The bubble of employee opinion

A few years ago now (the ‘rona years makes time a little confused) I read a fabulous book called The Disruption Dilemma by Joshua Gans. I’m not a huge fan of the over use of the word disruption and Gans does a great job of separating out the wheat from the chaff in this respect and focussing on two key types of disruption, demand side and supply side. And most memorably for me was the proper telling of the Blockbuster story, away from the simplistic neanderthal versus agile competitor false narrative. Blockbuster had trialled a more “on demand” service, but their customers didn’t like it. One of their errors being that they didn’t think about the needs of those people that weren’t customers.

There are clear and distinct parallels with the way in which we shape and evolve our organisations, as if they were a private members club which, once the door is closed, is hermetically sealed from the realities of the wider world. I see comment after comment of leaders who say, “we listened to our staff and they said they wanted…”. And then in the same breath bemoaning the “war for talent” (vomit) and “the great resignation” (poke eyes out). Maybe the better question to ask is, “what to do the people who don’t work for us want?”.

Because when we talk to the people within our organisations they’ve already bagged the stuff we do, that is by nature their starting point. In the same way your older child might bemoan the fact that they don’t want to grow up and your younger one might want nothing more than to be a big girl or boy – there is no criticism or judgment in this but just an understanding of our starting point of reference. And if we only ask the people with a relatively shared sense of collective experience, we shouldn’t be surprised if the diversity of response is limited.

In a previous post I referred to the statistic that 41% of working adults in the UK don’t earn enough to pay income tax (incidentally, by comparison, 61% of US adults paid no income tax in 2020). If we were to ask this population what they wanted from work, what do we think they’d say? What about the 700,000 16-24 year olds who are not in employment, education or training? And what about the 47% of people with disabilities who are out of the workplace?

If you asked them what their priorities, what would be top of the list? And would it be the same as the agenda that we are pushing in our organisations, or are we creating a slightly narcissistic view of the world of work? Constantly creating betterment for those who already have, without looking to spread the opportunity to those who have not? My guess is, that if you’re holding down several insecure jobs to not earn enough to live on, whilst purpose and values may be somewhere on your list of wants it isn’t going to be top 5. You’re less likely to be focused on the choice of where you work and more focused on the certainty of hours and a decent starting rate. When we call ourselves an “employer of choice”, to whom do we mean?

As companies that focus solely on their customer base and overlook those people further afield are mostly destined to decline. Those organisations that fail to take into account the needs of the broader community will surely go the same way. Of course we should look after our employees, that goes without saying, but we should build a world of work that extends far beyond that base and understand and meet the needs of those that could, would and should form part of the labour force – but at the moment our world does not accept.