Nadya Powell: Why the workplace needs to change in the 2020s

New year, new me – same old tired workplaces. As we head into a new decade, I’m hoping the 2020s will prove to be the time when businesses finally deliver what people actually want from their workplaces. After all, we spend most of our waking hours in them.

And with this in mind, here are three key things businesses need to do now, to be fit for the next decade of work.

1.       Kindness is key

What better way to ring in a new decade than to focus on empathy and kindness? And yet, in Utopia’s recent Masculinity in the Workplace survey, only 24 per cent of people think men are taught that empathy is a critical work skill. Empathy is fundamental to delivering high performing teams, morale and loyalty. It’s why 87 per cent CEOs believe a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace.

And empathy’s cousin? Kindness. Recent research for World Kindness Day by Perkbox found that 63 per cent employees value kindness as a leadership trait and with Millennials and Gen Z placing increasing importance on company culture and values, kindness will be integral to success.

From an HR perspective, a ‘kind-first’ approach should lead to the creation of well organisations. And, just to make it clear, creating a well organisation is not about yoga lessons, puppies and disco balls – it’s about strategic culture change looking at everything from how holidays are managed, to how conversations are encouraged, to how resilience is understood, right through to how email is curtailed.

Kindness is not just for Christmas. It’s the fuel that creates workplaces we want to be in. So assume good intent, be curious to difference, ask how people are feeling and mean it and look for the small things that bring joy to your colleagues and teams.

2.       Create a learning organisation

Leaders complain a lot about the younger workforce’s constant demand for pay rises and promotions. (Ambitious and focused employees are such a nightmare, aren’t they?)

Actually, they’re misreading the situation: in reality, your people are hungry for consistent, transparent and strategic development. And, if the only mechanism your business has for advancement is promotion, then it stands to reason that your people will keep asking for this.

So how can you create structures that supersede the promotion-and-pay-rise cycle to create constant and organic development that will satisfy an ambitious and often brilliant workforce?

Ultimately, do everything you can to encourage self-reflection and curiosity. Establishing a skills matrix for every job role; a clear framework outlining what tangible and measurable skills someone needs to have for each stage of their journey. Then support this matrix with a personalised training platform – one which equips people with the physical and online resources, learning circles and colleague experts that they need to upgrade their skillset to the next level.

Utilise the experience you already have in the business. Although often perceived as a ‘softer’ management technique, peer-to-peer learning can prove an invaluable asset in upskilling employees. Instead of ‘buddy’ systems being just about showing the new guy around the hottest lunch spots, imagine a workplace where you can search across your organisation for those people who are an expert in the very areas that your skills matrix says you need to brush up on. A buddying dating app focused on your constant development and learning journey, if you will. Now we’re talking.

3.       Take the lead in doing the right thing

As political leaders across the globe continue to create and feed division, it’s clear that business plays a critical role in delivering a better world – environmentally, culturally, socially and politically. And this makes business sense – after all, Unilever’s top 23 performing brands are also their most sustainable.

Which brings us to my final wish – for business to create cultures where doing the right thing comes naturally, authentically and purposefully. Business purpose is too often an artfully written manifesto rather than an embedded philosophy that guides every action of the business.

The true test? If you pin down a purpose and nothing changes in your business, you’re missing the mark. Purpose calls you to account, demanding positive action every day. It’s the beginning of your journey, not the culmination.

Let’s stop focusing on shareholder value in 2020 and instead focus on citizen value – businesses creating the circumstances where we can build a better world together. The rest will follow.





Nadya is co-founder of Utopia, a culture change business that creates more purposeful, inclusive and entrepreneurial cultures for clients. Their top-to-bottom, boardroom to factory floor approach has clinched household names including Coca-Cola European Partners, Google, Schneider Electric, Spotify, and Universal Music.

She also co-founded The Great British Diversity Experiment, a diversity initiative for those trying to break into the communications industry; and The So White Project, an initiative to reverse the lack of diversity in commercial photography. She co-founded Culture Social, which focuses on accelerating culture change and creative thinking. Nadya is also chair of diversity community for not-for-profit digital industry body BIMA, and is on the board of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.