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.

Beware your confirmation bias

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I love data.

I love data, I love data analysis and I love evidence. Maybe not as much as Rob Briner, but that’s a tall order – we can’t all be that weird.

I hate assumption.

I worry that in the HR profession we’re increasingly happy to throw relevant information to one side and follow arguments that we personally value, even when the data suggests to the contrary. I’m especially worried that the whole “Human focussed HR” is being used as a cover all for sloppy, stupid thinking.

Two conversation happened last week that made me reflect on this in more detail. Now, the conversations in themselves weren’t stupid and the proponents were well meaning, but the arguments being made exemplified this risk.

I tweeted this:

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I’m increasingly interested in the psychology of technology and the way in which our behaviour is manipulated by technology companies. It isn’t new, retailers have been using behavioural manipulation for years, but it is naive of us to assume that technology is purely about liberation. We are given the sense of being super connected, when in fact we are depriving ourselves of many other types of social contact and integration. You can look at the research on this and there is an increasing body that shows the potential dangers.

A number of people responded to me that this wasn’t the case, that I was talking rubbish and that in fact we were all more connected than ever. I asked for evidence, I got none. I asked for data, I got none. We are more connected, we just can’t prove it.

Then I saw this,

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Both of these were being used to argue that compensation was really unimportant when compared to culture. It’s an argument that I hear a lot, it isn’t the money, it’s the culture. Ok.

But let’s reposition that data.

“Work life balance is unimportant compared to the senior leadership of an organisation”

Because, the data also suggests that. I’m not sure I hear many proponents of this argument in the world of HR. I don’t hear people arguing that no-one cares about work life balance as long as you’ve got top quality (well paid?) senior management.

The point is this. We need to be careful of our confirmation bias, we need to be careful of seeing the information we believe in and not the information as a whole. The arguments are rarely simple, they’re complex. They’re rarely linear, they’re multi faceted. And we need to be able to explore complexity and make appropriate conclusions based on evidence.

I believe in a more human workplace, I believe in making things better for employees and employers, for society. We will only do that by approaching this in a scientific, detailed and thought through way. Not by making bland assertions based on our gut instinct and personal beliefs.

If we want this, the evidence is there, we just need to be thoughtful enough to discuss all of it – even the bits we don’t agree with.