CIPD conference review: how can HR shape the future of work?


The recurring theme at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition was how HR should respond to the rapidly changing future of work. Martin Couzins reports.

“HR has got to be much more engaged in shaping organisations, shaping jobs and making sure that it is creating a human future of work,” claimed Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD, in his conference keynote last week.

Quotes from the conference

“The most important thing is that there is no finishing line. The technology today is as bad as it is ever going to be.” Daniel Susskind, co-author, The Future of the Professions.

“HR should challenge fads and fashions because they tend to be one size fits all. Just because technology exists it doesn’t mean it is right for your organisation.” Richard Mackinnon, director, Future Work Centre

‘We need to position ourselves to manage and embrace change and to create opportunities for all.” Valerie Todd, talent and resourcing director, Crossrail

“What types of organisations will we have to be? More technology-enabled, more inclusive and more productive.” Neil Carberry, director for people and skills, CBI

“It’s quite shocking how quickly and sticky the decisions we make can be.” Chia-Jung Tsay, assistant professor of organisational behaviour, UCL School of Management

“Things are moving very fast now and learning needs to transition into a very different delivery method – one that is agile and in the flow of work.” Andy Lancaster, head of learning and development, CIPD

The theme of the future of work was a resounding one at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition in Manchester, and was reflected not just in Cheese’s keynote but across many of the sessions.

For Cheese, future forces including fast-changing technology and employee demographics, new operating models, and ongoing debates about corporate culture and building leadership effectively, require HR to take on a more strategic role.

“HR has to step up and we’ve got to invest in building these strategic capabilities and competencies to operate in this space,” he said.

Talent management is no longer what Cheese called the classic talent management cycle of HR, one that focuses solely on hiring, developing and exiting people.

Now it is about shaping the right jobs and understanding organisational design and business operating models.

“This is profoundly important and has probably never been more so because of all these big, existential changes impacting on business,” he said.

Closer collaboration

In her conference keynote, Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness (see her TED talk here), told delegates that collaboration between employees and organisations and their customers is critical to operating in complex times.

Traditionally, businesses have looked to hire the most talented people and those people have been expected to drive success. Companies have focused their resources on the productivity of the few to the detriment of the productivity of the many.

But, according to Heffernan, these talented men and women cannot solve the challenges of today alone. Organisations now need people to work more collaboratively.

She shared research from the MIT Centre of Collective Intelligence that shows three key characteristics of a high-performing team: they score highly on empathy; all members participate in equal measure; and they tend to have more women.

Rather than getting stuck on hiring super-talented people, organisations need to focus on the glue that binds people together, she advised.

“What really matters is what happens between people. We have spent time evaluating the bricks when the mortar really counts.”

Collective effort

So what can HR professionals do to create more collaborative organisations?

The key is encouraging colleagues to be helpful to one another because helpfulness enables people to work together collectively.

Simply sharing information about each other enables people to build relationships and also to build collective intelligence – which comes from the wisdom of the whole team rather than the wisdom of the few.

Successful teams consist of people who listen to everyone in the team and ask insightful questions. It is important that teammates do not interrupt others as they speak as it is this sense of being heard that encourages others to share more.

Heffernan added that globalisation and pervasive communication shifted businesses from being complicated to becoming complex.

The problem with this is that you cannot replicate complex problems – and that makes it hard for organisations to plan ahead in complex times. That’s why the sharing of information is so important.

“Without high levels of sharing information and shared consciousness about what you are about you cannot get anything done. That is the nature of complexity,” said Heffernan.

Beware of overload

Collaboration is not without its challenges, however. One outcome, according to Dr Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures in BT Global Services’ innovation team, is collaborative overload.

Globalisation has brought with it the opportunity to work from anywhere and also the pressure to be constantly connected.

Collaboration does not happen magically. The key is purpose – they collaborate when they have a sense of purpose.” – Dr Nicola Millard, BT Global Services

The result is that employees are not that good at collaborating effectively. Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that only one in four employees are good at managing their personal networks within an organisation, and that 20% to 35% of value-added collaboration comes from just 3% to 5% of employees.

Millard distinguished between the “me” working environment of the home and the “we” environment of the office. In the home environment, employees tend to be better at concentrating and contemplating work challenges.

The office is a harder place to concentrate and contemplate but is good for communicating and collaborating.

Employers need to create environments in which employees can do all four: communicate, concentrate, contemplate and collaborate.

This is a challenge for organisations like BT, which now has five generations at work and employees split across offices and working from home.

Designed for collaboration

BT’s approach is to design more of the “me” into office design and the “we” into homeworkers’ experience.

In offices, that means designing quiet places for employees to think and reflect, and for homeworkers it means creating co-worker spaces where employees can work in a more social environment.

These spaces are now necessary for millennial workers as a high proportion of them do not have access to a quiet home office.

Whether they are collaborating from home or at the office, employees need a shared purpose for that collaboration to work.

“Collaboration does not happen magically. The key is purpose – they collaborate when they have a sense of purpose,” Millard explained.

This won’t just start happening by magic though. HR will need to develop collaborative leaders. Collaboration, Millard added, is now a core leadership competency. Leaders must be social, define purpose, facilitate networking, develop trust, reward contribution and crowdsource ideas.

Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at the Queen Mary University of London School of Business, finished with a note of caution. He said that employers must have a healthy scepticism and think critically about their response to the changing future of work.

“You have to ask: Why is this person telling me this? Why is this data there? Should I believe it? How can I use it?” he said.

This scepticism extends to the host of solutions on offer to HR professionals today. “Another approach is to be more problem-oriented than solution-oriented,” he added. “Obviously this is an HR conference, but go out to the exhibition hall. It’s full of people with all kinds of, I would say, non-solutions to non-problems.”

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