Why isn’t work working? Most of us in advanced nations are stuck in economies with diminishing or already zero productivity growth, despite continued advances in technology; only 13% of employees are engaged despite moving into higher quality work now that automation has taken over a lot of the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks; we’re more educated and skilled than ever before, and yet we still struggle to create innovative teams. These are the three dilemmas that my fellow keynote speakers and I, at the Irish Management Institute (IMI)’s National Management Conference, sought to address a few weeks ago. During an intense and thought-provoking day, I joined Boston Consulting Group’s Yves Morieux, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group – Rory Sutherland, and strategic foresight company director – Thimon de Jong, to explore these issues with more than 200 business leaders.
We began by looking at how our personal and working lives have been made more complex by technology, and how social media in particular has become so pervasive in our lives that we are now ‘addicted citizens.’ Thimon shared the results of an experiment that separated people from their smart phones for just a few days, putting them into an MRI scanner afterwards only to find that the withdrawal had affected their brains in the same way as withdrawal from hard drugs. This chemical need to be always connected extends of course beyond our personal lives and into the way we work, a topic we then moved onto with a focus on the implications for productivity. Indeed, the advanced economies’ productivity crisis is rooted in organizational complexity: as the business world has become more complex, we have created structures and processes with the aim of retaining clarity and accountability in our organisations. However, what we’ve actually created is matrix structures, middle offices, and additional layers of complexity that our employees struggle to navigate. And if we’re wondering why employees are so disengaged at work, then there’s our answer: disengagement is the proper and sane response to the chaotic environment we have created.
In addition to creating complexity, these processes and practices have also encouraged overly competitive behaviours, despite management rhetoric promoting collaboration as the only way to spark the next leading product or service. These competitive environments have also amplified our risk aversion. Every process we have, from performance management to project management, signals loud and clear to people that not being wrong is far superior to being right. In what is termed ‘defensive decision making’, we are compelled to make decisions whereby we come off least bad in the worst case scenario: we will choose the boring “play it safe” option over the innovative one every time, and a boring advertising campaign that fails is the fault of a bad product, whereas an innovative campaign that fails is the fault of the advertiser.
So, that’s the long and ironically complex scenario of what’s not working in our organisations. But what did we have by way of actions our delegates could take to simplify work, unleash productivity and enhance engagement? The first action was to facilitate the process of ‘digital balance’ among employees, enabling them to switch off and avoid being overwhelmed by ubiquitous message streams and demands. Ensuring people are not overwhelmed is essential if we want them to step out of their comfort zone – the necessary precondition for sharing ideas and collaborating.
The second, poetically simple step was to understand what others do at work. Go beyond the job descriptions to really understand the content of your team’s work, how they spend their time, what their average day looks like and take that as the starting point for simplifying work, stripping out the burdensome processes that add little value and create distraction. Doing so will address both the challenge of stagnating productivity and the puzzle of low employee engagement.
Finally, apply an understanding of human psychology to the way we design and run our organisations. When creating the necessary structures to keep the oragnisation moving, use insights from psychology to anticipate how people will perceive a process and how they will react. Too often, we have turned solely to economic theory to understand how employees will respond to carrot and stick type incentives, ignoring the weight of evidence from psychology that our behaviour is governed by far more emotive systems than could ever be understood through such a narrow, singular lens.
We live in a world where we can increasingly tailor our problem-solving capacity to the challenge in hand. When battling a well-defined problem that requires specific expert knowledge or skills, the good old fashioned face-to-face meeting of a small group of similarly skilled people remains the most efficient. However many problems are poorly defined, for instance if only some stakeholder groups’ perspectives were applied when defining what the challenge looks like. So to give yourself the best chance of arriving at a solution, you’re going to need a large, diverse group of problem solvers. Traditionally, this second category of problem was enormously difficult to solve. Assembling 2,000 people in one place is tall order to say the least, not to mention the potentially prohibitive cost of transporting that number of people across the globe. And even if you find a large enough room and the cost doesn’t matter, how would you ensure that all their 2,000 voices were heard? And would they feel comfortable enough to really speak their mind?
Recently there has been a marked trend of established companies which had previously seemed indestructible seem to be on unstable ground or even, shockingly, fail. In this environment, corporations are increasingly facing this second complex type of challenge, requiring the input of multiple stakeholders. Moreover, the stakes are higher and the need to show results rapidly is ever more pressured. The good news that this is now possible in a cost-effective way, drawing on many-to-many communication methods and platforms that we primarily know from outside the workplace.
For best results engage and invest employees
At Hot Spot Movement we have been mulling over the best way to solve global challenges in multinational organisations in the most inclusive and engaging manner possible. Integrating solutions across an entire corporation can seem like moving a mountain, which is discouraging for even the most motivated among us. In addition, it is crucial that insights aren’t lost in the noise of so many people communicating with one another on systems with so many voices all clamoring to be heard. While we do use technology and strategies that are similar to those of social networks, this is not a social network. We wished to create a is process that results in crowd-sourced actionable solutions to complex challenges, with our principal focus being on bringing about solutions.
Accordingly, a few years ago we launched our FoWlab Jam service. The aim of a FoWlab Jam is to help you solve your challenge, allowing you to bring about a company-wide solution. What’s more, it reveals unexpected insights and discovers natural leaders, outside core decision makers, to help you further promote the solution you wish to implement. This is achieved by an online conversation between anything from 500 to thousands of employees, guided by our team of global facilitators. We draw on our globally recognised Future of Work Research Consortium to bring you cutting edge insights that inform the conversation. We ensure that employees know their voice matters and that they are trusted, with individual invitations to the jam frequently coming directly from their CEO. This discussion is collaborative and inclusive, and really invests employees in their future and the big decisions their company is making. The Jam lasts for a finite length of time, usually 72 hours, giving a feeling of urgency and excitement to jammers, and allowing you to reach the actionable solutions rapidly. Once the conversation has finished, our research team puts together all the insights gleaned into a comprehensive report, and deliver these findings to the relevant internal stakeholders at the client company.
How to capitalise on insights
We ran a FoWlab Jam with 1,000 members of PwC’s millennial population to discuss how the consultancy could improve retention of young, new talent. Dennis Finn, vice chairman and global human capital leader at PwC told us that “the post-jam report distilled this vast conversation into four emerging themes, each of which has helped us approach to attracting and retaining world-class talent”. After a jam we ran for Novartis Pharma, Laura McKeaveney, head of global human resources, told us that “it has really shown us a new way to build an inclusive and open community”. We frequently work with clients to tag a Jam onto any employee engagement survey to discuss major issues arising from it and ensuring the employees’ voices are heard and they feel invested in their future at their company.
I believe that the increasingly complex challenges facing today’s businesses are by no means insurmountable. However, with globalisation and the diversification of cultures in any given company, it is vital that problem-solving technology that engages many in conversation with many is used by corporations globally. In this case, the world is very much our oyster.
We’ve noticed a significant interest in FoW coming from Australia over the past year or so, and as befits a research consultancy, we were intrigued to know the source of this interest. We asked Kristen Miller, Workplace Transformation Director at Westpac Group to provide us with a perspective and here’s what she had to say…
“Today, Australia’s population of about 23 million is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse populations in the world. As a result, Australian workplaces need to be prepared to deal with the challenges and opportunities this presents.
In recent times, Australian companies have dealt with workplace challenges that have led them to focus on preparing better for the future. For example, the mining boom in 2011 led to skill shortages, the “war for talent”, economic prosperity and wage growth. Coupled with a decade of economic growth and record-low unemployment rates, companies felt challenged in an unknown territory – people. Traditional (and successful) industries found themselves challenged with regard to how, when and what people worked on as the employee/employer power shifted increasingly toward employee choice – many companies were ill-prepared.
Changing where, when and how we work
In terms of working habits, government investment in the National Broadband Network (NBN) is designed to provide access to a minimum level of broadband service across the nation. This initiative has led to an increase in opportunities in education, business, entertainment, health care and sociability giving everyone the potential to be more productive, more creative, more efficient and more connected for decades to come. Importantly, working from home has become a real option for many now that anyone can experience a fast and reliable internet connection in the home.
This connectivity is vital for other reasons. Australia is a high wage-earning country and because of this, many companies within Australia have moved to offshoring and partnering arrangements to initially minimise cost. The changing landscape of on-going globalisation, and Australia’s relative distance from other parts of the world, is making work international, networked, culturally diverse and 24/7. Value creation and productivity for Australia will depend on its ability to build and maintain networks across regional and national boundaries, meaning that Australian companies have to be focussed on the global talent pool when it comes to employing the next generation of workers.
Gearing up for marathon careers
Like many other countries around the world, Australia has an aging population. Combined with high quality health care, this means that a larger proportion of the population is moving towards retirement and living far longer. The impact of this is that current superannuation plans are not expected to sustain people for their retired lifetime resulting in an increased burden on social welfare. As a result there has been increased focus from the Federal Government on raising the pension age, and organisations are now starting to think about ways to engage and support an aging workforce.
Recent years have also seen increased media coverage of the importance of work/life balance, wellbeing in the workplace, activity based working and employers of choice. These stories are often used as ways to highlight what employers should be considering as a way to attract and retain key talent. As a result, a number of organisations are seeking out additional or more progressive ways to differentiate themselves from competitors – raising the bar for everyone in the process.
Australian organisations are keen not only to learn how to deal with the implications of these shifts, but also to prepare for the changes will follow them. Participating in the Future of Work Research Consortium has been a great way for Westpac to gain deeper insights into the forces shaping the world we work in and how we can respond to them.”
Do you work for an Australian-based organisation that’s tackling these issues? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how joining the Future of Work Research Consortium could help.
An amusing story doing the rounds this week concerns the singer R Kelly who has found himself having to deny claims that he outsourced a personal appearance in Louisiana to an impersonator, leaving thousands of fans up in arms.
This might be an extreme anecdote, but it does highlight the still-relevant question of which tasks are appropriate to outsource. While most might agree that performances and personal appearances are probably best not outsourced, there are a whole range of other ‘personal’ tasks which fall into this area of debate. An acquaintance of mine regularly makes money by picking up the slack for tired, sick or – in one or two cases – nonexistent bloggers and yet another celebrity, actor Danny Dyer has recently complained about being vehemently criticised for misogynistic content in a column he claims he never wrote. These tasks tend to be grey areas – many people and organisations outsource them – but the flip side is that as soon as audiences discover what they see as a deception, they feel cheated.
In a more corporate context, we’ve been reading about an employee who outsourced his coding job in China, paying them 20% of his salary for work which exceeded his employer’s expectations. When discovered, however, he was dismissed for breach of contract. The likes of commentator Tim Ferris would describe this individual as pioneering a great new way of working, but ultimately his bosses felt duped. Again, it’s an interesting grey area and, alongside the issue of what to outsource, raises the question of who should do the outsourcing.
These questions are just another example of the complexity engendered by our increasingly connected world where technology and connectivity are rapidly outstripping our ability to change the way we think about ways of working. The good news is that where technology goes, attitudes are bound to follow. So who knows, by 2030, outsourced concerts might be all the rage.
- Top Outsourcing Disadvantages (ian6steyn.wordpress.com)
- Outsourcing – the alternative to hiring people (robertwellsportfolio.wordpress.com)
- Why Outsourcing for Busbars Could Make Sense For You (hvwooding.wordpress.com)