A healthy email policy?


I saw this article today.  There is much good advice in here, but most if it I have seen before – or we instinctively know for ourselves.

But something in the piece did catch my eye. The idea of  healthy email policy.

As someone who has been involved in policy work for a good while, I remember the days when creating an email policy was a big deal. It had the same level of focus that social media policies get today.  I’m sure that when workplaces first introduced desk phones we felt the need to tell people how to use them too.  Eventually, these things become so part of the everyday (or even passé) that the need for a policy wanes.  I reckon there are plenty of email policies out there though, all the same.

A healthy email policy though….. that I could get behind.

We know that email can be a problem. Not the tool itself but how, and often when, it is used. Organisations where the email culture isn’t healthy at all.

Competitive late night emailing. Expectation of immediate responses.  Meaningless out of office messages, because employees feel like they can never really switch off.  The passive aggressive cc.  The ‘confirming our discussion’ ass cover.  And so on.

Of course, it’s not just unhealthy organisational habits, but personal ones too. We jump to the inbox ping, an ingrained Pavlovian response. Our emails are often in our pockets or on our smart watches, following us everywhere, quietly nagging us for a response.  And we do.

So just what could a healthy email policy look like? For some organisations it means banning emails ‘out of hours’ or automatically deleting emails when people are on holiday.  For me, both of these feel too much like treating employees like children who can’t manage their own workloads.  It also risks enforcing the idea that there is any such thing as a ‘normal’ working day.

Instead, a healthy email culture is one where someone does not feel like they have to respond immediately or be thought of as less committed or motivated. Where you can put an out of office on and mean it.  Where, if someone wants to work late at nights or weekend, they do so in a way that doesn’t role model unhealthy or unhelpful habits (just put them in your drafts folks and send them in the morning).  It also means an email culture where sometimes we don’t send one at all and just get up and have a conversation instead.

Do we need a healthy email policy? Probably not.  Instead, we need to start with ourselves by creating our own healthy email habits – and challenging the unhealthy ones we see from our colleagues too, along the way.

Reasons to be flexible

I read an article yesterday, all about flexible working. Contained within, three reasons why companies need to consider it.  One of them?  Because the law says so and it might be illegal not too.

And herein lies the problem.

The flexible working discourse is mired in the legislative framework. It is all about how we ‘handle a statutory request’, as opposed to having actual conversations with people about their wants and needs.  It is also the basis of our policies and processes.

Many of those policies do only that which is required by that statute. Often, the list of statutory reasons to say no right up front in the document.  The legislation was initially written for those with children or caring responsibilities – and we continue to associate the need for flexible working with these limited groups.

Approaching flexible working in these terms will mean that we forever miss the point. We will continue to view it through a family friendly lens, rather than one of talent or inclusion, or many of the other reasons why flexible working can be a Very Good Thing.

So in the interests of balance, here are my reasons why flexible working should be the rule, not the exception.

The current model of work (for the traditional office based worker at least) is predicated on the idea that we all go into an office at similar times of day.  This leads to poor outcomes for individuals and the environment – and even the organisation.  Long, crowded, expensive and stressful commutes.  Not good for wellbeing of any kind.  We know too, that many of us don’t do our best thinking in an office environment, surrounded by distractions and even more traditions of work that are often not conducive to what an organisation really needs (excellence, innovation, agility and so on and so on).

So why do we do still do it? These working patterns are hard wired and traditions die hard.

There are plenty of reasons as to why we should have more flexible working.

Flexibility is an inclusion thing. If we truly want rich, diverse and inclusive workplaces, then they need to be open to everyone, whatever their personal situation.  Consider someone with a physical disability.  How much harder is it for them to even get into a workplace on public transport in the crowded rush hour?  To travel to a workplace probably not in many ways set up for their specific personal needs, as opposed to their home which will be.  Whilst I don’t want flexible working to be a gender thing, a lack of flexible working at senior levels is a contributing factor to the lack of women the further up we go in the hierarchy.  Want to tackle your gender pay gap?  Start by thinking about making work more flexible.

It’s not just an inclusion thing – flexibility is also a talent thing. We’ve all heard about the much clichéd war for talent. We are so bought into the concept of employee engagement that we spend significant amounts of money and effort surveying it and action planning it and communicating all about it. We worry too about our retention of our talent.  Sadly, offering true flexibility is still a rare thing.  Which means that it is also a big talent opportunity – a way to attract, retain, engage and motivate.  All at very little cost.

Finally. And I saved the big one for last.

People want it. It is that simple.

I could go on about millenials and the new world of work.

But ultimately, the best reason of all is simply this one. Many of the people that work for you today, want more flexibility in their work and their lives.  If you don’t offer it, just maybe they will go somewhere that will.

The Monday to Friday 9-5 pattern of office work is a one size fits all model that meets the desires of the few.

It is 2017. It is time to put aside our prejudices and stereotypes and yesteryear glasses about where and how we work.

Let’s make flexible work, work.


If you want to read more about this subject, check out this great post from Paul Taylor.

Go home on time… or whenever

Today, it came to my attention via Twitter that the 21st June, the longest day of the year, is ‘Go Home on Time’ Day, organised by Working Families.  They say: We want to start a national discussion that puts work life balance and employee wellbeing at the forefront and stresses that going home on time should be the norm, not the exception.

I’m torn.

I like anything that raises awareness of the need for life work balance and integration. That challenges thinking about the way that work is usually done.  But at the same time, I find it sad that we need such a day.  That we need to raise awareness, give permission, remind people, to leave their work at their normal finish time.

Here is what I know.

Time spent at a desk does not necessarily mean high productivity.

Time spent in the office does not necessarily amount to good work.

Time spent working after the end of the normal working day does not equal hero status.

Time spent working does not necessarily equal business performance, an increase in the financials, innovation or creativity or any of the other things that businesses need to survive and thrive.

A culture of long hours can be damaging. But all the same, it is hard wired into many places – and leadership styles.

If your people are regularly working excessive hours it should tell you something.

At best, you have a cultural problem.

It may also mean that there is a resource issue, unrealistic expectations set, excessive pressure or demands, or simply, a time management issue.

But something is wrong. The wrong stuff is being valued.

Here’s the thing. People value flexibility.  Research suggests many will take it over a pay rise.

I love the work that I do. I also need balance.  If I go home at 5pm, I am no less committed or engaged.  And I am not the only one.

It’2 2017. It is long past time to judge people on the hours that they work, or the time they clock out.   Judge them instead on what they bring, deliver and contribute.  The value that they add – all the time.

Not just after 5pm.

Are your employees really your greatest asset?

simon heathThe first tweet I saw this morning was from Simon Heath. He was calling out that old staple ‘your employees are your greatest asset’.

It is a statement that has become a cliché.

It’s also a cliché to say that actions speak louder than words. In the case of employees, it is most definitely true.

Anyone can say that employees are their greatest asset. In much the same way that anyone can come up with a generic list of values and put them on a website and into the corporate induction.

When it comes to leading people, words are just words.

Whether you really mean them is shown up in your actions, in the every day.

Putting aside the idea of employees as assets (something that I instinctively dislike), this is something you shouldn’t get to say unless you mean it.

If people are your greatest asset, don’t say it, prove it.

It should be evident in your recruitment practices, your people policies, the reward that you offer, the learning opportunities in place, in the actions of your leaders.

To anyone organisation that says people are their greatest asset, I would pose these questions:

  • Do you pay the living wage?
  • Do you offer flexible working?
  • Do you go out of your way to create a great candidate experience?
  • Do you have an induction that supports this statement?
  • Do you invest heavily in your leaders so that they can bring this to life when it comes to leading their teams?
  • Do you have a way to give people regular feedback on their performance – and I don’t mean a once a year appraisal.
  • Do you have awesome internal communications?
  • Do you offer people the freedom to do their best work?
  • Do your people polices treat people and speak to them like they are adults?
  • Do you invest in people’s development even when budgets are tight?
  • Do you offer a range of rewards that are flexible and meet the individual needs of your employees?
  • Do you treat your employees as well as you treat your customers?

As a minimum, if you can’t answer yes to these questions, then your actions don’t match your words. You are not treating people like they are your greatest asset.

So stop saying it.

Image by Simon Heath.


What time do you call this?

There are some jobs where timekeeping really matters.  If a shop has to open, call handlers need to answer the phone, a train needs to leave on time…. then those who do that work need to be there when they need to be there.

But this doesn’t apply to all jobs. It doesn’t apply to many of those that are doing the 9-5.  For many, those working hours are simply a tradition of working lives.

I’ve worked at places where managers are obsessed with what time people walk in the door.  They monitor it to the minute and the second.  They even hold disciplinary hearings for breaches of these rules  Only all too often, the time being managed is that of people and jobs where it just doesn’t matter all that much.  For many roles, it isn’t the hours that you work that should matter but the results that you deliver and the impact you make.  A little harder to monitor though, perhaps.

When those workers need to be there each hour and minute, I see the need for this sort of time management.  Although like with any type of performance management, it’s all about how you do it.

There are two main approaches to managing people.  One is to treat employees like adults, and the other is to treat them like children.  Treating people like children includes getting employees to clock in and clock out when there’s no real need for them to do so.  Treating them like children means monitoring activity over achievement. It means worrying about someone walking through the door at 9.04 instead of 8.58.

Fundamentally, what we are talking about, is trust.

I once had to talk a manager out of a system of financial penalties for lateness.  I told him what he had planned was an unlawful deduction from wages.  That ended the debate.  But it was more than that of course.  The work was of a nature that demanded emotional labour.  Empathy and personal care.  Financial deductions from wages would have changed the game.  Led to unintended consequences.  For those who were there simply for the money rather than the meaning, it just becomes part of the financial calculation.  For the employee who was genuinely late for no fault of their own, damaging to engagement and their sense of meaning in what they do.

When I see managers who monitor the minutes, I often wonder whether, if they are so concerned about contractual hours, they are chasing those same employees out of the door at 5pm.  This isn’t usually the case of course.  It’s all about presenteeism in these sort of places and with those sort of managers.

I sit at my desk therefore I am.  Hours equals dedication, in these sort of organisations.

If you have good people, trust them to do a good job.

If you don’t have good people, then do something about it.

If the minutes don’t matter, don’t monitor them.

If your employees aren’t children, don’t treat them like they are.

What time is it?


Stainless Steel Digital Clock Showing 12:20 Am

Reflections on culture

I’ve been working somewhere new these last couple of weeks. Helping an organisation with their people stuff. It is always fascinating going somewhere new. Learning about the product and the customers and the people. When it comes to the HR stuff, from one place to another, it is both exactly the same and completely different. You can pretty much guarantee that there will be a handbook and a suite of policies. Organisation charts. Processes and procedures. Recruitment and induction and training and internal communications and payroll. All the people stuff, in their own particular way.

The key is the context. Not what the documents says, but the how.

When it comes to learning the culture at someplace new, what is okay and not okay, there is all the express stuff. What people say, and their silences too. It’s about watching for signs and listening closely.

How people talk to each other.

What is celebrated.

Where time is spent.

What gets focus.

What is encouraged and discouraged.

The tone of voice used, written and verbal.

What the money is spent on.

The welcome given.

The work place itself.

The care taken.

Where managers are, physically and psychologically.

What is done, and left undone.

These are the things, the signs and the signals, that tell you the true organisational narrative beyond the branded corporate induction material. It’s the how we do things around here.

The traditional people stuff operates within and around these variables. Only when you understand the context and the culture can you assess what people stuff needs to be done. My biggest challenge….. drawing too much on the past, other ideas and other places.

There isn’t any one size fits all perfect people solution. Only what will work, here, at this place, in this context. Today.

Out of Office?

This article gained some traction over the bank holiday weekend.  From 1st January, workers in France will have a so-called ‘right to disconnect’.  Companies with more than 50 employees will be obliged to draw up a code of conduct, expressly stating when employees are not required to answer their emails.

Now I am all for life work balance.  Equally too I believe in the importance of organisations taking wellbeing at work seriously.  But I am a little less convinced we should  legislate for it.

Legislation and employment policy have something in common.  If you need to write them, sometimes it means you have failed.

Here’s an example.  I heard of a manager who had spent thousands of pounds of his budget introducing a corporate uniform for a back office team that never came face to face with customers of visitors.  When I asked why, I was told that some of the employees in the team weren’t dressing appropriately for work.  So instead of talking to those few people and quickly sorting a problem, a dress code was written and communicated and expensive uniforms purchased and enforced.

Going back to the French example – if people are working late into the night, if people are checking their emails excessively, if people don’t have a healthy work life balance, then this isn’t about formal documents, it’s about your organisation culture.  Someone, somewhere, somehow, has said that this is expected.  Or at the very least tolerated.  Maybe there isn’t enough dialogue about wellbeing and balance in the organisation.  Maybe there aren’t enough resources to do the job properly.  But something is wrong and the starting point for addressing issues like these is rarely more policy, documents or legislation.  Instead these should only ever be a last resort.

We have all worked with one of those email people.  Who sends messages late at night, or at a silly time in the morning, or at the weekends.  Leading to everyone else jumping onto their emails to respond.  And so on.

This stuff spreads and it only takes one person to start it.  The more senior they are, the bigger the problem.

I often used to work in the evenings.  It suited my lifestyle, and I often found that if I went home at 5pm and let the day settle in my mind I’d have ideas or new insights whilst at home.  Sometimes they came in the shower or whilst in bed waiting for sleep.  Let’s face it, no one has their best ideas sitting at a desk in an open plan office.  But I made a conscious choice; I would write emails and leave them in my drafts file, ready to send in the morning, when no one in my team would be disturbed.

What we need isn’t even more written documents or employment policy.  Most companies have already got more than they need of that.

Legislation can help to change attitudes and beliefs.  But it is not a quick route to tackling bigger issues.  The Equal Pay Act tells you so.  More than 40 years on from the legislation, we are still waiting to see enough change is this space.

What we really need in the workplace in simple.

Less policy. More talking.


When culture goes bad

I have been reflecting on the research published yesterday into sexual harassment in the workplace. My co-author Tim Scott recently shared his thoughts on the same research here.

The report, entitled ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’, makes horrific reading.  In 2016.  At all. I’ve blogged previously about the word banter.  It is a dangerous word.  It reduces and minimises and trivialises what horrors some people have to go through just to earn a living.

If you put the word ‘banter’ into a Thesaurus this is what you will find…… Teasing. Joking.  Wit.  Repartee.

Try this example from the report and see if any of those words sound even vaguely representative.

‘On my last day at work, my colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get chance to rape me’.

Or this one.

In front of all his friends he groped my breasts’.

Banter this ain’t.

After reading this report, the questions that are running through my mind are these…..

How does an organisational culture get to this place?

How does this behaviour become part of the day to day?

How does this stuff happen in 2016?

Why, when harassment and offensive language, behaviour and so-called ‘banter’ takes place, do people stand by and watch it happen?

Because whilst some harassment goes on behind closed doors and out of sight, not all of it does. The report says so, and I know it for myself as someone who has both experienced it early in my career, and from dealing with it as a HR professional.

There is no one single answer to those questions I’m reflecting on.

It’s about what is permissible in an organisation. What is acceptable and tolerated.  It is about the behaviour of leaders and the message that sends.  It is about the extent to which it is safe to disagree and to challenge.

Another unrelated article makes a similar point.  The writer reflects on an organisation in which the C word, that most offensive of swear words, is so common place it has become barely noticeable to those that work there.

When you work in an organisation, especially for a long time, it is all too easy to fail to see what might be out of place or downright wrong within its culture. To see beyond what just happens around here and fail to ask if that is actually ok. To go with the flow.

Ask most people what they would do if they witnesses an act of harassment in the workplace and you will no doubt get a reassuring answer. They would report it.  They would help the person being harassed.  They would say something to the perpetrator.  But the evidence from this report, and indeed what we know about how our brains work, is that they don’t or won’t or can’t.

How does a culture go bad? In lots of ways.

Slowly. Incrementally.  One tiny step at a time.  Through poor leadership.  Through lack of challenge.  Through inertia.  Through simply not seeing.  The Ostrich effect.  The bystander effect.

Through all of the biases.

Culture is a boiling frog.

You have two choices when it comes to culture. You are either part of it, condoning or accepting.  Or you stand against it, for something else entirely.

And if we truly want to end harassment at work, then each of us need to stand up and be counted when the time comes.

The persistence of (organisational) memory

Memories make us who we are. They give us our sense of self.  Through memories we make sense of the now.

But they can hinder us too. Take this conversation that I had recently.

Them                     If I do X, then Y will happen, for sure.

Me                         In three years, I have never known that to be the case.

Them                     Ah, well it used to happen.  About ten years ago……..

Just like the proverbial elephant, we never forget.

Organisational stuff hangs around. For longer than you might think. Especially the stuff we remember as negative.

Memories, hard wired, into both individual and culture.  Beyond the time that they are helpful.  Beyond the time that they are still true.  Memories that grow larger than themselves.  Become myths and legends. Buried in our subconscious, ready for recall.

Shadows of leaders long past but who still loom large. A piece of difficult feedback lingering in the back of our minds. The project that didn’t go at all well. Or on the other hand, the time that we succeeded or the time that we celebrated together. A piece of genuine appreciation.

Stories written in the walls.

We say that culture is the ‘way we do things around here’.  But it’s not just how we do things today but yesterday and the day and days before that.

As leaders and HR professionals, what we do today reverberates into tomorrow. We constantly create memories for people.  How we handle that redundancy programme. How we speak to people every day.  How that project gets managed, or doesn’t.  What people get rewarded for, or don’t.  The 121 that we cancel.  What information is shared and what is kept secret.  What the Employee Handbook said in 1978.

It all hangs around for the long term.

Just like the individual memory bank, the organisational one is persistent too.  And as well as long lasting, unreliable.  Memory shifts and changes as time goes by. Convenient recall, or otherwise.

In organisations we so often strive for new stuff. New cultures, new visions and missions.  A new set of values.  Re-launched policies.  Another change programme.  But you can’t force people to forget what is remembered and therefore real to them.  You can’t say ‘ah well that was yesterday, so forget all about it’.

How long does a memory last? Like Dali’s melting clocks, memories are elastic.  Our capacity to store them is immeasurable.  It is a cliché that people have the memory of an elephant.  What is writ large for us is stored for the long term. In contrast, trivia, stuff that doesn’t cast a shadow, is cast aside from the short term memory banks.

We can’t ask our people to forget the organisational history. But we can challenge the old and create the new.  Being careful, always, in the organisational memories that we create.

More signs that you have a culture problem

I recently wrote a blog post about the signs that might suggest an organisation has a culture problem.  Here are just a few more.

High employee turnover

This one is kind of obvious perhaps. There are many reasons behind turnover, and sweeping generalisations should be avoided.  Even that one about people leaving managers and not jobs.  But if people are exiting at a rapid rate, especially when they have short tenure, then something, somewhere, isn’t quite right. Note – a bog standard exit interview won’t answer the question.

Meetings and more meetings

You have to have one for every bloody thing. They run over time, there’s no agenda and if there is no one sticks to it.  They are stuffed full of PowerPoint, and they are all about updates and not decisions.  I recently came across a HBR article, in which it said that the sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself, but what happens after it.  Never a truer word was blogged

The answer to every challenge, is to write a policy……

Which no one will ever read. People are taking too long on their breaks, lets write a policy about that.  Someone turns up at the office with blue hair, lets write a policy about that.  You end up with a load of stupid rules that most people won’t even realise exist, rather than sensible conversations from one adult to another.

There is a lack of concern about people stuff.

Whether we are talking about how the candidate is treated during their application process through to whether anyone ever gets a feedback conversation. Often, people stuff is the easiest stuff to let slide.   Here’s a question for you.  At your place, would a manager get the same angst about not getting their 121s in the diary as they would for going over budget?

The Disciplinary Stick is wielded often.

I once worked at a place where so many disciplinary hearings were held, they became a focus of fun. At the start of a shift, the manager would hand out all the little white envelopes with invitations to investigations, invitations to hearings.  An almost perverse badge of honour.  Is it your turn today?  There are times that discipline is appropriate.  Repeated issues, gross misconduct.  But all too often it is a sign that adult dialogue has failed.

There are unhelpful colloquialisms

Many years ago, I worked somewhere that had developed its own slang. A whole internal language.  The place was so rife with people getting blamed, getting pulled up and being shouted down, it had its own special phrase: getting a pineapple.  Which was short for, I have just had a pineapple placed robustly in a delicate part of my anatomy by a more senior member of staff.  Including the spikey bit. Humour can be useful. It can also be destructive and perpetuate problems.

Culture, is contextual. There are few generalisations that can be made, apart from to say simply, that if any of these signs or symptoms exist at your place, it is important to listen, to understand, to ask why.

It is often said that culture is hard to change. That if takes a very long time if you try.  There is some truth in both of these statements. But it is possible to take small steps and address the symptoms as well as the causes.  Challenge the language, change the approach, role model a different path.  And these are spaces that HR can absolutely lead the way.

Signs you have a culture problem

Organisational culture. It’s a funny old thing.

Described in many ways. Quotes abound. Said said to be ‘the way things get done around here’.   Allegedly, it eats strategy for breakfast.   A potential source of significant value creation, a potential threat to everything you are trying to achieve.

Hard to define, to pin down. Easy to talk about, less easy to truly understand.

Said to be hard to change. Shaped by leaders, by stories, by history, by people, by social conformity, by behaviours.  Organisational culture is fundamentally, your identity.

For me, organisational culture is what happens outside the structures. Not what is said to be done, or written down  or agreed, but what happens in the spaces in between.

So just how do you know if you have a culture problem, at your place? There are many signs and signals that something just isn’t quite right.  It is, as is often the case, the little things that are telling you a story, if you listen hard enough.  Here are just a few from my own observations.

People are constantly working excessive hours.

Busy periods or one-off problems aside, unless there is something very wrong with the job design, employees should be able to do their job within their contracted hours. When they actively chose to sit at their desk long past home time, work through lunch every day or getting in consistently early, then something else is going on.  Perhaps somehow, it has become part of your culture that this is how you get on, or even worse, this is how you get well thought of. Time over actual contribution.

People constantly talk about the past.

Quite possibly indicating that they are not totally with you today. It is all too easy to look at the past through rose-tinted bifocals.   Stories can be useful; they are after all, part of this thing overall thing called culture.  There is nothing wrong with a little reminiscing.  But when this reaches an unhelpful level, there’s usually a reason why.

There is no chance of flexible working, even when the roles permit it.

Employees are either not trusted to do their jobs, or they are being judged on the wrong things – again, valuing time spent at the desks over contribution or value added.

Social media is blocked on the network.

If a company is blocking social media, it is also preventing its people from learning, from collaborating, from bringing the outside perspective in. Maybe it also stops that one person in the finance team from doing a bit of extracurricular Facebook surfing, but nothing says we don’t trust you to behave like adults than not letting people make their own choices about what is and is not acceptable.  This is also all about trust. And if people do abuse access where it is provided, that is sending you a cultural message, too.

There is little value placed on learning.

Whether this is people dropping out of formal learning courses at the last minute because of some super important just dropped in the diary meeting (because learning isn’t important, is it?) or just a total lack of engagement with any kind of learning from the formal to informal, if people aren’t learning they aren’t growing. Over time, their contribution may diminish. They are not exposed to new ideas or fresh thinking.  Staleness results.

Everyday language is filled with ‘the management’ and ‘the business’ and them and they.

Telling you that people, for whatever reason, don’t see themselves as being part of the business, the team, the solution.

Issues go on and on without resolution.

Just like the point above, this can mean that no one sees themselves as part of the solution. Or people don’t feel sufficiently empowered to get on and make the necessary changes or take overdue action.

The place is a tip.

Maybe no one cares enough to do anything about it, or feels that they have the permission to begin.

Excessive use of the cc field on email.

People are covering their backs. There is fear going on, somewhere, somehow.  Or too many people like to play a big fat game of ‘I told you so’.  Deeply annoying, ever so slightly poisonous.

Senior leaders have to sign everything off.

More trust issues. Not enough empowerment.

Each and every one of these signs has a multitude of possible causes.  Reasons underneath. They are symptoms, not causes. It is impossible to generalise the reasons why, and what it means at your place.

Theses are only the signs. Doing something about it starts with understanding the why.  What is going on in your spaces in between?


All Tied Up.


Earlier this week I sat in a meeting room with some potential suppliers.  I was the only woman in a room full of men, and every one of them was wearing a tie.  I became distracted by all of the ties.  They were very nice ties, as ties go.  But I got distracted by the fact that I just didn’t know why they were wearing them at all.

So I tweeted it.

And as usual, we can rely on Twitter to rise to the occasion.

I had a variety of replies from the serious to the not so serious (I hope).

Simon Jones pointed me in the direction of France, where he tells me that it was used to hold the top of shirts together in the days before buttons.

There is a paragraph from a book that my mind comes back to, again and again.  It is from A Year Without Pants, and it goes like this.

Every tradition that we hold dear was once a new idea that someone proposed, tried and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown.  Continuing tradition simply because it is a tradition works against reason.  The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. 

There are plenty of traditions in every workplace that once served a useful purpose, fulfilled a particular need, solved a problem along the way, but have since slipped into tradition.  Custom and practice through to observed obsolescence.

The tie serves no actual purpose.  Just once upon a time someone’s definition of smartness.  A tradition that was once found valuable.

There are some companies that probably still require the wearing of a tie, a rule hard wired into the dress code.  There are even companies that have disputed it all the way to the employment tribunal.  I have an intense dislike of dress policies.  If someone gets to the age that they can legally work and earn money and pay tax but doesn’t know how to dress themselves appropriately, then we have a big problem that cannot be solved by yet another HR policy.

As often happens, the frequency illusion served me another example of tie disapproval via social media.  In my timeline came Richard Branson, cutting off ties.  I hadn’t come across it before, but he is known for his active dislike of ties and even uses the hashtag #nomoreties.  He thinks that ties encourage conformity and restrict new ideas.

My tie pondering took me to further thoughts.  What other traditions surround us at work that we don’t even question?  That are so embedded in our consciousness that the automatic neural pathways take over and run the routine?  Traditions that we could simply do without and nothing bad would happen or no one would even notice?  It says something about humans beings, that we hold so tightly onto traditions when their purpose is not only outdated, but their origins unknown, and their value unarticulated.

Someone once asked me on a development programme ‘how routine orientated are you?’  My answer?  Very.  For we are creatures of organisational habit.  Unless we actively seek to eliminate useless stuff, and invent something more valuable instead.


The curse of the early adopter

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you and then you win’.  Gandhi.

I love this quote.  I have it on the wall above my desk.  It reminds me that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if you are the lone voice.  And during my career in HR, this is a place I have often found myself.  Many years ago, I fought so hard for a disabled employee that I felt the company were discriminating against that I nearly lost my own job, and my relationship with a senior manager never recovered.  I left soon after.  Being a lone voice, being an early adopter, can be a lonely, difficult place.

I am guessing you are familiar with Roger’s Innovation Adoption Curve.  The rate at which new innovations and ideas spread throughout cultures.

Innovators and early adopters.  These are the folk, or organisations, who get to new stuff fast.  They are right at the beginning of the adoption curve. First to the new thinking, the new piece of tech.  Quick to try something out, spot some potential, shout about this new stuff and adopt it into their everyday.  There is other terminology we can use for these people.  Disrupters.  Boat rockers.  Game changers.

But there’s the thing.  Boat rockers are not always popular.

However you phrase it, however sound your argument for something new or different, especially within organisations, for some people it is always going to sound more like this:

  • What you did in the past wasn’t very good
  • What you are doing now isn’t either
  • Abandon everything and do this instead
  • It’s all crap here, isn’t it?

For some there are other reactions, and many different underlying reasons.  Fear of change. A lack of understanding and a lack of desire to understand better.  Protecting vested interests.  Sometimes, those on the receiving end of the early adopter are just not ready or prepared for the message, the change required.  Sometimes, it is arrogance – think of the HMV response to digital, downloadable music. And the early adopter can be the one that takes the blame, or gets laughed out the door.

There is a an often quoted phase, attributed to a variety of different folks, that goes something like this:   If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got. The problem is that it isn’t really true.  Not in many cases, not any more.  Because for many organisations, doing what you have always done is the road to obsolescence.

Social media is a great example. I could wax lyrical about the benefits of social media.  I already have done so in plenty of blog posts and presentations.  But although we are heading towards the laggard stage, for some it is still something they don’t want to know about.  Aren’t ready to adopt or learn about, let alone recognise its importance to any organisation.  It is also something that people bitterly complain about or joke about. I’m still hearing ‘isn’t twitter just about telling people what you had for breakfast?’.

First they ridicule you……

There are those organisations out there who, when faced with a game changer and a challenger, rather than ask why people feel that they need to change the game at all, just try and close it down, hard if they have too.  Just look what is happening to our HR friends in New Zealand who have challenged their professional body.

Then they fight you…..

So to every early adopter, game changer, challenger or innovator.  To everyone trying to do new stuff or improve old stuff, hold your nerve.

Because when all of the ignoring and the ridiculing and the fighting is done, just maybe you will win.

And if you are the person who rolls their eyes when someone at your place comes up with an off the wall idea, make sure they are not an early adopter. And that the one doing the ignoring, the ridiculing, the fighting, isn’t you.

Lead from the bottom

I was recently delivering a coaching programme. We got to talking about how to really embed coaching within an organisation.  What makes it really become effective, how to get the best from the style.  The conversation turned to the role of senior leaders, and the extent to which their involvement is needed, or otherwise, in order to make a step change in approach.

Whether it is embedding something like coaching, managing organisational change, introducing social culture – take your pick of the people stuff – the role of leaders is often talked about. Take social media.  The CIPD research ‘Putting Social Media to Work’ confirmed its importance in legitimising the use of enterprise social networks within organisations.

When it comes to embedding new stuff the role of senior leaders is important, and fulfils several roles.  It gives permission that something is acceptable at your place, or a good use of work time.  It sets an example, acts as a role model for behaviour.  It can help move things forward more quickly than they otherwise might.  It can provide heightened visibility or perceived value.

But for all the benefits of senior leader involvement, it is just as important that its absence does not become an excuse not to do something. The role of senior leaders is embedding new stuff is important.  But it is not essential.

Take another example. The much maligned performance review.  Whilst it is often criticised in its traditional format, we can’t deny that employees need feedback.  They need development discussions, they need conversations, they need to talk about what is expected of them.  It does work well when objectives are fully aligned across an organisation or to shared goals and visions.  It works very well when objectives and plans flow down through an organisation. Senior leaders absolutely should lead by example by holding reviews with their own team, and holding them to account to make sure that they do the same.  And onwards.  But I have heard too many managers in too many organisations tell me that the reason that they haven’t taken the time to sit down with their team to review and discuss and feedback and set objectives is because they haven’t had their own review.  That their manager hasn’t set them any objectives.  Like this is some sort of acceptable justification.

Just the same, I’ve heard plenty of people trot out the ‘it won’t work unless the senior managers do it’ line too many times. And here’s the thing.  Senior leaders are busy folks.  And sometimes they might just not do that thing that you hope that they might.

Back to the coaching example for the moment. Coaching as a style is optimal when it is fully embedded within an organisation. When it becomes part of the everyday interaction between individuals.  Part of the culture, top to bottom.  That is the ideal state, but like with much people stuff, much organisational stuff, the ideal isn’t often the everyday reality.  Or even close to achievable.  But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.

During the discussion I said this. If you knew your manager was never going to adopt a coaching style, if you knew you were never going to be coached yourself, would that stop you?  Should that stop you?

If you knew that your team would benefit from coaching. If you knew that by coaching rather than telling you could help a person develop.  Think well.  Learn.  Why wouldn’t you just do it anyway?  Why would you wait for permission from someone higher up in the chain?

Whatever it is you are trying to change. Whatever the people stuff you are trying to introduce.  You can choose.

Lead from the top.

Lead from the bottom.

Lead by example.

Lead from anywhere. As long as you just lead.

Choose Choice

I tweeted this Dilbert cartoon yesterday, poking gentle fun at the emerging unlimited holidays trend. Richard Branson announced its introduction across parts of Virgin last week.

dilbert hols

Let me start by saying this is the sort of initiative that I really like. It recognises some important facts about people and work, the first one being that employees like choice. I’m cynical about the generalisations about generations that get shared around, but one simple thing is true – different people want different things from work. Sometimes that is age related and sometimes it isn’t. Flexible holiday schemes, including those that allow you to buy and sell holiday, allow employees to prioritise what is right for them and their own life circumstances. So if you need to maximise your take home pay, you can. If time at home during the school holidays is more important, then choose this over salary. Simple choice.

The other fact recognised by schemes just like this one, is that employees are adults who for the most part can be trusted to behave as such at work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, schemes like this recognise that work is changing. The Monday to Friday thing sat at a desk nine until five thing doesn’t need to be an anymore thing. The old, simple transaction of pay in exchange for work done is rapidly become outdated. Employers want more (think engagement, discretionary effort, energy) and so do employees in return. It’s no longer just about the wage. Corporate social responsibility, work life balance, flexibility…. All these and more come into the mix. The bargain, the balance, is shifting somewhere new.

And on an entirely practical note, initiatives like this are great for both your external employer brand and making you sticky to your current employees. Because faced with the option of working in a place where you can have this flexibility, make these choices, against an employer micro managing your every quarter hour, what would you choose?

Netflix started the whole ‘take as much holiday as you like’ thing. But it’s different across the pond. They don’t have an equivalent of the Working Time Regulations, and you are employed at will. So take a few too many Caribbean cruises and you might just find that your employment status is a flexible as the holiday entitlement. Virgin have confirmed that employees will need to take a minimum level of holiday, which I’m guessing in the UK will align to the statutory holiday amount. Let’s not forget that the legal requirement to provide holiday isn’t based on being a good employer, but on health and safety requirements.

I’m interested to see how this scheme develops post the immediate headlines. How much extra leave will people really take? How will peer pressure impact upon the decisions people make? How will it be managed if there are individuals who go too far, and who take leave that does impact the organisation or the people they work with?

Because here’s the thing. Initiatives like this work well in cultures that are healthy enough already to support them. Virgin CEO Josh Bayliss said that he is proud of the Virgin culture. They trust their people, trust their ability to make empowered decisions, and they are already a big supporter of flexible working. But put this scheme in the wrong culture, and it might have unintended consequences. So, going back to the cartoon for a moment, you could just find there is truth within the humour.

Branson said this about the Virgin plan: ‘The assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel 100% comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business – or, for that matter, their careers!’

This is adult to adult. I really hope that he is right, because if he is, this is one step that moves us forward to a better future of work.

In HR we do love to jump on a bandwagon from time to time. My hope is that we can resist doing so in this case, unless it really fits the culture, at your place.

The Importance of Trust

Mutual trust and confidence. The very heart of the employment relationship. A duty by which both employee and employer are bound. Implied into every contract of employment, running through it like an invisible thread. A breach of which is so fundamental, that it can bring the entire contract to an untimely, immediate end.

And with good reason.

Because it is not just a legal thing, it is a foundations thing. Trust is everything. It is the platform, the groundwork upon which we build everything else in the workplace.

Trust is a hygiene factor.

When we dismiss an employee because they have stolen from us, we do not dismiss them because of the value of the items that they took, but the fact that trust between us has been irrevocably breached. It is legal recognition that some things are so serious that there is simply no way back.

There are some important things about trust that I believe to be true. Firstly, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I will give it willingly. But when it is broken, it is broken. There are no shades of trust, no easy way back following a breach. Trust is delicate. Fragile. What takes time to build can be destroyed in a careless moment. And at work, mistrust spreads.

Failure to communicate. Dressing up difficult messages. Not doing what you said you would do. Lies. Rumours. Poorly handled people stuff. Poorly managed change stuff. Weak leadership.

All of these things impact on the levels of trust within an organisation.

Too many rules. Policies prescribing for every potential eventuality. Micro management. Levels and levels of sign off. Blaming. Excessive emailing. Presenteeism.

All send a clear signal about how much you trust the people around you.

CIPD research in 2013 found that 31% of employees did not trust senior management within their own organisations.

How do you know if you have a trust problem, at your place? How do you know if a third of your workers don’t trust?

An out of control rumour mill. High turnover. Low engagement. Blame culture. Decisions only taken at the top. A lack of creativity. Risk aversion. No before yes. Politics. Games. Disempowerment.

All might be signals you have a trust issue. Maybe not a fundamental breach, but a problem all the same.

So my questions are these.

Do you trust? And how do you show it?

Right Here, Right Now

I’ve recently completed a course in mindfulness. It was all about the individual, the personal self, but for me the organisational parallel was significant.

Because mindfulness is all about being in the present moment. The now.

Now. A place that many organisations, and the people within them, don’t often play.

Caught between the future and the past, the present sometimes doesn’t get a look in.

Instead, we oscillate between yesterday and tomorrow.

Organisations have plans. Missions and visions. A strategy, designed to take us somewhere at some upcoming point. PowerPoint slides with a bullet pointed future. Agendas for the next meeting, minutes from the last.

We have archives and filing cabinets, stuff kept just in case. Last year’s employee engagement survey. Old marketing material from campaigns gone by. Personnel files from employees long since left. Archives stuffed full with ancient files filled with ancient paper. The way we have always done it around here. Remnants of the past. Ghosts.

Last year’s achievements, next year’s SMART objectives. Past, future.

There is a value in recognising your past and appreciating where you have come from. There is equally a need to look forward, plan how to get there, and communicate the journey along the way.

But there is also a value in right now. Today. This minute. The now thing in mindfulness means leaving the past where it is, and not polluting the present with it. But instead we go to meetings, loaded up with our own agendas, judgements and opinions, full of our very own we’ve tried that and we’ve always done it like this.

And when we are physically present, we aren’t always right there, right now. Completely present in the moment. Culturally, many organisations are operating at full speed. Urgency, everywhere. Back to back all day, lunch at the desk, get it done by COB, coffee on the run. One eye on the clock, the iPhone, the email. Addicted to busy.

What mindfulness has taught me is the power of pausing, breathing and being more aware of the moment. Not personally, but with the people I work with, in the place that I spend my day. Noticing what’s going on, how people are feeling, what is happening under the surface.

Because often do we really spend time talking to the people who work with us, for us, about how they feel right now? What’s going on for them, beyond the superficial, transactional hi how are yous and have a nice weekends? How often do we really just stop, check in, take note? Instead of rushing through the commute, the meeting, the day, the week.

As my colleagues would confirm, I’m often heard saying that we are, where we are. There’s no point lamenting how we got to the present, as long as we learn along the way. Don’t look backwards because we aren’t going that way. And just like we can’t change the past, we also can’t predict the future with any real accuracy. We can only really influence this moment.

So make it a good one.

The Unreasonable Man

The concept of the reasonable man runs through English law. He is the ordinary, average guy within the system.

The concept of the reasonable man grounds us. It focuses our thinking. Provides us a standard. He is not a real person, he is an idea. Of how we should behave, the standards we should follow, the care we should take. The hypothetical person beyond the case law and the statutes and the judgements. A good citizen.

The reasonable man has many roles.

He stands by our side when we enter into a contract. He listens in to our conversation, and if we forget to agree a term, if he thinks it’s so obvious that we really meant to include it, then the term is implied all the same.

He sits next to us on the bus. In negligence cases, the reasonable man is considered to be of reasonable education and intelligence, but a nondescript man, just sitting at the back of the bus, representing your everyday sort of chap on his way to work.

Within the law, we ask ourself what the reasonable man would do, think, understand. We even have the concept of a reasonable employer too.

The reasonable man is average. The reasonable man thinks what most people think. The reasonable man stands for consensus. He is realistic, sensible, practical. Doing the done thing, the expected, accepted thing.

In organisations, we are often reasonable. Terribly so. We follow the rules, both written and unwritten. We quickly learn the standards, and how to behave, fit in. What is reasonable, at our place.

We like reasonable people. Reasonable people are safe. You know what you are going to get. If you were described as reasonable, you would probably be just fine with that.

Unreasonable on the other hand, is different. Not quite so appealing. Most people would not wish to be called unreasonable.

Exceeding reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to reason.
Not in accordance with practical realities.
Inappropriate attitudes or behaviours.

All of these are dictionary definitions of unreasonable.

In organisations, we have our own version of this reasonable man on the Clapham Omnibus. He sits beside us every day, invisible but powerful. From him we learn the way that we do thing around here. Silently he conducts the orchestra of reasonableness.

I recently came across this quote from George Bernard Shaw. ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

Look again at those definitions of unreasonable, and ask just one simple question.

Who decides?

Exceeding someone’s idea of reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to someone’s idea of reason.
Ignoring someone’s idea of practicality, the way to behave.

It is unreasonable, or is it nonconformist?
Unreasonable, or simply refusing to stick to the party line?
Unreasonable, or entrepreneur, leader, change agent?
Unreasonable, or progressive?

One person’s unreasonableness is another’s visionary.

Sometimes, reasonable is good.

But not always.

Reasonable can be safe.
Reasonable can be limiting.
Reasonable can be cautious.
Reasonable can be accepting what we have always done.
Reasonable can be the same as everyone else.

The reasonable man can sometimes be a pain in the arse.

Today, I’m feeling unreasonable. Are you?

Reasons to say no

Over the years, I’ve heard them all. Right back to 2002 when the legislation was first introduced. Reasons to say no to flexible working.

If I say yes to one, I’ll have to say yes to them all.
It’s not the sort of job where people can work flexibly.
It’s not the sort of company where people can work flexibly.
It’s not fair on the rest of the team.
It’s too difficult operationally.
We can’t offer it to every department so we shouldn’t do it for anyone else.
I won’t be able to manage the person effectively.
It will impact upon the customer.

These objections have common themes. Generality. Vagueness. Fixed positions. More about the manager than the employee. Short term thinking. Taking the easy option.

Because when it comes to the flexible working request, it can be easier to say no than to say yes.

The press help to perpetuate the myths. When the right to request flexible working was opened up to everyone earlier this year, the rarely balanced Daily Mail published an article suggesting that small businesses wouldn’t cope, and that those who simply wanted a regular lie in were now able to demand the working pattern of their choice. The entire economy was at serious risk. Probably.

Scratch the surface of the usual objections to flexible working, and underneath you may well find something else.

A lack of appreciation of the possible benefits, instead, focusing on the risks or the potential problems.
A misunderstanding of what fairness and equality is really all about. That a blanket no to everyone is somehow fairer than saying yes to a few.
Closed minds. Sticking to what has always been done, how things have always worked. A lack of understanding that what people want from work has changed, is changing.
Trust issues. Because they might not be working hard if no one is keeping an eye on them. Because it sounds like an excuse not to do much work.
Misconceptions. Flexible working is something that mums with young kids want. Isn’t it?
They simply can’t be bothered to deal with it.

Here’s the thing.

Flexible working isn’t a mum thing. It isn’t a carers thing. An approaching retirement thing. A working from home means watching the Jeremy Kyle show thing.

Flexible working is a talent thing. Attracting it, engaging it, keeping it.

It’s a valued benefit thing.

Because there is something else that I have noticed over the years about flexible working. How when you try it, the world doesn’t end. The company does not stop functioning. There are no riots. Profitability does not collapse, and neither does customer service. Very rarely do other employees resent it.

One request does however, often lead to another. And still, the world does not end.

So how about this as a challenge? No stereotypes. No knee jerk reactions. No outright rejections.

Instead, open minds. Genuine dialogue about what could work. Giving it a go. Trust.

One request at a time.

If you tolerate this…

If you’ve read your Gladwell, you may well remember Broken Window theory. It goes a little something like this. If an empty building has a few broken windows and no one comes along to repair them, then you may well find that along come the vandals to break some more of the windows. And if still no one comes along to repair them, the damage will spiral quickly. More broken windows. Maybe a break in, maybe theft from what remains, maybe squatters will turn up and move in. The answer, according to the theory, is to fix problems when they are small. Before they escalate, become too big and unmanageable.

I’ve seen broken windows theory take place in reality.

One of my early HR roles included doing the people stuff at a tired, dark, miserable warehouse. The site was scheduled for future closure, and no one wanted to invest any time or money for its upkeep in the meantime.

And the more the building decayed, the more the building decayed.

Graffiti on the walls.
Badly lit corridors, with peeling paintwork.
Holes in the sagging, ancient carpet.
Dirty crockery piled in the kitchen sink, growing green.
Aged, yellowing posters on the noticeboard, telling tales of canteen menus long past.
Casual, deliberate damage.
A broken furniture graveyard.
Rubbish indifferently dumped, wherever, whatever.
Literally, broken windows, grimed with ancient dirt.

And because nobody cared, nobody cared.

A slow, determined, deterioration.

But broken window theory is not just a building thing, but a cultural thing. A people thing. It applies to organisations too.

How the leaders behave.
The way that people talk to each other.
The exercise of power.
What gets valued.
What gets done.
What gets rewarded, or punished.
The rules that are enforced, or ignored.
The language that is used.
The little organisational (bad) habits.

Windows of, to, within your culture. And sometimes, corporate vandalism occurs.

Tolerating, accepting, or failing to tackle even small problems in these spaces will lead to the rot setting in within your culture, as quickly as it will within the walls of your building. What is allowed, flourishes. Broken can become normal.

Back to the theory again, just for a moment. When you maintain a good environment, keep it clean, fix that which is broken, take good care of the place, physically and culturally, it sends a clear signal. This is our normal. Take your disorder, your window breaking rocks, some place else.

When small problems arise, with the way people lead, talk, behave, do, then we need to address them. Fix the broken window and fix it fast. Because if you don’t, before you know it the problem has escalated beyond your control.

Over at your place, are any of your windows broken?
And what are you doing to repair them?