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?

Whatever happens, just don’t be a loser

Last week was one of those where I either seemed to be listening to someone talking about the changing workplace, or alternatively talking to others about it. One of the joys of people properly coming out of pandemic mode is the chance to get together with others and explore the themes and issues that we are seeing in our organisations and how we might navigate some of the future challenges.

I have a natural suspicion of anyone who projects too much certainty about the future, after all nobody in the world of work really predicted anything that we’ve been through in the last few years. And similar to my recollections of Tomorrow’s World from the 1970s, there is always a slight hint of entertainment and headline seeking, or perhaps the hope of a business book deal. But the one thing that strikes me about many of these proclamations, is they never talk about the losers.

For every fictitious future autonomous knowledge worker, who can pick and chose the projects they collaborate on and where they choose to work, there is almost definitely another worker who is in the modern equivalent of bonded labour, or low, insecure, temporary underpaid work. For every programme of virtual wellbeing for stressed out hybrid workers, there is a strata of workers running multiple jobs and excessive hours, in order to earn just less than enough.

Or let’s put it another way. For every holiday in the Dordogne, there is a ferry crew on changed terms. For every party dress, there’s a sweatshop in the industrial heart of the country, for every home delivery there’s an enforced zero hours contract. Indignation is one thing, but it doesn’t pay the bills or improve their quality of life.

I’m not a fantasist, I know there will always be winners and losers that we need different people to do different work, that not everyone will be paid or looked after the same. But I do think things can and should be better and that will only come about if we spend more time talking and considering their future as well as the one we want for ourselves. We can’t talk about the future workplace or the future of work without looking at the future for all. We ignore it the risk of further societal inequality and resultant instability.

What could, what would, what should a future look like that is better for all? Or is our best advice, ” whatever happens, just don’t be a loser”?

What if we simply just don’t know?

Matthew Syed wrote a brilliant comment piece in the Times paper this weekend on the public debate on the performance of the Government on handling the Covid pandemic. You can read the piece here, but in summary (and for those that can’t access it), the premise of the column was that too many opinions were thrown around before there was enough data and fact to actual judge the outcome. And now that there is, there are few people willing to change their opinions or admit they called it wrong. Before I go on, it isn’t a pro or anti Government piece, it is an assessment of how our public debate and assessment of situations is becoming more tribal and less rational by the day.

By coincidence, last week there was also a tweet by the well known business man, Sir Alan Sugar, reacting negatively to the news that PwC was continuing the practice of “summer hours” and relating it to the WFH debate. I don’t know the PwC policy in detail, but this is an approach I’ve worked with in the past. Essentially it is compressed hours during a period of time in the summer that allows people to work their hours across, normally, four and a half days rather than five. You can read that tweet here.

It wasn’t long before Twitter and thereafter Linkedin were alight with various references, emojis and gifs likening him to a dinosaur. Now, to be clear, I wouldn’t have expressed any view in the way that Sir Alan did and I totally understand the concept of “live by the sword, die by the sword”. But the language and tonality of the debate was an example of exactly the point that Syed was making in his article.

Different people, different organisations, will have differing views on how to handle themselves. Whether that is their strategy, their physical location or indeed their working practices. I’m not sure, in my living memory, that I’ve heard one organisation be criticised because of their choice of physical location – although that said, having worked for an organisation that was one of the early adopters of Milton Keynes I’m aware there were a few raised eyebrows.

But the debate about the future of work, and before it the recent debate about Black Lives Matters and #MeToo have become polarised in a way that is fundamentally unhealthy to the development of both positive workplaces and a better society. On one side people are castigated as “lacking trust” or being “dinosaurs”. On the other as being “work shy” or “lazy”. None of which makes any sense or represents the complexity of the challenge we are facing into. I don’t think anyone would say that surgeons aren’t trusted because they aren’t allowed to work from home or that the entrepreneurs that started businesses in their bedrooms were in anyway lazy.

Similar to the pandemic, we are in a moment in time that requires more reflection, better evidence, a diversity of thought and approach. And most of all, it needs us to recognise that we simply don’t know. Only then will find the curiosity to explore and ask the right questions.

I’ll be talking about this and more at the CRF event on The Realities of the New Working Environment this Tuesday. More here.