The Future of the Workplace

Comm update_10 September1

Ideas on what constitutes a fulfilling and productive working environment are shifting rapidly. They’re raising questions about mobility of talent and what it means to be an effective leader as the way in which knowledge is transferred, both within and outside an organisation, becomes more dynamic. Indeed, a perfect storm of new technology, globalisation and changing demographics is blowing away assumptions about how we work.

Lynda Gratton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, suggests that the formal link between ‘work’ and ‘place’ is beginning to soften: “We are already seeing the rise of flexible and remote working arrangements as well as creative hubs where people use workspace as and when they need to.

“It seems to me that as working lives become more of a marathon than a sprint, we are going to see more emphasis on work that excites and inspires people and helps them to grow…These concepts are not just about employee well-being, they are… crucial to the competitive advantage of a company.”

It’s incumbent on leadership teams to get a grip on what is already underway. Stuart Steele, Partner for Human Capital Consulting at professional services firm EY, comments: “There is always competition for good talent and an inability to predict what the work environment will look like in three or four years’ time, I think, can put an organisation at a disadvantage.”

Let’s get digital

From the mills and factories of the industrial revolution to assembly-line car production at the turn of the 20th century, technology has reshaped working practices by reinventing notions of efficiency and productivity.

John Lewis, Chief Operating Officer for communication services provider Airwave Solutions, says: “Mobile working or process improvements are absolutely there for the taking. There are lots of different examples that I’ve seen, such as the creation of collaboration zones and the use of tools for collaborative working.”

How best to take full advantage of this flexibility is open to debate. Susanna Dinnage, EVP and MD for Discovery Networks UK & Ireland, explains: “A great deal of people working on their own, possibly at home, may benefit individuals in terms of family commitments and reduced time spent travelling… I understand that, we have busy lives… but what you lose is the alchemy of teams working together.”

John notes that organisations must be careful not to underestimate peoples’ appetite for interaction. “That can be the biggest challenge,” he comments. “How do you get over the fact that people just sometimes need to spend a bit of time gossiping or just having a reaction with others in their team to help process what’s going on?”

The hierarchy that traditionally existed in organisations is being broken down by the volume of information now available at employees’ fingertips. This is causing leaders to rethink how they engage with employees, encourage collaboration and make decisions.
Julian Birkinshaw, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, says: “Think back to the traditional role of the leader. Back in the industrial era, he was responsible for squeezing as much value out of his resources – money, people – as possible.

“In the knowledge era, he or she has become used to being an expert… They were also the conduit of information, the person who accesses and then disseminates information across the organisation. But if this information is now widely available, and if there are experts at all levels, the leader of the future has to think about what their value-added role is.”

According to Julian, leadership in this context will entail a more interpersonal role, helping other people to make decisions and avoid becoming overwhelmed by the volume of data available: “Good leadership… [will] be action-oriented; that is, following through with people to ensure they deliver on their commitments. One of the risks of ubiquitous information is that it causes analysis paralysis – there is always an opportunity to collect more.”

Melting pot

A more age-diverse workforce will certainly throw up some new challenges. Susanna says: “I am observing a new generation that is very smart. I look at our interns – they are engaged, they have plans and they have expectations. They don’t come here to stuff envelopes.

“They are not afraid to ask for half an hour in your diary to understand how you got your job – that’s fantastic. I love this confidence they have… [as] they step forward and… are contributing.”

There is a sense that the expectations held by millennials in the workplace are, in some respects, higher than of generations gone by. Stuart explains: “There have always been career-focused individuals, with an appetite for rapid progression, however, looking at groups, if you’re 25, your aspirations for broad opportunity and rapid progression in an organisation are typically a lot greater than what a 50-year old person’s was when they were that age.

“Where an older employee may have taken 20 years to progress three-quarters of the way up the organisation, the 25-year old wants to get to that same position in five years or less. How do you balance that? How do you meet their aspirations of rapid progression while not disenfranchising this person, who has delivered good service for the last 20 or so years?”

These are the types of questions which senior leadership teams need to be thinking about and addressing. Stuart adds: “As organisations’ demands for skills and capability change over time, the intrinsic value of the employees with 20 or so years of experience – those with real depth and breadth – changes from a position where one could arguably describe them as a commodity, to a situation where they have become ‘key retains’ focused both on delivery and the development of our younger workforce.”

It calls for a closer awareness of how to bring the best out of a diverse mix of talent. Lynda comments: “It’s clear that encouraging different age groups to work productively and harmoniously with each other can be tough. Those who have made it work often put job design and collaboration at the centre.

“Those that design jobs in an inflexible, linear way have found that they cannot be responsive to a person’s life stage and aspirations…. Right now, companies are struggling with this inflexibility – for example, not knowing how to handle mid-career hires because their processes are all geared towards hiring graduates.”

A multigenerational workforce will require organisations to consider different career paths and job designs simultaneously, rather than opt for a cookie-cutter approach. Specialisation, limited contracts and partnerships are expected to become the norm.

Julian comments: “The workplace of the future I would like to see is one in which people are given a lot of freedom to pursue the work that interests them, with a lot more bottom-up accountability, and far fewer formal bureaucratic systems for co-ordinating our activities. This is the model we see in many start-up companies, but once they go above 100 people or so they often lose this vitality.”

The impact of what is happening in the workplace will be genuinely game-changing and that’s why it’s something boards must take the time to try and understand. Unless they’re thinking about what it means for an organisation’s future, they won’t be able to turn what’s occurring into a tangible competitive advantage.

I hope to see you soon.



3 Ways to Engage Your Employees

Comm update Faces - 24 september

In many respects, discussing employee engagement can be to state the blindingly obvious. After all, CEOs shouldn’t really have to be told that they need to talk to their staff and be able to listen. Perhaps this continues to be such a hot topic because too many leaders allowed themselves to become estranged from their employees and now it’s a case of getting back to basics.

That means interacting with people and getting everyone to believe in the business. After all, a fully engaged and motivated workforce will be a powerful agent for any organisation seeking to change, grow and deliver success. Criticaleye finds out how leaders from a range of organisations are making it happen.

1. Test the Water

The first step is to ask employees for feedback. Most organisations still find the annual employee engagement survey an important barometer here.

Maria da Cunha, Director of People, Legal and Government Affairs at British Airways, says: “While you shouldn’t get too hung up on measurement, I do think it’s useful to have some way of checking how you’re doing. In a large organisation like ours, which has many sub cultures, it’s quite important to get some sense of whether you can prove you are going in the right direction.”

Just keep it simple and understand what you want to try and achieve. Tea Colaianni, Global HR Director at Merlin Entertainments Group, comments: “In our employee engagement survey we ask just one key question: ‘Why do you enjoy working here?’… while it turns out that 95 per cent of our employees enjoy working for Merlin, we try to spend a lot of time working out why there are 5 per cent who aren’t engaged, and the goal is to try and turn them around and make them ambassadors for the brand.”

2. Be Visible

Obviously, CEOs need to get out and talk to staff. “I do a lot of floor walking,” says Martin Balaam, CEO at IT services concern Jigsaw24. “It’s important to be out there and visible, not just having forums and presentations… but to make sure you take time out to chat and reflect on things with your staff. You can often tell what the mood of the office is just by walking through it.”

It’s harder to get around when you’ve a globally dispersed workforce, but there’s still no substitute for face time. Jane Griffiths, Company Group Chairman for EMEA at Janssen, the pharmaceutical division of global healthcare organisation Johnson & Johnson, comments: “Two weeks ago I was in Russia and Poland; next month I will travel with my leadership team to Istanbul… it’s important to go and listen to what the situation is like in different markets and meet with people in different offices face to face. You’re trying to dig deeper into the organisation all the time to see who’s there and who needs more input into their development.”

The other key thing is for middle managers to be engaged and behaving like ambassadors of the decisions made at board level. Colin Hatfield, Senior Partner and Founder of Visible Leaders, a consultancy that specialises in leadership communication, says: “There’s often this great intent at the top of the organisation but it falls down in that layer below, at the local leadership level. Frankly, that is where engagement really happens because the point of this is to get teams engaged…

“If those leading teams within an organisation are not engaging people, then it’s not going to happen. So the emphasis needs to be on helping that layer of leadership do the right things to drive engagement forward.”

It’s a point taken up by Paul Isaac, who until recently led HR for the industrial business of DHL Supply Chain in the UK: “[Engagement] is about the visibility of more senior managers, actually visiting sites, talking to individuals, getting to understand first-hand how those individuals are engaged with the business and the site where they operate.”

3. Walk the Talk

To get any sort of lasting engagement, employees will want to see that you’re serious about taking their views on board. That means being honest, says Ella Bennett, Human Resources Director for the UK and Ireland division of global IT systems and services provider Fujitsu: “It won’t all be good news and openly recognising that helps build leadership credibility. We use…online discussions where people can raise issues in real-time, suggest solutions and get immediate responses from senior players in the business… We make sure the executive team is always accessible.”

Maria comments: “Feedback can get lost in the corporate machine, so people might feel nobody’s listening or that they aren’t contributing, when actually they may be making a very important contribution. So having a feedback loop with clear, two-way communication is the most important thing that can be done and often one of the hardest to get right in a large organisation.”

Such was the case for Nick Allen, former VP of Strategy and Portfolio at oil and gas giant Shell, who was tasked with the challenge of understanding how the organisation could better retain female middle managers. “It required listening to why they were leaving and being willing to take on board the things you may not have thought about, or that may be more difficult to execute than you would like,” he recalls. “I ran virtual focus groups using… video conferencing with six female managers and it was genuine dialogue, so I ended up getting them to chair and facilitate the discussions… [because] you really want to get to the point where the solutions come from them.”


What engagement really boils down to is good old-fashioned communication. That means listening to employees, acknowledging their views and making them feel that they’re opinions count for something.

The mistake is to think that employee engagement can be created in bitesize programmes or one-off team building initiatives. As Colin says, “Organisations with a truly engaged workforce simply see it as part of everyone’s day job.”

I hope to see you soon.


Why Social Media has Changed Innovation


The sources of innovation are changing. As communication channels evolve, companies must learn new ways to open up to customers and collaborate with employees and third parties in order to develop ideas. Harnessing those insights so that experimentation and business strategy are aligned is a major headache, but it’s one that must be dealt with if organisations are to stay competitive.

Social media presents an opportunity to rapidly create communities with employees and customers, but for genuine engagement and innovation to happen something more sophisticated is required from businesses. Tulsi Naidu, Operations Director for UK & Europe at Prudential, says: “I suspect all businesses now are doing a range of blogs and Twitter-type interactions, but I’m particularly excited about our ‘colleague ideas’ portal which we launched about a year ago.

“It’s an open portal which started guerrilla-style through a home-coded collaboration forum by a bunch of IT colleagues, and is now being rolled out to over a thousand people. It has a lot of energy around it because people tend to dive in every day, look at their favourite ideas and post comments.”

Ruth Cairnie, Executive Vice-President of Strategy and Planning for Shell International, explains that a programme was introduced to capture innovative suggestions from employees and external parties. “Entrepreneurs in all kinds of organisations can submit their ideas to us and we have a team of people who vet those ideas, decide which ones would have potential, then they can be supported with investment and expertise to turn an idea into reality,” she says, noting that one such suggestion, relating to a floating liquefied natural gas facility, is “now on its way to become part of a world-class project”.

Ideas have to be shaped so that they inform the business strategy. Annette Burgess, Commercial Director of books and stationery wholesaler Baker & Taylor UK, says: “All stakeholders need to play an active role in social innovation, but I think there needs to be a gatekeeper in terms of looking at what points and which conversations should go onto these social innovation platforms. The difficulty is that as well as having all these meaningful conversation, not all ideas will be taken forward in this collaborative process, so somebody needs to steer the initial conversations.”

Paul Baxter, Social Business Leader at IBM, explains that the company engages in real-time conversations internally for the purpose of innovating. “It could be around redefining corporate values, which we have done, or it might be about thinking how we redefine our product or service proposition in the marketplace,” he says. “Everybody in the organisation will come online and contribute but, importantly, it’s not just an opportunity to gripe about anything that comes to mind, it is structured around key themes which are carefully moderated.

“In terms of how you derive insight from that mass of data, we use our analytical tools to look at what the hotspots are around the conversation, what the key influences are and then, as an output, we’ll make sure we go back to check that everyone is up-to-date with what the main insights are that came out of that very large online conversation, and which ideas are going to be taken forward.”


Rock the boat

There has to be a leap of faith from executive teams in how ideas are encouraged and rewarded. After all, as much as introducing something ‘new’ is perceived to be good, the reality is that it can stir up friction within an organisation. “You need to welcome change and innovation, but many business leaders are absolutely terrified of it,” says Don Elgie, CEO of insight and communications company Creston.

In a number of industries, the pace of change is relentless. Simon Johnson, UK and International Group Managing Director for publisher HarperCollins, comments: “If you’re not creating fresh approaches, you’re in trouble. Our ability to do this is a key competitive advantage because, while we aren’t trying to become the biggest publisher in the world, we are trying to build the fastest, most creative, nimble and innovative business.”

Beyond driving ideas through social media and variations of crowdsourcing, the fundamental problem within a vast number of companies is how to create an innovative culture. It requires maintaining the traditional hierarchy, operations and efficiencies within the organisation while, at the same time, there is effectively a shadow business running alongside which is agile, flatter in structure and able to drive new strategy development and product innovation.

This leads to conflicts about culture, performance measurement (think of the traditional retailers fighting their ‘space vs online’ battles) and degrees of permissible experimentation. Where exactly is the line between hitting quarterly targets and securing the long-term future and success of the business? Just how far can innovation be pushed within an organisation so that it doesn’t just undermine day-to-day performance, but even produces ideas that render the existing business obsolete?

Each company has to decide on its boundaries and definitions of success. Simon comments: “It’s about avoiding the ‘innovators dilemma’. For a business like ours, which has been around for a long period of time, it’s vital that we are the disruptor and not the disrupted. That may mean at some stage disrupting your own business model, not just focusing on the short-term financial targets. Generally, incumbents have a predisposition to not evolve because they are worried about destroying their legacy business.”

This can be kept at bay if the focus is on the customer and defined goals. Tulsi comments: “We’ve made a point of saying everything must have a conclusion and being able to go in and look at the graphs that tell you how many ideas you have on there, what stage of the process they are in and whether they are under consideration, in implementation or have been stopped from further progress.”

If the engagement and passion are right, then ideas should flow. Costas Markides, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School, comments that “ideas can come from anybody, anywhere, anytime so any processes that help to put this philosophy into practice are welcome”. Although there is nothing particularly new about this per se, he does acknowledge that the speed at which technology can be used to galvanise the ideas of numerous people does give a different twist to innovation.

Paul says: “Over the next decade or so, companies will start to think about how they foster, measure and reward collaboration and knowledge-sharing internally. Rather than just being about how much business you have sold or how much revenue you have earned, the extent to which people are collaborating and seen to be leading thinkers within the business, and the ability to put some objective measures around this, will be built into some of the HR scorecards of the future.”

No one is saying this is easy, but executives must be brave and experiment rather than assume that the old ways of creative thinking are going to provide the competitive edge going forward.