For somebody like me for whom time is a gift – not as extra years added to the later part of my life but right now in the form of an 8th day of the week, an extra hour every day – I’m keen to understand why time is so volatile. Why are so many people struggling to make ends meet time-wise at work?
When at Hot Spots Movement we speak to companies around the world, and again lately when we were in Australia, we hear from senior executives how stretched they are, with many requests on their time that are not to do with their ‘day job’. Of course, in a time such as this of increasingly fluid job design and project-based working, the definition of ‘day job’ is not a hard and fast one. Nevertheless, it seems that many of the requests are peripheral to people’s roles. You may ask why this is an issue – after all being useful is profoundly satisfying to most people, and contributing to the ‘greater good’ of the organisation by delivering input over and above your own projects surely is positive? It is, but not at the expense of preserving time to focus, to think, and to ponder longer-term strategic matters. When people are persistently stretched, and their time therefore is too fragmented, their productivity, creativity and wellbeing may suffer. Although a hidden cost for some time, it will eventually catch up with both the individual and the organisation.
So, what is it that is occupying the time of busy executives, and are these tasks really adding value? They seem to fall into two categories: reporting, and collaborative endeavours, such as attending meetings or reviewing others’ work.
Let’s start with reporting. One of the many great columns Lucy Kellaway wrote in The Financial Times was about why young people leave jobs. Her empirical evidence was that they lose the will to live because they were promised meaningful work, however, once on the job, they’re asked to produce reports and spreadsheets that are not being put to use. I’m not convinced this only happens to young people.
Next, collaboration. As the new and indiscriminately applied preferred working style in many organisations, there’s a tendency to over-collaborate and be too consensus-focused (or afraid of taking full accountability). Both lead to more meetings and more requests for input, where in fact one or two viewpoints would suffice. Of course, there’s a certain respect for hierarchy, and there are compliance-driven requests, but we could question more what is on our to-do list, be they legacy tasks or new tasks. And a bit tongue-in-cheek, see what happens if we don’t get around to providing our input. I’m not sure it would always even be noticed?
As companies move to designing work around projects rather than roles, I’m wondering if we should learn from freelance workers who work on discrete and time-defined projects, measured on outcome, and therefore can focus on these? Perhaps a zero-budgeting  based approach to how we spend our time may be helpful – regularly resetting the to-do list to 0. We need to be regularly asking ourselves, ‘what is it that keeps me busy, and is it really adding value?’ On that note, back to my to-do list, where the first point is to critically question the items!
 Where you have to justify what you need to spend, starting from 0 for every period, rather than assuming legacy spend requirements.
In his 1994 book, ‘The Age of Diminishing Expectations’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, perspicaciously argued that ‘productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’.[i] When one considers that productivity is perhaps the main driver in an economy’s ability to grow and therefore also the greatest predictor of the standard of living for a given person or group of people, it is difficult to disagree with Krugman’s contention.
In essence, productivity is defined as output per hour worked. In recent years, however, within the developed world productivity levels have been lagging. To elaborate, the recent ‘Skills and Employment Survey’ highlighted that in the UK, labour productivity has historically grown by around 2% per year since the 1970s, but since the 2008-2009 recession it has stagnated and has failed to climb back to its prerecession growth rate.[ii] This unprecedented and unexplained slump has become known as the ‘productivity puzzle’ and is an issue that has caused widespread concern amongst economists, business leaders and governments within the developed world.
As productivity levels continue to stagnate, organisations are implementing AI solutions which are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s superb dystopian TV show ‘Black Mirror’ to help boost productivity levels. Amazon, for example has recently patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more productive. Veriato, a software firm, is able to track and log every keystroke employees make on their computers in order to measure how dedicated they are to their role and the company.[iii] In Helsinki, a digital innovation consultancy named ‘Futurice’ has installed sensors that can track an employee’s every move in the office, even in the toilet.[iv] Such technologies fall under the remit of what experts call the internet of things (IoT). Employees report mixed feelings about these new technologies, with a Harvard Business Review study revealing an approximate 50/50 split between those who believe AI technology enhances productivity and those who either disagree or feel its impact is neutral.[v]
The appeal of using advanced AI from the organisation’s perspective is clear and, although surveillance at work is not a new concept (factory workers have long clocked in and out), the scale to which certain AI technologies can now be used to monitor the productivity of the workforce is leading some commentators to suggest they are bordering on Orwellian. This inevitably raises acute philosophical questions about the ethical underpinnings of applied AI in the workplace. Indeed, just how far are organisations willing to go in the pursuit of productivity? Finding the balance between safeguarding basic privacy, workers’ rights and enhanced productivity will raise some moral dilemmas for organisations, and will no doubt become central to AI discourse in the coming years.
Finding this equilibrium will not be an easy task for organisations. A recent RSA report on the ethics of AI suggests there is a public perception that we may be surrendering too much power to AI technology.[vi] One thorny issue is that existing ethical frameworks are often incompatible with the world of technology. Science has attempted to develop ethical frameworks before – from Asimov’s Three Laws for Robots to Nick Bostrom’s work on ethics. Adhering to these frameworks can be problematic, as humans often find it difficult to develop virtues for their own conduct, let alone build relevant virtues into new technologies.[vii] The debate around ethical AI must also consider how certain workers are better equipped than others to prevent employers going too far. For example, those with a specialist, in demand skill-set stand a greater chance of resisting any unethical implementation of AI, whereas those in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hours contract workers in low-wage industries, have considerably less leverage.
In the current economic climate, solving the productivity puzzle is an alluring prize for organisations. However, if organisations wish to solve it using certain AI, it must be conscientiously executed with a strong injection of humanity to help ensure workers can retain a sense of dignity in their work during this period of accelerated and uncertain change.
[i] Krugman, P. (1994) The Age of Diminishing Expectations. Cambridge, MIT Press
[iii] The Economist (2018) AI in the Workplace
[iv] Burke, C (2016) In offices of the future, sensors may track your every move – even in the bathroom (The Guardian)
[vi] Balaram, B (2018) The Ethics of Ceding More Power To Machines (RSA)
[vii] Dalmia, V. Sharma, K. (2018) The Moral Dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum)
With our Shifting Cultures Masterclass around the corner, I’ve been doing some thinking about culture – specifically, the elusive concept of a ‘strong culture’.
Crafting a strong culture can be interpreted as forming a shared social identity, or a culture in which individuals identify highly with one another and the organisation as a whole. There are benefits to this approach; high-identifying employees demonstrate greater abilities in coping with stress, resilience, and performance. Equally, there are also pitfalls – highly-identifying teams can become more susceptible to stress and burnout due to pressure to constantly perform and fear of letting the team down. So, the pursuit of a strong culture is not as straight-forward as it may appear; in fact, there are three major unintended consequences that may emerge in the strongest of cultures:
- Strong cultures hire for culture fit. This focus, though seemingly advantageous, can make it difficult to hire individuals who are different from the prevailing culture, despite their potential as a counterbalancing asset. While personality and culture fit are important, considering them as deciding factors in the recruitment process significantly limits diversity of thought. We then enter the trap of like-minded hiring like-minded, while those that may offer a unique value-adding perspective are neglected or snatched up by competitors.
- In strong cultures, the strongest voices are heard. This is a problem because there is the potential for a significant group to be silenced. Even in cases of fairly homogenised cultures, employees are still subject to familiarity blindness – it is difficult for those immersed within a culture to see a culture. Every employee sees the world through their own biased cultural filters. This can turn dangerous when employees are immersed in and blinded to potentially toxic environments, as there is no way to challenge normative behaviours.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, strong cultures are change resistant. Strength implies stability, and as such, is not welcoming to subcultures. An emergent theme in our research is that subcultures are healthy – even essential – players in helping the organisation stay agile. This is because they encourage creative thinking and constructive controversy in regard to how the organisation should interact both internally and with the environment. Moreover, subcultures serve as the spawning grounds for emerging values, keeping the organisation aligned with the needs of customers, society and other stakeholders.
With all this in mind, rather than constantly strengthening and reinforcing culture, I propose that we should be focused on creating a dynamic culture instead.
The key tenets of a dynamic culture include nurturing diverse perspectives, and providing channels for employee voices to be heard. This is not to say that you should throw your values out the window. It’s important to unite your employees under a set of core values – values that are central the organisation’s functioning – in order to reap the benefits of a shared social identity. However, it’s just as important to ensure that these are distinguished from peripheral values – traits that are desirable but not essential to organisation. It is here on the periphery where agility and innovation thrive, allowing people to simultaneously embrace and constructively challenge the dominant culture.
So, if you’re looking to craft a strong culture, you may be better off considering instead how to cultivate a dynamic one. Dynamic cultures adapt to uncertainty and continuous change, fostering diversity of thought and perspective with plenty of room for questioning the norm.
Stay tuned for our upcoming Masterclass, The Agile People Strategy, on 2nd October 2018. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last week my colleague Emma and I gave an interview on the theme of ‘motivating tomorrow’s workforce’. It reminded me that there are several important questions about the relationship between tomorrow’s talent and organisations, which we haven’t yet fully addressed – and that the answers may be simpler than we think.
- Are our organisations ready to embrace an adult-to-adult relationship between organisations and talent?
- How will it change the role of HR professionals?
Are we ready for the adult-to-adult relationship between organisations and talent?
In my view, one of the key elements of this changing relationship is that it’s no longer the sole responsibility of the company to understand what kind of working arrangement will attract talent and enable people to perform at their very best. This is good news, for two reasons. Firstly, because we can expect our talent to be increasingly comfortable bringing their ‘wholes selves’ to work, meaning working arrangements will need to become highly individualised. Secondly, with longer working lives becoming a reality, the strong link between ‘age and stage’ is weakening, making age a much less reliable indicator of expectations and aspirations.
In this new reality of multi-faceted diversity, it would seem unrealistic to expect HR to propose work arrangements that work for every individual. And why should we? I’m of the belief that adults know what’s right for them and are fundamentally keen to do the right thing by the organisations. As we start considering the relationship an adult-to-adult one, there’s no reason they wouldn’t deliver on these expectations.
What does this mean for HR? It means we need to change our organisations’ narratives to make clear that empowerment is a two-way deal. It is a constructive relationship between adults, not one where one party suggests specific rules for how people can work flexibly, which may or may not work, for the people involved, both individually, and as a team of workers. We should invite our people to design their own arrangements for flexible working and expect them to be thoughtful about how this will work for the organisation and for their colleagues (as individuals’ flexible working arrangements can take a toll on their fellow work team members), and likewise their own career journeys (moving between fast track, slow lane, plateau, sideways, etc.).
To build this narrative, and not least to get senior management to live by it, HR must be a credible source of strategic direction, and be proactive. This requires changing deeply engrained views of roles and responsibility. It also requires mutual trust, which needs to be preceded not only by the new narrative, but also by training, guidance and coaching.
My final question to the HR community is how do we train ourselves for this role? I’d suggest we start by ensuring we profoundly understand what the future of work will look like – (and assume that predicting the exact pace of change is near impossible so ‘sooner rather than later’ is a safe assumption regarding the timeline). We need to be a force of proposition and prepare our organisations for this change – it could well be the biggest one so far this millennium!
Being the newest member of Hot Spots Movement, a key focus in my recent job search was to join an organisation which celebrates diversity. Not only do I have a diverse background in terms of my heritage, (being Jamaican, Finnish, Pakistani and English!) but I’m also – like everyone, really – diverse in the way I think and feel. And it’s this latter type of diversity that many organisations are only now beginning to understand and act upon.
One element of this ‘diversity of thought’ is mental health. This is something we all come into contact with, either personally or through the experiences of friends and family. However, it consists to be a pervasively silent culture. In fact, with 3 out of 4 employees experiencing a wobble in mental stability at some point, it is one of the biggest workplace issues, costing UK employers £30 billion alone, through lost production, recruitment and absence. And yet, conversations and initiatives around mental health are conspicuously absent in many organisations.
From my own experience, speaking with others and through readings, implementing a successful mental health strategy alongside changing attitudes and cultural expectations, is of course challenging and does not happen overnight. It can prove difficult to merge the law, practice, training, evaluation and management into one company-wide policy.
This is why I was particularly excited to come across an exciting, new approach to tackling mental health: Co-production. This method puts employees affected by mental health at the heart of planning, delivering and evaluating policies. Offering them the chance to come forward, not to label themselves, but to work alongside HR professionals, is extremely innovative and merges expert and lived experience. This creates active networks that both support those affected and better informs those who aren’t.
Co-production appears to have many positives, including being based on psychological research dating back to the 1950s, blurring the lines of distinction between authority and recipients and being economic in drawing on the wisdom of employees themselves. As a result, Co-production and involving those who suffer, may help them feel a better sense of belonging and reduced stigma – in turn, increasing their sense of competence, engagement and loyalty.
This collaborative approach to problem-solving resonates with so much of the work we do here at Hot Spots Movement, from our advisory practice, to the Future of Work Research Consortium and our crowdsourcing methodology, the ‘Jam.’ I cannot help feeling that co-production is an energising and innovative concept that could really move the needle on mental health in organisations and empower those most affected with ownership over the solution.
For more information on how you can collaborate with your colleagues on mental health challenges visit our website http://www.hotspotsmovement.com and contact one of the team.
Head of Admin & Community Management
Despite all the talk about the strength of peer networks and the new technological utopia in which increased connectivity yields instant equality, power is still often a zero-sum game. In fact, getting organisations to do away with hierarchies is proving to be next to impossible. Notwithstanding the rich example provided by Morning Star and millions of books that call for employee empowerment, shared power arrangements remain extremely rare. On the other hand, for all its enemies, hierarchy is amazingly resilient.
Why do hierarchies persist? In 1832, as Charles Darwin travelled through Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America, he came across a series of native tribes whose living conditions he described as ‘‘wretched.’’ He blamed their conditions directly on lack of power structures: ‘‘The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved.”[i] Since he made that assertion over 180 years ago, numerous social scientists have similarly argued that hierarchies are necessary. In fact, many theorists have even argued that hierarchies are inevitable as they stem from our evolutionary roots. In other words, if different forms of organisation were more beneficial, groups would have successfully adopted them long ago.[ii]
Hierarchy has evolved to be the most dominant form of social organisation because it works. All those structures and roles serve a purpose. At its most basic level, the invisible hand of hierarchy helps people know who does what, when and how, and promotes efficient interactions by setting clear expectations and role clarity. Hierarchy also offers purely psychological benefits. Research indicates that perceptions of our rank and status in hierarchies are extremely important to us. In his book The Status Syndrome, Michael Marmot details how closely status is aligned with longevity and good health. Status even surpasses education and income, two factors that usually determine how healthy an individual can be throughout their life. An indicator of this is when Zappos gave the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout, almost 210 of its 1,500 employees took redundancy rather than relinquish their hard-won management rank and the status that accompanies it.[iii]
Whilst it seems hierarchies are inevitable and here to stay, there is no doubt that they can sometimes be dysfunctional. The way forward therefore, is to reap the benefits of hierarchy while at the same time mitigating its negatives. At our recent Future of Work (FoW) Masterclass on Power and Leadership, we asked our participants the following four key questions in order to help them assess and future-proof their organisations’ power structures:
Does power inhibit voice? The vast literature on voice has underscored the reluctance of employees lower in hierarchy to communicate with their bosses. Laboratory research on groups also illustrates a similar pattern; participants temporarily assigned a low-power position tend to voice their opinions less, even though the hierarchy was just constructed moments before. How does your organisation create a psychologically safe environment for all employees to voice their opinions and ideas?
Does power have legitimacy? To ensure legitimacy of power, formal rank and competency must always align. However, people have been shown to rise to power for reasons other than competence. For example, research indicates that we are more likely to select leaders according to their sex, age and physical attractiveness than competence. In this context, it is interesting to note that there are fewer S&P 1500 companies led by women than S&P 1500 companies led by men named John. And John is more successful if he has a deep voice, a large signature and superior golf game.[iv] How does your organisation ensure that power has legitimacy?
How do leaders cope with power? Hierarchies will harm collective success when the possession of power induces leaders to be disinhibited and less sensitive to others’ needs. A significant body of empirical research demonstrates that there is a little bit of ‘Trump’ in all powerful people. In other words, powerful people are more inclined to be rude, to lie and cheat.[v] How does your organisation help leaders to cope with this dark side of power?
What is the effect on the powerless? Profound insights from neuroscience have brought to attention the multi-dimensional effect of powerlessness on employees. For example, lack of power has been shown to have negative consequences on employee well-being, motivation and even cognition. These findings should not really surprise you. Not being able to control your environment produces feelings of helplessness and stress, and study after study has documented that stress can harm your health and well-being. How does your organisation give employees opportunities to feel powerful, so that they do not suffer the consequences associated with powerlessness?
By understanding and answering these questions, organisations can create hierarchies that lead to victory with the fewest causalities along the way. The key lesson is that the future of power lies in making peace with hierarchies and learning how to empower employees without dismantling power structures.
[i] Darwin, C. (1906). The voyage of the Beagle (No. 104). JM Dent & sons.
[ii] Anderson, C., & Brown, C. E. (2010). The functions and dysfunctions of hierarchy. Research in organisational behavior, 30, 55-89.
[iii] Monarth, H. (2014). A company without job titles will still have hierarchies. Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Sebenius, A. (2016). CEOs Behaving Badly. The Atlantic