Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Workplace Innovation: Flexibility

An Human Resources Executive recently called me rather panicked. Her bosses wanted the "next new big thing" in HR, Employee Development and Training. She called the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado. They told her that (and this is a paraphrase quoting King Solomon) "there is nothing new under the sun". I told her the same thing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

Most business innovation focuses on creativity and improving design right now, I told her. With the I-Pod revealing technology that is at once useful and beautiful more companies (FINALLY!) see the reason to design for the senses. Does it feel good? Smell good? Sound good? Look pleasing? Is it easy to use? Is it beautiful enough that I can display it? (Flat screen TVs look like pieces of art and it's no longer gauche to display them.)

Passing fads include the intense focus on streamlining processes (think Six Sigma). It has cycled through and now people are looking at the data. It's ho hum. No one argues that perfection shouldn't be the goal of manufacturing. Removing defects is a no-brainer. And being rigorous about measuring progress is now essentially standard.

Another business innovation, supply chain management, has been integrated into daily business living. If it hasn't, the sad comopany won't last long. Continued pressure remains on supply chain. As raw materials (especially oil these days) pricing pressure increases, making sure that the product travels the most efficiently will be paramount.

In the HR world, there is the Q12 from the Gallup Organization. By all accounts this is still going gangbusters. But what will unhinge this innovation like so many others, is executive row's unwillingness to stick with it and follow through. Like my HR friend, they want "the next big thing". The Q12 grassroots feedback system is not something that will reap rewards if you try and then leave behind. Learning how everyone feels is the first step, changing the environment is the second. The second is not as much fun because that's when the real work begins. Q12 will fade not because it doesn't work, but because it forces responsibility on lazy leaders. A caveat here though: A LOT of money will be spent so everyone feels better. (What percentage of people actually manage their time? Probably the same percentage of people who give a rats behind about how the "little people" feel.)

Another trend, the 360 degree feedback system, will continue, but that doesn't mean anyone will believe the results. Again, 360 degree feedback can be very good--if done well. The problem? It's rarely handled well. Employees deep-six co-workers. Bosses use it to brow-beat underlings. Confidentiality is breeched. The whole feedback process is fraught.

But I was ultimately wrong to say there isn't a trend afoot in the HR world. There is. And some companies will rebel to their own destruction. Other companies will embrace change and thrive.

People laughed at the Dot.commers penchant for the dramatic and indulgent. Stocked kitchens? Pah! Animals in the aisles? Tee Hee Hee. Yoga for the stressed? Puhleeeze. These diversions were seen as monitary black holes with no purpose other than to make the young-buck founder feel good about working his people to death on their mission to change the world.

Just like bloggers have upset the MSM (mainstream media), the dot.commers and their "crazy" business models will have the last laugh because their forward-thinking WILL CHANGE the way the old companies have operated--or else.

While the old companies struggle with equally old unions, younger companies work to keep people through offering benefits people really want. For the Baby Boomers, the last two business cycle downturns were unwelcomed wake-up calls. Used to being taken care of by GM, Ford, Chrysler, the government (if employed by them), School Systems, Kroger, etc being let go after years of dedication to "the company" was a shock. Their expectation is not flexibility--their lives were their jobs. Their expectation was predictability and reliability. The men came off the farms, came back from Vietnam or Woodstock, put on their blue suits, white shirts and ties and left their families behind to serve the corporate beast.

The next generation was not shaped by the same environment. The Gen X-ers were raised by a mom who stayed home (mostly), their dad was away doing vaguely important stuff. A seed of change was planted when Ronald Reagen fired the Air Traffic Controllers in the 80s. The crack in "group think" started. A paradigm shifted--especially for the children, like me, of this time.

Moms encouraged their daughters to get educated too and not just settle for the MRS. degree. They might have missed Betty Friedan for themselves, but they sung the message to their daughters. A lady of her generation who went to college often (and with lots of cultural support) dropped out to start a family while her hubby went to work. The economy was so good, in fact, that job recruiters were pulling men out of their junior years because the work force was growing.

For those who think this generation is all about immediate gratification, consider that my parents at the ages of 19 and 23 got married, bought a house, had a job, bought a car, bought furniture and had their first child in ONE YEAR. They were not alone.

But this has changed. Women today stay in college in greater numbers than men. Divorce leaves over 50% of children being raised by one parent--mostly women. Many men who stay married (not all) view their wives as partners and help more (though do much less than women even still and even if the woman works full time) with house work and child rearing.

Some Boomer men, view this trend as a "feminizing" of men. Perhaps. But I think it is simply a reaction by these men to try and NOT be absent like their fathers were. The caring fathers seem determined to maintain a relationship with their children throughout their growing and developing years. These fathers attend school orientations DURING THE DAY. That means they must leave work to do it--and their wives do to.

If there is a Human Resources trend it's this: Companies must (MUST!!!) take this reality into account or they will suffer serious brain-drain. The best workers will not sit around work for hours on end and sacrifice their familiies and their health at the feet of a clumsy business model.

Gen X-ers value work-life balance and will take less money to have more flexibility. They want efficiency in their job. What do I mean? Days of meetings won't satisfy if the results could be achieved with a teleconference from home. That does not mean they will work less. No, more likely they'll leave at four or five, get home, spend time with the kids and their activities and power back up around 8 p.m.--if they are at the executive level.

Is it more convenient for the higher ups to have people in the office from 7 to 7 so there can be face-to-face meetings? Sure, for THE BOSS. But it irritates the hell out of employees because it is wasteful and unneccesary.

The problem comes back to an old stand-by: leadership. Many are playing catch-up instead of planning and that results in the you-know-what rolling down hill. Managers need to have very specific about the production they need from their employees. Too few are. While some employees like to know what needs to be done and they'll do it, others like to know the details and will do it. But as long as the job is done well, on time and meets or exceed expectations, why does it matter where or when?

If pressure-cooker times are part of the job, then make an effort to counter-balance that time with relaxation. A yoga class is nice addition. And the company ultimately benefits. With all the harumphing about health care costs, businesses (MANAGERS) do prescious little to create a productive and healthy environment. Burning the candle at both ends is encouraged and exploited. Coffee and donuts are the business meeting snack. Outrageous, divisive, lazy employees should be shown the door, so the good ones can get down to business.

So, there is a new trend in HR but it really isn't fancy: Help employees live the life they want and they will pay back the corporation in devotion and production. The best and brightest want IT ALL and that includes a life. Give them permission to have it and you will have loyalty that will nicely pad your bottom line.
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