Shredding the workplace rule book

Aug 18 2009 by John Blackwell Print This Article

There's striking disagreement on the shape of the economic upturn – being touted are 'J', 'L', 'V', 'U', 'W' or even a 'saxophone shaped upturn', however what's sure is it's coming. With the upturn – welcome or not – is a complete shredding of the workplace rulebook!

Today's workplace consists of finely balanced interdependencies between people, space, technologies, culture, and management practices. It demands HR professionals talk fluent real estate, real estate professionals talk fluent talent and collaboration, technologists talk fluent culture, and managers be fluent in trust, agility, and social connection.

Get it right and the workplace is a vibrant, inspiring place that motivates creativity, innovation, and untold performance levels. Get it wrong and it's dull and disenfranchising, with staff bored by the tedium.

This isn't some abstract theory – everyone reading this article will, at some point, have experienced a dull workplace and equally will have experienced a vibrant one.

The current economic turmoil has brought about a unique combination of factors that's not merely overturning workplace rules, it's completely shredding the rule book!

Prominent factors in this upheaval are:

1. Unemployment: In OECD countries, unemployment has risen from 6.8% in 2008 to today's 7.8%, and is projected to top 10% by 2010. While any unemployment is distressing, the impact on remaining staff is possibly more dramatic.

How drastic? Research suggests that half of staff have lost trust in their employer and almost as many - 46% - would leave at the earliest opportunity if they had the chance.

This distrust is rooted in staff eyeing ranks of empty desks and an assumption that they'll voluntarily "pick up the slack". Staff are also disenfranchised over the lottery approach to downsizing and the lack of visionary thinking about alternatives. When cost avoidance is today's corporate mantra, this discontent and churn could prove financially crippling.

It's a myth that restructuring is creating a labour market awash with talent
2. A shrinking talent pool: It's a myth that restructuring has created a labour market awash with talent. More than 60% of white-collar unemployed are turning their back on corporate life and investing redundancy monies in starting entrepreneurial businesses. Having walked away, this talent won't be returning corporate life.

Factor in a 17% decline in 'prime-age' labour (due to decreasing birth rate, increasing adult education, etc), this represents a notable shrinkage of an already rarefied talent market – something that the UK's Department for Work and Pensions is projecting won't return to 'normal' until 2020!

3. Virtual working: Staff are juggling a three-fold increase in project volumes since 2004, compounded by increased matrix working and the outsourcing of non-core activities, which is leading to an explosion in virtual working.

We've projected that, by 2010 staff will be spending just 5% of their day in the same place, on the project, at the same time as their colleagues. 95% of time will be spent working alone, at a different time, place, or on a different schedule.

Consequently, managers have a far looser understanding of their teams, and must rapidly learn how to migrate from command-control to mentoring, motivating, and coaching.

4. Unsustainable office utilisation: Prior to the economic downturn, office utilisation was typically hovering around 50%. One of the first casualties of the recession was corporate real estate values, which has dropped by more than 44%. At the same time, almost every organisation is being forced to – or taking the opportunity to – optimise headcount.

This has created the perennial conflict between dwindling occupancy and the inability to shift surplus real estate – a direct outcome being plummeting office utilisation of 20% or lower, and dispersed staff finding themselves forced into 'intra-office virtual working'.

This commonly leads to reduced business 'fluency'. Just consider, if you're more than four metres apart, the chance is you'll not know the other person in the office.

Shredding the workplace rulebook presents both formidable challenges and great opportunities. We're entering the 'era of interdependence'. A time when all business dimensions – HR, physical space, technologies, culture, and management practices – must work in harmony to deliver effective performance.

The recent Workplace of the Future report shed considerable insight to how organisations are responding to changing work practices. Of the 1,100 business leaders interviewed, 83% perceive significant change, however only 61% have successfully changed in the past, a gap that has trebled since 2006.

The report found that organisations financially out-performing their comparators are investing in radical interventions, broadly grouped into two areas – trust-based, and socially connected workplaces.

Trust-based workplaces allow staff complete temporal and spatial autonomy. Socially connected workplaces actively encourage staff to engage and collaborate with likeminded people far beyond traditional work boundaries. This significantly improves the response to weak signals – competitive and creative developments that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Clearly, these far-reaching changes to the traditional workplace demand precision metrics and a structured, scientific approach. Everyone involved must be 'on-board', and have a clear view of the 4 P's of change;

  • Purpose – why change, what's in it for me?
  • Picture – what will it look like after the change?
  • Plan – what's the timeline and what should I expect?
  • Part – what's my part and what's expected of me?

However, change needs to be tempered with caution – it mustn't be dismissed as merely 'engineering' processes or tasks, it's a complex problem of co-evolution at multiple levels (individuals, the community, the environment etc).

A mechanical approach is by its nature dehumanising, and you must remember you get out what you measure. If you set targets, staff will attempt to realise the targets at all costs, ignoring context or the unstated goals that the change was hoping to realise. An awful amount of resource can be wasted managing a measurement system rather than letting the workplace flourish.

We all have a stake in addressing the current situation - organisation and individual alike – in creating a brighter, smarter, and more vibrant "workplace of the future". And all of us can take immediate steps to embracing this new order.

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About The Author

John Blackwell
John Blackwell

John Blackwell is a sought after global thought-leader on effective business operation. His is author of over 30 management books and a visiting fellow at three leading universities.