Nobody predicted this

There is nothing we like more in the world of work than a big bold prediction. Throughout my working life I’ve been bombarded with confident assertions about the future – first in print, at conferences and later online. The advent of the echo chamber of social media amplifies the latest fad, creating an almost overwhelming sense of universal confirmation and certainty.

But the reality is that most of these big changes, these bold predictions have been wrong.

One of the major reasons why, is that they tend to be incredibly insular and fail to take into account broader macro economic and societal events. Of course the defenders would say that, ceteris paribus their assertions would have come true. But the idea of all things remaining equal is theoretical nonsense and wholly paradoxical. If anyone had written an article five years ago on how businesses should handle a global pandemic, it would have had a minimal readership and been placed firmly in the “niche” classification. Or how about a global economic crisis driven by a European war? And don’t get me started about BRIC.

Which is why statements about “disruption of the workplace”, or “the future of work” are just farcical and a little bit insulting for the majority of the workforce who are entirely focused on the here and now, dealing with escalating energy prices and feel like they’ve been disrupted enough over the last two years without a bunch of consultants and guns for hire telling them that they want to artificially create more. What they want is stability, security and work that allows them to lead their life.

Far from being harmless theory, the group think that coalesces around these predictions and assertions is a dangerous distraction from the focus that we should be placing on our organisations and the way in which we look after our colleagues and our workforces. We listen to false prophets at our peril when the real source of intelligence and wisdom is all around us if only we choose to recognise it.

In reality, predictions of the future are as old as time and will continue for as long as the human race. But what we can change is our mindless repetition and augmentation of them without reference back to the living realities of the majority of the working population and a large does of pragmatism and, “it depends”. Let’s start by fixing the now, the future will come whether we like it or not and not even the brightest star can predict how that will be.

Stuff and nonsense

I’ve written before about why language matters and the power of language in our workplaces, but more broadly it also matters in how seriously people think organisations are about solving the issues that matter to them. When we spout corporate nonsense about work and working lives it not only makes us sound vacuous, but more importantly it makes us sound like we don’t care. Our focus should be on making work better for all and yet our debate so often focuses on the few, because there are more soundbites to be had from fads than there are from the real work that we need to address.

So in the spirit of trying to move us on, here are some of the phrases that we need to send to the management speak Room 101.

New normal – Where to start on this one? Normally uttered by people who are trying to make a sweeping generalisation without any data or evidence and therefore needing to convince their audience that it is obvious and doesn’t need proving. And at the same time entirely alienating to people who don’t recognise the assertion, because clearly they’re not normal…

The future is now – No. It isn’t. The king of vacuous statements. Both linguistically stupid and failing to grasp the base concept of time. Anyone who says this should take a trip back to primary school to learn what it means when the big hand is on the twelve an the little hand is on the three.

Any phrase that includes “employees/job seekers won’t accept…” – Normally referring to highly privileged office workers based in London and the Home Counties and why any employer that doesn’t offer complementary Hygge and star fruit is out of touch. Have you seen the conditions that the delivery drivers that bring you your chai latte are working in?

The Great Resignation – Or indeed any “thing” that becomes quoted more than researched or thought through. Disruption was another one, remember that? Anyone want to be disrupted any more after the last two years? No I thought not. And when it comes to the Great Resignation, just jog on.

The serious point here, is that every hour spent talking about topics that really don’t matter is an hour that we aren’t discussing the real issues in organisations and the labour market. Insecure work, low paid jobs, discrimination, bullying and crap corporate cultures. Those are things that we should be spending sensible, reflective, thoughtful time on, not the guff and nonsense that matters little or not at all. Far be it from me to call it out but if we want to properly change work and society, the debate around it needs a paradigm shift.

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.

9 things that won’t happen in 2020

  1. We close the gender pay gap – Repeat after me, “equal pay and gender pay are not the same thing”. Gender Pay reporting is a good thing and has opened up a much needed debate. The issues are widespread and complex – occupational segregation, education, family and cultural influences – not to mention the media. All need addressing, but can’t be handled by companies alone, so sadly don’t expect significant change soon. (Also: worth checking out the Trade Unions’ pay gaps if you have a minute to spare).
  2. We accept zero hours contracts – When Matthew Taylor wrote one of the best reviews of modern working practices a couple of years back, he was roundly condemned by everyone for being…well, thoughtful and reasonable. Zero hours contracts aren’t wrong, workplace cultures that misuse them are. Fact.
  3. We realise flexible working has failed – ¬†Similarly to executive reward, the ability to have a reasoned and balanced debate on the issue of flexibility seems to elude us. It isn’t working, either for organisations or individuals and the evidence is in the stubbornly low take up. So how do we make it better for all, not just keep banging a broken drum, or inscribing a problem into legislation?
  4. L&D grows up – If I hear another whinging article about why L&D is a separate, strategic function, I’ll beat someone over the head with their Insights profile (no, never done it either, but I bet I’m an orange ). Unless fully integrated, learning and skills development are pointless, self pleasing, momentary activities. Just without the tissues.
  5. HR chills out – There are very few scenarios I can conceive where anybody dies as a result of HR, but millions, daily, where they lose the will to live. That’s all you need to know on this point.
  6. We stop wasting money on leadership – Everyone is disengaged, profits are falling, we are at risk of disintermediation. I know, let’s get a member of the third squad for the British Hockey team that almost won the bronze medal in 1984 to help us figure out why! Frankly, it’s probably that sort of logic that got you where you are in the first place.
  7. We hold CIPD to account – When not spouting Orwellian nonsense, “The future of work is now!” (wide hand gesture and pause obligatory), they’re partnering with the pressure group the High Pay Centre to beat up on their members. More interested in column inches than member representation, chartered membership numbers are consistently ¬†falling and missing target. When even Number 10¬†are openly criticising you, you know you need to do better.
  8. We have a sensible debate on executive reward – See above. If your own professional body can’t get it’s head around the topic, then who is going to lead a thoughtful debate on the issue, rather than one driven by soundbites on the christian names of CEOs in the FTSE100? Will Hutton might, as ever, be our best bet. Interesting stuff here.
  9. We stop making faddy predictions – Big data, AI, Employee Experience, Generation Y, I could go on. Anyone who writes anything with numbered predictions, based on the time of year, needs to be taken outside, put against the wall and shot. Oh wait.