Workplace

I first became interested in the idea of the influence of the workplace itself on feelings about work when I read ‘A Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, a book that has had a continued influence on my practice as a HR professional.

Kline is of course focusing on place in this context as a space that can, or cannot, influence great thinking. She says that it not just about appearance.  There are some places in which it is hard to think, some places which almost invite good thinking.  She argues that a workplace can reflect back to people; ‘you matter’.  In the book, the chapter dedicated to this particular issue concludes with a question (or perhaps a challenge); ‘what would you have to change about your work space, or even your home, for it to say back to you, ‘you matter’.

This book prompted me to make some changes in a former organisation. I worked in what can best be described as tired.  It has suffered greatly from a lack of maintenance.  At some time in the past, someone had made some terrible decisions around the practical stuff.  The carpet was grey.  The walls were grey.  The filing cabinets, of which there were many and many, were also grey.  Many workstations lacked natural light.  Meeting rooms either boiled or froze.  The furniture was old.  The basics were poor; the toilets, the food provision, the car parking.  No one really seemed to care.  How was that relevant to hitting the financial goals?

I inherited a training room. It was the place that old furniture had gone to die.  Two tables, different in colour and height.  Eight chairs, each a relic from an bygone age.  Broken blinds.  Dirty cream walls, old blue tac marks creating a greasy dot to dot for anyone so inclined.  This was not a place that said ‘you matter’.  It was the funeral of ambition.  It was not a place that leant itself to thinking, to learning, to spending time lingering or talking.

It was a place that said we don’t care much at all.  You don’t matter, and neither does your learning.

So I changed it. I persuaded our facilities team to paint the walls a calming blue. I had the furniture tossed into a skip.  I used my meagre training and development budget to order some new furniture.  Instead of the usual office stuff we went for sofas and comfy chairs.  There were cushions and a coffee machine.  New blinds and fresh water.  The day that the Ikea delivery van arrived, some eyes rolled.  It was that girl in HR again.  I was lucky enough to have a boss that believed in me and the decisions that I made, so I carried on regardless.

It didn’t involve much effort. It cost less than a £1000.  But I believe we created a space that whispered softly to our people, ‘you matter’.

So it is with this backdrop I eagerly awaited the book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ by my Twitter friend Neil Usher, who is also, in my humble opinion, one of the best bloggers out there, writing about this work stuff.  When it landed on my doormat I dove straight in and I was not disappointed.  His usual sharp sense of humour is present throughout, along with his evidently deep knowledge of his subject matter.  I love the book because it is practical.  You don’t have to be building a new office building right from the plans.  You don’t have to have a huge budget. There is always something we can do to create a better place of work for the people that move within it in the every day.

It feels to me that in the ongoing discussions about human resources and employee engagement and better work, this is a piece that we too often miss. We instead focus on leadership and management, and reward and recognition, wellbeing and corporate social responsibility and so and so on.  We survey our people to assess their percentage of engagement, if there is even such a thing.  We ask if they understand the vision, if their manager makes them feel valued, if they have a useful performance review – but do we ask them if their chair works or they can access fresh air or if they are within reasonable distance of a water machine or if they can control the temperature in their office?  Do we create a place that says ‘you matter’ for our people?  Do we even think about it when designing our people strategy and our annual operational plans?

You can buy Neil’s book here.  If you work in HR, if you are a leader in an organisation, you really should.*   If we really believe our people matter, this stuff matters too.

 

Neil did not pay me to write this blog post. He should however be aware that he can buy me Prosecco if his sales go up as a result.

Choice and Trust.

You know when you read something and just say….

Yes. This.

This is what I really meant in all of those posts I have written about flexible working.

This is the thing.

My morning commute today was spent reading an ACAS Research Paper (yes I really am that geeky). Flexible working for parents returning to work: maintaining career development.  You can find the full report here. It is well worth a read if you are interested in the subject.

There are a few sentences that stood out. If you don’t have time to read the full 32 pages, here they are.

Flexibility is about choice: choice about how to deliver against contractual commitments whilst we balance all the parts of our lives. Choice is core to intrinsic motivation and therefore emotional engagement.

At the heart of success lies trust. Trust that flexible working really can be good for business; trust in the employee to do the right thing in getting the work done regardless of the particular hours that they work or their location and trust that a flexible worker is as committed, productive and worthy of career development as their more traditionally working colleague

There is really nothing more to be said.

Apart from of course, how we make businesses understand this truth.

Time for a menopause policy?

I’m doing some policy work at the moment.

A little while ago the question arose…. Should we have a policy on the menopause at work?

My immediate response, fuelled by a general dislike of having a policy for everything, was…. no. Why would we need one?

And then I educated myself a little bit more.

It’s an area that is getting increasing focus from government, trade unions and organisations. You can find a recent publication here.

Here is what I now know.

Women are working later in life than they did in the past.

If we take the typical age that women experience the menopause, over 4m could be working through this life transition in the UK.

For some women, the symptoms can be severe and debilitating. There’s various research, but around 10-15% of women experience very severe symptoms.

Symptoms vary – but many can impact upon work either practically or in terms of confidence.

At the same time, for many women, it’s hard to talk about their menopause in the workplace – especially to male, younger managers.

Some women find coping strategies. Others opt to hide their symptoms.

Women are concerned about how they will be perceived if they talk about it. Some research points to discrimination and inappropriate comments and banter (otherwise known has harassment) about the menopause.

More research pointed to the increased likelihood of negative reactions in male dominated environments – making women even less likely to speak out.

We’ve seen the matter of the menopause in the employment tribunal too. The leading case involves a women being dismissed for performance, which she alleged was as a result of her menopause and associated health conditions.  The dismissing (male) manager made no attempt to verify this with Occupation Health, and instead based his decision on the (non severe) menopause experiences of his wife and HR advisor……. I’ll just leave that there.

On my commute today I saw a poll on Twitter, asking if women should get ‘menopause leave’. The evidence is clear that menopause is an experience that differs significantly from woman to woman.  So a one stop shop piece of legislation or ‘right to request time off’ isn’t the answer.

Small changes are sometimes all that is needed. If you provide uniform, making sure it’s made of natural fibres, or providing more than normal so that women can change at work.  Small adjustments to working hours or breaks for women who are experiencing sleep problems or fatigue.  Ventilation, fans and access to cold drinking water or changing facilities.

Above all, like with most people stuff, it is about dialogue.  Creating the conditions where conversations are safe, people feel like they can raise the difficult stuff and reach out for the support that they really need.

I’m still in the ‘no’ camp on a policy. But a little more awareness, guidance and support where it is needed?  Very definitely yes.

Carewash

I am a big believer in employee wellbeing.

But there’s wellbeing, and there’s wellbeing.

A spectrum. At once end there’s a statement on the corporate website saying that the health and wellbeing of employees is very important to us. Etc.  At the other end, a wellbeing strategy, integrated into the whole of the people agenda.

It’s the occasional bit of free fruit versus employee benefits that enable health.

Managing absence versus supporting attendance.

Too often, what passes as employee wellbeing is just carewash.

Statements without substance.

Token gestures.

Individual, one off wellbeing events can make a difference.  They can send a signal, or start a journey.

A half day of health checks at a place I once worked led to an employee being diagnosed with a previously unknown and potentially life threatening medical condition. (Thank you Andy Romero-Birkbeck).

Of course, not everyone has the budget or resource to do wellbeing well. In which case, a little something is always better than nothing at all.

So do what you can – but only if you mean it.

Employees can spot empty gestures from a great distance.

For wellbeing to really make a difference the case for it needs to be widely understood and accepted. It needs a strategy.  It needs to be integrated in everything that you do.

Consider how, in the public sector, we assess the impact of policies, procedures, changes and initiatives on equality and diversity. If we want to make wellbeing make a difference, for it to be taken seriously and made a priority, then a similar approach is required.

Considering formally and with structure, what would add to wellbeing and what would detract from it. How any negative impacts can be mitigated.  That work stuff that you do – how does it impact upon the physical and mental health of the people that work for you? And then what can you do about it?

If you are serious about it, of course.

Because you are spending more time telling people you do wellbeing than you spend actually doing wellbeing, then you don’t really mean it.  If you have a wellbeing programme because everyone else has one, or if you are doing wellbeing because it is good for your employer brand, then maybe this isn’t genuine wellbeing at all.

Maybe what you have got instead, is carewash.

All the policy that is fit to print

I am spending a whole lot of time at the moment writing people policy. It’s one of the main areas of focus for my interim work.

On people policies, I so often hear the same complaint:

The policy doesn’t work.

Of course sometimes this means something else. I don’t like this policy.  Enforcing this policy isn’t my job. I don’t want to have this conversation.

 

Here is what I know about people policy:

You can write whatever you like .

You can agree approaches with your trade unions or employee forums.

You can establish a tone of voice and a format. You can make the language inclusive.

You can place responsibilities wherever you wish.

You can produce accompanying guidance notes and toolkits and flowcharts.

You can introduce all of the above with great internal communication and mandatory training.

You can consider the impact on equality and diversity.

You can follow all of the best practice.

 

But so what?

Documents don’t change stuff. People do.

 

Policies can fall down in the drafting. Documents written in the abstract, following what is the so-called best approach rather than what is right for the context. Only in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  When companies tell me that they have a problem with their policies, often isn’t the policy itself that is the problem, it is the application – and the lack of consequences.

The problem is not in the drafting but the doing.

If your absence policy says return to work interviews are compulsory but no one does them, is the policy wrong or the manager who doesn’t bother?

If probation reviews are seen as vital, but you don’t actually monitor completion and the only time they take place is when someone is underperforming, where does the fault lie?

Are there any consequences for ignoring the policy? Does anyone care?

I will always favour people doing people stuff because it is the right thing not the told to do it by HR thing. I don’t want HR to be about compliance.

But…..

Policies are targeted at employees.  What they can do and what they can’t.  Sanctions. Responsibilities. Requirements.

The question arises…..

Who manages the managers?

You can have all of the policies that are fit to print, but what matters is that documents come alive. That they make the transition from paper to real life action.

HR can listen, draft, consult, support, guide, teach.

But ultimately it’s the people manager that make this stuff happen, in the every day.  And if they are not, the response shouldn’t be to change the policy or produce more checklists, flowcharts and scripts.

Its about skills – and accountability.

How does this make people feel?

On the wall in my last office there was a whiteboard.

On it, our projects and priorities.

To the side, questions.  Reminders, challenges to self.

Question number one: How does this make people feel?

‘This’ could be anything.  The new policy in draft.  The project in planning.  The development programme.  The status update on our internal social network.  The letter to an employee.  The new shiny thing.

This people stuff that we do.  Recruitment, reward, learning and development, induction, performance management.  It cannot be separated from how people feel.

When we talk about engagement and motivation and meaning and performance, scratch the surface, see through the theory, and what is underneath is simply feelings.

Maya Angelou is often quoted on this subject.  She said that we forget what people do and what they say but they never forget how we make them feel.

Apply this to people stuff.  Your employees won’t remember much of their induction.  They won’t retain all that much of the PowerPoint from the training course.  They certainly won’t be likely to quote text from your employment policy or handbook.

We have built theory around simplicity…. in concept at least.

Because feelings are messy.  Changeable. Inconsistent.

Something that can’t be turned into a percentage on an engagement survey.  Cannot be represented in a project plan.   But as people practitioners, something that should be at the forefront of what we do all the same.  Even the difficult stuff, the not so nice part of the job, can be done with empathy and decency and with thought to the way people feel.

There has been an increasing call of late for work to become more human.  The starting point for me is to keep the question in mind and in sight…… how does this make people feel?

Eight Hours

The Zero Hours Contract debate rumbles on.

Are these contracts about flexibility and choice, or are they a race to the bottom? Are they about coffee shops and MacBooks, or exploitative and a symbol of a two-tier workforce?  Are they the dark side of the gig economy?

You can find arguments and opinion to support both frames of reference.

The answer is that they are probably both, depending on your personal circumstances and experiences.  For some, they equal freedom and flexibility.  For others, the best that they can get.

But Zero Hours Contracts are only part of the story.  The rest of the narrative is about low paid, low hours work – whatever the contractual status.

Now anyone who has every used a job alert service via a job board will know that their algorithms are…. interesting.  As a result of a request to receive notifications for new HR roles, I’ve recently been sent information on roles for financial accountants, software developers and chefs.  Some of which were in France.  Someone in my timeline recently commented that the criteria for receiving a notification from some job boards amounted to nothing more than ‘do you have an email address and are you alive?’

One such recent notification caught my eye….for all the wrong reasons.

It was for a leading retailer.  Paying the national minimum wage.  For eight hours each week.

Now you might think that there is nothing wrong with an eight hour per week contract.  It’s better than a Zero Hours one perhaps.  There are plenty of people who might value eight hours of paid employment.  A student looking to work whilst studying.  Someone seeking a second job to top up their income.  The only problem that I could see was exactly when the eight hours were taking place.  Because it could be anytime at all.  The shop was open 12 hours each day, seven days per week.  And the role required total flexibility – actual shifts notified on a weekly basis.  Applying for, and accepting, a position meant agreeing to working those hours whenever.

What would this mean in practice for the successful applicant?  Less than £60 per week, before deductions.  A limited ability to secure other work around that contact. An inability to plan, arrange childcare, make any advance arrangements.  Waiting on a whim.

This isn’t flexibility and choice.  This is barely a weekly food shop for most families.

There are no good reasons that I can think of that a major retailer could not, with some planning and foresight, make this a fixed set of hours or days, or at least offer reasonable parameters or some certainly.  It smacks of lazy management.  There is something just a little arrogant about it too.

I can’t think what it would be like to be employed in this way.  Wondering if there will be any overtime this week.  Wondering if this is the week that your boss will give you a shift that you just can’t get childcare for.  When exactly your hours will fall, if there is any other way to increase your income.

While we debate concepts like meaningful work, workplace democracy, employee engagement and all of that people stuff, let us also look in our own back yards.

Do the jobs, and their design, where you work, allow your employees the basic dignity of both living and working? Or does the way that the work is organised cause stress and uncertainty for the people that undertake it?   Do those jobs and their design enable both parties…. or just the organisation?

When we have a resourcing requirement, when we start drafting that job description and advert, we need to think not only about the needs of the organisation, but the needs of the individual who will be doing the work.

Contracts have many implied terms, amongst all the express ones.  Maybe it is about time that humanity become one of them.