In an Octopus’s garden

We all know that, in the view of the general public, HR has a bad reputation. Those of us that work in the profession are either aware of this and battling against it every day, or hopelessly unaware and therefore probably part of the problem. We get reminded on a regular basis by polls, tweets and of course newspaper articles. The normal form of attack is, “there is no need for HR”.

Having worked in the profession for the last 25 years, it does beg a couple of questions:

  • Why am I still employed?
  • Are the people that employ me, therefore, entirely stupid?

Last week, the BBC ran an interview with CEO of Octopus Energy, Greg Jackson entitled, “My billion pound company has no HR department”. I’ve got a lot of respect for Octopus Energy, from what I’ve seen they’ve got a great culture, and whilst I don’t know Greg, every CEO is entitled to run their organisation in the way that they think best delivers their outcomes. I do, however, take issue with the sloppy reporting from the BBC that was clearly more about driving clicks than any sort of quality journalism. Unsurprisingly, this was then picked up by the Daily Mail and you only have to read the comments to get the general sense – interestingly whilst he said that he didn’t have an HR or IT department, you can see which one is used for both headlines and gets the kicking.

Now whilst I’m the first person to point the finger at bad and sloppy HR practice (you can read the last ten years of writing if you don’t believe me) I like to think we should base our arguments on data and evidence rather than silly, pointless articles which are far from the levels of journalistic quality we’d expect from the license fee. A quick search through Linkedin shows that there are “HR” people in Octopus Energy, they are currently advertising for someone to join their Learning and Development team and Octopus Group, the overall holding company has a Head of People. They’ve also recently clarified that they do have learning and development and recruiters (and presumably payroll and reward) but just no “HR Department”. Although that does beg the question what HR is, if it isn’t recruiting, training and rewarding people?

In essence, the discussion is about how much HR responsibility is devolved to the line and how much of it is centralised – which in experience works very differently for different companies, sectors and industries. And Octopus Energy look like they’ve found a balance that works for them – which is brilliant. It probably wouldn’t work for every other company and, who knows, it may not even work for them in the longer term. But that is all it is, one CEO explaining how he runs a specific company – yet the coverage (and many idiot commentators) seem to want to make it into a larger debate.

Why does it matter? It doesn’t really. It is silly and nonsensical to try to extrapolate. Most will shake their heads at another pointless article and go back to their day job figuring out what works best for their organisation and how to improve performance through people. But in a year when people in the profession, across industry have been thrown into more emotion, complexity, challenge and difficulty, where the profession has had to stand up and lead more than ever. Well, some people will feel this is an unnecessary and untimely kick in the teeth from people with too much time on their hands and who’ve never walked in their shoes. And to be honest, in the context, I’d forgive them for thinking this way.

Careless talk

There is a lot to feel grumpy about at the current time and as a rule I try to look on the positive side – because when things simply get too overwhelming it rarely pays to search out more bad news. One thing that I do struggle with on a regular basis is the intentional use of exaggerated language in the reporting of the current situation – even by some of the most respected of organisations.

A case in point is an article I was reading yesterday which talked about the number of coronavirus cases “soaring” in the workplace after the Christmas period. This assertion was then used as the basis for the delivery of a whole series of opinions and beliefs which clearly were the journalist’s own. A quick look at the source data showed that the number was exactly the same as in November, there had just been a temporary decrease over the few weeks over Christmas. Perhaps because more people were on leave or there were closures and shut downs?

The point I want to make isn’t about cases in the workplace, but that the language used and the selective use of data that would lead most people to believe that this was a significant problem and therefore the subsequent beliefs were based on the solid use of empirical evidence. In many ways, the imprecise use of language in this context is of little consequence, other than my annoyance. But when we extend this into the workplace we run the risk of making decisions that have implications for peoples lives.

It isn’t unusual to hear phrases such as, “everybody is up in arms”, or “we’ve been inundated by” or, “nobody likes” (the list isn’t exhaustive, feel free to add your own favourites). Normally followed by a suggestion of an action that needs to be taken…RIGHT NOW! A simple enquiry of, “Everyone?”, “Inundated?” or “Nobody?” is sufficient to start a conversation that leads to better understanding. Who exactly has a problem? What size is it? How many people are really impacted? What is the basis for proportionality?

There will be those that tell you this is the reason we need better data and analytics in the profession and of course this is entirely true. But equally important is the way we describe and interpret them. The way in which we present that data to others and the inference we choose to put upon it. Language is hugely important in work, we can use it as a force for positive change but to do so requires as much thought as any set of data that we share. Being lazy and careless with language simply isn’t acceptable. And if it isn’t acceptable in the world of work, it really shouldn’t be in journalism either – but perhaps their motivation isn’t to help understanding and build knowledge, whereas ours certainly should be.

Why we need a new debate on flexibility

I’ve previously written about how, whatever comes from the pandemic, we will still need to physically come together at work. It is a myth that this is the end of the office and those that follow that line will, in my opinion, soon come to regret it. The other oft heralded statement at the moment is that this is a new dawn for flexibility at work. And whilst I hope it is, it means honestly addressing the inflexible flexibility that has been our model to date.

Our existing model of flexible working is no longer fit for purpose. In many ways, it introduces into work further structured inflexibility that, I’d go as far to say, could be one of the driving factors behind poor productivity. In embracing this, “new dawn” we need to be honest and open in the discussion and lose the emotion that is often raised in critiquing these existing structures.

I wouldn’t mind betting that in most organisations, if you ran the analysis of part time workers, the majority would not be at work on a Friday. As a long time commuter, I’d also add that the volume of (pre-pandemic) workers that “worked from home” also increased on a Friday. Not only is this statistically improbably, it is also unproductive, economically damaging and socially and organisationally inequitable. It isn’t flexibility in any true shape or form.

There is a decent argument to be had for a four day working week. That’s a good way of structuring and organising flexibility within both organisations and nations, but it is planned, thought through and evenly applied to all. But the reality is that the more likely model, at least in the UK, is going to be driven by reduced capacity in buildings through social distancing as well as the social appetite to maintain some of the practices that have been learnt over the last four months.

If we are truly to have a brave conversation about flexibility at work, that probably means throwing out the existing legislation that has led to our weirdly inflexible current situation. It means looking at the working week being seven days rather than five for more than just frontline and operational workers, it means looking at annualised hours, minimum hours contracts, it means dusting off the actually quite brilliant (but much maligned) Taylor report and starting to have a more progressive conversation about solutions that work for both organisations and individuals.

By definition, the presenteeism culture that has pervaded in many workplaces will be rightly challenged, but in using the workspaces for the work that really needs us to come together, so will the inflexible contractual arrangements that so many organisations have introduced in order to try and do the right thing by their workforces. We need to lose our previous grounding in legislative rights and protection and imagine a new world, with new normals and new possibilities.

Simply put, our model of flexible working is neither flexible, nor is it working. It is time for something much, much better.

We still need the office

The trendy thing right now is without doubt to be condemning the physical office to its death. Businesses are committing to officeless futures and the Twitter jockeys are proclaiming the arrival of truly flexible working. You only have to Google “the end of the office” to see what I mean. But if you ask me, it is all a little too self congratulatory and a little too soon.

We’ve been through an exceptional time and there is no doubt that many organisations are learning new things, but they run the risk of losing so much from the past too. Those with long memories and too much time on their hands will remember the unpopular decision by Marissa Mayer on arriving at Yahoo to end the use of home working and revert back to the office in the search for greater collaboration. That is one critical aspect but there are many others too – identity, organisation, communication, social systems to name but a few.

I’m aware that those with a penchant for granola and chai lattes will now be rolling their eyes and talking about how technology can fill all of this gaps. Have you been on Twitter or Facebook recently? Social channels are increasingly the source of division, misinformation, homogenous thinking and discord. A world based on remote interaction is one to wish for at your peril.

Our mental and physical wellbeing is supported by in person interaction. We are social creatures by nature, our anthropological origins are in coming together as tribes to support one another to achieve. In many ways we are hardwired to desire to be in the presence of others, it helps our cognitive development which aids problem solving and creativity. If you don’t believe me, listen to the work of Susan Pinker.

These arguments are all before I get on to the issue of equality, the challenge of ensuring gender balance, the inequality based on socio economic background and the significant risk of unobserved, unmonitored bias and discrimination. Whilst this has been exacerbated during the recent pandemic, with women being particularly disadvantaged, the issues extend beyond this period of time. Look at the role types least likely to work remotely and you will find that they are disproportionately occupied by those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are genuine benefits to more flexibility within the workplace, I’m not burying my head in the sand. But we must be careful not to lose the good that comes from coming together as a social group built around a task in the desire to cut costs by reducing our property commitments. In many ways, the real argument is whether businesses should be more geographically dispersed, so that people can live in and around the communities they work in. In the UK this is a London problem driven by our unbalanced regional economy. The commutes, the congestion, the high wages and high cost of living can all be solved by a more regionally dispersed business model.

But that’s an argument for another day.