a management role.

The problem has been exacerbated by recent events. Many firms performed above expectation (sometimes well above) once they had adjusted to Covid and lockdown. They took new people on and focused less than they could have done on onboarding and integrating them.

Things became more challenging for managers as we went remote and then bumped into hybrid. Tensions, often of an intergenerational nature developed about whether people should be required to return physically to the workplace. The labour market tightened, then lay-offs started.  

Perhaps work relationships have become more transactional. Teams and Zoom calls do feel much more clinical than an in-person conversation; many of us are certainly missing the informality and regularity of office-based interaction. If a call is difficult, and if I worry that someone has taken things badly, that worry might intensify when I hang up; and next time I might decide to simply not engage.

The difficulties with hybrid, ever-growing levels of stress and anxiety across the workforce, increasing regulator scrutiny and new laws mentioned elsewhere in this piece suggest that the answer is to focus on this gap; on increasing communication skills: online and in person.

6. Class inequality becomes an EDI priority

Without question, people with working class origins face very real biases and barriers in the workplace, with an average pay gap of 13.05% that widens in elite occupations like finance, law, and consulting (if you’ve managed to get in in the first place).

It’s incontrovertibly the case that there’s a groundswell finally developing around changing this. Led largely by some influential senior people who can see the talent wasted. Our own Helen Dallimore is part of a working group of leading lawyers, academics, and charities exploring the practicalities of defining and incorporating a potential definition of social class in UK Equality legislation. It feels like this will be when, not if.

We’re seeing more action at board level, and 2024 will probably see this continue. Though be warned, actions will need to be meaningful, rather than straying into tokenistic class washing. For more on this, see Helen’s full article in Quartz on the topic from late 2023.

7. Navigating AI and the imperative for human skills

Something that’s predicted to affect 44% of labour globally is obviously on everyone’s mind: how will organisations adapt? AI has the dual impact of removing the need for many lower-skilled jobs, whilst offering a major productivity boost in higher-skilled jobs. Any manager skills gaps are going to feel increasingly wide as the need to manage change and uncertainty takes centre stage. 

We predict that we’ll hear often in the coming months and years that human skills, like emotional agility (the ability to recognise your own emotions and be curious about exploring others'), become more critical as AI changes how organisations obtain, process and analyse information. Ultimately, individuals with advanced skill sets are better equipped to navigate teams in flux/change, something that remains beyond the capabilities of robots due to their inability to process emotions. 

And to be clear, these are skills that you can develop. Often done best with experiential, drama-based learning with actors playing out real-life situations.

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