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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

November 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 considered appropriate.

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, 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 of redundancy.

“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,” he said.

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 conventional employment.

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

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved