The Future of Work

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When I tell you the future of work is about individuals, the automatic reaction is likely to be “it already is”. But it’s that thinking which is a fundamental stumbling block to all the hallmarks of today’s competitive advantage.

Compare these two employees.

The first is building their own silo, bigging themselves up as they climb their own career ladder, not caring who they take down on the way up. In exchange for a job for life they’ll give you their loyalty.

The second hops from experience to experience, soaking up learning, honing their skills and acting more entrepreneurial. The organisation needs to fit round their abilities rather than the other way round.

Which is more risky? And more importantly, which would you rather employ? If you answered the first then I’m afraid your company is in trouble.

Yes, the future of work is transient, but isn’t that the nature of work itself now? Whereas in the past employees might have jealously guarded their personal development they must in essence now collaborate and share that learning. The adversarial employee won’t survive.

To some extent it’s against human nature to work in this way. But the future doesn’t stop. The future is already here. It’s time to change.

Blog inspired by the #CIPD14 Keynote Speech by Rita Gunther McGrath

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Mutual Sacrifice and the Living Wage

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I can’t imagine that anyone could fundamentally disagree with the concept of ensuring the UK’s lowest paid workers have enough to live on. But for employers, when it boils down to it, it’s not about the principles, but the cost. Unfortunately those organisations which function via a reliance on a low paid workforce – those workers which need help the most – face a bigger pay bill, and therefore a stronger excuse, not to implement the Living Wage.

Part of the problem is it’s only voluntary. When I say “only” that’s not to dumb down the amazing work undertaken by the Living Wage Foundation to not just talk about the issues, but to actually do something about them. It’s really a reflection of what is happening at a National Policy level that so far the Living Wage as a choice rather than a requirement.

Welfare Reform has left those living in poverty in a vacuum. The government has recognised that work doesn’t always provide enough to live on, thereby meaning benefit reliance is the most financially viable option. Yet the reality is that benefits have already been slashed and the roll out of Universal Credit is being rushed after a long lead in and a series of basically unsuccessful and administratively complicated trials. Alongside this, National Minimum Wage rates have been slow to react, with the first above inflation rise only occurring this year and the prospect of increasing this in line with real terms delayed until 2015 at the earliest.

When you look at the individual cases it’s not so easy to reduce it down to a question of cost. Those stories of working parents going without food to provide for their children are real. These are good people who want to do what’s right – but at the moment it’s hit or miss on whether they’ll be given the chance to work their way out of poverty.

In considering the real issues I also want to warn against falling into the trap of thinking the Living Wage is just for those working in supportive and manual roles. Some of the lowest paid workers are those on the first rung of their career ladder, such as apprentices. They are our leaders of tomorrow, and their progression can easily be stalled if they don’t have decent support.

So really it’s a question of sacrifice. By choosing work over benefits, which can be the easier option, the low paid are making sacrifices. Isn’t it time employers recognised this and made a sacrifice of their own?

For more information on becoming a Living Wage employer see The Living Wage Foundation.

The “B” word

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There’s too many “B” words being used in business today. Best practice. Benchmarking. Blue sky thinking. The box (and thinking outside it). Please don’t use these words in front of me. Like other profanities their meaning has been lost by overuse. They’re reduced to peppering business small talk, padding it out in an attempt to sound “with it” when really that mumbo jumbo should have been thrown out years ago.

If you must use one of the phrases then blue sky thinking is probably the least grating. It’s also the most up to date, although it’s roots in one of the other terms still render it dubious at best. That origin is “Thinking outside the box”, a saying thought to have been invented by management gurus around forty years ago. According to the legend they showed their clients a square pattern of nine dots and asked them to join all the dots with just four lines, or less. Those who felt constrained by the dots were unable to complete the puzzle, it being necessary to venture out into the unsullied space beyond the dots in order to find the solution. Thus the phrase was coined.

The original intention of these phrases, to promote lateral thinking and open mindedness, is now defunct. These days when employees hear those terms, their reaction is confusion. What is being asked of them? Looking back to the original puzzle this response is understandable. We’re asking them to think outside the box, but what’s out there? A blank piece of paper. Nothing. Whats in the blue sky? Maybe the odd cloud, the sun, but pretty much nothing.

So where is the box? The phrase is used by people who don’t know what they’re looking for, but know they haven’t found it yet, or by people berating others when they perceive them as being uncreative. They’re not helping someone overcome that boundary, they’re actually creating a boundary by telling someone it’s there. There’s nothing like constraining people’s freedom of thought and action by artificially fencing them in.

When people are told there is a boundary, they need to imagine where it is in order to be sure when they’ve crossed it. The most logical conclusion is the confines of the organisation itself. This is where performance comparison techniques such as benchmarking and best practice rush in to fill the perceived gap. Such yardsticks can be useful but not when that stick is used to beat employees with. What starts as an exercise in external validation can end up killing creativity and independent thought.

Both of these processes – benchmarking and best practice – are the safe options. Any insecurities can be easily swept under the carpet by the rubber stamp they provide. But, use of these techniques is not the Be All And End All cure for organisation ills. While we’re fretting about what everyone else is doing externally, desperately comparing ourselves and trying to plagiarise their work, we’re missing whats important. A purely external approach leaves the organisation blinkered to what’s inside the box. After all, inside the organisation is where the most important resource is found – it’s employees.

What’s best for another organisation and their unique circumstances, isn’t best when its grafted into another organisation via a drag and drop approach. Best isn’t some unattainable ideal placed just out of reach. Organisations already possess the best, if only they would unlock it’s potential. It’s not about best practice, it’s about becoming the best.

I was hoping to ban the “B” words, but I don’t think that’s possible. So instead I propose a compromise – to change the context. The word best may be used, but only as a factual description of your own organisation. Concentrate on what’s important first and forget about everybody else.