If you use services like online retailer Amazon or music streamer Spotify, you’ll be familiar with the concept of recommendations. Based on your previous consumption patterns and those of consumers similar to yourself, an algorithm (or algorithms) instantly suggest to you other products or music you might like. Based on my photo, you may be surprised to learn that I am disproportionately fond of 70s funk. Spotify is not surprised. More than that, it seems positively delighted to be able to inform me that if I liked Earth, Wind & Fire (the band, not the elements of nature), I might like The Meters. And you know what? I did like The Meters. You would too. I was unaware of their existence but the modern magic of technology connected us and now I’m a fan. Moreso, I feel educated as I can trace the genealogy of the sound from the 60s through to the music of my actual life. This kind of ‘screening’ is a boon to my life and soul. Their tight melodic grooves and highly syncopated New Orleans second-line rhythms under highly charged guitar and keyboard riffing get me through some days. Let’s don’t forget James Brown.
However, despite my sense of betterment from the screening software, or perhaps because of it, I’m not immediately aware of the downside. As I was trying to use this Spotify feature as an analogy for employee screening in workplaces, I had to squeeze on a DeBono-esque negative thinking hat and force myself to think of a downside. How am I ever going to experience new music or genres if I only ever sample music that is like what I already like? That’s the stuff that bubbles are made of.
I get a sense of uneasiness from this. Partly it’s because I sometimes train in business writing and I know that sentences should not end with a preposition such as “of”. That sentence should have read, “That’s the stuff of which bubbles are made”.
The uneasiness also comes from thinking, why can’t I just like what I like and things that are similar to what I like? It’s quick, logical and low effort. Surely everybody wins. Who does it hurt? And aren’t bubbles simply a whimsical delight, even for an adult, to return to childlike fascination? No, the type of bubbles I’m talking about are those self-imposed blinkers that turn into silos and insulate us from seeing the world as it really is beyond our ivory towers. (If you’re keeping score on the liberal elite scale, that last sentence had five bits of figurative language. That’s a personal record. I was going to say personal best, but I think we all know that’s too many).
Let me get back to my analogy with employee screening. I used to half-seriously talk to workplace leaders about “cloning their stars”. Through recruitment, induction, training, coaching etc, create a model of what you’re after based on existing or previous top performers and seek to attract and re-create that. It’s not a bad idea but is it the best idea? Isn’t that approach effectively the same as Spotify telling me that if I liked that, then I’ll like this? What about diversity and innovation? Aren’t they diluted or diminished when all you do is re-hire the people you’ve always hired?
Maybe my life and soul would be even further enhanced if Spotify suggested to me that I might like to try Norwegian trance music? (It didn’t but I tried it anyway and it wasn’t. But it might have and I never would have known if I didn’t make up a style of music that I guessed I would never otherwise have encountered, then Googled it, found out it did actually exist so I sampled it. It’s quite deflating but at least now I know. Imagine if they’d taken early Donna Summer music, removed all the interesting sounds, changed all the chords to minor chords, then slowed it down).
I suppose the Spotify analogy isn’t perfect. You can test-drive a song at almost zero-cost. Click the play symbol, give it thirty seconds and never worry about it again. You don’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of DJ Splash from Trondheim. You can’t do that with a new hire (nor should you want to, or try to).
I was going to base this article around some legislation being proposed in the US that could impose hefty penalties on employees who decline to participate in genetic testing as part of workplace wellness programmes. That’s a level of sci-fi Gattica (look it up) screening that I found depressing so I didn’t. I wrote about Norwegian trance music instead. That is slightly less depressing. And it is really depressing.
Here’s one last suggestion: If you liked DJ Splash from Trondheim then you’ll love Finnebassen from Oslo or perhaps Boom Jinx from Bergen. But if you ever work where I work, you do not get to choose the radio station.
I’m prepared to hold myself up as something of an expert on the youth workforce. When I was young, I used to actually work, as opposed to whatever pen-pushing it is I do now. Plus, as a parent, I have personally produced two members of the youth workforce. So, if that doesn’t make me an expert I don’t know what does. I’m also reasonably adept at sarcasm. I wouldn’t describe myself as a sarcasm expert; I’m more of a sarcasm enthusiast.
There’s an image of a particular newspaper clipping doing the rounds on FaceBook at the moment. (By which I mean, I shared it this morning). It has subheadings: Maths in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Each asks a maths exam question with descending level of difficulty. The 1950s question asks about a forester cutting and selling trees for $100 and the costs being 4/5 so what is the profit? The 2000s question ends up asking how you think the trees feel and advising that counselling is available after the exam.
I believe this is what young people refer to as a ‘slam’. I’m pretty guilty of this inter-generational faux mocking and banter. I’m reasonably confident I don’t intentionally mock people based on race, gender, physical ability, body shape, sexuality, etc but I apparently have no qualms about slamming my kids and their chronological cohorts. This reflects poorly on me and it’s lazy.
I’ve been in the training game for closer to three decades than two. A good proportion of the people I meet are at the earlier ends of their careers. ‘Experts’ can blather on about millennial this and boomer that but my observation over the generations is that people are people and people are different. Yes my kids use their phones more than I did and faxes less. Yes, they’ll have a harder time affording a house than me. This isn’t about people as much as it is about technology, systems and politics. No doubt a statistician could show that employees under 30 change jobs more frequently or something like that. If you divide any group up by age, you might find that under 30s are taller on average than those aged 30-40. Correlation isn’t particularly helpful for employers assessing applicants or planning workforce strategy.
George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde or some other old guy wrote, “Youth is wasted on the young”. Anyone with any degree of objectivity should see that as less a deserved slam on youth than a revelation of regret and bitterness. When I re-post jokey memes hassling young people’s maths, rest assured I’m limping to my keyboard on a stuffed Achilles tendon that’s never going to get much better.
Each generation has its advantages and disadvantages. We’re not having to deal with a world war or its aftermath. That generation didn’t have to deal with an obesity epidemic. My kids have all these robots taking their jobs to worry about. Swings and roundabouts.
If you’re looking at people coming into your workplace, regardless of age, you’re going to need people with learning flexibility. If there’s one thing this particular wave of the youth workforce is going to need to be aware of and ready for, it’s change. Having that one skill that’ll see you through to retirement has gone the way of blacksmiths, stagecoach drivers and perms. (Yes you can still find all three but they’re no longer mainstream). It’s not the frequency of job changes that experts should be measuring and addressing, it’s the frequency of skill obsolescence and acquisition. Good workplace are probably already onto this and looking to hire learning flexible people. Excellent workplaces are the ones not only hiring it but nurturing and supporting it beyond mere lip service.
I’ve resolved to make fewer snide remarks about jobs like Instagram Stylist and focus on spotting and celebrating the young people I meet in my training events who are potential gems. Maybe it’s good marketing or the exposure of social media but doesn’t it seem like New Zealand has a lot of super talented and successful young people right now generally? Steven Adams, Lydia Ko, Lorde are smashing it on the world stage. They were ‘spotted’ at an early age and nurtured and supported.
Referring back to that meme earlier in this article about the declining challenge level in maths exam questions, I want to make it absolutely clear that this was in no way meant as a slight towards teachers. Teachers are great and I would like to draw everyone’s attention to the upcoming celebrations and recognition of World Teachers’ Day. I hope you’ll all join me in appreciating them on that day – especially as it is only a half day.
Not a sports story but a workplace story. A superstar is leaving a workplace and one of his primary gripes is that the coach hired his son and gave him preferential treatment to the detriment of the team. Assuming this is true, how can this happen. I can see it happening in a tiny operation but in a multi-million dollar enterprise owned by a software billionaire under the media glare, this is both predictable and preventable, yet it was allowed to happen. The odds of them winning fell from 40-1 to 100-1 with this guy leaving and the very measurable cost of that is massive and longterm. All ‘family’ businesses need to have plans in place and over-the-top transparency to avoid this and the perception of it.
Years ago I read a book by a futurist named Faith Popcorn. That was the author’s name, not the book, though I could understand any confusion. Grammatically, I should have said that “is” the author’s name, not “was.” I presume it’s still her name? I’m guessing that it hasn’t always been her name. Things change. I think the book was called ‘Clicking’ and it was about things changing.
The book was published in 1998, the same year my son was born. I was enthralled at the prospect of the trend spotting and changing world outlined in the book and how to prepare for them. I was less enthralled by the early years of raising a child and I wasn’t changing the world nearly as often as I was changing nappies. (Although, they both needed changing for much the same reason.) Gweneth Paltrow won an Oscar in 1998 which, if nothing else, proves that anything is possible so there is cause for optimism. And the whole ‘raising a child’ thing distracted me from the top song and album of the year being by BoyZone and the BeeGees. The BeeGees – in 1998! Damn it New Zealand, c’mon.
To be honest, I haven’t gone back and read the book. I was just reminded of it by the topic of this month’s issue – the working world in 2016. Not wanting to ruin the magic of magazine publishing but this article’s deadline for the February issue was last December. So, in a way, I had to wear my ‘futurist’ hat. Although, if I was genuinely a futurist, I’ve had known two years ago that hats and beards would make a huge comeback and I’m both hatless and beardless. Trendiness-aside, I’m OK with that. One trend I do recall, even now, from Popcorn (not her real name) was ‘cocooning.’ Even before the internet really kicked in and the terrorism / media combo made everyone scared of their shadows, she projected that people would go out less often. Bigger houses, wider TVs, home delivery of food, and so forth were clues. Almost two decades on, we have to give her a big tick on that one.
What I liked about her style was / is that she then outlined her thoughts around the implications. I see she now runs a web service, no doubt prognosticating on the implications of drones, big data and printing our own food and pancreases. (Is that the plural of pancreas? I never thought I’d need to juggle multiple pancreases.)
I like movies set in the not too distant future. Bladerunner had a hyper-present Asian culture and some pretty bleak climatic consequences. Minority Report has Tom Cruise running from the authorities, only to have a sentient vending machine scan his retina without him opting in and suggest he purchase his favourite beverage whilst at the same time reporting him to the cops. Elysium had Matt Damon working a terrible job manufacturing the robot security guards that would oppress him and protect the pampered elite living in the clouds.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘The Tipping Point’ wrote about ‘Coolhunters’ – marketing people whose job it was to trawl the streets and clubs to observe the hippest people, what they were drinking, wearing and doing, then projecting that into the next big thing on a scale. That’s a real thing and now big data makes it all the more rapid and accurate.
So, how does all this relate to the world of work in 2016? We’re past the 2015 date Marty McFly and Doc went forward to in ‘Back To The Future.’ Technically, we do have hoverboards but they’re $15,000 and they only work while over a sheet of copper. They do come with a sheet of copper but it’s only a metre long, so if you’re into remaining motionless about four inches about the ground, this may be next year’s Christmas gift for you. (Assuming you’re into Christmas or allowed to even say that word at work. You might have one of those “Season’s Greetings” situations. Or should the apostrophe in seasons go after the s if we’re incorporating every culture’s shindigs and shenanigans, then we’re probably in for more than one season of festivity. Frankly, I’m also OK with that. Better than hats and beards.)
Work 2016 – look for big data or a lite kiwi version of it impacting recruitment. Think Tinder but for workers. (If you want to hire me, you have to at least buy me dinner first.) Look for greater entrepreneurship amongst young people. It’s dangerous for society to have swarms of directionless under-employed youth without structure. That’s how gangs, terrorists and acting schools recruit. Look for European Governments initially to finally tackle that problem creatively, provoked by the refugee and terrorism situations. Eventually we’ll try some of those ideas that we were probably doing before 1984 anyway. Look for new jobs that you cannot believe exist. Faith Popcorn is spotting a trend for hot sauce sommeliers in restaurants. (Syrians could do that?) Look for whatever the next ridiculous fashion trend that supercedes hats and beards.
I recently spent a month in the United States. I did do a little bit of work over there but there’s a part of me dying to strongly imply that I was exposed to a mass of leading edge innovative thinking around leadership and employment. Truth be told, I was exposed to a lot of Disney characters, movie studio tour guides and Vegas street touts. Not that I didn’t learn a lot that I’ll touch on shortly.
Before today’s instant, albeit temporary, ubiquity provided by the internet, you had to go overseas to wherever the motherland of your industry was to pick up the new trends and terms and it always seemed like New Zealand was years behind. But we did lead the world in cultural cringing. Fashionistas had to go to Paris or Milan. (Although if they were from New Zealand, they were probably fashioniwis?) I presume currency traders had to go to Wall Street or a conference in the Cayman Islands. I’m not sure where employment gurus went. I do remember that it seemed critical that they go and come back. Maybe it was more about the journey and not the destination?
I will admit there have been many occasions where I’ve had sudden and sharp pangs of FOMO (fear of missing out) where I hear a term that everyone seems to be using and I didn’t immediately know what it meant. For example, some of you might have felt that about FOMO, which would have been an ironic example of FOMO in action. Many times I’ve heard “Remuneration and reward” pronounced as “renumeration and award.” This could be me mishearing, or the speaker mispronouncing. Either of those alternatives are logical and probably equally likely. Nevertheless, my default is usually a fleeting belief that there is a new HR term buzzing around and I’m late to the party. I’ll quickly rationalise and assign meaning. Renumeration sounds real enough. Sounds like you numerate something then do it again, possibly multiple times.
To numerate literally means to represent numbers with symbols. So, a corporate policy of renumeration might mean that you give out payslips and instead of having old fashioned numbers indicating quite specifically what people have been paid and what deductions have been deducted, you replace the numbers with graphics. So instead of “$800”, there is a picture of a non premium brand HD TV. People often resent the deductions from their pay, even though they may benefit in the long run from ACC, student loans, tax spent by the Government or their own retirement savings. You could boost morale and engagement by having people choose their own graphics for their own deductions. Liberals could have their taxes represented by a teacher or nurse. The other end of the political spectrum could choose whatever they think taxes might best be represented by – something like the ‘more gruel’ scene from Oliver Twist. That’d be kind of detailed. I’d suggest using a bigger font.
And if people didn’t like or understand their pay by the graphics, you could do it again with new symbols, thus putting the ‘re’ into ‘renumeration.’
Awards are way more obvious, obviously. There are the Grammy Awards and the Academy Awards, so these would be like those but in an employment context. People would be super motivated by those, just like singers and actors primarily do what they do seeking the eventual, subjective and uncertain approval of a small, detached group of judges out of touch and unrepresentative of themselves.
Some of you might be thinking to yourselves that you’re all good, as you already have an employee of the month or similar award. Stop thinking small. Ramp it up. Two words – red carpet. And glitter. OK – three words.
Of course, at some point I realise that I’ve misheard what’s been said and I’m not missing out on some new, flash in the pan technique from overseas and I don’t have to catch up to Trendy McTrenderson. I shudder to think of the pitfalls of employee reward systems based on the Academy Awards. Employees of the month are enough of a mixed bag as it is. If you’ve ever coached your kid’s sports team and had to endure the politics and repercussions of player of the day, you’ll know what I mean.
I’m not a big drinker or gambler but I did enjoy my first time in Vegas. I missed being at the scene of a police shooting by five minutes as I stopped enroute to the Bellagio fountain show to get some gummy worms. (“When in Rome,” as they say. Or, at least, when next door to Caesar’s Palace.) There were lots of self employed on the streets seeking reward and remuneration in their own way. There were multiple performers dressed as Elvis. This is what I learned – the plural of Elvis is Elvi!
I’m currently working with a company that wants to implement a sustainable and managed programme of organisational storytelling. They’re convinced it isn’t silly nor is it just a ‘flavour of the month’ magic leadership blue pill. They see it as a fundamental human communication tool and they’d like to leverage it for their own communication strategy’s objectives and enable their people to use it to better move people around them to change. They had no problem with the concept, the practice or the potential cost-benefits of organisational storytelling. Their primary concern was that it would become just another change effort that didn’t stick.
In that regard, their concerns are warranted. Something as uncommon and potentially nebulous such as organisational storytelling is no different from any large-scale change project like a force-fed software roll-out.
Research from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, later popularised by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made To Stick’ focused on the power in change situations of combining the rational and the emotional. They’re the ones who got the ball rolling on the phrase ‘The elephant and the rider.’ It’s all a wonderful oversimplification and neuro-scientists must be rolling in their hammocks but it’s a simple and useful mental model. The elephant is your emotional brain. The skinny feeble dude on top of the elephant is the rider – your rational brain. The rider knows the rules and your goals and what’s good for you in the long run and learns from experience. The elephant wants what it wants. The rider will see a pile of chocolate and say that you shouldn’t have any but could probably have a little bit. The elephant will say it can’t hear you because of the noise it’s making eating all this chocolate.
Apparently, a key to success in life generally and change in particular is to get our elephants and riders working together. The third element is to ‘shape the path.’ We need to give them a degree of autonomy but with a limited range. Some of you will be thinking that this makes sense. Some of you will be thinking that elephants can’t talk. That’s just your driver speaking.
One of the things that constrains or delays change is paralysis by analysis. People obsess over making the right decision and end up making no decision or a too late decision. There’s a classic study where researchers set up stalls at several farmers markets. Half the stalls offered three jams for sale with three taste test pots. The other half of the stalls offered twenty four jams and twenty four taste test pots. Which stalls do you think sold the most jam? Far and away the three choice stalls sold significantly more jams. Haven’t we been conditioned to think that we want choice? That more choices are good choices? You might think that but that’s not what the research shows.
Why is that? Regret, or the potential for it, is a powerful driver and constrainer of human behaviour, although not so much for elephants. We want to choose the best jam. The chances of making the best jam choice out of three are pretty good, especially if the three choices are very diverse, say, a berry jam, a marmalade and something with low or no sugar. (Ha, just kidding. I think stevia is straight out of Professor Snape’s lab at Hogwarts and causes flavour to become invisible.) But, with twenty four options, many quite similar, those odds of making the best choice plummet. And our brains, emotional nor rational, don’t like that. We probably wouldn’t construct elaborate decision matrices on complex spreadsheets for jams but that’s exactly what we do for a lot of decisions are work.
John P. Kotter is the world’s leading expert on change. He’s got that middle initial thing going on so there’s that for a start. Seriously, his book’s a classic and I highly recommend it. I MC’d his off-sider from Boston at a conference recently and I was impressed by their research-based but very practical structured approach. They have an eight-step process; Look it up. The first step to minimising the chances of your change initiative failing is to create a sense of urgency. If paralysis by analysis is a brake on change efforts then creating a sense of urgency is smart. Go on, the idea is only available for a limited time!!
They say we’ll never know which came first – the chicken or the egg. I say it’ll become a lot clearer once KFC starts serving breakfasts. Is it that restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian meal options because diners don’t order a lot of vegetarian meals or do diners not order a lot of vegetarian meals because restaurants don’t offer a wide range of vegetarian options? It’s a chicken and egg situation.
I MC’d several HR conferences recently, here and in Singapore. One of the reasons conferences occur is to pick up on trends and, certainly, technology features predominantly amongst trends. Phrases get thrown around like ‘big data’ and everyone goes “ooh” or “grr”. I’m a fan of irony and nothing tickles me more than a presenter on a technology topic who includes a link to an online video in their presentation and then expresses incredulous surprise when it either doesn’t connect at all, or streams erratically. They’re genuinely astonished that the conference venue doesn’t have broadband as good as their high tech headquarters where they tested everything. I so applaud their optimism but c’mon, download it, edit it and embed it. If you can’t get that right, what faith can we have in your product?
Many of these videos are from futurists and fans of the movie ‘Minority Report’. It’s like a drinking game at HR conferences – every time you see a scene in a presenter’s video where someone pinches or swipes the air in front of their face and a holographic ‘screen’ opens and floats there and they tap it or throw it to a wall, you have to skull your drink. Fortunately, at conferences it’s just water with way too much ice. This presents risks of its own but at least intoxication isn’t one of them.
Chickens and eggs, horses and carts – one of those represents the relationships between HR practices and HR technology. For example, one of the speakers quoted a prediction that, within a few years, professional firms will have on average a 50-50 blended workforce. So, half your people will not be employees but may be contractors or some variation on that theme. This floating, flexible, just-in-time talent pool may or may not be located on your premises. Is this trend occuring because mobile technology enables it or is mobile technology being developed to profit from the trend. I think it’s chickens and eggs.
Another process that’s not necessarily all about technology but technology is making it so much more do-able and everyone is increasingly familiar with it because of online activity is rating. The international speakers at the Singapore conference talked a lot about rating. One example was semi-formal ENPS (Employee Net Promoter Score) ‘pulse checks’ from employees using an app or an intranet link instead of, or in addition to, infrequent and more in-depth engagement surveys. Another example was online forums where people can rate their boss like they’d rate a book on Amazon or rate a restaurant on Yelp. Starting at a job might be more navigatable if you had as part of your orientation and induction an app called ‘Job Advisor’ akin to ‘Trip Advisor’. If you won’t stay at anything less than a four star hotel, why would you even contemplate working for anything less than a four star boss? (Five stars is the best. Unless it’s a planetarium, in which case five stars is terrible).
Needless to say, there were mixed feelings about such rating systems. That’s not to throw shade at the technology. The issues seemed to be more about how the ratings were conducted, privacy, and human nature.
Singapore was full of rating. The moment you legally entered the country through immigration, a tablet on a post was your first impression. Glowing pink and yellow, it offered a five point likert scale to assess the experience you just had with immigration. Five cartoon faces ranging from very smiley to very non smiley. Again, I admire the optimism but the person I was rating (and who had the authority to detain me for forty eight hours) was only one metre behind me! I gave them a pretty smiley but not very smile face and scurried on my way. The next such panel I encountered was on my way out of the toilet. The screen had the same likert scale of smiley faces but also had a photo of someone I assume was the person responsible for the state of the toilets. (Either that or employee of the month). It was actually a great toilet experience and I would have absolutely given them the highest rating but if there’s one touch screen I’m not touching, it’s there. Maybe if they had a foot operated survey? I feel the same way about the door handles and the taps.
The thing with technology is that it’s a tool. Someone makes it and hopes there’s a need or someone observes there is a need and creates a tool to solve a problem, meet a challenge or fill a gap. You want to avoid the former.
An obvious feature about conferences is the expo section where vendors pitch their wares and many are tech outfits promoting the latest shiny thing. By all means pop your business card in the bowl and win that champagne but know your needs before you go shopping.
Mentoring is a great idea and doesn’t need technology but can technology help? I saw an app where mentors and mentees can connect without any need for human mediation. It’s a lot like Tinder (but not too much like Tinder).
There’s a growing trend, probably originating in some happy, progressive, Scandinavian country, to build retirement villages and early childhood centres next to each other. As well as physical proximity, the organisers of both centres work together to plan cooperative activities so, in a planned and managed way, the people at one end of a lifetime interact meaningfully with people from the other end. Results so far are positive and encouraging. The younglings benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, whilst the retirees are re-energised in the presence of youth. This is probably that whole ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ mindset people throw around that we all use to lean on back in our tribal times so the middle people in their peak productive years could go out and hunt, gather and pillage depending on their skillset and testosterone levels.
This synergy born of close physical proximity has a name. It’s called propinquity. Look it up in a dictionary. If you don’t have a dictionary, google where to buy one. (Hint – you could google propinquity directly). Drop it into dinner party conversation. Apparently, studies have been done on effective working relationships and lifelong personal friendships. The studies sought to identify what the drivers of such successful relationships were. It turned out that simply being next to each other at some crucial point in time was the single most influential factor. You’d be amazed at how many best buddy friendships were formed with the person in the chair next to you on the first day of primary school, simply because everyone was seated alphabetically and Craig’s surname also ended in W.
This principle of propinquity comes into play in the workplace, and its potential benefits escalate if managed wisely, when you have a multi-generational workforce. I was MCing an HR conference recently and saw an eye-opening presentation on diversity. There were the obvious cultural and racial declarations and statistics such as Auckland being the 2nd most racially diverse city in the OECD behind Toronto. Quite apart from that was information about age diversity. It’s becoming increasingly normal to have workplaces with five generations of people working there.
I guess if you got a school leaver at sixteen and someone in their 70s, you could probably divide that into five generations. I did chat with someone at that conference who spoke about handing a bunch of letters in pre-sealed and stamped envelopes to their fresh, teen employee and asked if she could post them on her way home. He reports that she just stared at him and asked what he meant. There are actually people in fulltime, adult, paid employment who don’t know what a letter is or how to post one. I had a conversation myself with some other people about analogue clocks and how you can throw the odd young person with a phrase like, “Quarter past”. I’m sure young people are having the same conversations in reverse when we completely misunderstand invitations to, “Netflix and chill”. (Google it if you need to – probably NSFW. Google NSFW if you need to…)
Can New Zealand workplaces generate benefits with multi-generational workforces in the same way that those Scandinavian retirement village / early childhood centre combos do? Just randomly letting it happen and hoping for the best will not garner those benefits, unless by accident. The reason the retirement village / early childhood centre combos work is due to planning and management. It’s deliberate, it’s monitored constantly, and interventions are done as and when required. Some things happen that weren’t anticipated but lessons are learned with structured debriefing processes. Some things are easily anticipated and they’re planned for in a flexible way. For example, the traditional notion of retirement as switching the work switch to ‘off’ and going from fully employed one day to gardening / fishing / recreational vehicle-ing the next day is becoming less clear cut. Smart employers have a range of options and are open to innovative suggestions from those impacted.
Talent may want to cut back a bit and have a transition period, maybe over months or even years, working less hours or days and maybe even cherry-picking projects, whilst still being on-call if their institutional memory suddenly is needed on an ad hoc basis. If they’re truly talented and productive, they’ve probably earned it and it’s probably worth it. But, just because someone is old doesn’t mean they’re wise and just because someone is young doesn’t mean they’re an energetic go-getter. A much more individualised approach to managing personal retirement options and transitions is the way of the future.
While all this is happening to those people at the retirement end of their working lives, bearing witness to it are those starting out or in the middle. How you treat those people isn’t just about those people. It sends a powerful message, positive or negative, to upcoming talent on just how disposable they might end up being themselves.
Not every workplace should have employees bringing in their preschoolers though. Some people really need to focus on their air traffic controlling duties.
I just finished MCing a conference for an industry association of holiday park owners. They were a really down-to-earth group of people who got on really well because they had much in common – as people, not just by virtue of the nature of the work they did. Most were owner-operator couples. For the sake of simplicity, albeit probably not accuracy, let’s say husband and wife teams. They all had serious ‘skin in the game’ with massive personal investments in their businesses and many with significant debt-based investment. Many were carrying on a legacy from generations past of holiday camp ownership and management. Apart from being business owners, their choice of vocation was also very much driven by lifestyle choice with many camps in remote destination locations next to beaches, glaciers, etc. As a result of all this commonality, they got on well, had shared values and common goals, and it was a hell of a final night award dinner party.
Yes, there was commonality but there was by no means homogeneity.
I haven’t got the latest census figures to hand and I’m not gong to rattle off the stats around what proportion of the general population is young / old, male / female, and by whatever other criteria we can be distinguished from each other. My general belief is that it’s helpful if your team can represent the population of customers it serves. If this applied to holiday parks, they’d need to have half of their employees being Aussies. Nevertheless, they were a diverse group, especially on a gender basis, which warrants some applause even today (sadly). As I hosted the awards, I noticed with striking regularity how often a couple would take their prizes, look sheepishly at the microphone as they suddenly realised an acceptance speech was expected, and the woman would step forward (or the guy would step back – hard to tell in that light).
They were super diverse in terms of age too. Some recipients had to be helped up the steps to the stage due to their advanced years, whereas others had to hand a baby across to tablemates so they could stride to the stage. This is where diversity doesn’t need a Government-imposed programme to make people do it because they have to. This group of practical, salt-of-the-earth people know it is necessary to ensure the viability and survival of their industry. Succession, corporate memory and collective innovation are enabled and strengthened when the group has different points of view. Young ones starting out are all keen, scared and focused on surviving, not stuffing up and improving on what they’ve taken on. There seems to be a middle group who have gotten past the death-defying business stage and are consolidating and growing a mini network of parks. And those coming out the other end are thinking about exit strategies, legacies and supporting those coming through whilst maintaining standards. If they were chronologically all the same, there would be a dangerous lack of different perspectives which could dramatically impact their industry’s planning and results. Diversity is a strength in organisms and it is a strength in organisations. Lack of diversity is not just a weakness; it is a threat.
Oddly, they haven’t got a policy or a plan to create something called diversity. It’s just naturally developed and self-maintained over decades. They’re well ahead of the curve as I see it in my travels. In other events I work at and organisations I work in, I see individuals or teams and sometimes leadership deliberately and proactively trying to catalyse and nurture diversity programmes and so forth around gender, age, race, culture, even personality type. Some are doing well and others face entrenched opposition either institutionalised or via inertia, or even sometimes conscious and equally deliberate opposition to anything perceived as ‘positive discrimination’ or ‘affirmative action’. These terms almost carry negative baggage in the eyes of people who deride political correctness as the worst thing to happen to society in the past forty years.
I got into a brief twitter kerfuffle with an American of Indian ancestry who’d carved some infamy by applying as himself to a medical school and being rejected, then reapplying with exactly the same application except adjusted to make himself an African-American who got accepted. He tossed around terms like fairness and merit and I get that. His use of them was fairly selective and self-serving but I get his point. Merit and fairness are nice ideas and sometimes promoting diversity conflicts with those concepts.
An organisation / organism increases its chances of survival and success if it can adapt. Darwin wasn’t about survival of the merit or fairness. He was about survival of the most adaptable. The external society and economy is changing and a strategic, deliberate and proactive approach to diversity is how smart, future-thinking employers will ensure the survivial and success of their workplace.
I’ve taken a real shine to podcasts recently. Whilst walking or driving or at the gym, I’m plugged into my bluetooth wrap-around headphones doing two things at once. For most guys, multitasking is microwaving a pie whilst having a shower. Sometimes my phones goes and it automatically cuts the podcast and brings on the call, which is inevitably an offer of easy, high-fee work. I’ll accept the work, the caller will compliment me on the high-energy music in the background, the call ends, the phone brings back up the podcast and I go back to my workout. Such multitasking must surely be a shining example of productivity. (This happens to me all the time and isn’t a made-up example for this article in any way).
People talk about multi-tasking and being productive all the time. I’m not entirely sure everyone shares the same understanding of what it actually means. Technically, it’s a measure of the ratio of outputs to inputs in a production process. You know, a genuinely measurable thing you can track against a baseline and assess the effectiveness of changing variables. Probably my podcast at the gym example isn’t really about productivity, although my vertical leap has increased ten percent in the past three months and surely that’s a kind of productivity?
That ‘outputs to inputs’ stuff must just be about companies and countries though, right? Let us just fret about personal productivity. Let us all read about four hour work weeks, attempt four hour bodies and outsource our low value activities to some kids in Kazakhstan via fiverr.com. As a self-employed person, I do outsource much of my, for want of a better term, work. I have an accountant. I have a graphic designer. I buy their time and outputs as and when required. Those aren’t low value activities but they’re areas where my skill levels are amateurish on a good day with the wind behind me. Other tasks that are low value, I might assign to one of my low-skill non-Kazakhstani kids at low but not Fiverr.com-low rates. I probably shouldn’t be in charge of running a country but it seems to work for us. To be fair to Nahir my Fiverr guy, his work isn’t low skill. He is a skilled creative and I could never have drawn that cartoon myself of a desert scene made up of popsicles and cupcakes to go along as a background image with a comedy song I’d written about how I’m annoyed when people confuse the words ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’.
One technique worth considering, to the extent that you find it do-able, is performing different types of activities at different times of the day. I once met a professor of chronobiology (look it up) and she told me of circadian rhythms and such. People are different but the average person has two peak periods of alertness in a given day – around 8am to 10am and 6pm to 8pm. Our droopiest period of non-alertness is 1pm to 3pm. She argued that, if you can, you should schedule high value / high thinking activities in your peak alertness periods and your mindless, low-value tasks in your trough alertness periods.
Gloria Mark is one of the world’s leading experts on workplace interruptions. If I was to ask you what you thought were the primary causes of workplace interruptions, you might say things like phonecalls, emails, pop-in visitors or meetings. Mark did a videoed study of many workplaces where they’d had time management training and knew at a conscious level that they should be working on one task at a time until completion and that the tasks should be done in priority order according to agreed high-level goals. It’s fascinating to watch as the number one workplace interruption isn’t any of those you would’ve thought of. Our number one workplace interruptor is… ourselves. You watch the videos and people are working studiously on their high priority task, then, for no overtly obvious reason, they stop, shuffle sideays and do something else briefly, and finish by sliding back to that high priority task they’d just interrupted themselves from doing. And they’d do this repeatedly. Every time you interrupt a task and return to it, there is abundant opportunity for errors, duplications, ommission and so forth, nevermind the inefficiency.
One option to deal with the ill-disciplined, unproductive, troublemaker that is yourself is the pomodoro technique. When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals that are spaced out by short breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines. If you gradually increase the duration of the working periods, you can even train your brain to be more focused. The guy who invented the technique used a wind-up timer in the shape of a tomato and pomodoro is Italian for tomato.
Sorry, that last paragraph was a lot funnier in its original Kazakh language. It lost a bit in translation.