Our debate needs less noise and more thought

In “normal” times, any discussion about the future of work is fraught with danger, the impact of coronavirus on workplaces has added a multiplying factor of one hundred. Disproportionate time and space is given to the voices on the extreme who declare a new dawn, glossing over the inconvenience of the details of the working population and their day to day experience, to outline a dream based on the experience of a tiny minority.

Work has never and will never operate in isolation of society. It is one of the most fundamental factors in both our individual psychology and the communities and societies that we operate within. Like it or not, it is part of who we are. That’s why good work matters and why creating good jobs is of fundamental importance.

The last four or five months have shown us that there are certain industries, professions and sectors that we simply cannot live without. Our emergency services, our carers, our utilities, our farmers and food warehouses, our delivery drivers and distribution and supermarket networks. These are the very workers that have helped us to navigate through the darkest days in many of our living memories.

In any consideration of the future of work, these are the very people and industries that we should be looking to in order to understand how to create a better normal. And yet, the voices that we so often hear are small, inessential technology businesses, employing only a handful of people and with the economic and societal impact of a dried up stain from an over priced mug of chai latte. Naive and oversimplified statements like “knowledge workers can work anywhere and at any time”, are bandied around. Surgeons? Engineers? Physicians? Academics? These are the real knowledge workers.

At the heart of the challenge we face is societal fairness. I’ve long argued that our direction of travel on workplace flexibility has in fact been a polarising and damaging journey. Where flexibility for the privileged means being able to work at home on a Friday and for large parts of our workforce means uncertainty of hours, invasive uses of technology and instability of employment. This has played a significant, contributing factor to many of the problems that we see across our country.

Whatever we do we must not use this inflection point, and I think we can rightly use that term in this context, to focus on one very small group of employees because their voices are the loudest and perhaps most attractive. If we do, we risk further damage to the fabric of society. We should focus the debate with the people that matter most, that make the biggest difference and who we simply cannot do without. We should build our future of work around and in service to them

At this time of year, many of us would normally be heading to find some sun and relaxation by the sea. A familiar sight at beaches across the world, our attention is drawn to the (normally male) holidaymaker sitting at the front of a banana boat, screaming at the top of their voice with the adrenaline and rush of a child high on Skittles. Yet ahead is where the action really is, the speedboat that pulls it along without which the ride would not exist, calmly and diligently going about its business. Less exciting maybe, but undeniably more important.

What lies beneath?

When the politician stands up and says that politicians aren’t delivering enough. We applaud.

When the policewoman stands up and criticises the failings of the police force. We consider them brave.

When the surgeon tells us lives are at risk because of falling standards. We’re shocked but supportive.

When the banker talks about the loss of control on risk taking. We say, “at last”.

But, when a HR person says the profession is underperforming?

We tell them to stop being negative and “get involved”.

Funny that. Don’t you think?

The thing is, in order to improve you need to highlight the deficiencies. In order to challenge the norms, you need to raise the possibility of other alternatives.

It isn’t whinging or whining, it is challenge.

And sometimes when behaviours are so ingrained, when opinions are so homogenous, when thinking is so linear, you need to make a bigger noise to wake people from their stupor.

To get us thinking, to get us reflecting, to get us talking.

But yes, if you want to really want to change the world of work, you do need to get involved……..inside a company, on a permanent basis.

Over the long-term.

A tweet isn’t going to change anything, a blog won’t make things happen, I promise. Even if you post it on LinkedIn.

We need to identify the issues, but identifying the issues isn’t providing the solutions. Because the solutions aren’t generic.

Take the, “we don’t need policies” schtick. Go and try that one in a petrochemicals company.

Or the, “we don’t need measurement, we need conversations” diatribe. Take that one into the operating theatre of a heart surgery unit.

We need to challenge the thinking, the perceived wisdom, but the real creativity and problem solving needs to take place in the organisations themselves. And they need to be tailored, compatible with the overall systems and reinforced over the longer term.

The provocation is above the waterline, the real change happens beneath.

Solutions start with identifying problems. There is nothing wrong in identifying and calling them out that damages the profession.

But ignoring them, closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears and going to your happy place, well trust me, that does.

Customers can be wrong

Is the customer ever wrong? That was a question that I posed to the wonderful Doug Shaw at the CIPD Conference in Social Media last year. I was being mischievous. Because the answer is, of course. Sometimes the customer IS wrong. Let me give you some examples.

I was out for dinner on Saturday night and when we went to order the waiter had a somewhat quizzical look in his eye. We were ordering from the menu, we were ordering perfectly good dishes, but he felt that there were better dishes on the menu that we could be eating. He recommended, we went with his recommendations and we had an amazing meal. For the record, that was Khan’s of Brixton….it doesn’t look much, but the food is amazing.  The thing was, he was trying to give us a better experience.

I’ve come across suppliers, in the past, who have turned work down because they didn’t feel it was their strong suit. I’ve complete respect for that. I’ve also come across suppliers who have tried to convince me that I wanted product A not product B. Not because product A was better, but because they couldn’t do product B. I’ve less respect for that.

I may have been wrong in both cases, but the honesty and the integrity of the supplier was the differentiating factor. And likewise, as an HR practitioner, sometimes you will come up against circumstances where the client or customer is wrong. They want to do one thing, you believe that another thing is right. If you have the best interests of the business and the client at heart, then you should feel free to challenge and free to try to guide them to a better solution. The old HR adage of, “I explain to them the risks and then I let them make the decision”, is an out dated, ill thought through, pile of steaming nonsense. That is not adding value in any shape or form.

Challenging a CEO, or senior manager, who has their mind set on one thing and influencing them to do something else is scary. It can be risky and in some organisations it can be dangerous. But be under no illusion, that it is right. Just choose how you approach it, choose how you do it and be prepared to be proved wrong. We all are sometimes.

Like suppliers, as an HR professional, you should be looking to build a long-term sustainable relationship. That means that a level of openness, honesty and challenge is always appropriate even if it isn’t always welcome. Customers aren’t always right, sometimes they need a little guidance. It can be hard work, it can be unforgiving, but it is one way to really add value to your business.

If you don’t believe me, watch this:

Permission to speak, Sir?

Some conversation just “feel” harder to have than others. We all have one or two conversations that we need to have hanging around in our brains. We know we need to have them, but we don’t. We know we would be better for having them, but we have so many more important things to do.


I know, I have them too. Those issues that need to be tackled, those situations that need to be challenged, those problems that are….well problems, that you can’t quite face, but can’t quite live with. We’re walking around with a host of these things banging around in the dark recesses of our brains day in, day out.

Our lives our full, our days are jam-packed with situations that we deal with. But our quiet moments, our dreams, our nightmares are full of situations that we don’t deal with. Such is the complexity and intricacy of this existence that we call life. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t the whole package, but it is everything that we have and all that we will ever have.

The thing that makes these conversations tougher than the others, the thing that makes us hesitate, the thing that makes us put this back to another day, is permission.


The conversations that we have are easy.

The conversations that we don’t have are hard.

That sounds simple, but in many cases it isn’t anything to do with the actual content there is something darker going on in the back of our little minds. There is something that stops us and it is the concept of permission. We don’t feel that we are able, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we don’t want to take the risk.

Yet we all know, that when we find the courage to speak out, when we find the focus to tackle these issues, when we manage to put our fears aside and open our mouths, well then things become a whole lot simpler.

Permission is a nonsense, permission is the crutch of inaction, permission is the excuse that stops you from starting your life. Permission is the kindling of the fire that will make you the person that you can and should be.

Set fire to permission, go ask the questions, go challenge the status quo. Go take a weight off your mind.

You know you’re worth it….and you know things will be better if you do.