By Mark Holtshousen
February 9, 2024

I have made it my job to understand what people are experiencing – call it well-informed empathy or the ability to subsume the experiences of others. Articulating those experiences is always the first step to progressing beyond them. Interpreting them through the lenses of the related disciplines helps people make meaning of their lived experiences. Since the pandemic, various buzzwords and labels have been used to express what sits below the surface of us all pretending that we are returning to normal, unscathed by what can only be described as the most traumatic shared event of our lifetime. The fact is that none of us are okay, even if we were financially and physically shielded from the effects of what many suffered.

The great resignation, the quiet resignation, the great staggering, the anti-ambition movement, semigration, revenge travel, revenge spending, and revenge bedtime procrastination are among just a few of the manifestations of our post-traumatic responses.

Organisations are also grappling with the reality of their people re-evaluating everything about their lives. Things that didn’t really matter before such as employee wellbeing, purpose and gratification-driven work have taken centre stage.

The futility of transit and time in the office spent without purpose have been replaced by people developing their personal interests in the spaces in between work that matters. Without the support of coffee with a closed pool of office inmates and weak social events that are poor substitutes for real connection and joy, the office is making less sense. That reality is being re-evaluated against the loneliness of remote work and sense of in-group preference the office used to provide.

It’s a dilemma we’re struggling to reconcile, demonstrated by our attempts at hybrid work approaches and calls from around the globe proposing either a return to or the end of the office altogether.

I’m less interested in attempting to tackle working policies, and more in what is actually going on with people. We are not okay, and we will vacillate uncomfortably in an attempt for certainty. We are less concerned about money than ever before but need it to finance our search for meaning.

This is not going to be a quick fix. Anyone claiming to have a handle on the new normal has failed to understand people in any way. We are broken, and that’s okay for now. We’re not okay, but we will be, and it won’t be because of a silver bullet. People will blame their organisations, but their organisations won’t be the answer.

The best a company can do is to at least try to accommodate their employee experiences and demonstrate extreme empathy. That then becomes every organisation’s new primary mandate. They will flounder, because this has never been the focus of organisations – now it must be. Revenue generation needs to be equally balanced with the fragility of their critically skilled talent. With eyes glazed over and minds far away from the annual results, we need to navigate a future without clarity on what will motivate our people. If 2020 was a year of mourning the lives we used to have, and 2021 the year of languishing, we were hoping that 2022 would be the year of rehabilitation. Our ambition was admirable, but for most it feels like the year hope was lost.

Individually, people will adjust and experiment with a new way of being. What counts now is that we don’t lose hope in them and give them the space and time to find their way back. All we can do is make sure that when they do come back, there’s something worth finding. Skilled and mobile talent are prodigal sons and daughters, not deserters and slackers. They’re reverting to the innate drive for meaning, purpose, and joy that balance always promised and that we helped them defer with the promise of a brighter future. They’re re-evaluating everything, and that may be a good thing. Left to evolve they will return with a perspective that we artificially interrupted in the workplace. The result will be nothing short of revolutionary, and we need to be ready to receive them with open arms and accommodate what they’ve become.

Talent will flock to companies prepared to embrace this elusive future, but it won’t happen fast. It also can’t be predicted, neither will it be consistent. None of this bodes well for our personal neurological need for certainty but still requires that we provide it for our employees. Certainty is our brain’s ability to predict the immediate future, and it supports our propensity to approach and engage. The lack of certainty does the complete opposite and is a predictor of avoidance and disengagement. Our perception of a certain future is accompanied by powerful chemistry in our brains that either promote post-traumatic stress (demarcated by time) or re-engagement. The pandemic provided long-term exposure to an event that will translate in a way that we will be unable to predict for years to come. The news is not good. Just try scrolling back in your phone to photographs of the early COVID lockdown days and you will be shocked at what you were feeling, experiencing, and lived through.

We’re in denial for the most part, not permitting ourselves to do the very things medical practitioners recognise as recovery techniques such as talk therapy. We’re making life-altering decisions and changes without the benefit of access to our best thinking. There is possibly nothing as disorienting as a lack of certainty, and we’re desperately trying to create it for others without knowing what it even looks like. We’re labelling and trying to define the new normal, and in doing so taking away the safe places, coping strategies, and moments of joy that have allowed people to get this far.

Imposing organisational uncertainty on individual uncertainty can interrupt the process of already fragile people. If we tell people where to be now, they will leave – not because they do not want to work, but in an attempt to create their own future, to feel safe or certain, even if it costs them a salary. Trusting our people as being resourceful, while it creates uncertainty at a macro-level, may be the wisest way forward. Not having all of the answers to managing a two-speed organisation or dealing with the dichotomous challenge of proximity bias versus ghost workers, is a discomfort we may need to learn to live with for a while.

People naturally gravitate toward meaning, purpose, and gratification – and they are profoundly resourceful to get there. This poses a unique challenge to organisations: To create environments and work that provide just that. We cannot rush ahead and attempt to define and construct these, as tempting as the lure of perceived certainty is. It needs to evolve. We need to slowly allow people to wake up and emerge naturally and at their own pace, or the resignations and revenge, in whatever forms, will just keep coming.

Make peace with discomfort and allow not having the answers to be your ally. Hold your tongue and listen. Don’t interrupt the process in your attempt to create one. This is probably not the neatly packaged advice you would like to hear, and if it was I would have failed. I would have loved to leave you with three easy steps or clearly defined takeaways, but that would be me trying to satisfy my desire for certainty or get a handle on the situation. When the physician has no answer, it is a foolish patient who attempts to bottle one. And as any physician will advise, don’t go Google this at home.

Author: Mark Holtshousen

Mark Holtshousen is a highly regarded executive coach with nearly two decades of experience and over 10,000 hours of coaching clients. He is known for working with top business leaders, high-profile individuals, and celebrities. Mark is considered a thought leader in leadership developmental psychology, personal construct theory, neuroscience, and applied Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). He holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Leadership Coaching, an ACMC certification from the International Meta-Coach Foundation, and is a PNI Accredited Advanced Trainer.

Mark is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has worked with clients including Olympic Gold Medallists and senior executives from leading global companies such as ExxonMobil, Microsoft, Ericsson, Deloitte, Virgin, Norton Rose Fulbright, and many others. He has contributed thought leadership articles to CEO Magazine SA and is affiliated with Quintessentially, a prestigious international luxury lifestyle portfolio. In addition to his private coaching, Mark is currently the Head of Global Talent Solutions at MTN Group.