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Blaire Palmer

That People Thing

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

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Building a flexible culture in the new personalised age

Things are about to get personal. Is your business ready?

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen our colleagues like never before. We’ve seen their make-shift home offices, we’ve seen the cup they drink their tea out of, we’ve met their children. 

The mask has been lifted and work has been humanised. It is, perhaps, one of the positives to come from this situation. And people are not going to give it up lightly. 

There’s been a lot of talk about what we’ve learned, particularly about remote and flexible working. And many companies are reviewing their policies based on this mass home working experiment. 

But I think we are still thinking too small. 

A personalised future requires a rewiring of our brains. We’re unpicking 300 years of Industrial Age thinking about what work looks like.

The personalisation of work 

Just as the customer experience has been personalised over the past few years (Triple venti half sweet non-fat caramel macchiato anyone?) we are about to see the personalisation of the employee experience

One size does not fit all, it never did. But until now we’ve tolerated a small range of working options because that’s what was available. If you were an enlightened business then job share, part-time, office or home-based working might have been on the menu. 

The idea of true flexibility has been perceived as too difficult to introduce. How will we ‘monitor’ staff who make their own decisions about their hours on a week-by-week or day-by-day basis? What will we do about staff who decide each day whether they are best off in the office or at home? 

Although we are now seeing just how much juggling parents have to do during lockdown, the truth is that parents have always been juggling like this. I’ve been nudging my daughter out of camera range on Zoom meetings for years. Parents have been answering work emails after kids’ bedtimes, taking calls in the car while they taxi their children to football practice and worrying about that cough little Jimmy had this morning as they packed him off to school because they couldn’t take a day’s leave to stay home with him.

Working life has been incompatible with family life for a long time. It’s time we acknowledged that. 

Forget flexible working policies

Step away from your flexible working policy for a moment. 

Instead imagine what one of my clients calls a ‘Martini’ culture – anytime, anyplace, anywhere. 

Forget about prior arrangements with individual members of staff who need to finish work at 3pm to pick their kids up, or who need extra support because they care for a sick and aging relative.

Instead imagine a truly agile approach where staff make their own decisions about where and when to work based on a number of intangible criteria – how am I feeling today? What kind of work needs to get done today and what’s the best place to do it? Am I burnt out and do I need to rest this afternoon? Do my team need me in the room with them? Is a colleague relying on my physical presence to get their targets met? Where and when do I need to work in order to serve my customer best? What are my family needs today? 

The truth is that staff should be asking these questions. Don’t you want your employees to be working at the times that work best to get the job done and in the place that’s most conducive? And given that all your people have lives outside of work, it is inevitable they will be juggling. Wouldn’t you want them to be making good decisions about when to work and where to work so that when they are working they aren’t distracted by non-work worries? 

Leadership changes

As soon as we start imagining this personalised approach the thorny issue of how to manage employees comes up. The resistance to empowering staff to make these choices for themselves comes down to lack of trust. How will we know what they are doing? How will we know if they are working hard enough? 

You won’t. For all that businesses have talked about the importance of trust, it’s only over the last few months that they’ve come face to face with what that means.

Without trust WFH becomes a logistical nightmare full of tracking and update meetings and spot-checks and reporting… endless meetings about what people are supposed to be doing and not enough time between meetings to actually do it. 

If HR is wavering in its commitment to change it won’t happen.

Leadership in the personalised age needs to become what it should always have been. We must move away from the supervising of people and their activities towards removing the obstacles that prevent people doing their best work. We must offer wise counsel and coaching, create a vision and empower people to deliver that vision. 

As an HR professional in this age, you will have to implement outcome-based appraisals rather than focusing predominantly on inputs. You will have to measure people on results versus how many hours they did, how early they arrived in the office and how many fires (of their own making?) they put out.  

You will have to support managers with being much clearer about what success looks like. And you will have to develop leaders who can overcome the discomfort that comes from finding out one of their team took their children to the park after school. What matters is what they delivered for the team. 

Personal awareness and inner work

The mechanics of working from home or managing a remote team aren’t that complicated. Yes a bit of technology helps and we could all benefit from some decent office lighting and raising the height of our screens so we aren’t looking up each other’s noses. But the real challenge is to our mental health.

Isolation and loneliness, feelings of exclusion, lack of real-time feedback, difficulty with switching off when work and home are the same place, feelings of guilt and the challenge of adapting to a very different working world have been the hardest aspects of this lockdown for most people. 

A personalised future requires a rewiring of our brains. We’re unpicking 300 years of Industrial Age thinking about what work looks like. Noticing our judgements about other people’s working styles, our own self-talk around guilt, setting and maintaining personal boundaries to prevent work constantly blurring with home…There is a lifetime of personal development to do here if we are to radically transform the culture of work to be fit for the future. 

Our children have seen how we work and I suspect most of them didn’t like it. They won’t be as willing as their parents to sacrifice their mental wellbeing for a job. We have to prepare our organisations for them. 

HR goes first, of course

Reflect on how you and your team have coped with what’s been thrown at you. How have you stayed connected with each other? What’s been hard about maintaining or deepening the desired organisational culture during this time? What unexpected challenges have you personally experienced? What’s shifted for you in terms of priorities and deal-breakers? What have you valued about this time that you never want to lose again? 

It’s time to have some very honest conversations within the HR community. It’s time to reveal what you’ve been struggling with behind the scenes and what you’ve valued most. And it’s time to commit to a future that doesn’t look like the past

If HR is wavering in its commitment to change it won’t happen. We will lose the best of our talent. We won’t be able to attract young high potentials. We will be back to juggling and silently struggling and the business will pay the price over the longer term. But if we can make work work better for people, wouldn’t that be a positive legacy from something so tragic? 

Are you creating a better culture for your organisation and its people?

HRZone has recently launched Culture Pioneers to support and celebrate the people practitioners dedicated to transforming company culture in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you’re doing good work in this area, we want to hear your story!

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Author Profile Picture
Blaire Palmer

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

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