The Convoluted Mess of The Hybrid Workplace

What if hybrid ends up being a mix of the worst of both worlds?

Employers are ready to get back to significant in-person presence. Employees aren’t. The disconnect is deeper than most employers believe, and a spike in attrition and disengagement may be imminent.

McKinsey

Right at the beginning of the pandemic, Dave Hollis wrote a tweet that would prove to be prophetic. In the rush to return to normal, he said, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.

Well , people did consider this. And they didn’t rush back.

Whether you term it a great resignation, or as I prefer, a great reshuffle – people are reconsidering the role of work within their lives. And the prize seems to be increased autonomy rather than simply increased pay.

The emerging data highlights distinct generational differences – but shows a trend of people moving away from restrictive roles towards those which offer a better work life balance.

The shockwaves for employers have only just begun to be felt. As lockdowns are lifted and work from home mandates ebb and flow employers have found that their previously compliant servants has discovered how and when they want to work, rather than wait for some top down ’employee offer’.

Employers may claim to have a distinct culture and purpose, but the behaviour of many of our institutions during the pandemic has left many doubting their authenticity.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values. Has that happened?

Employee burnout has doubled since lockdown ended, according to Glassdoor, whose survey showed that flexible working was only one part of the jigsaw, with better performing organisations also having flatter structures.

Companies congratulating themselves on their newly found hybrid work approach should pause to reflect. What a lot of people are now experiencing is the worst of both worlds.

As Emma Goldberg writes, this sudden mash-up of remote and in-person work “has resulted in a mushy middle ground: video calls where remote workers have trouble hearing, a sense that people at home are missing out on perks (teammates), while those in the office are, too (pajamas). And the stakes aren’t just who is getting talked over in meetings. It’s whether flexibility is sustainable, even with all the benefits it confers.”

My most absurd experience , in a year of absurd experiences, was literally carrying a remote colleague around during an in-person workshop. Holding their dimly lit face on a laptop and positioning them so they could see some post-it notes on a whiteboard. My battery power died and I forgot all about them until they text me to ask if the session had finished.

Hybrid takes effort. Token attempts at employee engagement just don’t work (btw is there anything in the recent history of mankind that is more soul crushing than a festive Zoom quiz?). Companies that have crafted very strong, definable cultures have tended to be fully in-person or fully remote, not mixed.

Equally remote work isn’t equal for everyone. A study from Qualtrics, found that 34% of men with children had received promotions while working remotely, compared to just 9% of women with children. There are similar disparities for ethnic minorities.

Our offices, those that are still there, look increasingly adrift and desperate. Stowe Boyd , as ever, has a good take on this: “One of the potentially smart things companies might try to entice workers back: converting open office space — which almost everyone hates — to private offices with doors. Those who share a home with family or flatmates might find respite in a quiet place to work heads down, in peace.” He goes on to make another great point: “Taken to the most extreme: what if some of the unused office space was turned into something like Airbnb rooms, so those who have moved outside of easy commuting range might come into the office for a two- or three-day onsite, working and not-working in the office. This could be coordinated with team members for once a month intense working sessions, too.”

To get hybrid work to work it will take creative thinking like this, breaking the fourth wall between Microsoft Teams and real life. It means really getting to know individuals and understanding productivity at a very human level, listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones. It means letting our people become the designers of their own unique workdays, and giving them the right tools and permissions.

Or maybe we just need less work. Signalling that people will sacrifice some pay for a better life Spanish high-end apparel brand Desigual introduced a four-day work week at its headquarters in Barcelona last month, raising expectations in the business and political arena in Europe, where some other pilot trials have been launched.

No employee works on Friday and they can choose to work remotely any of the four working days. The company has subsidized half the cost of the 13% reduction in working hours, with employees overwhelmingly agreeing to a 6.5% paycut.

Four days a week, no meetings, you choose the hours and work where you want. Is this the future of work or just the late 2021 expectations of the many?

When people have a 60-Year career you need to design something that’s sustainable for the long term not built on burning people out by the time they hit 50. Indeed -“If a 60-year career sounds like a nightmare, perhaps that’s because we’re imagining 60 years of work as it is for many people today: inflexible, all-consuming, poorly matched to the rhythms of life.”

There could be a silver lining to all of this where people re-engage with their own work on their own terms , but this is going to require huge flexibility from employers. Most will find this a challenge, and I expect to see further pandemic workplace aftershocks between now and 2025

Let’s remember that for almost all companies hybrid work is an experiment, and most experiments fail. The best experiments are small and build upon previous evidence.

When nothing is certain in the short-term never mind the long; a good approach to take colleagues with you is to “test and learn” rather than “show and tell”.


Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Three Innovation Aspirations For 2021

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.

A new year is usually the time where we leap off the sofa and out of the house, attempting to reset our lives and put straight all the things we failed to do the previous year.

2021 is different – as many of us will start the year spending even more time on the sofa and in the house.

Last year was a wake up call for me as I started the year with lots of resolutions and ideas for the next 12 months, and then found out that the world had an entirely different plan.

When bigger forces take over your life it can be easy for us to give up control and become a bystander. But in reality we still have agency over our lives , and have many opportunities. In fact, when life gets reset or derailed there are often more opportunities, even if we can’t clearly see them.

However, being able to see the opportunities emerging from a crisis is not the same as being able to seize them.

Research from McKinsey has indicated that many companies are deprioritising innovation to concentrate on shoring up core business, conserving cash, minimising risk and waiting until “there is more clarity.” 

In a year in which most of us will have to contend with having less resources, less cash liquidity, and living in a more uncertain environment, we have to ask the question:

What is innovation to us, and what am I hoping to get out of innovation?

I’ll begin this years series of posts with three ambitions for the year ahead.

Connecting innovation to the larger organisation

We can probably say with some certainty that whatever your approach to innovation was in 2019, it’s no longer fit for purpose. Many of our organisations have , in effect, become new companies. Many of us will have spent a year, or more, without physically seeing each other. People will have joined the workforce – never knowing another way of working.

While we will likely never go back to our pre-crisis status quo, I imagine the future will be a blended one that leverages the best of what both virtual and face-to-face working offer. Enlightened organisations will become hyper connected and networked, with ideas emerging from all corners, and levels, of the business.

This way of working is an existential threat to policy teams, Innovation Labs and R+D functions. These teams have often seen themselves as connectors of thinking within organisations , but in the new world everyone is a potential connector of thinking.

The pandemic has accelerated many things, including people’s expectations of problem resolution. The time course of medical research has been cut down to almost nothing. The Moderna COVID vaccine was created in a weekend , but built upon many years of prior work.

People simply aren’t going to have tolerance for labs, think tanks, and R+D units who talk the talk but take years rather than weeks to turn ideas into solutions.

The necessary task now is for organisations to democratise the innovation process. This means giving all employees access to creative learning and development that lets them solve simple problems themselves – whilst also identifying those bigger strategic opportunities or problems to be worked on in collaboration with others.

Staying Perpetually Curious

At present, we miss our freedom, we miss our social interactions, we miss our routine, we miss the usual solutions that we have to guide our lives.

Creativity is largely social and a long period of living without physical connection could have negative implications.

A major catalyst for innovation are those unplanned interactions with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. The closure of coffee shops, bars, libraries, gyms and community centres means these opportunities have been cut off for us at the moment.

Travelling, also curtailed, presented new challenges and cultures to adapt to. The subsequent strain on the problem-solving areas of the brain strengthens our creativity skills.

For a good period of this year these opportunities are likely to be reduced or off limits entirely. We all need to help each other retain our capacity for seeking out new learning, and take advantage of the current situation to nourish our minds, educate ourselves and treat each day as a new start.

It’s worth organisations remembering that colleagues being more bored than usual is also an opportunity. Studies have shown that people who have gone through a boredom-inducing task later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. 

Being bored can be a good thing for your mind, imagination and productivity.

Being Brave Enough To Change Our Minds

If there was one unwelcome trend of the past few years it has been the growth of partisan thinking, which has again tipped to violence in the past few days.

Partisanship has been boosted by Brexit, Trumpism, climate change, identity politics, wokeism, and now lockdown and vaccination policy. Social media – where we are all spending more and more time – is very efficient at facilitating this as the algorithms herd us into echo chambers that reflect our own views and biases back at us. When the information or opinions you hold – whether factually correct or not – are repeatedly being echoed back to you, it enforces your individual belief system.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires.

As Jorge Barba says an open mind is our greatest strategic advantage because it costs us nothing and rewards us with plenty.

I don’t know about you but I’m committing this year to changing my mind on at least of couple of biases that I hold dear. Breaking free of limiting assumptions is a creative act that is also good for your mental health. Admitting you don’t have the answers rather than pretending you do is personally empowering.

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Smaller, Flatter, Faster. Is The Two Pizza Team Finally Going Mainstream?

This weeks post looks at the two pizza team which was popularised by Jeff Bezos.

In the early days of Amazon he instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas.
The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

Read the post by clicking the link. And if you like it I’d really appreciate a share on your social network of choice.

Have a great weekend!

Best wishes

Paul

The latest cartoon by Tom Fishburne seems to sum up what a lot of people are feeling right now. As he writes, “In a chaotic year, many brands and businesses are relying on adrenaline only. Organizations can only run on those fumes for so long. Adrenaline-based speed can lead to burnout.”

I’d argue that we are not seeing speed as much as lots of activity. Organisations are busy , sure , but it’s a reflexive response to an era in which they have no control over anything , even down to when and where people work. In organisational design terms – we are all still out there panic buying toilet rolls and hand sanitiser.

One of the issues here is that legacy organisations are not designed for speed, it’s just not what they do. Many people who have set up internal accelerators or innovation labs ultimately fail as they run up against hard wired bureaucracy and hierarchy purposefully designed to crush any ideas that threaten the status quo.

In their report , Reinventing the organisation for speed in the post COVID era , McKinsey note that CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run.

It calls for work to speed up in three ways:

Sped up and delegated decision making.  This means fewer meetings and fewer decision makers in each meeting. They point out that some organisations are adopting a “nine on a videoconference” principle. (I’d suggest this is still a couple too many). Others are moving towards one to two-page documents rather than reports or lengthy PowerPoint decks.

Step up execution excellence. Just because the times are fraught does not mean that leaders need to tighten control and micromanage execution. Rather the opposite. Because conditions are so difficult, frontline employees need to take on more responsibility for execution, action, and collaboration.

Cultivate extraordinary partnerships. Working with partners is routine. But the speed of action only goes so far if other players in the ecosystem fail to move just as fast. The connected world is breaking down the traditional boundaries between buyers and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, and employers and employees.

The building blocks at the base of all these things are , guess what, small empowered teams.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

I’ve been an advocate of a the minimum viable team for a number of years. The concept of as few as people as possible – small enough to be fed on two pizzas, is attractive because it reduces social loafing and allows us to get off the hamster wheel of management and ‘work about work’. Once you’ve done it and moved away from managing lots of people it would take an almighty pay rise to tempt you back.

The Two Pizza Team was popularised by Jeff Bezos who in the early days of Amazon instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas. The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Its roots lie in the concept of the Minimum Viable Team which recognises that many companies spend an awfully long time thinking and planning to do something: longer than it takes to actually do the thing. It’s built on the premise of Parkinson’s Law – that work just expands to fill the time and resources available. The MVT idea is rather than layer on additional resources (that are ultimately wasteful) , you “starve” the team and make them pull only the necessary resources as and when they need them. 

Most organisations reserve this structure, if they use it at all, for either DevOps type environments or hipster design or innovation teams. However it has a sound evidence base – after devoting nearly 50 years to the study of team performance, the Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman concluded that four to six is the optimal number of members for a project team and no work team should have more than 10 members.

How many project teams do you know that have four to six members?

Remote work exacerbates this problem. It’s hard enough to run productive in-person meetings with lots of people in the best of times, but trying to foster engaging discussions with lots of virtual participants is nearly impossible.

Despite the rhetoric of agile small teams – the shift won’t happen overnight as there’s a genuine question about what to do with all the people you might not need. I’d argue that post- COVID the immediate challenge is how we slow down to speed up.

We are in a new world with new challenges and we sometimes confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)—and the two concepts are very different. The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the more you can bridge the gap.

Do Fewer Things, Better. And Faster

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

This is not an either/or. IF we can reduce our priorities to a few key goals AND make small focussed teams the default way we operate , arguably we’d be a lot happier, healthier and more productive.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Four Factors Hindering Transformation

The problem with good service design is that you don’t notice it.

It’s only when you experience truly bad design that you appreciate the good stuff.

That’s why so few organisations are design led. They focus on designing out the bad rather than designing in the good from the beginning.

Earlier this week I ordered a package – to be delivered from the Royal Mail.

It required a signature so I arranged it to arrive on Thursday when I planned to be working from home.

On Tuesday morning the Royal Mail sent me an SMS and email to say they were pleased to announce that the item would arrive earlier than expected.

They might well have been pleased at the early arrival, but I was 60 miles away and stuck in a meeting. There was no option to request a redelivery. No option to even cancel it. Just accept an inevitable failure. 

Any redelivery could only be attempted after they had first failed to deliver it.

Here was a company actually wasting the time of their employees and their customer – and seemingly proud of it.

In defence of Amazon and Uber

It’s easy to criticise the likes of Amazon and Uber for their ethics , but we forget at our peril the benefits these providers have bought us.

But they don’t pay taxes! As if no company ever evaded taxes before Amazon.

But they exploit workers! As if taxi drivers were never exploited before, or resisted the opportunity to exploit us customers.

We shouldn’t let these type of companies off the hook for their transgressions, but neither should we forget what life was like before their breakthroughs in customer experience.

Getting a delivery within 24 hours or not having to queue for a taxi now feels so normal that one starts to wonder why it took so long.

The incumbent companies they disrupted all had the same money, time and technology to change the way they did business, but they resisted the opportunity to shape themselves around what customers actually wanted.

Why digital transformation isn’t enough

Richard Godfrey makes a similar point about the failure of banks to reimagine their services. Setting up a new account in most cases still requires a bank visit, or an e-form or a phone call at the very least.  How can that still exist in a world where you can sign up for a Monzo or Revolut account in minutes by downloading an app and proving your identity and address with image capture software and facial recognition?

As Richard points out, most ‘transformations’ are nothing of the sort, but simply a digital overlay on top of how business has always been done. He wonders why the process of claiming housing benefit can’t be made so easy. Of course it can, people just don’t want to make it easy.

As someone who has worked to redesign services from the ground up, putting the customer in control, I’d say you can’t underestimate how difficult this culture change required is.

Many of our organisations – despite the rhetoric – have policies and procedures that are profoundly anti-customer. We have built checks, balances and verifications into our process because , deep down, we don’t actually trust the motivations of the public.

This is an uncomfortable truth – but goes some way to explain the difference in satisfaction levels between some of the public and private sector.

PNG_Public_sector_CX_Ex1

A new post from McKinsey finds that whilst many the public sector and governments are moving forward with customer experience initiatives, in general private-sector organisations are a lot better at providing services.

I don’t always agree with the private/public distinction but some of the stumbling blocks they identify are helpful. The common traits that prevent genuine transformation are:

  1. A monopolistic mind-set. When customers don’t have a choice, it dramatically removes a major incentive to innovate and improve service.
  2. The public sector have to be fair to everyone.  They can’t just ignore certain customer segments. This ‘fairness’ often solidifies over time into a principle of providing one-size-fits-all service. Or rather, one-size-fits-no-one.
  3. We often lack the capabilities needed to assess and address gaps in customer experience. Those with deep analytics skills, as well as human-centered design skills, are often in short supply.
  4. Data is typically incomplete or sequestered in silos. Organisations often lack a full, timely picture of the customer’s overall experience.

This ‘fair for everyone’, but exceptional for no-one, agenda presents a genuine design challenge. The capacity for innovation for huge, but the capability for it is virtually zero.

It’s hampered because innovation requires a tolerance for failure , and upsetting people.  It’s too easy to see the short-term political consequences of initiatives gone wrong and debate whether public money is going down the drain.

However we have a responsibility to take risks – we need to cultivate a culture of innovation, and sometimes that means spending money trying new things, and being ‘unfair’ to some people.

What if Uber and Amazon did health, housing and social care?

Three years ago I wrote a post speculating on that very question – it remains the second most popular piece on this blog.

I don’t stand by everything I said back then, but I do agree with the final point.

Any sector that has multiple players performing similar services is ripe for disruption.

There’s no question about whether the Uber , Amazon, Facebook and Alibaba of the public sector will emerge.

It’s simply a matter of when.

We Need To Stop Talking About Change Or Get Comfortable With Failure

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging environment.

70% of these programmes will fail.

Or will they?

The concept of the 70% failure rate seems to have emerged in the mid 1990’s most notably through the work of John Kotter and McKinsey and Company.

Except there’s no evidence at all that this is true.

David Wilkinson has presented an entertaining dissection of the myth that concludes that many sources are personal observations, estimates, or smoke and mirror survey results. Not serious research.

The 70% figure seems to have emerged because of a lack of clarity about what success, and indeed failure, actually looks like.

Also – 70% feels about right, which is why it gets traction. Change gets a bad rap.

Many people who’ve been involved in change initiatives self report poor experiences. However colleague feedback is inherently unreliable as we all respond in a way that makes us look as good as possible.

Perhaps we are looking at it the wrong way around.

Maybe our organisations are setting themselves up to fail by the way we talk about change. 

Nick Tasler has written that we don’t do ourselves any favours. When we say “change is hard” people equate “hard” with “failure”.

Change = hard, quickly becomes change = failure.

That’s compounded by the fact that while us as individuals are pretty comfortable talking about failure , organisations certainly aren’t. Nearly everything is successful.

So we need to stop saying change is hard, but we also need to stop saying change is exciting.

It isn’t.

Most of us are up for change – except when it affects us personally.

Who-wants-change-Who-wants-to-change

Change evangelists , just like those who cheerlead for innovation, piss people off.

Giving them a platform to outline their vision is just about the worst thing you can do.

As Stowe Boyd has said, most people hate the future: “the unknowability scares them, and that leads to hatred of even the idea of the future, and especially those that talk about it.”

The 70% failure rule has become mythic precisely because we are predisposed to the notion that the future is worse than the past.

If we agree that this future is best explored through experimentation then things get even messier.

  • Experimentation is confusing – it offers no certainty. There’s no one true path to innovation.
  • Experimentation means shutting down failures – and killing people’s ‘brilliant ideas’. Get ready for discord.
  • Experimentation means being comfortable not fully knowing what you are doing or where you are going.

The future of work requires employees to be continual explorers rather than passive recipients of time limited programmes. They are individual nodes in the organisation , permanently connected to social networks quicker and more powerful than your internal comms plan will ever be.

Our old models of change narrative are defunct.

Dead.

That’s challenging to the traditional practices of leadership as it means getting comfortable with your people being uncomfortable.

Change is changing  – there is no end date on experimentation.

Now more than ever we either need to stop talking about change or get comfortable with failure.

Three Simple Ideas To Stop Change Failing

“The essence of transformation isn’t incremental. Transformation means ‘radical change’. And few companies truly countenance that because it’s, well…too radical.” – Anne McCrossan

Maybe we are being too ambitious.

Perhaps the hype of business change is becoming all consuming, leading us to aim for things our leadership can’t possibly deliver.

In my last couple of posts I explored the current failings of digital transformation and the rise of complexity – two things that are to my mind inextricably linked. The former was my most popular post for over a year and brought with it some great comments and follow up conversations.

What we really need to address is summed up by Anne McCrossan in her comment.

We have a skills deficit.

Transformation means acquiring new skills, new capabilities around data management, processes that support rapid, iterative design and collaborating more openly.

That’s just not happening.

The Myth Of The Complete Leader

the-myth-of-becoming-a-complete-leader-2-638

As Chris Bolton said –  it’s tempting to link the rise of overly complicated systems and processes to the creation of the MBA and a proliferation of Management Consultants. The inexplicable rise of leadership fads correlates with a sharp decline in productivity and a general disengagement with work.

Perhaps the actual practice of change is being complicated by a profusion of tools and ideas about strategy and management. 

What if we’ve got it wrong?  What if the management practices we hold onto – the leadership development courses we exalt – the behaviours we seek at recruitment – are not fit for purpose?

What if there’s another way?

Three Not-So-Radical Ideas

1 – Let the People Closest to the Problem Lead Change

Perhaps change would be better served if leaders and consultants stepped out of the way. After all – when you hire a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

As Stowe Boyd writes – change is often about transfusion rather than true transformation. A small set of not-particularly-revolutionary ideas transfused into the existing system, based on the implicit strategy of changing the business as little as possible.

1-XMHGXtC_IEqcDeGbgq3geA

The people least invested in change (but with the most to gain by it) also have the biggest impact upon it. McKinsey report only a 3% success rate of transformations that fail to engage line managers or frontline employees.

If their role is that mission critical maybe they should have a commanding , rather than supporting, role in the design and implementation of change itself. Perhaps they would be braver.

Designing a form of governance to devolve responsibility to ensure executives and managers are unable to engage directly in these initiatives sounds radical. However – it is in effect no different to the strengths based thinking emerging in community practice.

Basically – change is best served when we devolve power, and the institutions and hierarchy get out of the way.

2 – Sweat The Small Stuff

Perhaps we’d achieve more if we gave up on big change and moved towards marginal gains. According to Steve Sewell  – most change programmes concentrate on modelling, planning or design work that takes months if not years.  People lose heart, are daunted by the scale and the programmes lose momentum.

Staying below the executive radar and letting the small changes flourish through iterative design and testing sounds like rebellious behaviour but there’s much sense here.

The evaluation of the Northern Ireland Innovation Lab recognises this importance of looking for cheap and small ways to test ideas and concepts, breaking larger change down into small chunks.

3 – Rethink the Love Affair with Change

Perhaps it’s time to escape the idea of organisational transformation once and for all.

Zachary First points out the tremendous, if largely invisible, cost to chasing management fads. Instead of the constant call to keep pace in times of rapid change we might be better placed thinking how we can avoid the need for customers or colleagues to face yet another choice.

Our change programmes rarely answer the question “Why are we changing?” in a truly coherent way.

This – combined with our cultural bias for execution over problem definition – is why change often fails. We may solve a problem – just not the right one.

Really – none of this is that radical at all.

  • Recognising that a digital age requires new mindsets alongside skill-sets.
  • Reflection and contemplation rather than lots of management activity.
  • Devolving resources and influence to those closest to the problem.
  • Changing slowly through small-scale experimentation.
  • Not rolling out anything until you have evidence that it works.

That sounds incredibly simple.

And maybe it is.

%d bloggers like this: