It is all about the rituals

I’m sure like me you have your rituals, whether that’s the daily coffee always bought from the same coffee shop, the time that you eat your lunch or the run that you take after work. The small and seemingly important fabric of our lives that we execute without much conscious thought or application. And as we go about our days we notice the pattern in others, the woman always stood on the same corner waiting for a lift as we drive to work, the car that always parks in the same spot in the carpark, the person who gets on the train in the same carriage every day, the person who sits in the same seat at the bar, come rain or shine.

Those of us who’ve been involved in the raising of children are acutely aware of the importance of ritual, the bed, the food, the temperature, the bedtime story and hot milk. Change any of the fundamental parts and we deal with the repercussions for days if not weeks thereafter. And anyone with a pet will tell you that they become accustomed to patterns and will know when to sit by the door for a walk or when there is likely to be a warm lap about for a snooze.

When we think about work and the workplace there is, of course, no difference. Our workplace rituals form part of the same fabric, equally important but also so deeply ingrained that they cease to play in our consciousness. The seat that you sit in, the coffee with the team before setting out for the day, the coffee break to catch up on the chat and gossip with our co-workers, the order in which we approach work and how we deal with the daily tasks that arise.

And in the same way we rankle when someone is parked in our space, the coffee shop is closed, the same way that children fail to sleep or wake to early, when we mess with these rituals then we create a sense of disquiet and unease. That’s why change at work is never a science and is always an art. Over the years I’ve learnt that anyone who thinks change is explained through a gang chart is probably going to be gone before the full ramifications are understood. It is why I hate the faddism for “disruption” promoted by the same Linkedin voices that will also happily share their daily routine for success, “I get up before I go to sleep, run two marathons powered only by pecan nuts and then meditate on hot stones. Smashing it.”

We’re hugely adaptable as a species, the pandemic has shown that in technicolour, but that doesn’t mean that the adaption doesn’t cause stress and discomfort. And during that period we are less productive, less focused, more risk adverse and generally less happy. To make change effective we need to understand this, support it and take it into account in our planning but execute it with compassion, care and consideration.

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.

Are we out of the woods yet?

One of the reasons I’ve always hated the comparison between business and sport is that whilst one has a very clear beginning and end, whether that is the geographical distance of a race, the length of a season, or the number of points that need to be achieved – the other is entirely open ended. There is no finish line, no final whistle, no countdown clock – we go and we go again.

Which is why I’m starting to feel slightly uneasy about the last twelve months of self congratulatory indulgence about how well organisations have navigated the pandemic. Because, I fear what is to come is going to be way harder for most leadership teams and that in a few years we’ll look back at the pandemic as a walk in the park. Don’t get me wrong, I”m not smug – in fact I sincerely hope I’m wrong. But the economic clouds that are gathering, suggest I might not be.

I was speaking at a CIPD conference a few months ago and in amongst the inevitable discussions about hybrid working, the great resignation and the new found freedoms that “every” employee has. I talked about spiralling costs, industrial unrest and the prospect of business collapse and significant redundancies. But this time, with no furlough, no Government support and no immediate economic bounce back. Suffice to say that I was as popular as being sat next to “that uncle” at the Christmas table. In fact, it reminded me of a session in London in 2015 that I wrote about here. I’m at risk of never being invited again and that would be entirely fair.

Talking with my son yesterday, who is in his early twenties, I was explaining the housing repossessions of the 90s and how for many in their thirties and early forties this would be a completely new experience to them. The combination of cost inflation, not being matched by wage inflation and increasing rises in interest rates is a heady mix of trouble for every single customer, employee and of course for the majority of organisations too. At a team meeting last week, someone made the point that jobs and recruitment were regularly in the news these days and even on the news at ten. I’m sure I’m not the only person that is old enough to remember the charts every evening of the number of job losses that were announced that day.

We live in a truly global economy and whilst there are certain things that we can organisationally do to influence the macro economic environment, I don’t intend to go into those right now for the fear of being even more unpopular, the reality is the most important thing we can do is to think ahead and plan for our own businesses and organisations. I don’t foresee any circumstance where we will be able to totally avoid the pain, but we might be able to reduce it – making decisions now that make things better for our employees in the future.

You think the pandemic was hard? Just wait and see what comes next.

We’re stuck inside our own debate (again)

When you think the biggest contribution you have to make to your organisation is a debate on how many days office workers should be in the office, you know you’ve failed as a profession. Sorry, I want to find a nicer way of saying that, but I just can’t.

This isn’t a new thing, just the latest of a long history of internally focused, self obsessed initiatives that have failed to add little value to organisations, society or the communities we serve. Remember when everything was about “disruption”? As I said at the time, nobody wants to be disrupted and the last two years have proved that to be the case. Can’t get on a plane for your holiday because there are no ground staff? Can’t get a train to get to work because of industrial action? Welcome to disruption.

And then of course we were going to blow up performance management and appraisals. Remember that? Because of course, the most existential challenge and issue your organisation faces right now is the number of performance categories you have and the best way to change behaviour is always to change the form…

When I wrote a ten point agenda for change four or five years ago it was more a cathartic reaction to another pointless news story about the profession that came about because of our singular ability to stand for anything other than the protection of our own working practices and self interest. And whilst I come across more and more HR professionals that “get it”, the majority of the profession is still well and truly sucked into it’s own navel.

The instinct of most in the face of criticism is to try to do stuff to be popular, but if our fundamental drive is to be liked we are destined to fail like anyone in a leadership position. One of the confusions we have about our political system is we think politicians are there to do what we want them to do, democracy is about listening to views and opinions not simply doing the thing that most people say they want. When you do that you become insular and so focused on the internal zeitgeist that you lose sight of the greater purpose – such is the case in many organisations too.

And that is where too many HR functions are right now, with not a single eye on the outside, the big macro changes in the economy, in society, that will provide challenges for our organisations tomorrow, next year and for many years to come. Those are the debates we should be raising with our executive teams and boards, those are the things that demonstrate our true value as a profession, those are the things that will fundamentally make a difference to the long term organisational success.

I saw a stat this weekend that really shook me. In the UK, only 59% of the adult population have incomes high enough to pay tax. Ask yourself a question. What is your organisation doing to tackle that?