Global HR Leaders Look to an Agile Future


he workplace is changing in unprecedented ways; restructuring, digitalisation, redefined roles, rapid learning, and flexible working – the transition to the enlightened ‘future of work’ has been trending for a few years now, but has been expedited in an unprecedented fashion over the recent months. Businesses all around the world have been forced to completely reassess their business processes, methods and hours of operation to adapt to the current situation, leading to a scramble for better technology and rapid training to ensure productivity and output can be maintained as best as possible whilst employees embrace their new normal. We have seen HR pushed to the forefront and playing a critical role in organisations, becoming a driver of agility and enabling a new type of organisation designed around a more responsive and nimble workforce.

Agile Adoption
There is a library of case studies that have claimed to demonstrate that output and productivity will increase if agile working models are implemented effectively. However, so many organisations have struggled in the past to embrace the trend. According to a recent Financial Times article, the current COVID-19 crisis is making many leaders and workers realise what is possible when it comes to virtual working. Brendan McCafferty, CEO of Brightside Group acknowledged:

We have learnt that we’re capable of doing colossally challenging things in a short time.

Nick Ulycz, COO and Group HRD of Domestic and General went further commenting that

…the 900 laptops we had to buy to allow our call centre staff to work remotely should allow them to continue to work more flexibly in the future.

Not only should flexible working have an obvious retention benefit and avoid costly overheads; we could switch on demand when needed… difficult to imagine going back.

The technology sector and other industry pockets have been working remotely for years and universally reaping the benefits from a cultural and productivity perspective. However, it hasn’t been as straightforward for others. Speaking to HR leaders in multiple industries as the current crisis unfolded, there was a mixed reaction when they were encouraging employees to work from home. It was interesting to observe many organisations had moved to this optionally, before it was obligatory around the world. It had reinforced the traditional thinking in some organisations and lack of adaptability. One client in the consumer manufacturing space mentioned resistance to home working with employees panicked, asking questions such as “who will pay for the additional electricity?”, “What if my Wi-Fi bandwidth isn’t good enough to support my systems?”, “How can we run a talent review process virtually for a whole day?”—all fair questions on balance! That particular company also had to advise on “how to structure your day and create the right space for virtual working without noise and distractions” and run sessions on this. Other companies are struggling with policies that mandate where and how data can be processed, employee access to reliable high-speed bandwidth, and cultures that prioritise presence over productivity, among other obstacles. It is still not easy for everyone and the modern assumption that we are all comfortable intertwining personal and working life simply doesn’t resonate with a significant cross-section of the workforce.

Evidently, whilst technology is critically important to enable the virtual, what the above example shines a light on is the behaviour, mindset and cultural shift required to become truly ‘agile’. Whilst many large, global organisations were already embracing an agile working culture, the global health pandemic has forced a number of more unexpected companies to quickly follow suit, leapfrogging years of deliberation and discussion around ‘if/when/how’ they become more nimble and future-focused. As these companies reflect on their new operating models they will recognise the benefits, they will likely find that they can be more cost effective and efficient with distributed teams, management layers may be removed alongside costly office perks which could in turn be reflected more in salaries, or probably more likely the bottom line!

As we continue to explore progressive ways of working and embracing the workforce of the future, two other interesting areas gaining momentum are job sharing and the four-day working week.

Topically, ChapmanCG have just helped a global MNC organisation hire a ‘job share’ candidate into a regional HR director level role. The candidates are two individuals who come as a package, interviewing together and seamlessly sharing their workload across the five-day week. They share one email address and each work a three-day week, affording them one day in the office together to cross-reference and handover. Our client is a progressive thinker and saw the potential to make this work, attracted by the notion of gaining two sets of expertise in one role, as well as embodying the company’s values to embrace a more agile and inclusive working culture. Interestingly, one of the business leaders was more hesitant and concerned about how the job share concept would work in reality, but on meeting the candidates they could quickly see how well they partnered together and the value they would bring to the organisation.

From the individual’s side, they can continue to progress in their corporate careers whilst continuing commitments outside of work whatever they may be. Having worked in part time roles before – they see a clear advantage in the job share, mainly that they aren’t trying to squeeze a full-time job into part-time hours and can fully focus on life outside of work on their days off. Options such as job shares are becoming increasingly attractive to all demographics as the workforce evolves. At one end, Millennials and younger generations coming through no longer want to be held to the traditional five days a week / one career for life model. They expect flexibility and want time outside of their ‘day job’ for ‘side hustles’ and self-directed learning opportunities. Likewise, an ageing workforce has seen employees’ priorities changing as they edge towards retirement, more are choosing to forgo a five-day working week and instead focus on hobbies, volunteering or childcare for grandchildren.

We are hopeful more organisations will continue to explore these non-conventional approaches to finding the right talent, but it does need a forward-thinking hiring manager who can also convince the business to think progressively.

Not only will job shares be durable as we embrace whatever the ‘new normal’ will be, we believe the gig economy will also start to take root with more interim and part-time opportunities coming to the forefront. We were already seeing this in HR particularly in some areas such as change management, OD and talent acquisition where the longevity of a project would determine the duration of the assignment. Particularly moving forward in a more cost sensitive environment, these areas will be popular to access the required capability and skills in cost effective way.

Four-Day Working Week
Against a backdrop of heightened work-related stress and with mental health higher on the corporate agenda than ever before, there has been an increase in the movement to a four-day working week. Studies show that 63% of Britons support a four-day full-time working week (YouGov data) and companies that have implemented a four-day week report an almost immediate increase in productivity, alongside a wealth of positive results including employee engagement, retention, morale and job satisfaction.

Interest from companies in the shorter working week was soaring and there are many inspiring success stories out there – Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand financial services company, introduced the change in 2018 across its 240-employee population. Following a 20% increase in productivity, an uplift in profits, improved staff wellbeing and engagement, its founder Andrew Barnes declared the four-day working week as ‘an idea whose time has come’ and is calling on other organisations to follow suit.

Many of us will have read the articles about Microsoft Japan which trialled a four-day work week for the month of August 2019 with its 2,300-person workforce. Again, they reported only positive results, more efficient meetings, happier workers and crucially, an outstanding 40% increase in productivity. These are impressive results.

Other organisations talk of employees feeling empowered and motivated, and the shorter working week leading to heightened productivity and focus, better time management, increased creativity and a more collaborative and supportive culture. Add to this a significant competitive edge when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent and you might wonder why all companies aren’t tapping into this four-day utopia… where are the downsides?

It’s certainly not all rosy – many organisations couldn’t even entertain moving to a four-day week, and plenty have tried it with negative results. London-based science research foundation The Wellcome Collective dropped plans to trial the shorter working week for its 80 staff in April 2019 because it was too ‘operationally complex’. A four-day week brings a multitude of complications in the medical and teaching professions, and there is an argument that smaller companies will be at a disadvantage to large, global organisations such as Amazon or Google who can use their size and scale to make the model work more efficiently.

Ultimately there will always be organisations, professions and industry sectors where a four-day week can succeed and those where it can’t. What we cannot ignore in the current climate is that the workplace and workforce will continue to transform even as things return to whatever our new normal is. 92% of Millennials say flexibility is a top priority when job hunting, 80% of women want flexibility in their next role and 30% of UK employees would prefer flexible working to a pay rise. In an increasingly cost efficient world moving forward, the four-day working week will need to be taken seriously as a strategy.

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