HR professionals have a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to redesign work as organisations build back after the pandemic, according to Professor Lynda Gratton.
“If we don’t get this right, shame on us. We have a crucial role to play,” the London Business School academic and author told delegates in her keynote speech to this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition (ACE).
Professor Gratton argued that “hybrid [working] is absolutely the future”, but said that a number of long-term trends had been leading organisations to the current situation before the pandemic hit.
Longer life expectancy, automation, and the increase in women entering the workforce and progressing to more senior positions had all had an impact on employees’ perceptions of their careers and engagement with their employers, she said.
The unusual influence of the pandemic, she explained, is that so many organisations will be going through a “refreezing” of policies and processes at the same time after a period of “unfreezing” thanks to unprecedented change.
Moving forward, HR would need to listen to employees in order to redesign work, but with caution.
“If you only design work around what people want you’ll have a Yahoo! moment,” she said, referring to a time in 2013 when the web company’s CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that everyone could work from home, only to insist they all returned to the office when it didn’t work out.
“Everything you do to redesign work has to help employees be more productive,” she added.
From a design perspective, this means looking at the type of work individuals do, how knowledge flows in the organisation and opportunities to bring people together for innovation and serendipity.
But this is more than “the idea that the office is just about water-cooler conversations – that’s just not true”.
“If you want to make the office worthwhile, it needs to be more than a place where people come in and put their headphones on. It’s about how people come together, how we cooperate, how we mentor others.
“Coming into the office now comes at a cost to both the organisation and the individual, so there has to be a good reason for it,” she said.
Focusing only on place would be a mistake, added Professor Gratton. “We have an opportunity here to bring flexibility on time too. Part of the reasons humans like autonomy is that we have a lot of things to do – we’re parents, children looking after older parents, we’re looking out for neighbours.”
Opening the conference, which is taking place in Manchester for the first time in two years alongside the option to attend virtually, CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese reiterated that HR must grasp this unique opportunity.
“We’re at a real inflection point of change – we won’t go back to what we had before,” he said.
Rather than being driven by rules and policies, HR had to be “driven by principles”, added Cheese. “This is about learning and adaptation, consulting with people, because we don’t have all the answers.”
He argued that claims around the “great resignation” may not come to pass in the magnitude expected, but warned that the workforce would change as individuals reflect on what they want from their lives and careers.
“Your people are asking ‘is this good for me? Is the organisation giving me opportunities? How am I treated?’ If we don’t respond, we could see more significant numbers resigning,” he added.
Action on inclusion and flexible work opportunities would help create safe cultures where people could thrive, said Cheese, while wellbeing must sit at the centre of the outcomes HR professionals seek from new working practices.
“The CIPD was founded more than 100 years ago as the Welfare Workers’ Association and I think we’ve lost sight of this as we’ve become focused on efficiency and people as costs or units,” he said. “Now we’re coming back to the reality that this is about humanity.”