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It’s time to realise work has changed for good

Barry McNeill - Semco Style Institute (SSI UK)

As organisations struggle to create a way to manage hybrid working that suits employees and employers alike, Barry McNeill, co-founder of Semco Style Institute UK (SSI UK) says businesses and leaders need to understand that the way we work has changed for good – and take a more collaborative approach to working styles.

According to a recent Gallup Survey1, only 9% of workers in the UK are actively engaged at work. That’s a rock-bottom figure. Of course, there are several reasons for this, but our work with larger organisations suggests that the way that many leaders approach hybrid working isn’t helping.

Let’s be frank. Following the pandemic, there’s no way that ‘work’ is returning to the office-based 9-5, five days a week model. The reality is that we all must adapt to a new way of working. Hybrid working isn’t a choice, or even an alternative. It’s just the new way of working, and the sooner leaders and organisations make that shift in thinking, the easier planning and organisation design will become.

Meeting the challenge of accelerated change

Ways of working were starting to change even before the pandemic. Employees were asking for more flexible working opportunities, and technology was already in use to help people reduce travel, collaborate remotely and improve work-life balance. Without Covid, this change to work would have kept moving slowly, giving organisations the time to plan what type of working environment was best for them and their people.

But the pandemic accelerated that change by imposing home working with practically no notice. Businesses that had resisted remote working found that it was possible, and employees have adapted work and life patterns to co-exist in a more harmonious way, so they don’t have to make the life-work trade-offs that previous, rigid patterns enforced.

The pandemic has driven significant behavioural change for workers. But many leaders haven’t caught up, and this is driving a growing disconnection between organisations and their people.

The importance of open conversations

What’s happening? Well, many organisations are falling into the trap of thinking that the way to make this fair and equitable for everyone is to apply a new set of ‘rules’. They’ve previously had a rule about how they do business – everyone in the office, meetings held in the same location and a very top-down management style. And the instinct of many leaders is just to slightly change the rules – you must be in the office for a set three days every week, for example.

But often they do that without consultation, without looking at how each team can best manage its needs, and without thinking about how a rules-based system removes control and autonomy, and results in demotivation, reduced productivity and problems with retention.

We often reference the work of Daniel H Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us2. The book talks about allowing people to focus on their intrinsic motivators, such as getting better at stuff, having control over how and where we work, and feeling deeply moved by why we are doing what we do), rather than extrinsic motivators such as more pay or benefits – or indeed, ping pong tables and free lunches.

Following on from this, Dr Daniel Wheatley published a paper in 20173 which breaks down Dan Pink’s suggestion that people need autonomy.  He identified two areas: Job Control, where you understand and have control of the tasks you do, and Schedule Control, which includes where you work and how you work. Having that autonomy increases motivation and productivity and improves retention. And that autonomy increases as people climb the corporate ladder. So, where organisations are putting pressure on managers to ‘role model’ coming back into the office, they are undermining autonomy at a number of layers of hierarchy, using the positional power of seniority to ‘force’ compliance.

Commit to working with your people

Organisations across the UK are losing talent right now because people are refusing to put themselves back into a position where they have no control of their working lives.

Leaders and employees are struggling with this. No one feels it’s working quite the way it should.

There is a better way. It requires more thought, more commitment to doing things differently, and the willingness to give everyone in the organisation a voice. It requires leaders to be brave, and to come out of the traditional ‘box’ of leadership and take some risks. But it works.

It’s important to say here that organisations absolutely must put their success at the heart of planning. There’s got to be a balance between the needs of the business and the needs of the individual. All we’re saying is that there are different routes to achieving that success. Routes that celebrate democracy and common sense. Routes that enable participation, creativity and engagement across the whole business. Routes that establish trust, commit to open feedback and review and encourage everyone to have their say. Routes that don’t set or follow rules but are open to change and innovation and have accountability built in for everyone.

Essentially, by having clear and open conversations about how the business can work most successfully, about who takes responsibility and how we positively manage accountability, the issue of where ceases to matter. Employees have had complete involvement in planning and have been able to say openly and without criticism, what kind of working life they want. You will have the technology in place to share information, collaborate in real time and keep your business secure – so you can be selective about why and when your teams meet in person – and when they don’t. You’ll have a culture of openness, discussion and collaboration, and showed your people that you trust them to deliver tasks wherever they are.

The workplace really has changed for good. And it’s a good change – a good opportunity to reimagine the way things can be done. Businesses who grasp that opportunity will come out on top.


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