Parents, Children and Productivity

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We tell young people joining the workforce that work isn’t like school, so why do we treat employees like children? The joint ACAS, CIPD and Manchester Metropolitan University conference yesterday was full of ideas to challenge current approaches.

The focus of the ‘A 2020 Vision’ conference was the productivity challenge and how we can work better to improve work and improve working lives. Ultimately, and perhaps this should include a ‘spoiler alert’ the answer was about flexibility. What was interesting though was that this wasn’t articulated using the popular concept of ‘flexicurity’ in which employees are expected to waive their employment rights and dignity in the interests of the greater economic good. Rather, it was about employers (primarily) recognising that allowing and even encouraging more flexible ways of working based on trust can unlock greater productivity.

We were reminded by Stephen Taylor (University of Exeter and Chief Examiner for the CIPD) of the increasing reliance we have, and will have, on jobs that require higher level skills than people typically have. The resulting situation in which high skilled labour demands increase significantly, whilst supply outstrips demand for lower level jobs, will produce a real challenge for HR. For Taylor, this will mean HR being faced with an unprecedented Recruitment and Retention challenge, perhaps to a point where this is almost the sole measure of the effectiveness of an HR function. For me, the only way to go is to develop in house headhunting capabilities and to look again at job design.

Taylor also made the point that we will be approaching these challenges of growing demand in a scenario where most of us can’t rely on pay as a single differentiator or USP. In attracting people for whom time is more valuable than money, developing flexible working capabilities and cultures based on trust becomes an imperative.

Peter Monaghan of ACAS looked again at the Psychological contract and gave some fascinating examples of where he had seen excellent practice. The point that will stick with me is about collaboration. Peter made the point that all of the best practice he had seen in the field of employee relations was where employers and employees had collaborated together. We don’t any longer want to live in a world where either employers or employees will be solely responsible for solving productivity problems;  we can’t afford to live in that world any longer. It is only through working in partnership that we can make serious progress.

Netflix and Zappos also got a few mentions as companies who had done something radical with HR based on personal responsibility and people deciding how to work, when to arrive and go home, and when to take holidays. Again, the idea that employees can be treated almost as self-employed people while working for you came to the fore on the basis that, as long as the job gets done, we don’t mind how you do it.

Over lunch there was a really interesting discussion about people working from home and out of hours. What became evident was that some people are ready to cope with the constant ability to work (without feeling compelled to) where, for others, that pressure was too much to resist. Are you confident enough to not reply to the email that comes through on a Saturday afternoon even though you could do? How far do we get towards becoming more productive when we feel that we are on a seven day slog rather than a pattern of work, rest and play? What was clear around the table was that people have their own preferences about when and how to work so a one size fits all approach won’t work.

We were reminded too of the usefulness of looking at this problem through a technology lens. Significant numbers of young people value social media as a way of both learning and connecting but also raising and promoting their own personal brand to increase their career capital. At the same time that this is happening, some 70% of employers are looking to restrict or control their employees’ use of social media. We would be hard pushed to find a better example of the truth that this parent child thing has got out of hand. When it is the kids who are showing us the future, and the bosses who are struggling to keep up, we need to look at this productivity problem again and think about where the answers might lie.

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