A sluggish January can risk undermining the rest of the year for a business. While it can be hard to get back into the swing of work after a couple of weeks of indulgence, it’s important for the C-suite to lead by example.
A new year means a fresh start and that should inspire new energy, ideas and enthusiasm. What can be done differently in 2024? What can be done better?
Address inefficiencies and embrace AI
Max Parmentier, CEO and co-founder of health-tech platform Birdie, says generative AI should be understood as an enabler, rather than a threat to the workplace. Setting some time aside in January to upskill the workforce and familiarise them with new technologies and the multiple free AI “shortcuts” at their disposal, he suggests, is a move that could prove hugely beneficial later down the line. “People need to feel confident using AI… maybe sometimes they don’t realise how much it could help them,” he says.
Kira Unger, the CEO and co-founder of Pocketlaw, a legal-tech startup, agrees. “Incorporating AI saves thousands of hours annually on contract-related tasks, such as writing, editing and formatting.” Particularly when it comes to negotiations, whether with clients or suppliers, Unger notes, investing in AI has the potential to “streamline processes, so tasks that previously took hours or, even days, are completed in minutes.”
According to Parmentier, businesses can make a fast start to the new year by reviewing their operations and being “honest about their inefficiencies.” This means attaching timescales to every process within the organisation, he says, and asking: “Which ones can be made quicker? Do we really need someone doing this particular step?”
Meetings, Unger adds, are another area which companies could audit in January. An insistence on too many meetings can waste time, energy and money, she says, with remote workers “often becoming distracted on video calls, unless planned and managed correctly.”
Companies need to review their criteria for meetings, Unger says. At Pocketlaw, every meeting, she explains, is signposted as to whether it is intended to make a decision, seeks input from the team, or is simply to raise awareness of an issue. “Any pre-read material must be shared minimum 24-hours in advance and comments added two hours in advance of the meeting,” she says.
There have been interesting moves made by other organisations, such as Shopify, Unger points out, like introducing a “four-person limit for operation-type meetings to ensure that only relevant people are included.”
Be clear on retention, recruitment and contingency plans
January is often a period for reflection. The ‘new year, new me’ bug’s symptoms might include a sudden deliberation over one’s career. Companies need to be ready for what happens.
Dannielle Haig, a business psychologist and the managing director of DH Consulting, says companies should not delay having conversations with their employees about what they hope to achieve over the course of the year. Just as goal-setting is important at an organisational level, discussions on “personal growth, skill development and the potential for increased job satisfaction” should be localised, too, in order to add impetus into someone’s approach to work. The best way to retain top talent, Haig says, is to design a “clear pathway” to progression.
That is not to say that companies should be unrealistic or make promises they can’t keep, and Haig notes the macroeconomic realities many businesses are facing. But where pay rises might not be immediately possible, Unger says, new job titles could offer a helpful compromise.
“People care deeply about having real responsibility and are often as motivated about leading interesting projects and building their experience as they are about pay rises,” says Unger. “When it comes to role changes, there is also a growing element that people do want to update their LinkedIn profile to show progress or promotions, given how important it has become as a public CV.”
When it comes to recruitment, Parmentier says it is important to be “forward-thinking” about the future needs of a company. “If you hit your first target,” he says, “you’ve got to think about the tools you need to hit the next one. They might be different. So you’ve got to plan your workforce in advance. You need to budget for things before they happen, so that when they do happen, you’re ready to draw on that money.”
Even with all the planning in the world, though, people can and will still leave jobs, for any one of a million reasons. Haig recommends that companies “create contingencies for unexpected departures. This can be done by cross-training employees, establishing a talent pool, and even maintaining relationships with past employees and potential candidates.”
Make your office ‘commute-worthy’
According to Calum Russell, the CEO of Covalt, a flexible workspace operator, hybrid working has “moved beyond a topic for debate” and is here to stay. “Flexibility and choice are important for modern employers, but the new watchwords to guide companies when it comes to hybrid working are inspiration and connection,” he says.
While companies are unlikely to be able to convince people to return to the rigidity of a Monday to Friday 9-5, what they can do, is make the time they do spend in the office as comfortable and productive as possible. Doing so will dissociate the office from the chore of commuting, or even help to alter people’s perception of the office so that it comes “commute-worthy”.
In January, organisations should think about how their offices can become “people-centric and service-driven”. The modern worker puts a premium on efficiency and engagement, says Russell, so will need a “compelling reason to brave the bus, bike or train, especially in the cold January weather”, and employers should use data and analysis to inform decision-making when investing office upgrades.
Potential office improvements might include the installation of noise-proof phone booths, or even relocating to a new site with access to more meeting rooms, collaboration spaces, on-site food and drink, or health and wellness facilities.
Broadly, if staff don’t feel like work is getting in the way of their lives, then they are more likely to be motivated and productive in 2024.
Set targets across different areas of the business
“Just because we’re facing uncertainty doesn’t mean that we should lose sight of discipline,” argues Rebecca Homkes, a lecturer at London Business School and author of Survive, Reset, Thrive, a new book on leadership.
To get ahead in 2024, Homkes suggests that companies need to make sure that they are “results-based, not activity-based. The reason is, as a leader, you want to almost be agnostic to the activities your team does, as long as they’re working towards the desired result. Let the team keep adjusting and adapting their activities as they go. But make sure they’re super clear on that outcome or result that they’re aiming towards.”
And targets don’t just have to be about money and sales. Parmentier says they can relate to time efficiencies and feedback scores from staff, too. For Parmentier, “targets matter, at every level, in every area, of the business.” It’s important to try to “measure everything” and to become “obsessed with data… It’s always good if you can have something to compare yourself against. If you give your team something that they can always refer back to, then it can help them to also move forward… They’ve always got their eyes on a goal, they’ve always got a score they know they have to beat. That’s a good motivator.”
Ultimately, making a fast start to 2024 relies on honesty, openness, self-awareness, and a willingness to acknowledge that not everything you have done previously was necessarily the best it could have been. Respecting staff’s autonomy and ambition is key, and those goals need to be aligned with the organisation’s as a whole.