Thought Leadership Event

Unlock the potential for growth of your people

Flexible working as a means of boosting the performance and potential of your people was the topic of the second in a series of Vibrant Economy Breakfasts which we co-hosted with the Cranfield School Management.

A vibrant economy allows businesses and people to achieve their full potential. With employee expectations transforming as a result of technology, demographics and systems, how can businesses harness change to help them and their people succeed in future?

We hear much in the news about revolutions in the modern workplace. But what does it really mean? While technology has leapt ahead, workplace culture, and people management, is often left behind. Employers must beware ignoring these changes. Allowing their workplace to continue with ‘business as usual’ means they will easily be superseded or outcompeted by companies who understand how enjoyable, rewarding and satisfying work can be for the individual employee.

Technological change

The most noticeable revolution in work has been the appearance of new technology. Cheaper, more powerful and ubiquitous computers have given workers greater capability.  Faster communications, along with safer networking, have allowed them to connect from a distance or in larger groups. Smartphones and 4G give unlimited access to workers. These unlock the agile, flexible working options that progressive companies already offer.

“Technology has challenged the notion of a ‘workplace’ by affecting where and when we work,” says Professor Clare Kelliher, Cranfield Professor of Work and Organisation. “And now, with developments in AI we see a different kind of work being created, with human empathy and service at a premium as other aspects are taken over by AI. The key is to make technology fit for purpose, and it’s the responsibility of company leadership to do this in an effective way so technology adds to our growth, instead of frustrating it.”

Performance gains from robotics, artificial intelligence and automation are being harnessed to drive business growth across the globe. Fears of humans being left out of this brave new world appear to be groundless, as the recent CIPD report The impact of emerging technologies on work has found:

“Work-related outcomes of emerging technologies in the transport and healthcare contexts suggest that these technologies will complement and extend human capabilities rather than remove humans from the process.”

Societal change

Whether caused by technology, or as the force behind technological development, the society employees live in is changing quickly. Government has recognised this, shaping policy through studies such as the office of tax simplification’s focus paper on the ‘Gig’ economy. Organisational practices are likewise reflecting the new reality of today’s workforce, where employees embrace change, demand flexibility and expect independence.

More than ever, workers have a need for a sense of purpose. This is the connection that makes them a truly engaged workforce, increasing productivity and motivation. Staff who have enthusiasm for their work, and who take pride in their company, tend to perform better.

Companies should focus on developing a purpose beyond profit and growth, especially since this purpose can be defined and pursued relatively cheaply. As Dr Brent D. Rosso, Associate Professor of Management Montana State University, pointed out in the New Scientist, there are six ways that modern workers find meaning, aside from the financial. Authenticity, agency, self-worth, purpose, belonging, transcendence – factors that some employers overlook.

“We must be careful in how we attribute the idea of ‘meaning’,” says Professor Kelliher. “People can find meaning in things others think mundane. Research by Professor Katie Bailey at the University of Sussex has found road sweepers, for instance, gain satisfaction from the visible results of their work. Managers must locate the specific meaning that employees find in what they do, and focus on that, rather than trying to exaggerate some higher purpose.”

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Demographic change

Advances in technology and cultural expectations are at the core of how we define Generation Z. Born between 1996 and 2010, this generation is now entering our workforce. It’s estimated that there are over 2.5 billion young adults in Generation Z, larger than the two generations before it, X and Millennials. Entrepreneurial and tech-savvy, they have grown up with rich Internet content and mobiles, and cannot remember a time before these technologies.

Just as Generation Alpha, who will follow them, the people in Generation Z expect integrity from employers. As a CIPD report on the impact of AI on the workplace states, corporate scandals like BHS, Sports Direct and Volkswagen turn them off. The tax avoidance of global corporations such as Facebook, Apple and Amazon may not deter them from the products, but will guarantee zero loyalty when an alternative arises. Similarly, controversies over pay and value for money at universities trouble them. These scandals mean that members of Generation Z think businesses don’t care about the society they’re living in. Yet according to Professor Kelliher, there is much in common across the generations when it comes to encouraging potential in employees.

“Take the idea of flexible working, which we simply assume is something young workers crave along with corporate responsibility and a better work/life balance,” she says. “In fact, it’s just as important for older workers, who have other priorities in later life, and equally for workers in their middle years who have family interests to think about. We have the tangible evidence from young people, but when you look you see that older generations are after the same things.”

If employees are to be truly engaged and productive, especially in larger, multinational companies, they should be reassured that the brand purpose of the firm, corporate responsibility, and commitment to flexible working, should be the reality, rather than lip service. In the UK, recent revelations over gender pay differences have laid these contradictions bare: many employers have to think again about the pursuit of purpose.

Working culture

Flexible working is the obvious, and highly visible answer to meeting many of the future workforce’s expectations. As Professor Kelliher has pointed out in the Financial Times, the increasing popularity of using technology like laptops and mobiles has already caused employers to think creatively about how they employ staff. Allowing employees to work in a more independent and globally distributed way, connected by technology and social tools can be cost-effective as well as productive.

These new work cultures do not simply require different technology. They demand a complete rethink of how employees are managed. Managing distributed teams is a discipline that needs to be taught and reviewed if it is to be a success. Managing performance and the sharing of workflows under these circumstances is only simpler if it’s carried out correctly.

“In many organisations, employees are given flexibility but are left to manage this flexibility on their own,” says Professor Kelliher. “Our recent study of part-time workers finds that they will often have little follow-through or support to help them with their flexibility. What people need is the same amount of management as before, but in a different style. This can be taught to managers so they can encourage growth in their employees.” For example, managers could schedule time for virtual meetings with employees, without setting an agenda. This would help strengthen the remote working relationship, and underline the trust they have with each other by not ‘checking up’.

Action group Engage for Success defines four enablers of high employee engagement:

  1.  A strong narrative that employees understand and appreciate.
  2.  An effort by line managers to support staff while also stretching them
  3.  Listening to employees’ views and proving they are listening.
  4.  Leaders that live by their stated values and show it in the way they behave.

Are businesses ready? There is a challenge to meet these changing employee expectations. Failure to understand and use technology effectively, for instance, will lead to a deadly disconnect between staff and employers. Using technology well will result in a competitive advantage in productivity and motivation. As the CIPD’s The impact of emerging technologies on work points out:

“For organisations and workers to realise the benefits of innovative technologies, it is crucial that employers involve their people in times of technological implementation. Employees should not view this change as something that is ‘done to them’ – but ‘done with them’.”

Professor Kelliher, in her Vibrant Economy Breakfast presentation, listed four ways which corporate culture must change to unlock the potential of employees. They must be ready to challenge traditional ways of working, she suggests. This means rethinking areas such as contracts so they meet the reality of job roles and working hours. Tax accountants, for example, tend to work more hours towards the close of the financial year, so it would make more sense for them to have ‘annual hours’ contracts, setting out a fixed total of work hours over the year, rather than averaging their hours by the week or day.

Other ways of changing culture offered by Professor Kelliher include building trust with employees as they work in non-traditional ways, improving connectivity to enable better working practises and greater flexibility, and focusing on building relationships between employees and leadership.

When work is done differently, other things must change, says Kelliher. Employers must take stock and learn from experience, building on the learnings that are taking place every day thanks to the change in work practice. Customisation is key. There are also bound to be unintended outcomes from the change. Kelliher highlights the importance of informal agreements between managers and their team members. In practice, she says, these informal agreements lead to higher output than ‘official’ ones; trust leads to reciprocity.

Despite the effectiveness of informality and flexible working, managers should not ignore the fact they are losing activities and interaction that bind teams together. Attempts should be made to recreate or simulate these interactions, such as agenda-free calls or the use of social software.

Training for the future

Understanding AI, automation and robotics, and how they can best serve employees, is a must for employers. Managers must master the new business tools such as social media connectivity and online work stream management from the top down. This demonstrates that managers are ‘walking the walk’, and can be trusted to give employees the culture and values they demand.

Investment in training by organisations, government and educational institutions can help ready the workforce for these changes, and accelerate the growth of tomorrow’s businesses. “There needs to be a balance between meeting the needs of the organisation to grow, and offering employees the chance to get their work balance right,” says Professor Kelliher. “The business and the individual should find a mutual benefit in the way they use agile, flexible working, to unlock the potential of both.”

> Find out how we are unlocking the potential for growth in our employees

If you’re interested in attending our Vibrant Economy Breakfasts contact Deanne Prudden.

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