Painful reflection of life as it shouldn’t be

Depressed by plunging stock markets and the prospect of war with Iraq? Well
cheer up, The Office is back for a new series. All of us will have come across
real-life versions of David Brent, the hideous back-office boss portrayed in
the sitcom.

Brent considers himself the epitome of the progressive caring, sharing,
charming and team-playing manager. But to the onlooker, he is not only
self-deluded but boorish, sexist, selfish and inadequate.

It is tempting to dismiss bosses like Brent as the remnant of an out-of-date
workplace culture that is gradually giving way to progressive people management
practices. Yet the reason The Office is so successful is precisely because it
offers a painful reflection of where working life appears to be going, not where
it has been.

Despite the HR emphasis on the importance of employee ‘buy-in’ and
commitment, people management is being styled as much by structural change in
the economy as by efforts to construct a progressive psychological contract at
work. The typical private sector organisation is now quite small – only 30 per
cent have more than 50 staff – and even in larger commercial or public bodies
greater autonomy has shifted to back-office units or teams.

As a result the employment relationship is becoming more personalised. This
makes life very difficult for people whose bosses don’t come up to scratch.
They will find themselves stuck with the likes of Brent – incompetents who put
jobs at risk – or will have managers so ambitious or fearful of their own superiors
that they adopt a crudely intense management style.

This ultra-personalised workplace presents a major challenge to the HR
profession.

Most managers adopt the language of HR, even if only at the level of cliché:
"My people are my greatest asset," proclaims Brent in the opening
scene of the very first episode of The Office.

But even where words are acted upon there is no guarantee that this will
translate into a positive and productive workplace environment.

This is because the HR message tends to be addressed to organisations in a
fairly simplistic practice-orientated way: introduce this or that method of
management and you will get more out of your people. What is often missing is a
focus on the spark of human relationship needed to bring life to the body of
practice.

It is vital, therefore, that the HR profession places as much emphasis on
effective people management relations as it does on effective people management
practices. Maybe then The Office of today will not be the workplace of tomorrow.

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