Dirt is one of our most valuable natural resources. It’s the production venue for most food on earth and is one of the most vital natural weapons in the fight against climate change.

But right now, the earth’s soil is in jeopardy. Conventional farming practices are destroying and depleting the world’s topsoil, spelling disaster for our climate and our species if left unchecked.

In the face of this crisis, a disruptive concept has emerged: regenerative agriculture. This ecological ideology holds powerful insight into how we understand and cultivate resources—including human resources.

The roots of the issue

The state of soil and the global workforce are quite comparable. 2020 depleted many of us, robbing us of our basic psychological needs for social connection, certainty, and autonomy. Recognizing this issue, organizations are completely rethinking their talent practices. In the process, the concept of regenerative talent practices has found fertile ground among those who want a more holistic approach to growing their people.

To understand, let’s explore the agricultural origins of regenerative practices. When land is used for agricultural production—the farming of wheat, corn, beans, and other similar plants—the crops sap nutrients from the soil to fuel their growth. As the seasons pass and crops are planted and harvested year over year, the process takes a toll on the land. The soil is degraded both chemically—robbing it of organic matter—and physically—compacting and sealing its surface. The result is soil exhausted of its vitality and less able to sustain life.

In contrast to conventional methods, regenerative agriculture describes a system of practices that seek not just to halt our degradation of the environment, but reverse it—literally leaving the soil better than we found it every season.

Like conventional farming methods, we know that conventional talent practices take a psychological toll on employee wellbeing and productivity—from the dreaded annual performance review to inflexible and exhausting schedules, our conventional approaches to people management are at best sustainable.

Regenerative talent practices, on the other hand, asserts that we can do much better. It holds that organizations can cultivate talent in four ways, along a continuum:

  • Exploitatively, whereby organizations plunder their people of their talent, time, and energy;
  • Depletively, in which case organizations are still taking from their people more than they give, but mitigating some of the worst effects
  • Sustainably, in which case employees don’t necessarily grow, they merely get by; and
  • Regeneratively, whereby you actually make people smarter, healthier, happier, and ultimately better than you found them.

What regenerative practices look like

Regenerative talent practices represent a fundamental shift in both perspective and practice, and the shift can’t come soon enough. The global workforce is beginning to realize and covet the benefits, and they may rapidly become a necessity for organizations looking to attract and retain top talent. Organizations can start by doing the following.

Offer radical flexibility. Surveys show that people will sacrifice a bump in pay for commensurate perks in flexibility, and, even with workloads remaining the same, working professionals say that flexible work hours (32%) would help them manage stress even more than shortened work weeks (30%). In other words, people would rather control their own schedule than get a raise or an extra day off each week.

Try allowing employees to choose where, when, how, and with whom they work. Increased flexibility provides a boost in autonomy and gives people time to do things they may not otherwise have the time or freedom to do—things that have powerfully rejuvenating effects like cooking healthy meals, exercising, seeing the doctor, relaxing, spending time with family.

Reinvent performance management. Often, performance management is an exercise in assessing people’s contributions. In other words, what did the organization get out of (ie. extract from) them? Instead, organizations should reinvent their performance management systems to be more flexible, continuous, and focused on helping people grow.

Do this by instilling a culture of consistent feedback conversations, ideally reaching a place where feedback is just embedded in how people have conversations. Microsoft created a culture of feedback and employees reported that their feedback conversations became more open, informed, and interesting—moreover, they became more active in gathering information to guide their own growth and learning.

Think longer and wider. Exploitative, depletive, and even sustainable people practices are ultimately shortsighted. Imagine your organization will be in business for the next 100 years. You’ll likely want to create and invest in systems that don’t deplete your workforce because just think, you might end up employing their kids some day.

But don’t just think longer (temporally), think wider. Work takes up a large part of our lives, and touches many other parts tangentially. Ultimately, work is part of a larger ecosystem that contributes to the health, wellbeing, and productivity of your people. Put in place systems that cohere with your people’s values and priorities. Patagonia, for example, has provided on-site child care since 1983 so employees can spend time with their kids during the workday. It’s a big investment, but it pays off massively in the form of employees that see their life truly integrated with their work.

Keep growing

Regenerative talent practices have taken hold with forward thinking organizations around the world who have seen their employees become healthier, happier, and more productive.

Make 2021 the year your organization embraces regenerative talent practices and sees the fruits of a more human workplace.

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