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.

We still need the office

The trendy thing right now is without doubt to be condemning the physical office to its death. Businesses are committing to officeless futures and the Twitter jockeys are proclaiming the arrival of truly flexible working. You only have to Google “the end of the office” to see what I mean. But if you ask me, it is all a little too self congratulatory and a little too soon.

We’ve been through an exceptional time and there is no doubt that many organisations are learning new things, but they run the risk of losing so much from the past too. Those with long memories and too much time on their hands will remember the unpopular decision by Marissa Mayer on arriving at Yahoo to end the use of home working and revert back to the office in the search for greater collaboration. That is one critical aspect but there are many others too – identity, organisation, communication, social systems to name but a few.

I’m aware that those with a penchant for granola and chai lattes will now be rolling their eyes and talking about how technology can fill all of this gaps. Have you been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Social channels are increasingly the source of division, misinformation, homogenous thinking and discord. A world based on remote interaction is one to wish for at your peril.

Our mental and physical wellbeing is supported by in person interaction. We are social creatures by nature, our anthropological origins are in coming together as tribes to support one another to achieve. In many ways we are hardwired to desire to be in the presence of others, it helps our cognitive development which aids problem solving and creativity. If you don’t believe me, listen to the work of Susan Pinker.

These arguments are all before I get on to the issue of equality, the challenge of ensuring gender balance, the inequality based on socio economic background and the significant risk of unobserved, unmonitored bias and discrimination. Whilst this has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic, with women being particularly disadvantaged, the issues extend beyond this period of time. Look at the role types least likely to work remotely and you will find that they are disproportionately occupied by those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are genuine benefits to more flexibility within the workplace, I’m not burying my head in the sand. But we must be careful not to lose the good that comes from coming together as a social group built around a task in the desire to cut costs by reducing our property commitments. In many ways, the real argument is whether businesses should be more geographically dispersed, so that people can live in and around the communities they work in. In the UK this is a London problem driven by our unbalanced regional economy. The commutes, the congestion, the high wages and high cost of living can all be solved by a more regionally dispersed business model.

But that’s an argument for another day.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.