Create a Better Normal

Lucy Adams on May 24, 2020

Create a Better Normal


Open any newspaper and you’ll find loads of articles about life returning to normal. ‘When will it happen, how will happen, what will it be like?’ Whilst I dearly miss some aspects of my old life – I can’t wait to hug my daughter or meet friends in a café – there are also plenty of aspects of the old normal that I am not desperate to see back. Forcing my way onto a tube train in the rush hour or long business trips when I don’t see my husband, for example. Like many right now, I am taking this forced period of reflection to think about what I would like my new normal to be.

Who wants the old normal?

If the numerous conversations I am having with clients are anything to go by, then the HR community are doing the same. We are waking up to the fact that we have an opportunity to NOT go back to the old normal with our tired old processes, our lack of agility and our lack of relevance for a disrupted world. For all the sadness of this crisis, it presents HR with an amazing opportunity to create something better. A better normal.

What does a Better Normal look like?

First up, there is no best practice out there. For once there is no accepted wisdom and there aren’t tons of case studies that we can learn from. And I know that this can be a bit scary for HR as the ‘copy and paste’ approach to best practice has been how many of us have dealt with innovation in the past. But this is a fantastic opportunity to work through the new experience YOU want to provide for YOUR people. That’s right for you, your employees, your customers your brand.

As you articulate your ‘better normal’, I’d suggest thinking about three elements that the crisis has brought into sharper focus.

Better Normal #1: I am trusted

Our traditional parental approach to our employees has always been a major constraint in enabling our people to do their best work. We have typically taken an approach that is either over-protective (assuming that our people can’t make sensible judgements, own their own careers or 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.

During the crisis, we have witnessed what can happen when people are trusted to use their judgement or to behave like decent human beings. We’ve seen greater creativity, greater capacity to achieve much with very little, their ability to not just cope with change but to embrace it and make it work for them.

How can you ensure that you don’t return to the ‘old normal’ of not trusting? How can you create a better normal that has, at its core, a belief that your people are capable of sound judgement and behaving well, without needing to be over-protected or given prescribed rules? How can you change your approach so that you don’t lose the adult to adult relationship many of us have adopted during this crisis?

3 things to start now

  1. Create a new employee handbook that is more welcoming than the traditional list of rules and processes, where the starting point is that we trust to you to behave well and trust you to use your judgement. With long winded policies being replaced with statements such as:
  • ‘Dress for your day’ instead of a dress code
  • ‘Play nice, use common sense and if you mess up, apologise and take it down’ instead of social media rules
  • ‘Every role can be done flexibly – work out what’s best for you and your team in conversation with them’ instead of flexible working guidelines.

2. Revisit your job descriptions and take out the long shopping lists of tasks. Replace them with the outputs and impact you want them to have in the role, leaving the way of delivering up to them.

3. Invest in an onboarding or learning app that allows employees to take responsibility for and manage their own induction (eg. Enboarder) or learning (eg. Learnerbly).

Better Normal: I am an Individual

The one-size-fits-all approach to HR has led to processes that were often irrelevant or lacked impact. The fact that we have ignored the very different motivations, wants, needs, preferences of our internal consumers – our people – has led to overblown, bureaucratic and universally applied approaches that can be costly and more importantly, are insufficiently customised to have the impact we need.

We know that many of our companies will be strapped for cash in the medium term and whilst this will present us with difficult choices to make, it also offers us an opportunity to step back and assess those processes that don’t provide value for money because they aren’t targeted enough. If we can treat our people as if they were consumers, identify their true needs and wants, styles and preferences, motivations and drivers, then we can offer tailored products and solutions that give maximum bang for buck.

So, now’s the time to stop shoe-horning our people into processes that don’t really fit their individual needs and wants. It’s time to provide HR products that are designed as if our employees were consumers. It’s time to make HR more relevant and impactful.

3 things to start now

  1. Carry out an employee persona exercise and identify the clusters of people you need to design for.
  2. Create user-design groups based around these personas and ask them to redesign one of your processes that would work for them and their needs.
  3. Help your managers work through different ways to reward and recognise the people in their teams based on what would be most meaningful for them.

Better Normal: I am a human being

We had already begun to see the gradual dismantling of some of our most irrelevant and ineffective people processes and the replacement of them with approaches that tapped into how human beings actually behave, think, feel etc. So we’d seen the slow erosion of PM reviews and replacing them with frequent check-ins, the embryonic replacement of the annual talent review based on a 9 box grid with frequent and undocumented short talent discussions. The fact that no-one seems to be shouting about how they miss these processes or can’t manage without them right now will undoubtedly speed this up.

A better normal will see HR (re)asserting ourselves as the people experts, the human experts and not just the process gurus.

We have an incredible opportunity to eliminate legacy processes that don’t add value. We can reinvent our approach to talent, performance, D&I and so on by using this time to start with a clear focus on the behaviour we are trying to achieve and working back from that. We can stop designing our processes around compensating for poor managers and instead encourage different behaviours through nudging, experimenting, rewarding and iterating. At the heart of our HR approaches should be a deeper understanding of why people react and behave the way they do. We can reinvent by going with the grain of human behaviour rather than using process to coerce it.

3 things to start now

  1. Take a good hard look are your key HR processes and ask your team and your managers to identify the ones that really don’t add value. Which of them aren’t being missed is a good place to start!
  2. Choose two or three areas where you want things to be different and commit as a team that you are going to really change things – not just move from a five-scale rating to a three, or do it four times a year instead of once – but a brand new, bottom up approach.
  3. Engage with a group of managers who have been frustrated in the past and enlist them as your early adopters. Pilot and experiment now whilst things are up in the air.

Weakened Resistance

We have often faced push back from our leaders when we tried to make radical changes to core policies or process. Although their resistance wasn’t usually because they found traditional HR to be valuable but more because they were comfortable with what they knew. That resistance will have disappeared in the current crisis or will have at least been shaken by evidence to the contrary; our people can be trusted to work from home, leaders showing their human side doesn’t reduce their team’s respect and in fact, builds rapport, people can be capable of incredible innovation, courage and able to change quickly when allowed to work it out for themselves and so on.

I love the line from William Davies; ‘To experience a crisis is to inhabit a world that is temporarily up for grabs.’ But the emphasis here is on the temporary nature of this opportunity. We have only a small window before older habits creep back in. The smarter HR teams know this instinctively and are already putting plans in place to create something new, a better normal.

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