Careless talk

There is a lot to feel grumpy about at the current time and as a rule I try to look on the positive side – because when things simply get too overwhelming it rarely pays to search out more bad news. One thing that I do struggle with on a regular basis is the intentional use of exaggerated language in the reporting of the current situation – even by some of the most respected of organisations.

A case in point is an article I was reading yesterday which talked about the number of coronavirus cases “soaring” in the workplace after the Christmas period. This assertion was then used as the basis for the delivery of a whole series of opinions and beliefs which clearly were the journalist’s own. A quick look at the source data showed that the number was exactly the same as in November, there had just been a temporary decrease over the few weeks over Christmas. Perhaps because more people were on leave or there were closures and shut downs?

The point I want to make isn’t about cases in the workplace, but that the language used and the selective use of data that would lead most people to believe that this was a significant problem and therefore the subsequent beliefs were based on the solid use of empirical evidence. In many ways, the imprecise use of language in this context is of little consequence, other than my annoyance. But when we extend this into the workplace we run the risk of making decisions that have implications for peoples lives.

It isn’t unusual to hear phrases such as, “everybody is up in arms”, or “we’ve been inundated by” or, “nobody likes” (the list isn’t exhaustive, feel free to add your own favourites). Normally followed by a suggestion of an action that needs to be taken…RIGHT NOW! A simple enquiry of, “Everyone?”, “Inundated?” or “Nobody?” is sufficient to start a conversation that leads to better understanding. Who exactly has a problem? What size is it? How many people are really impacted? What is the basis for proportionality?

There will be those that tell you this is the reason we need better data and analytics in the profession and of course this is entirely true. But equally important is the way we describe and interpret them. The way in which we present that data to others and the inference we choose to put upon it. Language is hugely important in work, we can use it as a force for positive change but to do so requires as much thought as any set of data that we share. Being lazy and careless with language simply isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable in the world of work, it really shouldn’t be in journalism either – but perhaps their motivation isn’t to help understanding and build knowledge, whereas ours certainly should be.

In praise of the grafter

If you managed your career through advice on Linkedin, you’d believe that aligning you work with your purpose, throwing everything out the window on a regular basis, always remaining agile and disruptive were the key to success. Trust me, they really aren’t.

Whilst there is no single key, there are so my situational and environmental factors, the biggest thing that will get you ahead in your job and in life is hard work. Nothing fancier than that. Before I’m beaten over the head with the imperial overlord arguments, let’s be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean getting up at 4am, burning the midnight oil or being taken advantage of, it just means giving everything you’ve got in the time that you have.

Given a choice between a lazy genius and an average grafter, I’d staff my team with the latter – no question. And my advice to any young person going into the workplace is to get your head down, work hard and opportunities will come and find you in time. Because ultimately, when push comes to shove and you need something done, you always look for the grafter.

And the difference between the grafters and the lazy, is that a lazy person will always end the day thinking they’ve worked hard, whereas a grafter knows they have (and probably thinks they could have done more). The lazy are generally more interested in how they feel about their work , the grafter is interested in how others feel about their work. It comes down to the psychology that drives the work ethic.

Get your head down, put in the hard yards, seize opportunities, demonstrate your value. Then you can build everything else that is important to you in terms of meaning on top of that, it really is that simple. Unless, of course, your end goal in life is to have a career in providing unsolicited, unqualified advice to the many on Linkedin, accompanied by motivational quotes.

In which case, ignore everything I’ve said.

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.

Why we need a new debate on flexibility

I’ve previously written about how, whatever comes from the pandemic, we will still need to physically come together at work. It is a myth that this is the end of the office and those that follow that line will, in my opinion, soon come to regret it. The other oft heralded statement at the moment is that this is a new dawn for flexibility at work. And whilst I hope it is, it means honestly addressing the inflexible flexibility that has been our model to date.

Our existing model of flexible working is no longer fit for purpose. In many ways, it introduces into work further structured inflexibility that, I’d go as far to say, could be one of the driving factors behind poor productivity. In embracing this, “new dawn” we need to be honest and open in the discussion and lose the emotion that is often raised in critiquing these existing structures.

I wouldn’t mind betting that in most organisations, if you ran the analysis of part time workers, the majority would not be at work on a Friday. As a long time commuter, I’d also add that the volume of (pre-pandemic) workers that “worked from home” also increased on a Friday. Not only is this statistically improbably, it is also unproductive, economically damaging and socially and organisationally inequitable. It isn’t flexibility in any true shape or form.

There is a decent argument to be had for a four day working week. That’s a good way of structuring and organising flexibility within both organisations and nations, but it is planned, thought through and evenly applied to all. But the reality is that the more likely model, at least in the UK, is going to be driven by reduced capacity in buildings through social distancing as well as the social appetite to maintain some of the practices that have been learnt over the last four months.

If we are truly to have a brave conversation about flexibility at work, that probably means throwing out the existing legislation that has led to our weirdly inflexible current situation. It means looking at the working week being seven days rather than five for more than just frontline and operational workers, it means looking at annualised hours, minimum hours contracts, it means dusting off the actually quite brilliant (but much maligned) Taylor report and starting to have a more progressive conversation about solutions that work for both organisations and individuals.

By definition, the presenteeism culture that has pervaded in many workplaces will be rightly challenged, but in using the workspaces for the work that really needs us to come together, so will the inflexible contractual arrangements that so many organisations have introduced in order to try and do the right thing by their workforces. We need to lose our previous grounding in legislative rights and protection and imagine a new world, with new normals and new possibilities.

Simply put, our model of flexible working is neither flexible, nor is it working. It is time for something much, much better.