Australia has been the lucky country in the years following the 2008 global financial slowdown. However, as individuals, we’ve never quite believed that our economy was strong and recent warnings of slowing growth in China, (our largest trading partner) falling iron ore and coal prices, youth unemployment, as well as talk of a housing bubble following surging prices in our principal cities, have served to fuel national anxiety. The reality is, however, that Australia is actually well placed to transition to a new, broader-based economy, less reliant on commodities.
There is emerging consensus that growth needs to be innovation-led. The change envisaged is not incremental but potentially transformational. It will need a combination of discipline and courage, not least from our major companies who must lead the pursuit of new sources of revenue and growth. For HR this is not business-as-usual. Many of the policies, systems, processes and behaviours (our working cultures) which have served us so well at the end of the 20th Century need to be re-designed to fit the more dynamic market conditions of the 21st Century. This is an opportunity to engage all employees in designing their own futures.
One important enabling condition is the need for greater “flexibility” and there is evidence that Australian employers and their people are embracing it with alacrity. Last year Aecom, a global provider of management and technical services, analysed workplace surveys conducted by its clients to understand their employees desire to work away from the office. They found that between 31% and 54% of employees across the Resources, Finance, Retail and Media sectors would appreciate doing so for 1 to 2 days a week. This has important implications for the leasing of space in commercial buildings, for employee health and wellbeing, for workforce participation, for productivity and other areas such as transport infrastructure and the life of our cities.
Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company with more than 35,000 employees, has demonstrated how Government legislation and leadership can work with employers and their people to accelerate the process of change. At the end of 2013 CEO, David Thodey, introduced an initiative known as “All Roles Flex”, becoming the first large corporation in Australia to ensure that everyone had access to flexible ways of working. This followed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Fair Work Act 2009, enshrining in law the right to request flexible working arrangements. It also followed two years of working with around twenty other corporate and Government leaders as Male Champions of Change, a group established by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to help accelerate development of women as leaders. “What I really like about this approach is that it disrupts the status quo and encourages open conversations right from the start.” David Thodey wrote in November 2013.
Telstra, along with many Australian companies (for example ANZ, NAB, Westpac, CBA, Suncorp, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank) has over the last decade embraced the inclusive design of the workplace as yet another opportunity to have that conversation with their people about the future. It has given employees and other stakeholders, most notably customers, a voice in the design of the company’s future. It has reduced the cost of accommodation, created spaces which support collaboration, resulted in healthier, more flexible and environmentally more responsive buildings. This has put power in the hands of the organisation’s people to connect freely with others and to better manage their work and careers. This moment in history, and not just Australia’s, is an opportunity for the HR team to lead from the front, as thought leaders about the future of work, setting the need for change in the wider national and global context.
It must necessarily start with HR undergoing its own transformation, reimagining its role in developing and executing business strategy and reconfiguring its skill base so that its traditional strengths in supporting the management of people is balanced by strengths in leading business and culture transformation. Be prepared for conversations which are disruptive of the status quo but which facilitate innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems.
Organisations tend to base performance management approaches, and many other practices for that matter, on the assumption that human beings are innately self-interested. As such, motivational tools tend to be individually focused and based on financial incentives. For example, many roles still run along a ‘reward or punish’ line. That is to say, bring home the bacon and you’ll receive big bonuses; produce mediocrity and you’ll be sanctioned with taking home only your basic salary.
But are we really that self-interested?
Our founder Lynda Gratton has investigated the contrast between the self-interest that organisations expect from their people and what we actually see around us. She points out that many people give their time and resources to help others. Crucially, they do this without getting anything back in return except, perhaps, personal satisfaction. What gets in the way of this natural propensity to give is in fact the performance management structures that many organisations have put in place. These structures isolate personal monetary reward as the sole driver of performance, and underplay the contribution of other more complex motivational factors such as autonomy, mastery of a skill, and a sense of purpose. Therefore, despite being institutionalised in many companies, the wholesale belief in the innately self-interested human being is perhaps misguided.
Increasingly complex world, increasingly sophisticated solutions
Organisations seeking to enhance their performance management approaches must therefore look beyond traditional, hyper competitive performance management where the only motivational tool is financial reward. It is, of course, perfectly possible to manage people in this traditional style, but the outcome is usually compliance, rather than innovation or high performance. As I mentioned in a previous post, we live in a world where the work we do is increasingly complex, requiring employees to produce more sophisticated solutions. A more holistic approach to performance management, in which people are self-directed and engaged, is far more likely to achieve the sophisticated solutions required. To see how this might work in practice, I’d like to introduce you to Atlassian, an Australian enterprise software company. Every third week of the month, Atlassian gives its software developers 24 hours to work on whatever they would like and with whomever they wish. The only caveat to this is that they present what they worked on to their company. Not in a formal, boardroom-style meeting, but in an informal, party-style meeting intended to create a collaborative and innovative environment.
Through creating a more intrinsically motivated workforce, thanks to a reduction in the amount of individualized incentives, Atlassian’s once-monthly 24 hours of innovation has led to myriad improvements for existing software and ideas for new products. This shows that exactly what so many employers are nervous of, giving autonomy to people, can achieve precisely what they need: engaged people producing sophisticated solutions.
For more information about tools that give people the chance to set their own agenda, invest in the future of their organization, and create solutions to complex challenges themselves, you can read about our FoWlab Jam platform here.