4 Reasons Why We Need To Reimagine Work

The amount of tangible change inside organisations lags far behind the noise

If you are on Linkedin or Twitter regularly, you’ll no doubt have been exposed to an onslaught of views and opinions about the future of work. There’s no paucity of posts, or indeed conferences on the topic but rather like the diversity and inclusion space, it feels like the amount of tangible change inside organisations lags far behind the noise. In actuality, the future of work is an imperative for today, not a distant tomorrow

4 reasons why we need to reimagine work

First, let me summarise the case for why we need to reimagine work:

  1. A recent global study from talent business, ADP, found that from a 19,000 universe, just 16 per cent of people are fully engaged with their work.
  2. Young people (oft labelled millennials) will account for 50 per cent of the global workforce in six months and their view on what makes a good employer is radically different.
  3. According to a recent WHO study, 615 million people suffer from depression and anxiety which costs the global economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity.
  4. Never before have we seen such a rise in the gig economy or side hustles. Employees are voting with their P45s and opting for a freelance or entrepreneurial existence. 

With this perfect storm you would think that talent officers everywhere would be radically reinventing the means through which they engage and retain their workers. 

The ADP report revealed that where they saw strong engagement, it was universally a result of three factors – feeling part of a strong team, having permission to work remotely, and improved work life flexibility (plus having a side hustle as well as a main job). 

Pursuing systemic change

In our flatlining economy, instead of adapting to this new normal, what I see is reduced flexibility around people working from home, maternity, job shares or other people-first approaches. There is definitely more conversation around diversity and wellness but if you look at empirical data, tangible change is at the edges and sadly too often a tick box exercise rather than evidencing systemic change. Another damning statistic from HMRC data is that 31 per cent of British men do not take any paternity leave – too many men feel anxious about taking time off and as a result this directly impacts the effectiveness of gender equality programs. 

If we turn to reflect on the future of work for the world’s future, namely our young people, we see an increased expectation of being able to do meaningful work, learn leadership skills fast and travel to explore new cultures. Paradoxically, most corporates still lack a clear sense of purpose and lock their most junior staff out of leadership training or transfers abroad until they have more experience. There is a huge mismatch between the expectations that tomorrow’s leaders have from work versus the current generation of leaders running the show today. 

The 2018 L&D Report found that the UK was investing 50 per cent less than its European counterparts in to learning and development, revealing a disturbing unwillingness to invest in upskilling at a critical moment. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution which will be dominated by machine learning and automation, there are only two certainties – that jobs will be lost, and that jobs will be created. Many of those jobs will not look anything like those of the past – in fact it is estimated by IBM that by 2030 (just a decade away), as many as 375 million people will have needed to update their skills to make a career pivot. We are sitting on a ticking time bomb – both government and enterprise must start putting dollars in to helping their people adapt as much as they are throwing money at technology led digital transformation.

Another study in September 2018 by Mind revealed that 55 per cent of all employees have experienced mental health issues as a result of work. So not only are employees not being invested in, more than half feel that work is affecting their wellbeing and productivity. This is a damning report card for the current operating model which dominates the landscape of business – a model for now I will just label “orange” and return to shortly. 

Interaction, teamwork, and collaboration

Most of what I have talked about so far is hardly radical – it is simply understanding the changing nature of your workforce, knowing where they are at and adapting to their needs. If we look towards the type of more radical work culture that is winning, it is where there is a reconnection with the fact that business is all about people and humanity. In recent years, technology has facilitated and provided the tools to encourage more flexible working – think of Slack, Zoom or Whatsapp as good examples – yet there has been no such revolution in big business around ways of working… Nothing that delivers greater flexibility or wellness at scale, or for how people work and manage themselves and others in an always-on, post-digital world. Even something as simple as mentoring remains poorly executed with insufficient structure and the examples of reverse mentoring are too few and far between. 

As John Naisbett, the American futurist and author said:

The most exciting breakthroughs of the twenty-first century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.” 

Most organisations have turned to technology to improve efficiency or effectiveness, but are yet to seize the opportunity to use it to enhance the quality of human interaction, teamwork and collaboration. 

Breaking the business hierarchy

At this stage, I will turn to one of my favourite albeit challenging-to-digest books, Re-Inventing Organisations by Frederic LaLoux. LaLoux classifies organisations by colour ranging from red (absolute leadership dominates) to amber (command and control) through to orange which is where I will dwell for a second. Orange organisations continue to use the pyramid as their predominant structure but cross functional teams and project groups are created to encourage innovation. To paraphrase Laloux’s words ‘command and control gives way to predict and control’ where KPIs and reviews are used to maintain control over delivery and performance. This is the prominent model operated in medium to large sized companies the world over. Laloux argues that whilst the model has evolved, there is still limited trust and certainly no real empowerment. 

He argues passionately for the effectiveness of ‘teal organisations’ which are best described as being ‘characterised by self-organisation and self-management’ where the hierarchical ‘predict and control’ pyramid is replaced with a decentralised structure consisting of small teams that take responsibility entirely for their actions and output. 

The concept of smaller teams or ‘squads’ who are genuinely empowered, gives genuine autonomy to employees and the evidence that LaLoux shares is that this delivers astoundingly positive results. The short summary – if you treat your people like adults and give them true responsibility for their actions and autonomy to make decisions, they will deliver transformational results for you. This is hardly a radical statement, yet it is completely alien to the majority of organisations who have crafted decades of organisational design, processes and sign-offs to deliberately limit the opportunity for decentralised decision making. LaLoux’s thesis is that the future of work is about reconnecting more deeply with the human consciousness. Perhaps more leaders and those running HR departments would do well to remind themselves that the H stands for human.

The success of self-management

So why does self-management have such dramatically improved results? To answer this, I will now turn to another superb script, this time from Daniel Cable entitled ‘Alive at Work’. Daniel also starts by painting a depressing view of employee engagement globally and then goes on to illustrate that today’s workplaces stifle people’s ‘seeking systems’. As humans, our brains naturally seek out exploration, learning and spaces to be creative, yet he argues that the current design of our organisations does everything possible to restrict this and box us in. I’m sure everyone reading this remembers one of those learning or exploration moments when they are truly buzzing at work and the adrenaline is pumping. Just imagine for a second, if that was a feeling you could have most of the time, not once in a blue moon. 

In just the last year, organisations surveyed by CIPD and the Adecco Group (Spring 2019) reported that it has become 33 per cent more difficult to retain their talent. 41 per cent of the same organisations said it has become more difficult to fill their job vacancies. Given that organisations now have so many more channels at their disposal, what if, instead of this being blamed on Brexit, it’s a result of the above and a serial under-investment in talent and outdated employer brand propositions? 

It is on this basis that I make the case that it’s about time that the future of work stops being seen as far off in the future and becomes an urgent imperative. Now. Today. 

The future of work is now

By labelling the building of an engaging, flexible and diverse workplace culture as ‘the future of work’, too many boards convince themselves that this can wait for another day, given the multitude of other priorities. We need to urgently change the narrative, so it is understood that in an economy obsessed with generating growth, it is imperative not only to attract the best talent but to retain and develop them so they are engaged (remember only 16 per cent globally say they truly are), productive and high performing. The businesses recognising this best are early stage companies like Monzo, the scale up bank. There is a rare authenticity to their commitment to radical transparency, working from home and diversity. They show up all of the legacy big banks, whom they seek to disrupt.

It would be wrong however, to suggest that it is only early stage, tech led companies getting this right, although it’s definitely easier without decades of baggage. For the first time, with its Culture 500 research, MIT analysed the opinions of the humans working inside organisations to establish what creates a winning culture by applying natural language processing to over 1.2 million Glassdoor reviews. They found that there are nine key cultural values – agility, collaboration, customer-centricity and innovation (these four are market focused) combined with diversity, respect, integrity, empowerment and reward (these five are ALL talent focused). The organisations able to move and adapt fast, partner effectively to deliver what their customers need, are known to do well but these are ONLY the foundations. When your people feel they are respected, trusted, treated and rewarded fairly, that’s when great things happen. For me it is this potent combination which drives up employee engagement, not bean bags or free breakfast. 

Putting the human in HR

The most challenging element here, in my opinion, is whether there is a genuine truth around empowerment. Many organisations use the word far too loosely when they still intend to exert complete control through process – Laloux’s definition of empowerment is very different. If your organisation can edge further towards teal-status (achieving it fully is a complex undertaking) and recognise that the people you hire have incredible potential when they operate as a team within a safer space and with autonomy, that is when the real magic happens. If you don’t believe me, download a copy of Re-Inventing Organisations and flick through the ‘teal’ case studies from all over the world.

If, however, teal feels a little too revolutionary for your organisation, at the very least I would ask that you take away the words of John Naisbett and think about how you put the human back in to HR… Otherwise, large organisations will soon find themselves fishing in an ever decreasing talent pool.

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