Tanuj Kapilashrami talks about the progressive work HR is doing at Standard Chartered, including HR product design and the employee experience.
Helping your team to feel good at work – and to cope with the stress that many of us are feeling right now – is less about telling them stuff or giving them things like Zoom yoga. If you genuinely want your team to know you care – then it is about asking the right questions.
The ‘right’ questions are the ones that show we are interested in
- Them – as a person – a human being – with mortgages, kids, parents, niggling ailments, broken washing machines – all of the stresses and strains of their lives outside of work
- Questions that show we are interested in whether they feel supported and empowered to do their best work – doing work that plays to their strengths – in ways that fit their personal style – with things that frustrate or waste their time – kept to a minimum
- Questions that show we care about their career – their aspirations – and things that will help them get there
In this video (just one of the regular 5 Minute Monday series for members of the Disruptive HR Club) we share three key questions that any people manager can use to make sure their team are not just coping – but thriving at work.
I was reading in the news today about a guy who had just won a legal claim against unfair dismissal. He’d called in sick complaining of a bad chest infection but had been spotted out later that day, drinking and smoking in a bar. His company fired him but lost their claim that they had been right to do so because, their detailed sickness and absence policies hadn’t specifically mentioned that employees couldn’t socialise whilst off sick.
Apart from despair, what should our reaction in HR be to cases like these?
Should we immediately add in a new rule about not socialising whilst off sick? Maybe we even need to clarify what we mean by socialising? Is seeing family and friends ok, but not drinking alcohol? How far a distance from their home should they be allowed to travel? And how long could the socialising last for? Is one hour ok, but not two?
I know I’m being facetious and whilst this particular case might seem absurd and extreme, HR does have these sorts of issues cropping up with depressing regularity.
Full disclosure – I’m not an employment lawyer and my colleagues have suggested that I’m not even a proper HR person as I didn’t come up the traditional HR route of policy and process. But, it seems fairly obvious to me that more rules, more detail, more specifics are not the answer. We can’t possibly legislate for every eventuality. What’s even more important is that by trying to protect our organisations from people like this guy, we penalise the vast majority of our people, who have no intention of calling in sick and heading down the pub.
Tons of rules scream ‘we don’t trust you!’
Tons of rules speak volumes about how little we trust our people – to either behave decently or be capable of using their judgement. And this at a time when we are crying out for innovation, personal accountability and the ability to work with agility and cope with ambiguity. For all our values posters about integrity and teamwork, the pages of fine print we get employees to sign point to a very different culture.
And the biggest irony? We potentially leave our organisations more exposed to risk of damaging claims because we have so many rules – but not the precise one that caters for every scenario.
So, if the answer isn’t to provide more detail, maybe the reverse is true. Maybe this company that is right now reeling from the absurdity of their legal battle, should be thinking about how they take a step back, move away from the detail and instead work with principles, not policies.
Principles not policies
Fortunately, this is a growing trend for HR. Instead of being placed into the role of compliance officer, HR is replacing rules and policies with broad principles that use notions of reasonableness, that start from a position of trust – or assume positive intent.
Let’s look at some examples:
We’ve got social media policies that encourage employees to ‘play nice’, ‘use common sense’ and ‘if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ being used by companies such as Gap, Intel and Ford.
We’ve got dress codes that suggest you ‘Dress for your day’ being used at Legal and General.
We’ve got expenses policies that give employees the freedom to spend without pre-approval on the basis that they do so ‘within reason’ at the company Base Camp.
We’ve got Telefonica showing they trust their people to ‘work where you are most productive’ instead of the worrying post-pandemic trend of 3 days in, two days out of the office.
And we’ve got organisations like HubSpot who dispense with rule books almost entirely and encourage their people to ‘use good judgement’.
I’m not naive enough to pretend that there doesn’t need to be some kind of legalistic framework to some of our policies. Of course there does. But I do think we can revisit many of the countless rules we inflict on our people and take a different approach. So maybe the next time you’re thinking about tightening up on the detail of a policy, maybe instead just write a statement based around common sense and sound judgement and see how that goes down?
Next time we’ll look at how you help managers cope without the detailed rule book and how HR can help them to use their judgement.
I had a colleague once – a fellow board member – who was sort of my nemesis. Whenever I wanted to introduce any changes to the way we did HR – they were the biggest resistor. Unfortunately, they also wielded a lot of power in the organisation. So, my strategy was always to try and win them over. This involved:
- engaging them from the outset so they would feel ‘bought-in’,
- listening to them and consulting their views more than any other member of the Exec team
- delaying, diluting, or altering the changes I wanted to try
- And often just giving up!
With the benefit of hindsight, I really wished I had gone about this in a different way. Because I have realised that they were never going to change – not because the proposals were wrong – but because they were terrified of anything that might alter the status quo.
There are lots of things I wished I’d done differently as an HR Director, but this stands out above all the others. I dearly wish I had not wasted so much of my time and energy (and of my team) on the biggest resistors.
The HR teams we see who are making fantastic and innovative changes get this instinctively. They don’t worry too much about the ones who don’t want to change – and instead, focus on the curious and the open – the ones who, may not be the greatest leaders in the world, but who get that things probably need to change and are up for exploring something new. They get their ideas going with these guys first – and think about rolling out more widely once they have go this initial group on board.
If HR were product manufacturers – that’s exactly what we’d be doing right? We would find our so-called ‘early adopters’ – and we would launch with them. We’d iron out the initial flaws and bugs with people who are happy to try out the ‘beta’ version. We’d get testimonials about how great the product is. And we would use this to market our new product to others who, by this stage, might want to be included in something that’s getting plenty of positive attention.
We’ve used this strategy with clients who wanted to launch a new HR approach – say, for performance management. Rather than focusing on the biggest resistors and delaying everything until they are happy to go with it. We’ve found pockets of initial interest amongst some managers who are fed up with the old-fashioned way of doing appraisals and who are open to trying something new. We’ve then worked on developing the new design – co-creating it with them – and piloting a couple of new ideas.
We’ve got plenty of feedback, built up testimonials and encouraged the early adopters to influence their peers to give it a go. It also helps if your CEO shows an interest and offers some praise or recognition for the innovation. We find that this combination often results in other leaders wanting to be included in the next phase. Remember – do not be tempted to try and persuade the biggest resistors – even at this stage! The key is to ignore them – and get to a place where they are perhaps more isolated in their negativity. I’ve even tried telling them that they can’t be included because they aren’t ready to work in these new ways – a slightly more radical approach but it can work wonders!
Now one of the challenges we often get is – ‘but what about the poor employees who work for these leaders who refuse to change? Don’t we in HR have a responsibility to look out for them? If we leave out the resistors then their team members will have a much poorer experience?’ And of course this is probably true. But I think we have to ask ourselves whether forcing leaders who don’t want to change to adopt something new is going to result in a positive experience either? We know that organisations have perpetually promoted leaders who haven’t really been interested in people leadership but who have been the best technically or who wanted the increased status. Trying to prop them up with processes that make them do the people stuff – often badly – isn’t making them better at it. I think that focusing on the ones who do want to do it better – and enlisting their help to encourage the neutrals to join in – is a more effective way of improving the experience for our people.
So to sum up:
When you’re thinking about your strategy for making change:
- Don’t worry too much about the resistors
- Focus on the curious and frustrated
- Identify early adopters and use them to influence the others
It’s more effective and much less exhausting!
It’s hard to argue that investing in for our employees’ health and wellbeing is anything other than a good thing. Particularly now when the pandemic is creating additional pressures in our already stressful lives. And I’m not going to. Argue I mean. But I do think we should question the corporate approach to health and wellbeing and ask whether the things we’re doing are really helping? Or are they unnecessary investments that delude us into thinking that the health and wellbeing box can be ticked? We should question whether our healthy snacks and instructive posters are addressing the real barriers to feeling well. Or whether they are yet another example of the parental relationships we foster in most organisations? Should we be the caring parent and provide the right kinds of food, exhortations and education? Or should we look at the things we do that create/add to the stress in the first place and try and reduce those?
Health and wellbeing at work is now a massive industry. It currently stands at $53 billion and is set to grow to $97 billion by 2027. That’s a lot of yoga classes and Fitbits.
Most of our health and wellbeing support falls into one of the following:
- Giving health education and instructions such as ‘take a break from your screen’, timely pop-ups reminding employees to ‘now drink some water’ – or my personal favourite that I saw recently – advising women to ‘practice your pelvic lifts’ via a poster on the back of the ladies’ loo door!
- Protecting employees from stress by putting in place certain restrictions such as the French ‘right to disconnect’ law, banning email sending after certain hours or Volkswagen, who blocked emails after hours.
- Gifts and perks such as gym membership, a back massage at your desk, or fresh fruit.
- Training for both managers and employees in how to spot signs of mental health problems and
- Providing professional help to tackle these issues such as Employee Assistance Programmes.
Our health and wellbeing initiatives tend to be patronising
I’m not suggesting for one minute that these things are bad, nor do they come from anywhere other than positive intent. However, as with many employment initiatives, they can tend towards being patronising and fail to address the real causes of poor health and wellbeing.
Instead of acting like a caring parent, who knows what’s good for our people and gives out remedies, it would be great to see organisations taking a different approach. We should instead be tackling the causes of stress and creating environments where our people feel comfortable about owning their own health and wellbeing, in the knowledge they will be supported.
In my view, any effective approach to health and wellbeing should include:
A determination to move the relationship with our employees to one of trust.
Rather than providing tons of rules on flexible working, adopt the Swiss Re approach where they tell their people, ‘own the way you work’. This tells their people that they are expected to know when, where and how they work best and that their needs will be accommodated. Instead of loads of policies, encourage your people to #DoTheRightThing as they did at Transport For London during the pandemic. When we feel trusted to do the right thing, we feel more energised and engaged.
As adults we know what’s best for our own health and wellbeing too. I definitely eat more chocolate than I should, but is that because I don’t know that it’s bad for me – or because, even though I know the dietary dangers, I choose to do it anyway? What I need from my employer is not necessarily advice or training or incentives to be healthy. What would be helpful is knowing that I am trusted to work in ways and at times that I can balance effectively with the other demands in my life. And that if I need time off or to take my foot off the gas, that I will be supported. Of course, it’s great to be given healthy perks, but I question whether they can transform my health and wellbeing.
Line managers seeking to understand our employees as individuals and accommodating their needs.
Managers holding frequent check-ins, asking the right questions, relentless listening – should be at the heart of any wellbeing plan. Whether it be Entry Interviews or Stay Interviews like they do at Webroot and LinkedIn respectively, to try and understand from the outset, how they can create the best working environment for each individual. Or ensuring that reward and recognition is based on what is valued by that employee like they do at Baptist Healthcare. Or knowing how best to support individual needs like during onboarding like they do at Wipro. The line managers who can adapt their style to accommodate the needs and wants of each of their team members will create a more supportive and fulfilling work environment. When we talk about a duty of care to our employees, that’s about treating them decently, not just looking after them when things have turned to s**t!
Creating a Feeling of Belonging
70 separate studies show that feeling socially accepted is a key factor in helping our new hires be successful. And that sense that you belong, that you are accepted for who you are, that you matter, that your ideas and views are wanted and that you are valued, become even more important as time goes by. So whether it’s putting in place buddy systems like they do at Buffer, giving employees their own intranet page to let colleagues know who they are as a human being, not just their role description and CV, as they do at AirBnB, moving to peer to peer rewards as they do at South West Airlines, creating a sense of belonging should be key to our health and wellbeing plans.
HR as mediator rather than grievance process administrator
If we think about the grievances we’ve had to deal with in HR, or the people who go off sick with stress, we can often relate the origins to the breakdown of personal relationships at work. An individual starts to feel excluded, not valued and the options available to them to try and resolve this are nearly always procedural. In my experience individuals haven’t necessarily wanted to take the nuclear option of a grievance but just wanted things to change. Maybe we should change our focus from the effective implementation of a grievance procedure or an EAP, to early intervention when relationships start to sour? HR as mediator rather than process administrator.
Remove the hassle
Finally, our health and wellbeing plans ought to focus not just on what we do for our people – but what we take away. If we can reduce those daily frustrations, those small irritations and barriers to people just getting their work done, wouldn’t that at least help with people feeling less stressed out? One of the benefits of the current crisis is that it has given us clarity about what actually matters, and we have been able to cut through the red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy that we’ve been inflicting on our people for decades. So, maybe now’s the time to follow Pepsico’s ‘Process Shredder’ or TD Bank’s ‘Kill a Stupid Bank Rule’ example to make our people’s lives a bit easier. Or replace that cumbersome in-company tech with intuitive, easy to use options like WhatsApp or Workplace by Facebook. Or allow employees to buy the tech that works for them with an allowance like they did at Google.
As I mentioned at the start, I don’t want to dismiss the well-intentioned efforts of typical health and wellbeing approaches. But if we focused more on the causes of stress – the lack of trust, the managers who lack empathy, the things that make us feel excluded and the daily hassles and frustrations, maybe we wouldn’t need to spend all of that $53 billion on things that try and fix the problem?
If you’re in Marketing, you’ll be very familiar with the concept of consumer or customer persona to help you focus your marketing efforts. We can adapt and adopt persona to use in HR. They are invaluable for helping you to make sure your HR products and services are designed with the end-user – your employees – in mind.
We’ve put together a handout that takes you through a step-by-step process to help you create your Employee Persona so that you can get started with personalising the employee experience for your people.
We keep looking for the next alternative to the ubiquitous “3-legged-stool” model for HR. We have almost given up trying to find enough outstanding (and affordable) HR Business Partners. We continue to struggle to find and keep CofE professionals who can deliver truly innovative, commercial and flexible approaches that are relevant for today’s world. And those of us who have spent time in outsourced, shared-service hell are beginning to get nostalgic about the days when it was all in-house.
Moreover, the demands of our clients increase daily. The impact of the current crisis has turned so much of our HR world upside down. Most of our clunky, annual processes feel irrelevant. There doesn’t seem to be any C-suite executive who hasn’t read about how other companies are getting rid of appraisals and are questioning what we are doing about it. Those pesky Millennials won’t stop making demands for greater flexibility and wanting everything on their Smartphone. And just when we thought our budget might increase for the first time in a few years, the FD’s begging bowl has reappeared.
More for less. More agility. More innovation. All HR professionals face the same challenges, regardless of sector.
Of course, focusing on the future HR organisation structure is a bit of a “physician heal thyself” scenario. For, as we would urge our clients not to leap to the org chart, so we need to ask some fairly fundamental questions about what we do and how we do it if we are going to actually deliver more productivity and innovation. But, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the HR Team that can meet the demands of a modern world. I’ll focus on 5 key trends in HR design that we’re seeing that will offer greater opportunities for real creativity, increased capacity to deliver and happily, should save money too.
From Business Partner to Account Management
When looking for a new HRBP, I was often tempted to advertise for a Superhero with strong interpersonal skills. “We need a strategic and commercial HR business partner. They must have experience in the full range of HR elements, be a coach, a law enforcer, a spoon-feeder, a tear-drier and the conscience of the business. They must be prepared to come up with lots of new ideas, only to have them ignored, take the blame when things go wrong, and always to have their item put last on any team meeting agenda, after finance, operations, marketing, IT and problems with the toilets. They must be relentlessly cheerful and be prepared to listen to the ravings or woes of anyone who seeks them out. Above all, they must be able to present the latest Group-wide HR initiative that has absolutely no relevance to their business unit, to their MD as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread.” When you look at what we want from them, it’s amazing to me that we can find one, let alone the numbers that most HR structures depend upon.
Estimates vary but it was seen that typically between 20-30% of traditional HR advisers would be unlikely to make the step up to full HR Business Partner. In my experience, it was significantly higher than that and most companies can count on one hand the number of HRBPs that can fulfil all that is required. Given this resource is both scarce and expensive, we are seeing a move to reducing the number of them and moving towards more of an account management role. This person does the strategic and commercial parts of the role, the relationship building, the diagnosis of what’s required, the resource planning and the oversight of the delivery. They then call upon a pool of HR generalists and/or technical experts who can deliver. The key benefits of this approach are a reliance on a fewer number of HR generalists, a genuine strategic/commercial focus from HR and the deployment of non-partisan generalists who can go to the greatest point of need. Clearly, these ‘super-BPs’ are tough to find. If you’d like to grow your own, it might be worth checking out our programme designed to develop the skills the modern-day HRBP needs.
HR Advisory – More than a Transaction
All of us who bear the scars from outsourcing our well-loved and local HR advisers have learned some hard lessons. We have come to realise that seeing HR advisory as a transactional service that can cost less by simply lobbing it over the organisation fence to an outsourced provider who offers ruthlessly efficient processes has some major flaws. Our HR processes are rarely beautifully streamlined at the point of transfer and so we import significant additional costs as the provider tries to navigate all of the “special and different” approaches we have historically accommodated. We ignored the loss of institutional memory as we marched these advisers out of the door. But most critically, we forgot the fact that when a line manager is asking about a particular policy – they are not actually asking about a policy – but how to get round it! The in-house HR adviser knew their line managers and their employees and deployed a big chunk of judgement along with their advice. They would weigh up the maturity of the line manager, the precedents that had already been set, the risks with this particular employee, etc, etc. Our HR Advisory service is a key part of the employee experience, often the first and most frequent touch point for our people. The painful outsourcing experiences of recent years have led some organisations to take this service back in-house. But we are also seeing a new trend – of next generation outsourced providers who are fundamentally different. One example of this is Adviser Plus who have built in an intrinsic understanding of the value and risks of HR advisory into their service – for example, providing a proactive phone call to a manager who is downloading a policy document that can be more high risk if they get it wrong, such as redundancy policy – and seeing if they want to talk anything through. HR advisory will continue to offer significant opportunities for outsourcing – but with a new style of approach that involves empathy, understanding, capability development and the ability to assess risk.
Employee Experience not Centres of Expertise
The approach we take in Disruptive HR is based upon our unique EACH model – Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. We therefore really welcome the next key trend – to cluster Centres of Expertise around a focus on the employee experience – as it supports and reinforces one of these elements – the employee as a consumer. One of the (occasionally legitimate) accusations that is levelled at the CofE teams is that they are too focused on their own discipline and producing the perfect recruitment, talent, development, diversity, performance management, reward (delete as appropriate) solution and fail to connect to the needs of the business. In the same way that many consumer organisations have grouped many of their functions around a Head of Customer Experience, so this is starting to be adopted by HR for their people.
This is more than just a change of job title. By re-focusing on the actual experience that is desired at each stage of the employee life cycle, organisations can create a more joined up and holistic employee proposition that is greater than the sum of its HR parts. Driven by improved and genuine employee insight (not just an annual engagement survey but a blend of qualitative and quantitative analysis), created through effective user-centred design and delivered in ways that are relevant to each segment of their employee “market” – there are huge opportunities to increase cut through and reduce wasted effort.
Building capability not just compliance
This trend comes largely through a fresh response to a disrupted world where the abundance of employment policies and rules often stifle innovation and increase frustration of employees. The role of HR as The Enforcer is not what many of us who went into this profession wanted, but is one we have continued to play. Of course, rules matter. But any of us who have had to draft interminable employment policies recognise that this comes at a cost – to our capacity to focus on building the capabilities of line managers. Disruptive HR is often brought in to provide fresh challenge and ideas for HR teams. Whilst they like the innovation, they equally are concerned about their ability to deliver as their managers “wouldn’t do it”. They may be right but this means we are stuck in this vicious cycle where – we don’t trust managers to manage – we therefore produce rules and processes that make them do it – we spend our time enforcing and monitoring the process to make sure they have – which means we don’t have the time to develop their capability – so we don’t trust them to manage – and so on ….
Moreover, our seeming reluctance to let go of the role of Compliance Officer seriously dents our HR brand. If we spend our time ensuring cost efficiency and operational compliance – then why should we be taken seriously when we start to talk about value creation? I know it is hard to see a way out – I have tried and failed often, but only when we release ourselves from the compliance burden and focus instead on building judgement, insight and space for creativity will we be able to break the cycle. The Netflix HR team’s determination to steer clear of the role of HR police is well documented, but we are starting to see this as a trend in HR and not just within Silicon Valley. Interestingly, it is gaining traction in sectors that are often perceived (wrongly) as less innovative – the public and not-for-profit sectors. The continual cuts in support functions has forced them to consider a more radical alternative than some of their commercial and less cash strapped cousins. I know of examples in the Housing, Education and Local Government where they are having to focus on rolling back HR’s role in compliance – with highly productive results.
Contingent vs Permanent
This final trend has been evident in piecemeal form for many years. We have regularly deployed contractors, temps, and consultants to supplement or enhance our FTE levels. But we have rarely used them as a strategic choice – more as a tactical fill in. The accelerated pace of innovation in the HR space, the new freelance tech platforms, the continued pressure on costs and the need to deploy rapidly to resolve issues or bring about change all lead you to question whether a standing army of HR people is relevant in the future. This trend is about “Smart Contingency” – a belief that you can get a better level of innovation, a better resource flow and increased delivery capability if you include non-permanent resources as a key part of your HR team. This is more than getting in additional bodies to fix a problem or to cover maternity leave, it’s more than buying a consultant to give specialist advice – it is about building an eco-system of a mix of contingent HR capabilities that meet your medium and longer term needs. Contemporary HR teams are building up their abilities to commission work and to contract effectively to get the most from this growing resource.
But you haven’t mentioned digital?!
I do realise that not mentioning digital in an HR blog about the future is likely to get me chucked out of HR club (not for the first time!) but I have done so intentionally. Digital is a channel, a medium and an underlying approach that should permeate everything we do and is not an organisation trend. Of course, we may need to create a specific focus on this in the short term to raise its profile and build our capability. But very shortly, it will be simply the means by which we deliver our services – after all we wouldn’t have an Email team or Face to Face team would we?
The Disruptive HR Business Partner Programme
Do you feel that traditional HR training programmes are not equipping you for the world you’re actually working in? Our unique 6-month virtual training programme for HR business partners will give you something that we guarantee you won’t find anywhere else!
Check out the Disruptive HR Business Partner Programme here!
We know that it’s a really difficult time for everyone right now and we hope that you are all safe and well – and that you are managing to get through it as well as you can. The Disruptive HR team are all isolating in our various locations around the UK and in Spain and trying to keep in regular contact with our families, (Zoom is our new best friend) and not go too insane with our kids!
Work and HR will still be full on for some of you – whilst others may be worrying about getting through the crisis and still having a business. We have been debating about whether we should just keep quiet for the duration – or whether we might be able to provide something of use – even if it’s just to take your mind off things! We recently ran a virtual session for a client who wanted to start looking ahead at the implications for HR of the crisis – and whilst it may feel too early for some, we have put down some of our thoughts.
What we thought was disrupted, now feels stable and boring!
As you know, at Disruptive HR we focus on how HR can change to meet the needs of a disrupted world. Now, that was the old disrupted world when all we needed to cope with was moves to digital, a faster pace of change, new business models shaking or wiping out traditional industries, the growth of the gig economy, the need for cross-border and cross-function collaboration – when we thought the world was disrupted – and which of course now, seems stable and boring!
We were already living through uncertain times and of course no-one can predict when or how this will end. Maybe the only thing we can know is that nothing is likely to be the same again?
On a practical level:
- People are distressed and scared and will behave differently – making different life choices, priorities changing, etc
- Businesses will be suffering huge losses and will have to make big changes
- Our supply chains will be disrupted, and we’ll have to make different arrangements
- Our customers will require us to behave and operate differently – and will be looking carefully at how we behave
But we don’t know what or how any of these will pan out exactly.
The changes you had already made will stand you in good stead
The need to radically change HR from the bulky, process-driven function had been gathering momentum for some time, especially in the last three years. We have noticed HR teams making significant changes to the way they operate – and the positive news is that all of these changes are likely to stand them in good stead for facing the new post Covid19 world. For those HR teams who haven’t yet made any progress, now could be your time!
I am going to try and do a couple of things:
- Look at what HR was already beginning to do things differently – and how these might be expedited when things start to return to normal
- How the crisis has changed things overnight – and what positives might we want to take forward into new world
This is not going to be anything more than an opportunity to take a different perspective for a short period and of course, it might be that this is too early for you – in which case, park it until it feels right.
The HR trends that will continue
At Disruptive HR we have been banging on about our EACH model for a while now; Employees as Adults, Consumers and Human beings. Our view is that these trends will matter more than ever in a post-Covid-19 world.
Adult to adult is even more important
Our parental approach to our people has always been a major constraint in enabling our people to do their best work. We have typically taken an approach that is over-protective (assuming that our people can’t make sensible judgements, own their own careers and performance and have needed to be spoon-fed), or we have based our rules and our processes around the rogue minority who are going to behave badly and applied over-prescriptive rules to everyone.
We had begun to see companies taking a more adult to adult approach with their leaders and employees – moving away from long lists of prescribed rules and instead putting in place ‘freedom within a framework’ where the starting point is that ‘we trust to you to behave well and trust you to use your judgement’. Or moving to an environment where employees own their own learning, career development, performance, etc, rather than having it done to them.
Covid19 has reinforced the need for this
We are witnessing how people are capable of amazing things when freed from traditional constraints; the creativity, the energy, the things they can achieve with very little, how they can adapt to change really fast. Smart companies are already responding to this and taking more of an adult approach. For example, CEO Dan Price of tech company Gravity is currently choosing to meet virtually with 10 employees at a time across the whole company to get their views on how they can get through losing half their revenue overnight as a result of the Covid-19 crisis without layoffs, rather than consulting just with his senior team and communicating their decision.
Of course, people are also capable of behaving badly in – usually when they are frightened – and we have all seen news reports of the stockpiling, or other acts of selfishness. But the potential for brilliant or appalling behaviour is not determined by grade or seniority. We just have to compare the heroism and selflessness of the shelf stackers and the delivery drivers vs the appalling behaviour of some CEOs such as Mike Ashley of Sports Direct or Tim Martin at Wetherspoons to know that we can’t determine how much we trust our employees on the basis of their grade.
In the future we will no longer be able to afford to keep compensating for people we don’t trust or designing our rules, our processes and our communications around the lowest common denominator. It will no longer be acceptable for a line manager to say that they won’t let people work from home because they don’t trust them enough. We will spend more time ensuring we hire people we can trust, and we will have to finally tackle the ones we can’t.
Of course, there will be leaders who point to some of the irresponsible behaviour that we’re seeing during the crisis as evidence that they need to continue with command and control. But I think we need to help leaders recognise the difference between people acting out of fear during a crisis, when more clarity may be required, and when judgement is called for because the right course of action cannot be easily dictated. Our leaders will need to be more adept at flexing their style and responses from crisis to ‘normal’ and back again – really quickly and fluidly.
One-size-fits-all cannot ever make sense again
Our one-size-fits all approach to HR, where we have a universal approach that is applied to everyone, was already being challenged and the need to tailor and customise our approaches and products was already beginning to take shape in progressive HR teams.
This will matter more than ever.
We are witnessing the very different needs that our people have through this crisis and the different ways they have responded. In the future we will see employees wanting to make different life choices and have different work priorities. One-size responses from us cannot make sense.
The need to adapt the techniques from consumer marketing and user-centred product design will become even more important as we begin to recover from the crisis.
- Once a year engagement surveys will make no sense at all and the need for consumer-style, regular temperature checks will become the norm.
- HR will need to offer a range of different products to meet different employee needs and preferences. We cannot afford to waste money on universal offerings that are irrelevant to many in our organisation. Carefully targeted HR products based around a deeper understanding of what is needed and wanted will be vital.
- Leaders questioning and listening, as opposed to telling, will matter more than ever. It is fascinating to hear about the way leaders are choosing to use video conferencing right now; those who still choose to broadcast their leadership messages and those who are using it to listen and ask questions.
- Our leaders will have to improve their abilities to tailor their approach to meet different employee needs and accommodate their preferences if they are to get the best from them.
Our ‘critical’ HR processes have been replaced with human interactions overnight
We had already seen the gradual dismantling of some of our most irrelevant and ineffective processes and the replacement of them with approaches that tapped into how human beings actually behave, think, feel etc. We’d already seen the slow erosion of performance management reviews and the annual talent review based on a 9 box grid, and the alternatives of frequent and undocumented check-ins and talent discussions being put in their place. The crisis will undoubtedly speed this up.
All of those ‘critical’ HR processes that we said we ‘couldn’t live without’ have disappeared overnight and no-one seems to be screaming for their return. As things begin to return to normal, this is our opportunity to get rid of them for good
When the crisis began, what mattered most was human connections. We started to ask our work colleagues about their families, to care more about people. Overnight our leadership seemed more human. We see them in their homes, with their kids on webcams, struggling with stuff like the rest of us. Those leaders who are showing vulnerability and their human side are going down well right now.
Many leaders are now doing what the great leaders have always done. They are showing compassion, demonstrating empathy, doing the right thing without waiting to be told, keeping it simple and showing a pragmatic optimism – all the while building trust with their people.
When we take stock after the crisis, those leaders who behaved like truly decent human beings will be the ones we thank and celebrate – not the ones who complied with the HR processes.
And what about our own HR teams?
HR was already changing before this happened. We were starting to become more agile, less focused on slow annual processes and more sprint based, less siloed and braver, more prepared to pilot and experiment and less focused on getting things perfect and more around making things happen.
Josh Bersin has done a great short video recently talking about this being an opportunity for an HR re-set and I think he’s absolutely right. We will have dramatically reduced budgets, there will be the confusion and fear created by the chaos, priorities will have to change. We will have an opportunity to make changes very quickly. We have an opportunity now, not to implement a new system but to take a hard look at ourselves and say, how will we change? How will we emerge from this as a different type of team?
If you’d like to get blogs from Disruptive HR straight to your inbox, you can sign up here.
Or if you’d like to get all of our workshop content at a time and place that suits you, why not check out The Disruptive HR Club? Packed with resources to help you change HR.
Every year the PR giant Edelman publishes a global survey on one issue – trust. It considers the levels of trust we have in our public institutions, technical experts, each other – and our business leaders. Whilst the latest results have seen an increase of trust in CEO’s from a low of 37% a few years ago, nearly half of us still believe that they are untrustworthy. This has serious implications for the ways in which we have traditionally led our people; command and control, the leader as superhero, communications broadcast and cascaded from the top, etc. If people are less inclined to trust in business leaders, then these approaches are fundamentally flawed.
Trust matters more than ever
Does it matter that trust in leadership remains so low? I believe the need for people to trust their leaders has never been more important for three key reasons.
Firstly, trust equals money. When 84% of global companies’ market value is comprised of so-called “intangible assets” – goodwill, intellectual capital and brand equity – the ability of employees to impact that value is significant. Gone are the days when a disgruntled employee would simply moan about their leader in the pub with a few mates. Now they can inform millions. Just look at how AOL’s Tim Armstrong’s sacking of an employee in a big meeting went viral in a matter of hours. Look at the rise of Glassdoor, the Tripadvisor for places to work. Employee power is growing and lack of trust in leaders can cost companies dear.
Secondly, in this disrupted world, leaders are asking their employees to follow them into the most unchartered of territories. They ask their people to work in new ways, with new technologies, in new environments and with new people. How can leaders expect employees to follow them into this uncertain and scary world when they don’t believe they’re trustworthy?
Finally, in the knowledge economy leaders need their people to consciously give them their ideas, their creativity, their connections and their opinions. In a world where technology has provided so many more choices about where and how we work, leaders need to be seen as worthy of that choice.
Leaders destroy trust every day
Having been a member of the BBC leadership team that oversaw the Savile crisis and its severance scandal, I am clearly not speaking from a position of moral authority here – but hopefully with a degree of understanding and humility! There are some things we do as leaders that destroy trust every day. I’m not talking about the big unethical stuff, but rather some really basic things that we do every day, often unwittingly, that erode the relationships with our people. For me there are four key things we do as leaders that destroy trust and I should point out that I have probably been guilty of doing all of these at some point in my career!
- Our communications lack humanity
Something weird happens to people when they communicate as leaders. We forget all of the communication techniques that we use with our friends and families and develop a “corporate personae” that is almost devoid of any humanity. One day at the BBC, I got a call from a guy in News who wanted to be helpful by explaining to me that “my emails were crap” and I should “get someone else to write them for me”. I was slightly taken aback as this was precisely what I had done. My emails were usually written with several other people – people in HR, people in Legal, people in the press team and people in Internal Communications. But to humour him I went back over some of my recent missives and realised with dismay that he was right. My emails were crap. They seemed pompous and sterile, lacking any humanity or humility. I had adopted the royal Executive “We” and, in an effort to be accurate, I had “lawyered-out” any personality.
Leadership comms often ignores the power of storytelling that could create a bond with our listeners and we rely too heavily on one of the single biggest destroyers of humane communications – PowerPoint. We push deck after deck of dry analysis at them believing, wrongly, that the power of logical argument will build buy-in to our ideas. During the period when we were trying to communicate the need to reform the BBC’s pension scheme, the trade unions’ leaflets were so much more powerful than the corporate line. They posted images of fat, overpaid BBC executives who cared little for the staff and produced caricatures of the Director General and his team that had an almost pantomime villain quality. The leaders talked about mortality rates and interest rate risks. A futile attempt to combat emotion with analysis.
- We lack courage when things get tough
Of course, it is hard to walk into a room of angry staff. No leader relishes facing their team after announcing job losses or pay cuts. But it amases me how many of us take the money that goes with the senior role and yet become invisible when it gets tough. In every period of difficult news “Hunt the missing Exec” is a favourite pastime and yet this disappearing act damages our employees’ faith in us to do the right thing.
- We demand petty privileges
The increasing emphasis on transparency has led many public sector bodies to publish expense claims of its senior leaders. Whilst the press focus on the more luxurious claims – a bottle of champagne or a posh dinner – what annoys employees the most is the smaller claims – the postage stamp or the cappuccino – by people who are on six-figure salaries. We’ve all seen these small abuses of privilege and some of us have been guilty of doing it; the demand for a good parking space, the slightly better tech than everyone else, no hot desking for the Execs. It does us no favours and we come across as mean-spirited. You wouldn’t trust a friend who demanded petty privileges so why would you trust your leader?
- We don’t trust them
As leaders we expect to be trusted by employees but it’s very much a one-way street because we certainly don’t appear to trust them. So many of our rules and policies have been developed because someone did something bad once and a rule was developed to prevent anyone doing it ever again. We all have the “Stop Them” Policies and indeed hours of our time go into enforcing them. Think about your own employment contract. It will probably tell you how much you are going to be paid, the hours you are expected to work and the 30 policies that if breached, will result in you being fired. Hardly the opening gambit for a trusting relationship!
The three things leaders can do to build trust
So how can leaders build a more trusting relationship with their people? Clearly, there are some bigger questions around business ethics, regulation and transparency, building purpose or pay differentials between leaders and their people. But what are things that leaders can do every day to build better relationships? I believe there are three changes they can make.
- Obsess about knowing them
You can only have a relationship with people you actually know. It’s not enough to try and engage with large groups of employees as if they are a homogenous lump. You wouldn’t engage with your customers in such an unsophisticated way; we invest significant amounts of time and money trying to know their likes, dislikes, ways of thinking and behaving. Yet we rarely apply this to our own people. 80% of us still only survey our people once a year and then produce actions plans that aim to show “we’ve listened”. We need to learn from our colleagues in marketing about customer data and insight and creating leadership communications and approaches that are based on their varying needs and wants. But there is also room for more traditional forms of relationship building too. The Coop recently looked at what their people really wanted from their leaders. What came back surprised them in its simplicity. They wanted to be listened to, to feel that their leader was interested in them and to have honest conversations with them.
- Treat them as adults
If we are going to build trusting relationships in the new world, we have to create working environments that have at their very core, a belief that our employees are decent, adult, human beings who can be trusted to behave well. If we changed our contract of employment to one that is not written with an eye on future tribunals but is about a mutually trusting adult relationship, how different would it be? If we tackled the individual who had behaved badly without creating new rules to prevent anyone else behaving that way, how empowering would that be? If leaders stopped believing that they have to the answers to preserve their status and instead said ‘what do you think?’ or ‘I trust you – use your judgement’, how much more empowering is that?
- Humility is making a come-back
Showing humility is rarely one of the qualities we look for in our leadership selection criteria. But I believe it is making a come-back. Our collective futures depends upon our leaders’ abilities to build partnerships, to collaborate more effectively with customers and competitors, to spot new business opportunities and threats early and to be agile in response, to manage diverse and virtual teams and to create environments where individuals can flourish and cope with uncertainty. We’ve all worked for or with the narcissist or the psychopath – these are not the people who are capable of leading in this new world. We desperately need some lower ego leaders in the future who get their kicks from enabling and creating environments where their team can do their best work, rather than through their own personal glory. And what about the leaders we’ve already got? Well, we have to help them be the very best human beings they can be. We need to encourage them to let their guard down, to understand the positive impact of humility, to use emotional stories rather than just sharing data, to be visible when it goes wrong and take the flak – to see niceness as an asset, not a weakness. Only then can we start to build the trust we so desperately need.
If you’d like to get blogs from Disruptive HR straight to your inbox, you can sign up here.
Or if you’d like to get all of our workshop content at a time and place that suits you, why not check out The Disruptive HR Club? Packed with resources to help you change HR.
Claire Camara and Clare Fogden from The Coop share how they have begun to implement employee experience, or as they call it, ‘colleague experience’. Hear how they have embedded and used colleague insight in the design of HR products and the impact their new approach is having on processes such as performance management.