Everyone has been challenged one way or another during the COVID-19 pandemic. The question is – what have we learned from this and how can we better utilise the experience we’ve gained in 2020?

“This year has propelled organisations to reassess their business models and transform in ways that they haven't done so before,” says Professor Leisa Sargent, Senior Deputy Dean at UNSW Business School.

“We’re about to go into a time where there would be a lot of redundancies and exits. There will be shifts and moves across the market. So, to retain good people, businesses need to have mentoring and sponsorship processes in place.”

The opportunity for in-house training and development and ongoing learning will be essential to retain high performing employees, Prof. Sargent explains.

“Having that kind of learning mindset is going to be important going forward. Business models will evolve, and we will continue to do things differently to deliver social and economic value. But we also want to hold on to the core principles of the business as well.”

How can businesses increase productivity?

When employees are embedded in an organisation, they are more likely to want to stay and perform to high standards.

Prof. Sargent says there are three essential elements to organisation embeddedness:

  1. The connections you have with colleagues, i.e. keep building relationships and making sure that those connections are meaningful. Make sure with online meetings there is time for greetings and catch-ups and time between meetings to follow-up.
  2. The match between the job demands and the organisation's culture, i.e. making sure that the role meets the expectations of the organisation's culture.
  3. The opportunity for advancement, i.e. the ability to see a career path for yourself in the organisation.

“When you think about embeddedness, relationships, culture, and advancement are the important elements to the DNA of an organisation. So, it is important to make sure that within your business, you're having meaningful social connections and ways of progressing important work. It can't just be all about tasks – but also about connections and relationships,” Prof. Sargent says.

A great match between employees’ expectations and the organisation's cultural expectations has become even more relevant this year, with many employees working from home.

“The organisation needs to ensure their employees are being supported and the cultural elements need to be there to help them feel empowered to succeed,” Prof. Sargent says.

She also addresses the impact of significant organisational changes on those who stay with a business and what this means for them in terms of opportunities for advancement.

As business leaders, Prof. Sargent says clear messages need to be sent out, particularly for people who are concerned about opportunities for advancement in the future – that is a career path in the business.

“Progression might be at a slower rate, or it might be at a different kind of process. So, employers need to make it clear that while progression might be slower now, there will be opportunities for them to advance in the organisation in the future. This may need more of a jungle gym metaphor for careers than a ladder. Meaning that it might be a lateral move to learn about a different part of the business.”

What are the two key measurements of career success?

Promotion is a classic advancement measure that also acts as an objective for the employee, according to Prof. Sargent, who says it is a clear indication of advancing into a more senior role.

“The other measure is career satisfaction and it’s quite a subjective measure,” she says. “It involves questions such as, do I feel that I’m making progress in my career? Do I feel satisfied with my career? Do I feel engaged? Is there an opportunity for me to succeed here?”

In their paper Understanding Organizational Embeddedness and Career Success: Who and What You Know, Prof. Sargent and co-authors looked at two competing approaches to mobility and how they can shape opportunities for people in organisations. These include:

  • Contest: Is this a merit-based process by which I can contest and be successful?
  • Sponsored: Is senior leadership backing me through this process?

In the research, done in collaboration with Deloitte, Prof. Sargent studied two Australian organisations and the impact of sponsorship and human capital development on opportunities for people in the organisations.

“We were able to demonstrate how an employee needs a network and how such networks lead to human capital development opportunities. It could be a different role within the organisation so that you're building your capability in other parts of the business. Or it could be specific in-house training related to new technology, new processes or practices for example.”

Prof. Sargent looked at how contest and sponsored mobility can improve embeddedness and influence an employee’s career success.

“The desire to stay and the desire to be connected in the organisation was linked to making sure you had those sponsoring relationships, and that you had opportunities for human capital development. And that led them to career satisfaction and also to promotion,” Prof. Sargent says.

“So, it is important to build opportunities for people to have firm or organisation-based mentoring networks, opportunities to link with more senior people in the organisation and to understand what some of the challenges and opportunities in the business are currently.”

Prof. Sargent says having visibility of role models is also very important to ensure the success of an organisation.

“Often, particularly through COVID-19, everything just halted. So, we need to reconnect with people and make sure that those connections are meaningful and helpful.

“Through COVID-19, we've seen business transformation, we've seen new ways of working, and also the challenge of businesses reducing their workforce. These are all job challenges, and it is essential to learn from these and see how we can build our collective capacities and capabilities as a business. Making sure that is happening through mentoring relationships is also important.”

What have we learned from COVID-19?

A different mindset around how and where people work is needed as a result of COVID-19, says Prof. Sargent. She also says people need to be supported with technologies and other resources required to succeed.

“We also want people to be eager to get back to work and accomplish this in a safe way,” she says.

The focus should not be where people work, but instead, how they perform, Prof. Sargent explains: “We've had a long-held view of presenteeism – that you have to be in the office, be seen and do long hours to be successful.

“Hopefully, we can change this way of thinking to a more explicit and concrete, outcome-based solution with a focus on quality performance, where people feel empowered to do great work. That would be a crucial shift for business.”