2007 – Understanding workplace change
Wandering through the Tate Modern gallery last week I
overheard two girls discussing some cubist paintings. “I
don’t like modern art,” said one of them.
The works, by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, were produced
a century ago. How old must a painting be, I wondered, before
people no longer describe it as modern?
But that’s an unhelpful question because age has
nothing to do with such concepts. Individual perceptions
are influenced by experience. Some ideas take time to make
an impact on mass consciousness. Others, like Cubism, are
given a label – in this case “modern art”
– that endures long after the description could be
The girl’s comment only reinforced some points I
had been making on workplace change in a seminar at Tate
Modern, organised by Video Arts, the video training company
that recently created a digital content library for about
100 of its most popular titles.
Martin Addison, managing director, told the meeting that
some clients had been seeking to take short clips from the
company’s training videos and weave content together
in order to provide customised in-house training.
“People are wanting to mashup content drawn from
various areas,” he said. The mashup, for those of
you who do not have teenage sons and daughters or who have
yet to explore the delights of YouTube.com, is a creation
(often stretching the meaning of the word) that melds one
piece of creative work with another.
At the same time, said Mr Addison, demands for what he
called “just-in-time learning” were growing.
This is understandable in a society that has become obsessed
with the sound-bite and the quick fix. Today, he said, companies
were seeking “learning nuggets.”
I found a good example of this on the wall in Tate Modern’s
staff entrance. There was a list of 10 tips under the heading
“How to Work Better.” Most of the advice such
as “do one thing at a time” was fairly banal
but I noticed that number eight on the list was “accept
change as inevitable.”
It’s difficult to disagree with that last point.
In fact it is heretical to do so today and why should I
worry? My presentation was entirely focussed on change.
But change is a complex subject. In the past I have likened
it to a river where it is possible on the edges of a stream
to move about quite steadily in contrast to the way that
you would be swept along midstream. Perceptions of change,
therefore, are influenced by relativity.
There is an inclination in business, work and society to
head for midstream, represented by all that is new and different.
Yet, intuitively, people feel far more comfortable on the
edges of the stream where life is familiar.
This is why workplace change creates so much uncertainty.
Some have learned to thrive on such change. In conversation
recently with an investment banker who had just turned 30,
he told me that he was looking forward to the possibility
“I know I have the skills and experience to walk
straight in to another job and the redundancy payout would
help a lot with my mortgage,” he said. Indeed he had
been working previously on a freelance basis with his bank,
only switching to a permanent job at the bank’s urging.
“It didn’t make much difference to me,”
In financial services his understanding of security is
founded entirely on the demand for his skills, rather than
on longevity of employment.
Today we seem to have entered a period, in-contrast to
the downsizing days of the 1990s, where companies are focusing
increasingly on retaining and training their staff. The
promise of a long-term career is once more on the table
with one or two caveats.
The caveats are all about adaptability and flexibility.
How willing are employees to change the way they work? How
do they feel about going overseas? How much will they welcome
retraining and redeployment?
But these are in-house issues for employers who too often
forget, in a kind of collective myopia that can grip whole
organisations, that external forces are also influencing
their markets, including the labour market.
These forces are conveniently wrapped-up in terms such
as “globalisation” and the “greening of
society” that disguise more complex changes in attitudes
influencing the way we live and behave.
Companies have been slow, for example, to recognise the
anti-work ethic that has emerged in the past few years.
This, I should hasten to add, is not about an abandonment
of the work ethic but a redirection of interests beyond
In its most damaging manifestation it is happening within
companies among people who have lost interest in their jobs
but who continue to draw their salaries. A recent article
in Evolve, a magazine published by Kenexa, an HR consulting
and software business, called such people “Happy Slackeys.”
“Happy Slackeys are those who harbour no real dissatisfaction
with the company,” wrote Jeffrey Jolton, Kenexa’s
director of global consulting. “They just come to
work, punch the proverbial (or literal) clock, and maintain
some level of minimally acceptable job performance.
“They are friendly and pleasant, but don’t
really contribute anything. They don’t see any issue
with their behaviour. In fact, they are shocked to receive
feedback that they aren’t meeting performance standards.”
Mr Jolton believes such indifference can be detected during
recruitment but if it creeps under the company radar he
places faith in regular performance discussions to set targets
and issue warnings, although he recognises that some managers
have difficulty disciplining employees who, other than displaying
an aversion to work, are perfectly pleasant people.
The Happy Slackeys are perhaps most vulnerable to the profusion
in offices of internet-based distractions I have discussed
in recent columns. Ideally companies should be providing
work that is so compelling that the attention of employees
are unlikely to be drawn elsewhere. Equally one of these
companies may one day breed a flying pig.
That said, I would rather campaign against dull work than
against disengaged employees. It’s usually better
to root out the cause of a particular behaviour than attend
to the symptoms.
The danger for business is that some young people today
are opting out before even seeking selection. The story
of one of these people, Christopher McCandless, has been
told by John Krakauer in a best-selling book, Into The Wild,
that has been turned in to a feature film.
Born in to an upper middle class family in the US, McCandless
dismissed a corporate career as “a 20th century invention,”
gave his savings to charity and chose to live a simpler
life. Starved of supplies, he died in the Alaskan wilderness
in 1992. Since then his life story has attracted a cult
following among young people.
It could be argued that “drop-outs” have been
a feature of every generation since the Second World War.
But research gathered by Henley Centre HeadlightVision -referenced
in one of my columns late last year- suggested that career
exclusion, whether self-initiated or imposed by over-selective
recruitment, was a growing issue for business.
Change is inevitable not only for employees; employers
too should be doing more to understand the undercurrents
working through society. The ground is shifting everywhere
and no-one is immune.
See also: Working
in a distracted society