How The Covid Crisis Is Leading to a Historical Shift in Employment

The future of the workplace is one of the big question marks at this time. Plenty of people write and contribute on this topic. In a series of posts we will explore some of those thoughts. First, on the basis of this Capitalogix blog post ‘The Rise Of Remote Work‘, let’s just observe how prevalent remote work is becoming.

This post – based on US data – shows that after the pandemic-driven transformation, remote work is appreciated by people and particularly in some industries, software & IT being of course the main adopter.

The shift in how people work is translating in what is called “the great resignation” with many people moving out of more traditional employment and changing industry. This excellent Atlantic article dated October 2021 ‘The Great Resignation Is Accelerating‘ provides data on this historical migration and changes in worker expectations. This affects in particular the hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants), but also many other industries.

I love however the conclusion of the post: “The culture of work is in a massive period of transformation. Regardless of where your specific company or industry ends up, all businesses will have to increase the amount of employee care they provide. Just as the heart of AI is still human, so is the heart of our businesses.” The point is that employee expectations about life quality has risen, and organizations have to adapt.

The Covid crisis has unexpected effects on the employment market. It is certainly only an acceleration of existing trends. Still, it will require a lot of adaptation capability for organizations.


How Our Work Rhythm Is Changing

In addition to the issue of traditional office buildings (see our previous post ‘How Modern Offices May be a Transient Historical Phenomenon‘), the traditional work week is also under review. This Vox article “The five-day workweek is dead – It’s time for something better” makes the point (even if it a bit tainted with US specifics).

The five-day workweek is so entrenched in American life that everything, from vacation packages to wedding prices to novelty signs, is built around it. When you live it every Monday through Friday, year in and year out, it can be hard to imagine any other way.” Of course, this was also build about 8h presence per day on the work location which was the only location where work could be done.

Currently most people in intellectual professions or service work tend to work more because they also work from home thanks to modern technology. But even the official 9-to-5 office rhythm does not make any sense anymore because we don’t need to be all at the same place at the same time to work together. “Some employers are testing out four-day workweeks. A recent study of shorter workweeks in Iceland was a big success, boosting worker well-being and even productivity. And workers themselves are pushing back against schedules that crowd out everything that isn’t work.”

It seems to me quite inevitable that work duration will go down, but that in exchange workers will need to be more flexible in the week or even during the year (working more intensively when needed, taking off when not). While this will be made easier with technology, it will also require new management tools and new discipline from the workers themselves. This transformation is just starting!


How Modern Offices May be a Transient Historical Phenomenon

Many things get written nowadays about the future of work. We will know in a few months how the pandemics has really changed our approach. In this post ‘The end of the office‘, Seth Godin takes a historical perspective on the modern office and how it may have been a transient phenomenon.

The modern office building has appeared with the industrial age and was conceived in fact as a data management factory. “For a century, the office was simply a small room next to the factory or the store. The office was upstairs from the bakery, or next to the stockyard or the foundry. Proximity to the worksite was its primary attribute.” Then it became sprawling office surfaces with layers of bureaucracy. For many it became one of the main centers of social life.

As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems“. With the remote work experience and the fact that we can share data irrespective of location, the need for large offices has disappeared.

I believe in the future there will be more remote work from home or decentralized offices, accompanied by a number of get-together events. This is already how many global companies work when it comes to global project teams. Transition may be faster or slower depending on industry and tradition, but it is ongoing!


How Leaders Are Needed to Overcome the Status-Quo

This excellent Seth Godin post ‘Living on the delta‘ was a great inspiration. The first topic is about how to deal with status-quo, with those little inadequacies and wrinkles we can’t really get to deal with, because they don’t seem so important.

Status-quo can be invasive. I sometimes meet people who have been managing their small company or organisations for decades in the same way and are desperately outdated in the way they do things. While it is obvious for an outsider it is not for them, and that’s because they have just been managing it, not looking at it from the point of view of a leader.

Leadership – doing the right things – is different from management because it takes a step back to ask whether what is being done is really the right thing to do. Leaders challenge the status quo, managers don’t. And that makes a world of difference. And in today’s world we obviously need more leadership than management!


How to Explain the Excessive Usage of Personality Tests Results

In a professional environment or out of personal curiosity, we’ve all taken personality tests that indicate our strengths and weaknesses. Why are those reductive tests so popular and in use? In David Epstein book ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World‘, the author takes the position that it respond to our and organisation needs to classify us and pigeonhole us.

A lucrative career and personality quiz and counseling industry survives on that notion. “All of the strengths-finder stuff, it gives people license to pigeonhole themselves or others in ways that just don’t take into account how much we grow and evolve and blossom and discover new things,” . “But people want answers, so these frameworks sell. It’s a lot harder to say, ‘Well, come up with some experiments and see what happens.’”

On one hand I find those tests quite insightful and they generate useful thinking about oneself and what we should reinforce or change; on the other hand it is true that they tend to classify us. By the way, the best advice is certainly not to try to improve weaknesses but rather to further enhance those strengths that make us so specific.

Organisations are then advised to seek diversity (i.e. a set of people which results to the test spread nicely across categories), and may outright reject applications on the basis of test results.

Those tests are an extremely reductionist approach to our personality and they also don’t account at all on the fact that we may evolve. Taking important decisions on their basis and letting them classify ourselves in categories is certainly excessive. They should remain as an interesting insight in our personality, but should not be used beyond a certain limit.


How Automation Increases Pressure on Basic Production Positions

As part of the current debates about the impact of automation of our work environment, I found this post ‘How Hard Will the Robots Make Us Work (In warehouses, call centers, and other sectors, intelligent machines are managing humans, and they’re making work more stressful, grueling, and dangerous)’ quite interesting.

The point of the article is that in many instances, workers get monitored by algorithms that catch much more than a human manager would do in terms of fine grained performance and efficiency, and that it leads to far more pressure on workers. “These automated systems can detect inefficiencies that a human manager never would — a moment’s downtime between calls, a habit of lingering at the coffee machine after finishing a task, a new route that, if all goes perfectly, could get a few more packages delivered in a day. But for workers, what look like inefficiencies to an algorithm were their last reserves of respite and autonomy, and as these little breaks and minor freedoms get optimized out, their jobs are becoming more intense, stressful, and dangerous”

The article goes on to describe a number of grueling examples, but what has struck me is that most examples relate to production positions that are close to being automated, and based on hourly compensation. The only exception in the article is a software engineer whose productivity and presence is monitored at tight intervals, but apparently he is supposed to provide run-of-the-mill coding. The point is quite clear that for those production positions, automation is stressful because they are increasingly expected to be as good as robots – until they will be replaced. This however does not apply to more complex positions related to creativity and system architecture, where productivity can’t be measured the Industrial-Age way.

Still, this is a warning that for production positions that are close to being automated, the current development of AI and automated monitoring systems will create a stressful environment through closer supervision and this may be an area where regulation may need to intervene to protect workers.


How Deadlines Contribute to Avoid Excessive Perfectionism

In this excellent post ‘68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice‘ Kevin Kelly shares his wisdom. Some of those bits caught my eye, such as this one: “Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.”

I find that it is an interesting take about deadlines. Deadlines is not just a way to improve productivity and oblige to be focused on delivering, but also it is a way to make sure we are not too perfectionist.

Perfectionism can have a dark side (it is never as good as it could be, therefore it never gets released to the world). Seeing deadlines as a way to force a good enough quality is an interesting perspective.

Even more reasons now to set deadlines!


How Irrelevant Industrial Age Approaches Are Still Prevalent

I read recently this account ‘Exclusive: Barclays installs Big Brother-style spyware on employees’ computers‘ of how a bank had installed a productivity measuring tool on its employees computer, that issues warning when people pause doing stuff on their computer. And indeed after a quick search I realized there seem to be quite an offer of “productivity monitoring tools” on the market.

This is an impressive application of the Industrial Age mindset as we move into Collaborative Age. Monitoring my computer activity would have absolutely no meaning as to my productivity: my work is about creativity, facilitating, getting people to work together. How can you expect to measure that based on my active interaction with my computer?

The article does not detail what were the specific tasks of the targeted employees, but in most modern organisations people don’t spend their entire day in front of the screen just repeatedly doing tasks that can be measured for actual productivity. Only some specific administrative departments could possibly be considered for that to be relevant.

In any case installing some software is a serious breach of confidence with regard to the employees and says a lot about the workplace culture that must be prevalent there.

In the Collaborative Age, productivity measurement must be more comprehensive than just interaction with a computer; and in case, trust will ever be a more essential characteristic of healthy workplaces.


How to Develop Realistic Expectations for Mega-Projects

This interesting podcast and post from Freakonomics website ‘Here’s Why All Your Projects Are Always Late — and What to Do About It‘ proposes a good analysis of all the reasons why mega-projects, and particularly public mega-projects, always fall so dramatically behind in terms of expectations.

All the usual fallacies and symptoms applicable to large complex projects are mentioned in a quite good synthesis and summary: the planning fallacy (overly optimism in spite of historical evidence to the contrary); optimism biais; neglecting the time and effort for coordination; student’s effect (procrastination); inadequate expectations set to sell a public project, etc.

The interesting approach mentioned at the end of the post as being possibly a successful approach is to align estimates for time and cost (or overruns) for new projects on the observed history of similar projects. This seems to be applied today in the UK. The post mentions that this approach seems to “be reasonably accurate and the cost overruns to be reasonably small — about 7 percent from the planning stages of a transportation project to completion. All of which suggests that pricing in the optimism bias and using reference-class forecasting are truly useful tools to fight the planning fallacy.” This approach can only work of course if there is a representative database of similar past projects, which is not always the case. For example it is known that some major UK infrastructure megaprojects such as High Speed train lines do still face huge overruns in schedule and cost.

Megaprojects failure to deliver on time and on budget is a major societal issue (and the sunk cost fallacy leads us to finish those projects even if they appear to be grossly failing). I am not sure the solution is as simple as the solution mentioned in the post, but it worth noting that some governments have identified the issue and try to address it proactively.


How to Define Ourselves Responding Adequately to Our Mistakes

I very much like this post by Valeria Maltoni which reminds us a great truth! ‘Mistakes Happen. It’s What we do With them that Makes a Difference‘ In my mind it is a bit similar to the old saying that the worth of a sea captain is only to be seen in a storm.

We all make mistakes, some more important than others. The issue is how we respond when we realize it. Do we pretend not to notice? Do we try to hide it? Do we spend too much time bashing ourselves on the fact we have made a mistake? Do we own the mistake, apologize, and sort it out?

In this area like in many others, I believe of course that owning it and responding to it properly (not reacting to it) is the right way. And also, as Valeria reminds us, people will remember us more about how we respond to our mistakes than in the normal course of life.

Thus, in terms or trust and reputation, the situation where we have to respond to mistakes is a defining moment. How do you define yourself?


How to Apply the Accordion Principle to Your Projects

I love this post by Pamela Slim ‘The Accordion Principle‘ because it resonates with my facilitating and consulting practice, and brings a systematic approach to a practice I often use.

The idea is to have a cycle between taking the high-level view on the challenge or problem to solve, and to focus on some detailed work. It is to make a systematic ‘health-check’ of what we are focusing on by looking at the big picture regularly. “The key is not to avoid looking at the big picture, it is to consistently move between the big picture and the small picture. I have termed this practice The Accordion Principle.

In Pamela’s view it gets even further: “The new client will say something like “I don’t even know where to start. There are so many things going on right now, and they are all kind of swimming in my head.”. “Just start anywhere,” I say.” The point here, is that we need to start somewhere, and we need to start small. And then when we take the big-picture view, we’ll figure out how things have changed and how to progress with the rest.

Are you ready to apply the ‘accordion principle’ more systematically to your endeavors? Work on the details, then go wide to check the full picture, then go detailed again, and repeat… until you get there!


How Levels of Authority Should Specify the Right Debate Forum on Decisions

Following up on our post about ‘How To Find the Right Balance for Bureaucracy‘, the issue of decision approval in organizations is always a critical one. The issue of Levels of Authority granted to individuals always revolves around pre- or post- control. What is important is that the smaller decisions are not impeded by delays and are in fact controlled post-decision; but that for important decisions, sufficient debate occurs prior to the decision.

In fast growing organizations, levels of authority are always too low. It is often the same in organizations that are not used to running large projects when it comes to the level of authority of the project manager. Levels of Authority often need to be increased to minimise delays, and improve reactivity. However, for major decisions that can have a substantial impact on the organization’s performance, it remain legitimate to ensure that a proper debate occurs. And sometimes those decisions may look small but will have a high leverage on performance.

The way approvals happen in most companies however is that despite a proper system of levels of authority, debate do not happen prior to the decision. Decisions are limited to clicking on an approval button and often there is no context to the decision. The issue may also lie in improper levels of authority, and the important decision may be hidden in the midst of many less important ones.

Levels of authority should not only specify authority levels: they should also specify those decisions that require debate, and how this debate should be conducted.