Introduction; leadership challenges for a new age
The pressures in the workplace are growing while at the same time people are having to cope with big changes in their social circumstances. If companies are to motivate their staff in this ever changing environment there will have to be a significant shift in leadership style and culture with technology acting as an essential enabler of workplace freedom and choice. The secret to accommodating this increasingly turbulent and unpredictable world of work is to place greater trust in the creative ability and commitment of the frontline people who have the information and who ultimately dictate both quality and cost of the service or the product being delivered.
Disruptive pressures in the modern workplace
In the modern world there are numerous sources of disruption all of which can combine to generate a roller coaster of change that the traditional manager will find difficult to accommodate.
Pressures at work
- Greater emphasis on achieving results
- Productivity; more is required from less
- Demands for increased creativity
- Change forced by new technology and automation
Family: achieving a good work/life balance
- Maternity/paternity considerations
- Both parents working and the constraints of childcare
- The aging workforce; retirement is less of an option
- Caring for elderly relatives
The general approach to these things is either to assume that people can and will absorb them or alternatively an effort to embrace technology as a way of eliminating jobs by replacing them with automation and artificial intelligence devices and robots. The former ‘ostrich’ approach will lead to growing stress, resentment and disaffection. The pressures put on the workforce must inevitably lead to a lowering of quality and/or more deadlines missed and projects overrunning. The latter more bullish approach is partly inevitable, and automation will grow and replace manual tasks, but it is not the simple solution to the problem; it will take time and it will be dependent on the goodwill, buy-in and cooperation of the current workforce.
A better approach to managing people is called for which will embrace and exploit technology to make people more productive and less stressed and which will allow them to bring the unique human value add which only people can provide to the coming automation.
Outcomes matter not time spent at work.
The shifting sands of the workplace have created an industry of gurus advocating a massive shift away from stable work environments towards a continually shifting skills-led career where everyone is an entrepreneur selling skills to the highest bidder on short term contracts. Charles Handy, in the 1980s, advocated the ‘portfolio life’ where nobody stays in the same career for life but we are employed by a range of different companies. In recent times, the concept of the ‘gig’ economy (Uber; Deliveroo) has been created, advocating the end of stable employment as we have known it. Interestingly these companies see themselves as ‘Tech’, not ‘People’ organisations. Over the last 40 years I have spent in business the ingredients for successfully motivating people and achieving success have not changed. My experience extends from working in a chemical factory to running a successful knowledge worker consultancy. This has led me to the conclusion that time people spend at work doesn’t necessarily correlate with the number and quality of the commercial outcomes they generate. To ensure production of sustainable high quality results, an organisation must engage its people in a worthwhile and clear purpose whilst giving them the tools they need to help the enterprise excel.
The sustained success of any organisation depends on the individual and collective commitment to achieving useful and world changing outcomes. We also need to recognise that there is no silver bullet here; every person is unique, so extracting commitment and creativity from every person takes intelligence, care, and an inherent trust in people’s desire to continually grow and succeed.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Abraham Maslow created his hierarchy of needs some years ago but it still captures much of what is required to get the best from people. Most of us wish to be successful, need to be recognised for the work we do, want a well-equipped and safe place to work in and want to feel needed and cared for. If any of these elements are missing, we do not feel fully committed or have any sense of belonging. A typical factory is dirty, noisy and run as an opaque fiefdom, which results in most employees working purely for the money supplemented by the extra overtime they can extract from their employer. In these environments, time becomes the primary measurement of effort. Those of us who have worked in industry for many years know that there is no correlation between the time spent at work and the contribution that is made by the individual. In reality, intelligent workers spend their intellect working out how to maximise their income through careful manipulation of shift patterns and overtime. They are very good at it but, sadly, none of this effort benefits the organisation they work for. Avoiding this as a problem requires a completely different approach with the emphasis on conforming to Maslow’s hierarchy and creating and rewarding outcomes rather than the physical timed presence at work of the individual. The required level of employee participation can be achieved in a variety of different ways depending on the industry. In the knowledge worker sector, people can be held accountable for achieving outcomes with no constraints on time or presence at work, culminating in total flexible working. In a factory environment, the individual worker can be given control of their workspace and trained to optimise the tools they are using for their jobs. They should also be empowered to take part in the development and improvement of the processes they operate; they are, after all, closer to the problems and therefore probably understand them better than their management. This raised level of involvement will lead to more commitment and better quality outcomes.
Sustainable success is generated by the people for the people
Winning the hearts and minds of the workforce takes a particular style of leadership and management which is underpinned by absolute trust, caring and openness. If done properly, an organisation will earn commitment from their people, fuelling endless creativity and innovation and generating better customer service and improvements in productivity. Years ago in his book “In Search of Excellence”, Tom Peters presented the idea of the inverted hierarchy with the workforce at the top delivering value for the customer, supported by a facilitating management and a leadership whose job it was to provide everything the frontline worker needed, to create a product or perform a service of the best possible quality. Over the last 40 years this principle of good management has never, in my experience, been disproven or discredited. If your people feel part of the enterprise, and feel appreciated, anything is possible.
The role of technology in future work
In the style of organisation we have been talking about, the front line workers must have access to information from which they can judge their progress. In addition, most, if not all communications, must be open so people can easily share and solve problems and challenges; access to key training and procedural standards must be easy and quick, and complimented by a high degree of openness with all corporate information and news shared with everyone.
Key technological aids that can be used to fuel the growth of trust and empowerment address the following key areas, all of which are focussed on providing support at the workface.
- Direct access to corporate systems that give the frontline worker opportunity to effect and supplement data relevant to quality and cost control.
- Information and data that the worker needs to monitor their progress and contribution of themselves, their team and the organisation as a whole.
- Open systems of communication and collaboration that allow people to share information and knowledge and collaborate on projects with other colleagues and teams.
- Easy and quick access to documents regarding standards, best practice and critical procedures to ensure conformity to the highest standards.
The 4 areas listed would constitute the essential content of an Intranet that adds real value for the company and its people.
Working life is changing, and the pressure to produce better quality and continuous improvement is continually increasing. At the same time, people are having to accommodate ever more complex social situations with associated responsibilities and needs. The modern leader must create an environment where people still feel valued and are willing to offer unconditional commitment to the ongoing success of the organisation while having the time and opportunity to support their families. The best and only way to achieve this is to trust and empower people and give them the opportunity to control their working environment to maximise their contribution to the organisation they are a part of. In a trusting environment, technology must be used to equip the front line worker with essential technology solutions, knowledge and information, which can be used to make quality decisions that will help the organisation improve and achieve great results.