Lead for the many (and not the few)

It is July 14th, 2015 and, despite the generally good weather, there has been a sudden and heavy downpour. I remember it well because I was on foot making my way to speak at a CIPD event at City Hall. Unfortunately I’d understood County Hall, which is in a completely different part of town and ended up arriving late, drenched and grumpy.

The result of this was a rather dark and pessimistic take on the impact of flexibility on the workplace. Speaking alongside Dave Coplin, who was ebullient with the opportunities, I saw a much more dangerous and divisive trend. At the end of the sessions, I left the venue and skulked off to, once again, be late for a drink with a friend.

Four years later, I am more convinced than ever that the way in which we approach flexibility in the workplace is an exemplar of the way in which we are building a two tier workforce, built by the haves for the haves, designed for the few and not the many (to bastardise the current phrase of a certain political party).

In 2014, when Virgin announced that they were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they wanted, an HR policy decision became front page news. They were following the approach taken by Netflix, amongst others. More recently we’ve seen organisations, include the Wellcome Trust, talk about the introduction of a four day week. When the Virgin story was unpicked, it became clear that it wasn’t actually applicable to all staff, as they said themselves, “[it] permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want”.

What do Virgin, Netflix and Wellcome Trust all have in common? Simply, and I mean this with the deepest respect, if they didn’t exist no-one would notice. But perhaps more importantly, they have a certain workforce segmentation that more easily allows for the introduction of such policies. They don’t represent the workforce experience of the many.

We don’t have to go far to understand that the use of workforce “flexibility” can be a double edged sword – enforced part time hours, rotating shift patterns, annualised hours and of course, our dear friend, zero hours contracts. The point I was making back in 2015 was that whilst flexibility might be the emancipation of the few, it was potentially the shackles of the many. For every one tech wizard working on their laptop in the Bahamas, there are ten delivery drivers working on a “self employed” basis.

Which is why as a profession we have to be super vigilant of not drinking the Kool Aid. If you believe in good work, you believe in it for all. If you want to drive flexibility, then it starts with individual choice. Across western economies we’ve seen an increased polarisation in our economics, in our politics and in our workplaces. We’ve created inequality and now we are looking to reinforce it.

None of these policies are wrong per se, but the application of them, the thinking behind them and the championing of them is shaped by an unhealthy preference to consider only “knowledge workers” (yes I hate the term too) to be worthy of such freedom. Only when we start to design workplaces that treat workers of all types with equality of treatment will we create organisations which we can proud of. Let’s start with the many and not the few.

NB: The Wellcome Trust actually abandoned their plans after a three month trial describing it as too “operationally complex”. Interestingly, they were brave enough to try and do this for the entire workforce, regardless of role.

Recruiting stupidity

Sometimes we get an unexpected lens on the profession. Too often we look from our own position of knowledge and insight and not often enough do we put ourselves in the shoes of a user, whether as an employee or candidate. We talk about “candidate experience” and the role of technology in providing this and  we applaud ourselves on the implementation of systems that improve our speed to hire.

And then we have the chance to look at it from the position of the candidate.

I had this opportunity to do this recently as my daughter applied for Christmas temporary roles with some of the biggest brands on the high street. And I’m here to tell you that your approach well and truly sucks.

Hold in your mind that we are talking about temporary roles here. Maybe four or five weeks. We are talking part time, low paid, customer service roles. We are generally talking about roles that get little training or direction and that are insecure and  disposable.

Which of course is why you need to have an application process that takes on average an hour per role, that includes psychometric testing and situational judgment tests and that results in a standard email telling you that someone will contact you. Which they never do.

Could it be that she just has bad luck? Maybe. But when I talk to her friends they all have experienced the same treatment. And two years ago I had the same experience with my son, resulting in this brilliant message exchange (it was January).

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So of course, your brand just looks a bit stupid and a bit out of touch. When you’re 16, 17, 18 you don’t understand why companies use such laborious and clunky approaches and particularly not as part of an exchange that doesn’t feel fair. You want me to complete all these hoops and hurdles for a minimum wage job with a life expectancy of weeks? No thank you very much.

So yes, it might make life easier for your resourcing teams, but frankly it makes you look stupid. Many years ago I was responsible for recruiting 20,000 Christmas temps for a UK wide high street brand. We put posters up in store asking candidates to speak to the manager inside – ridiculously old school, but funnily, that always seemed to work. And the candidate ALWAYS got to speak to a human being.

Now that’s candidate experience.

 

 

 

 

What do we do?

If you listened to a lot of the stuff and nonsense that is written and spoken about HR you’d think we were all engaged in hand to hand ninja fighting with machines, whilst repeating the mantra, “the future of work is human” and promising a tomorrow characterised by self actualised, engagement and bliss.

I don’t know about you, but that is far from the existence I see in most organisations. Far from the work that I see most people do.

First and foremost, before anything else, we make sure the trains run on time. We get people paid, we make sure laws aren’t broken. We handle the enrolment in to benefits that you never know you need – until you really need them.

We make work places safe, ensuring people have a place to go if they feel that they’re being badly treated, informing and educating towards a workplace that has dignity and respect at its heart.

We handle things when the go wrong. Sometimes it’s our fault, sometimes it is a manager’s or an employee’s fault. Sometimes, it is just one of those things. We are there to resolve, rectify and recover from situations that no-one would wish for in the first place.

We find and grow the skills that are necessary to move our organisations forward. Whether that’s hiring, developing or nurturing – making sure that we are able to be successful today and tomorrow. Running programmes, schemes, campaigns to develop the skill base of the organisation.

We support people at their best and at their worst. We deal with the extremes of workplace experience, from the promotions, job offers, bonuses or pay rises to the redundancies, dismissals, deaths and emotional crises. We own messages which most would find difficult and own them well.

We guide, advise, counsel and coach. We help others to find the solutions, identify the outcomes and develop the conclusions that make their work better. We stand shoulder to shoulder with leaders as they go through organisational transitions and changes.

We take the blame. Someone has to and we are more than used to handling it. Not everything will go right at work, not everyone can always be happy. Sometimes people just need someone to point a finger at. And that’s ok.

Sure, we do a whole lot more as well. But funnily enough, not a single robot slain.

Our technology is making us dumb

Stand on any street corner and watch people going about their business and you’ll see a curious sight, so many people looking down. Locked in to their personal experience with technology. There was a time when it used to frustrate and annoy me as I made my way to work; the people stopping, walking aimlessly, unaware of their surroundings.

But now, more than ever, it not only annoys, it fundamentally scares me.

Technology was supposed to be the great emancipator, the leveller, it was supposed to open the doors to new horizons and new opportunities. But the reality is not one of bright new dawns, but closing doors. We are narrowing our experiences and polarising our attitudes at a time when we need to be more thoughtful, more explorative, more inclusive than ever.

Our social networks through their definition are based on people “like us”, we share news and comment that we agree with, with people that agree with us. Anyone who wants anything to the contrary can be muted, unfollowed, exiled in from our social existence. The opinions reinforcing our views and the assurance that “we” are “right”.

We “choose” our media, the things that we watch, listen to, read from an increasingly reduced selection of “things we might like”. Losing the ability to have the serendipitous discovery, the accidental opportunity. Instead allowing algorithms to serve up our future, based on what we once consumed, reducing our experience to predictable similarity.

And we close ourselves off from the world, plugging our ears with preselected sound, looking down to view limited content, basing our existence on the screen, not the world. We eschew the chance conversation, the momentary eye contact and smile, the haphazard interaction. We close off the sounds of life, anaesthetising ourselves from reality.

In a world that feels increasingly polarised, where the signs of social isolation and abandonment are becoming central drivers of our political and economic existence. In a world where we talk about the need to be more inclusive, more open, more tolerant and understanding. We are instead shutting ourselves away in closed systems of ignorance.

It would be asking too much to change, to reverse and renew. But perhaps if we were all a little more aware of our choice to have no choice, of our willingness to give away freedom, then we could recognise the limitations of our existence and challenge ourselves to step outside more. To break out of our circles of similarity, to experience difference and to venture more in to the unknown.