You only have to look at the pages of the press to see our workplaces are more fractious and unsettled than ever before. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen examples in the health sector of bitter feuds getting in the way of patient safety, coupled with reports from industry of toxic cultures where employees are frightened of speaking up about poor or unethical behaviour.
Meanwhile, vocal protests from workers about everything from pay and policies to sexual harassment and sustainability are on the rise, with a report from law firm Herbert Smith predicting an 80 per cent rise in employee activism. Union membership is also on the up, as employees, concerned about the impact of automation and new working practices, seek to have a greater voice in their futures.
What’s behind the incivility and unrest? Two key factors are at play. Firstly, as we get to grips with what has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are seeing change at an unprecedented level. It’s no longer a case of ‘the robots are coming’. In many sectors, they are already here, prompting radical shifts in the way work is carried out and organised. Employees, who aren’t consulted or kept informed about these changes, are unsettled, anxious and confused, as they see the jobs they know disappearing and their skill sets becoming out of date.
Secondly, some workplaces are becoming increasingly inhumane, with employees driven to the limit, constantly expected to do more work with less support and resources. And, we have 24/7 working environments, where people feel they have to be ‘always on’.
If organisations want to thrive, grow and meet the challenges of the new world of work, this is a situation they can’t afford to ignore. In an era of desperate skills shortages and rising staff turnover, companies urgently need to find more humane ways of managing people.
What needs to change?
As a conflict resolution expert, operating at the frontline of workplace disputes, David Liddle, Founder and CEO of the TCM Group, believes organisations need to go back to the drawing board and focus on building what he calls ‘fair and just’ cultures.
We need more people-centred, values-driven environments, he believes, where employees are involved in the decisions that affect them, feel free to speak up about issues that concern them without fear of repercussions, and are able to be their best and most productive selves at work.
What this means in practice, is making values the golden thread that runs throughout the business, influencing everything from the way managers lead and communicate with their teams, to the behaviours and competencies the organisation holds dear, and how the business deals with customers and suppliers.
“In a fair and just culture, adult to adult dialogue is actively encouraged, both between managers and their teams, across departmental boundaries and between peers and colleagues,” he said. “These kind of environments encourage collaboration rather than competition, and healthy debate rather than dysfunctional disputes. People are able to work together to solve problems and learn from issues, rather than pointing the finger of blame when things go wrong.”
Liddle is not alone in this view, if the number of books and articles on the need to re-humanise the workplace that are crossing my desk is anything to go by. There seems to be a groundswell of opinion about the need to shift to more compassionate ways of leading people in uncertain times.
What is HR’s role?
There is much that HR can do to support development of more humane cultures where people feel valued and can perform at their best – but it requires courage (one of the key competencies in the CIPD’s new Profession Map)
One of the first steps is for the profession to recognise that the HR ‘rule book’ is often (inadvertently) making situations worse. Disciplinary and grievance procedures are a prime example – often plunging already stressed employees into damaging, divisive situations where no-one wins and it’s unlikely good working relationships will ever be restored.
That isn’t to say the business doesn’t need to deal robustly with difficult issues – but there are other, more constructive, collaborative ways to deal with the vast majority of conflict that arises in organisations – mediation and restorative conversations to name just a few.
HR also has a key role to play in helping leaders and managers develop the skills and behaviours they need to get the best out of their teams in the new world of work.
Managers are in uncharted territory too, and many of them simply don’t have the competence or confidence to manage employee expectations, negotiate difficult conversations, motivate and engage people and develop high performance workplaces. They struggle with how best to support people’s career development, and with how to redesign jobs and allocate resources in the more flexible way that employees want and organisations need.
Of course, all this is not just down to HR to achieve alone. It calls for management, employees and unions to work closely together to find solutions to the challenges of future work. But it is an opportunity for HR to take the lead, and encourage the creation of cultures that are good for the business, and good for the people, too.