Striving for workplace transformation beyond lip-service

new workplace transformation-learning-development-performance-www.labourflaws.comBy Barbara du Preez-Ulmi. How do you define your workplace? Is it the desk you plonk down at every morning, or is it standing next to a patient in a hospital bed, or perhaps the booting up of industrial machine? As an employer, is it the space that your employees share, one that can clearly be measured between coffee plunger, front door and fire escape?

I bet most of you answered yes to the above. However, ask yourself: What do you think about when driving home from work, or while waiting for yet another over-crowded bus to rush past? Is it perhaps unfinished work, an issue with your boss, an irate client or emails that need to be answered still? What do you think about when you get up at the crack of dawn, downing a cup of sluggish coffee, while getting ready to leave the house? It’s most likely unfinished work, an issue with your boss… you get it.

How many of us truly get up in the morning and can’t wait to arrive at work? How many can really leave work at the door when they enter their homes, and switch off? (Youngsters in their first job are not allowed to answer this question.)

This article does not elaborate on the legal definition of a workplace, and its implications pertaining to the right to privacy, workplace accidents or harassment. Rather, it looks at how the emergence of permeation of space and of new forms of collaboration and thinking brings with it the need for true transformation spanning workplace culture, performance measurement and Learning & Development. It is about transforming our mind-sets and our traditional systems.

The new workplace: the challenge of unlimited spaces and of constant connectivity

The new workplace goes beyond the desk, the hospital bed and the machine. It takes into account all the spaces that we occupy – from the workplace to our homes, our modes of transport to our sporting halls. Our thoughts permeate all of these spaces, just like constant flow of data and information generated outside of our busy brains: Thanks to those little devices that we cannot even part with when going to the bathroom, we are constantly connected to our work and topics related to work via our emails, social media alerts and the news.

Some of us may not have the luxury of thinking about work-related issues, as we have small children to attend to the moment we turn the key in the door. Or we may have to stop at our aging father on our way home, helping him with his daily bath and making sure he takes his medicine. We may live in an impoverished area far out of town and have to get up at 3 am in order to be at work by 6, ready to iron out the kinks in hotel linen.

I’m just another number: Performance measurement gone wrong

Now this creates a conflicting field of dynamics. We cannot switch off, and we may also be in life situations that draw a lot of energy from us outside of the traditionally defined workplace. At the same time, it is expected of us to leave our personal duties, worries and stress at the door when starting work at 8 am sharp.

More often than not, our performance is measured against what we produce within our core working hours – without taking into account our unique situations, our contributions to the workplace other than our sales targets or the amount of tasks we pump out in a day.

We land up feeling like just another number – a particle in a giant machine feeling more and more screwed as the time passes.

How is your performance measured at work, if at all? Are you lucky enough to work for someone who rewards you for more than just the quarterly KPIs measured against goal posts that often change? Performance measurement and with it, motivation to do better at work, should never follow a carrot and stick approach.

Anyone who understands new workplace dynamics, will know that it is about rewarding people for their contributions ranging from the positive  influencing of others, teambuilding skills, empathy and care, conflict resolution talent, new clients gained, sales achieved, issues resolved, projects well organised and for being fantastic communicators; perhaps even for regular attendance and reliability.

The moment you expect results that are only numerically driven and measured, you kill the spirit at work. You may think it is the only way to achieve profitability, but sooner or later you will see that it costs you more to deal with disciplinary issues, with legal disputes, a high turnover rate and regular staff absence (high Bradford scores). If you start looking at performance in terms of rewarding true, sustainable values that people offer to you rather than financial targets only, your financial health will improve.

Do you really know the people working with and for you?

But now what if your staff does not add any value and the only way for you to stay profitable is to measure them against a weekly list of tasks achieved, and against direct monthly contribution to turnover? What if in your eyes, their motivation is low and they are just a lazy bunch?

Well, maybe it is time to look at who you are employing. Who are these people that you work with? Do you know anything about them – do you know about their worries, struggles, hopes, or even skills training that they desire but don’t know how to ask for?

How about you start looking at their story and how that ties in with their work performance. In international labour law, we protect vulnerable workers through legal guidelines explaining obligations towards those who are (sexually) harassed, are disabled (including of alcohol addiction), or who suffer from HIV/Aids if you are running a business in a region that is affected by the pandemic. But there is no guideline for employers on how to deal with the multitude of life situations that directly affect (the lack of) social justice and through this, a fairer workplace and a happier workforce.

Why do we have to wait for legal frameworks rather than take action ourselves, and be the change?

How about we look at performance measurement that is truly 360 degrees:  One that reviews employees’ aggravating life circumstances. To make an example; you have a performance appraisal process in place that looks at the following factors: Individual profitability targets; attendance; quality of work; innovation and participation. You use the same approach and metrics for all staff.

But now you have a single, 25 year old female who lives 10 minutes from work, has a gym contract, her own car and a great boyfriend. You also have a single father of two who lives in a poorer area two hours away from work as he has to take public transport; he is sometimes late because the trains are delayed due to cable theft. How can you possibly measure them in exactly the same way without taking life circumstances into account? What if that father performs exceptionally well in spite of his life situation – are there not perhaps ways to reward him in an alternative way, such as helping him finance his own car, or go for driver’s lessons, or create a day care centre at work for everyone with small children?

Sure, we cannot punish or reward people for their unique life situations, but we can support, incentivise and motivate those who need a little extra help.

This also so in the situation of the single woman. Imagine her boyfriend breaks up with her and her sales dwindle rapidly. She starts being more absent from work and seems “moody”. Would you then not also have to understand the bigger aspect of her “work space” in order to keep getting great contributions to the business from her, and to keep her working for you and not for someone else? Could you perhaps give her some time to work from home for a while?

I’m sure you are getting the point, but at the same time you may wonder how the heck you’re going to do that all. It sounds so labour intensive, and complex, and you just don’t have time for it. You just want to get the numbers in, report well to the shareholders, and expand your business. Well, but that is what we mean when we say we need to invest in human capital – that our human resources are what makes or breaks a business. There are ways to deal with the new workplace situation by adding the help of systems and digital technology, and by asking your own staff to help: Create workplace forums or representatives who do the emotional and opinion data mining for you and sketch everyone’s situations, hopes and expectations , depending on the size of your enterprise.

Going beyond lip service: Skills training, development and transformation

Lip service is just not good enough. If you know your people are your biggest asset, then invest in them properly – and not just by buying a ping pong table. Invest in their training. If you are operating in a country where affirmative action and transformation policies are in force, don’t just invest in learning and development of your staff in order to earn brownie points and financial kick-backs for your company.

A few years back, I was approached by a South African company which mandated me to help them source and hire more non-white, non-male candidates as they realised that in order to stay alive as a business, they need to start abiding by Black Based Employment regulations and policies – almost their entire workforce was white, and upper management was male only. They would also only get the 20% kick back from the national Training Authorities if they could prove that they employed and trained people “of colour” or females, preferably disabled ones as that would earn them even more points towards their BBE status.

They asked me to find candidates for senior operational and technical roles. They wanted the best of the crop, preferably black and female, and someone who would just hit the floor running without too much assistance. Every professional candidate they interviewed wasn’t senior enough for them and they weren’t willing to have to invest in upskilling or assistance. But that is exactly what transformation is about: if you want to be able to do better business, earn more and get a higher BEE status, you need to also invest in true training, and in truly understanding the value of a diverse workplace.

Let’s go beyond politically driven transformation

We should not see transformation in a political, agenda-driven context only.  Let’s look at it holistically. How often have you found great people, but they didn’t have the exact skills set or experience you were looking for? And you then decided to rather hire the guy who comes across arrogant but has all the skills, rather than the one with a great personality fit just because you didn’t want to help someone else transform themselves, and with that, transform your business? Are you looking at someone’s CV and IQ only, or also at their communication skills, contextual thinking, behaviour, life experience, passion and dreams?

On that note, what does your training offer look like? Do you have a staff training and development policy in place? Do you, like most employers, focus on these two core areas only: Training which is directly job/ responsibility-related and training that you have to provide through statutory law (such as first aid or health and safety certification)?

If you truly see the people you work with like you see yourself – as living, dreaming, aspiring individuals – and if you make an effort to listen to their needs, your training may go beyond statutory requirements and into the realm of true development.

After all, your staff gives you more than just the 8 or 9 hours at work. They sacrifice time with their families and loved ones; they sacrifice free will and being master of their own time; they may even sacrifice mental and physical health. If you like Google offer core training such as personal financial management; or if you give your staff weekly allocated individual L&D time like the forward-thinking agency Struto does, productivity, morale and loyalty will be strengthened.  (You may have never heard of Struto – but why not mention some small players who get it right for a change; you don’t need to be a Richard Branson; in this light, also look up Ushahidi’s working conditions; a true inspiration).

The rising costs of ignoring necessary change

If you are an employer and you still think all of this is hog-wash and will cost you too much in terms of invested time and resources, think again. If you don’t invest in truly appraising, developing and transforming your staff (to ultimately profit your business and your brand), then what are the costs you will be facing (or that you already accumulate), such as:

  • The cost of hiring and on-boarding new staff;
  • High absence patterns in existing staff that comes at daily profitability loss;
  • Dismissal and unfair labour practice disputes which cost you time and money to settle;
  • Disciplinary hearings for which you possibly even pay an external professional in the role of a chair or mediator;
  • Slow work outputs due to low morale and motivation.

Can we start a conversation?


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