The folly of individual choice

It is very rare that I recommend a book, I did enough of that when I worked at Penguin Random House so I figure I’m due a break. And, to be honest, I’m baffled why my ex-colleagues didn’t acquire “The Lonely Century” by Noreena Hertz, because, quite frankly, it is brilliant. If ever there was a book for our current times, then this feels like it. But I’ll allow you to explore that for yourselves and instead move on to a few reflections that come from it.

If I think back to my early studies and career, I recognise now the relentless push towards individual focus in the workplace. Often driven by research from the US, we were encouraged to look at performance related pay, individual rather than collective bargaining and concepts such as engagement and discretionary effort. After decades of frustration caused by industrial disputes and fuddled business thinking, a new doctrine was emerging – singular choice.

I think most of us would conclude now that the push on performance related pay based on granular performance reviews is folly which failed to deliver on its one stated aim and of course we’ve seen the impact the individual bargaining has had on the gender pay gap, not to mention the inherent discrimination in many organisations against black, asian and other ethnic employees. And yet, the direction of travel continues through other elements such as pension choices, extreme flexible benefits and individual learning accounts.

And now, perhaps the biggest threat to collective organisational culture and support. The “choice” about where you work.

If anything, our workplaces and organisations should be a driver of societal cohesion. They should be places that bring people together to deliver collective outcomes and goals, they should be places in which we identify and feel we belong. They should be places that celebrate and welcome difference, through unity. They should be places that literally bring people together.

And in many cases they haven’t been anything like this.

The answer, however, cannot be to further fragment our organisations to allow people to choose when and if they come together with their colleagues. It cannot be to allow the behaviour of the majority to leave others feeling left out or to create organisations where only one “type” feels that they can truly fit in, or to create two or three tier organisations where only certain rules apply to certain groups.

The answer instead is to recreate our organisations around our communities, to be truly inclusive, cohesive and welcoming. Recognising that sometimes we all have to make individual sacrifices in the pursuit of a higher collective goal. Where we sign up (explicitly or implicitly) to support one another first and to think of ourselves thereafter, where the sum of the whole is greater than the individual parts. The answer has to be to try harder, not to give up.

If I think back to March this year, there was genuine hope that we would emerge from the pandemic having rediscovered concepts around community, collective identity, selflessness and the recognition of previously unsung heroes. As we go into the autumn and winter (and another lockdown) I worry this was more of a temporary blip, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

HR needs the workplace more than most

Over the last few weeks I’ve written about the need to bring people back into the workplace and to find a new balance of flexibility. There are countless reasons why this makes sense, which I won’t repeat again, but you can read some of them here and here. Last week the same calls were made first by the CBI and then by the UK Government. Cue outrage from the normal quarters within the people profession, busy munching on their homemade granola.

Whilst the arguments for a gradual return to the workplace span all job types, for those in the HR profession there are particular concerns, which makes it doubly ironic that many in the ranks are championing their own demise. Once again, we have drunk the proverbial Kool Aid and not stopped to think through the implications of the arguments that we make.

Lets start with the administration that forms part of every HR function, no matter how we try to streamline it or remove it altogether. People need to get paid have changes made, get issued contracts, have records kept and a whole host of other activities. The arguments for systematization will only become stronger with teams absent from sight and if people are really necessary, why pay the higher wages of the UK when the work can be outsourced to other parts of the world? What difference does it make if the process is standardised and the only connection is digital?

Then we have the other aspects of the work that we do. If we are learning remotely, then why not buy the content in, we can digitalise the whole process allowing subject matter expects to buy directly in from providers, no need for costly intermediaries who only interact with the business online. Delivery can be recorded by and consumed at the time and need of the individual regardless of the business that they’re in. What value does the internal recruiter have, when interviews are scheduled by Zoom, following an advert automatically placed on a job board and they’ve never met the hiring manager?

The argument around widespread homeworking assumes that the value that we perceive we can add in this way is matched by the value of those that employ us. That’s a dangerous assumption to make and one that has, over the years, consistently shown to be mismatched. Our job now is to build on the fantastic work that HR professionals have delivered over the last six months, to demonstrate our knowledge of the broader societal and economic impact of organisations and work and to articulate the importance of culture and shared values. The overwhelming evidence is that this prospers better in person than online, we can choose to champion that agenda or to slip backwards at our peril.

Our debate needs less noise and more thought

In “normal” times, any discussion about the future of work is fraught with danger, the impact of coronavirus on workplaces has added a multiplying factor of one hundred. Disproportionate time and space is given to the voices on the extreme who declare a new dawn, glossing over the inconvenience of the details of the working population and their day to day experience, to outline a dream based on the experience of a tiny minority.

Work has never and will never operate in isolation of society. It is one of the most fundamental factors in both our individual psychology and the communities and societies that we operate within. Like it or not, it is part of who we are. That’s why good work matters and why creating good jobs is of fundamental importance.

The last four or five months have shown us that there are certain industries, professions and sectors that we simply cannot live without. Our emergency services, our carers, our utilities, our farmers and food warehouses, our delivery drivers and distribution and supermarket networks. These are the very workers that have helped us to navigate through the darkest days in many of our living memories.

In any consideration of the future of work, these are the very people and industries that we should be looking to in order to understand how to create a better normal. And yet, the voices that we so often hear are small, inessential technology businesses, employing only a handful of people and with the economic and societal impact of a dried up stain from an over priced mug of chai latte. Naive and oversimplified statements like “knowledge workers can work anywhere and at any time”, are bandied around. Surgeons? Engineers? Physicians? Academics? These are the real knowledge workers.

At the heart of the challenge we face is societal fairness. I’ve long argued that our direction of travel on workplace flexibility has in fact been a polarising and damaging journey. Where flexibility for the privileged means being able to work at home on a Friday and for large parts of our workforce means uncertainty of hours, invasive uses of technology and instability of employment. This has played a significant, contributing factor to many of the problems that we see across our country.

Whatever we do we must not use this inflection point, and I think we can rightly use that term in this context, to focus on one very small group of employees because their voices are the loudest and perhaps most attractive. If we do, we risk further damage to the fabric of society. We should focus the debate with the people that matter most, that make the biggest difference and who we simply cannot do without. We should build our future of work around and in service to them

At this time of year, many of us would normally be heading to find some sun and relaxation by the sea. A familiar sight at beaches across the world, our attention is drawn to the (normally male) holidaymaker sitting at the front of a banana boat, screaming at the top of their voice with the adrenaline and rush of a child high on Skittles. Yet ahead is where the action really is, the speedboat that pulls it along without which the ride would not exist, calmly and diligently going about its business. Less exciting maybe, but undeniably more important.

What exactly is fair?

One thing that is certain, is that the current situation has brought to light a new separation in the workforce – one that was previously undefined. The notion of the key workers. The UK Government set out what they meant by this here. What was striking at the time and remains so, is the breadth goes way beyond the definition that perhaps  any of us would have given if stopped in the street 6 months or so ago.

So we emerge from this, either as a key worker or not.

The peculiarity of the mainstream debate on the post Covid world of work is that it falls predominantly on two separate groups. On one hand we have debates about flexibility, working from home, the impact of too many Zoom meetings, which predominantly falls on the “non-key worker” group (I appreciate there are exceptions before this is pointed out). And on the other hand we have the NHS, who have courageously and valiantly been on the frontline of some of the most extreme situations in this event and demands for better pay and conditions.

But if we are truly to consider the future world of work, we need to consider it for all. That is in no way intended to make comparisons between groups, to say that support for one is by definition at the exclusion of others, simply to say that it is more complex, more challenging and full of contradiction than a simple Meme or tweet can assess.

The reality is that the we are going to see a lot of people lose their jobs – predictions suggest as high as 6.5m in the UK. People will lose their businesses, their livelihoods and perhaps their homes. These aren’t those “key workers” or those that are working from home, they’re the people that are furloughed, hoping that in some way, the economic stimulus will be such to allow their bosses to start up their businesses once more, or self employed and unable to provide their services yet with no Government support. You could understand  how they will look to those that can either work at home are deemed critical with some sense of envy.

Those that have been working throughout, with concerns and fears about their wellbeing and safety, the teachers in schools, the postal workers, those keeping the water flowing and the lights on and of course the medical and care staff are maybe less likely to be impacted by job losses and directly by the economic impact. Does job security and a decent pension compensate for the physical and psychological challenges they’ve been through?

And of course not all key workers are created equal, the delivery drivers that we have depended upon, bringing food and essentials to our doors. The people picking and packing in the warehouses, or growing and distributing our food. These are the areas where low wages, job insecurity and the invasive use of technology have been prevalent for so long. What reward will they get for their contribution? What do they deserve?

The current situation raises more questions than it does answers. If NHS workers are to be paid more, when tax yields will be falling and the Government has made such expensive interventions to try to protect the economy, how will we afford it? If our distribution workers and delivery drivers are to get more, who foots the bill? Would we pay more for our Amazon purchases to ensure a better lot? Should those people working in industries that can survive remotely be the beneficiaries, or should they be punished for their choice of work and career?

I don’t have the answers and I probably haven’t asked all of the questions. But these are the debates that we need to have honestly, openly whilst trying to avoid factionalism and reactionary positions. You could argue that all this is fair, these are the life choices that people make, or you argue that this exposes the inherent unfairness of our society and the world of work. Working it out though, is going to take time and thought and moving beyond simple statements, to consider the whole.