Leveraging 'People' Power of Sustainability

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Professor Alan R Nankervis

Professor of Human Resource Management in the School of Management, Curtin Business School, Curtin University, Australia


Alan has more than thirty years’ academic experience at three universities in Australia, and in the UK, Canada, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, together with consultancies in Indonesia, China and Thailand. He was the Director of the Sydney Graduate School of Management, Research Director and Head of HRM at Curtin University. He is currently the Chair of the Australian Human Resources Institute’s (AHRI) National Program Accreditation Committee.

 Alan has published more than 150 books, book chapters, international journal articles and conference papers for publishers such as Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, Cambridge University Press, Pearson Education and Cengage Learning; and journals including Personnel Review, Thunderbird International Business Review, Asia Pacific Business Review and Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. His research interests include the links between performance review and firm performance, comparative Asian HRM/Management, services management, and skills development in the Asia Pacific.

Alan’s most recent book is New Models of HRM in the Asia Pacific (Routledge), co-authored with Professors Malcolm Warner (Cambridge University), Fang Lee Cooke (Monash University) and Samir Chattejee (Curtin University). 

Order & Chaos, Disruption & Progress – The New Workplace 

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star”

Friedrich Nietzsche

​Indian traditions expressed in the Vedas and Upanishads also discuss ways of dealing with chaos with an emphasis on balance and equilibrium, and Christian, Hebrew and Greek philosophies embed the notion of constant conflicts between chaos and order. Even the Chinese themes of Yin and Yang embody similar principles - out of chaos comes order, or out of disruption comes creativity and innovation. The above quotations by a Western philosopher and a renowned graphic artist enshrine these fundamental principles, and Escher’s Ascending and Descending print above provides a visual representation of them(see below).

We’ve certainly had our share of chaos in recent years. Whether it is the disruption of the Trump presidency, the trade tensions between China and the US and between China and Australia, social media conflicts, a raft of natural disasters or the global health and economic impacts of COVID-19, chaos has been the predominant theme of life and work over the last two years. Given the above philosophical perspectives, the key issue now is how we transition from chaos to order using our inherent creativity and innovation to adapt and remain resilient?

There are promising signs has begun- vaccinations are being rolled out across the world with positive outcomes; and whilst international borders with Australia remain closed, the domestic economy appears to be experiencing a gradual return to something approaching normalcy.

At the workplace level, unemployment levels are slowly but surely reducing in most but not all industry sectors, and innovative approaches to how we work are surfacing. In particular, the chaos caused by the pandemic has spawned new ways of working, blending remote work with partial returns to the workplace; new approaches to job design and performance management with a combination of artificial intelligence, technological communication and monitoring; and the extensive use of e-HRM practices in employee attraction, learning and development, fortuitously welcomed by the new generations of workers. However, despite these encouraging developments, there are issues that will still need to be addressed including social, occupational and mental health challenges resulting from the multiple state and organisational lockdowns that became an unnatural phenomenon during 2020 and 2021. As illustrations of these issues – working from home contributed significantly to the loss of creativity in workplaces consequent on the absence of regular formal and informal communication between team and project members. The timely development of Zoom meetings was useful but insufficient to adequately replace such casual work contacts. Remote working also led to significant intra-family conflicts and sometimes relationship fractures as the challenges of juggling work, partners and young children undertaking home schooling, produced both innovative and destructive outcomes. In some cases, these led to adverse mental health issues which employers were required to assist in resolving.

Often, the absence of or employers’ reluctance to fund necessary work equipment such as computers and work desks, combined with the lack of boundaries between work and family life, meant that some employees were not as protected from physical or psychological hazards at home as they had been used to at their workplaces. However, there are also numerous examples of employers who embraced these challenges and ensured their employees’ health and safety.

In conclusion, chaos has spawned both innovation and creativity, but also further chaos and adverse outcomes. Order is returning, but rather than going back to the old normal we are transitioning to a new normal which promises to stimulate even more productive workplaces and organisations in Australia and across our neighbouring region. To conclude, I quote what M.C Escher said, “We adore chaos because we love to produce order” 


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