Getting out of the compression chamber

The same day I read an article titled Culture-war terms can compress complex ideas in an unhelpful way, which was sub-titled, ‘In discussions of group differences and grievances, nuance is vital’, I had a discussion with someone with whom I’m starting a piece of work.  The discussion focused on some of the challenges the work may face.  He was particularly concerned about different stakeholders protecting their interests at all costs.

Later that same day I had a discussion with someone else who was curious to know whether I felt collaborative on-line working i.e. via Zoom or similar, provoked polarisation of views, and unexplored misunderstandings amongst people, heightening tensions amongst them.   

Both people wanted to know whether there were organisation design methods and tools that could lead away from polarisation and towards something more productive.

The article mentioned above, opens ‘If you set out to design a drearily predictable identity-politics ding-dong in a laboratory, you could do little better than the one that broke out in Britain on June 22nd.’ And goes on to discuss the phrase ‘white privilege’. 

It continues, ‘In the raging culture wars, “white privilege” is now among the many phrases lobbed like online grenades between opposing camps. Since the combatants cannot agree on what it means, it is not surprising that there is no consensus on whether it exists and what should be done about it. …  The problem with these terms is their compression. They are signposts rather than arguments, only making sense in the context of more elaborate reasoning .’

The word that stood out for me in that extract is ‘compression’.   Technology mediated communication is compressed – by screen size as in Zoom rectangles, by written word length restrictions as in tweets, by substitutions of words for emojis and by compressed time – our instinct is to immediately respond to/comment on something.

Suppose we recognised we are in a compression chamber, one that fosters outrage, indignation, entrenched positions, hasty judgements, and so on:  what steps could we take to get out of it in order to develop reflective, patient, empathetic, generative attitudes and more ‘elaborate reasoning’? 

There are techniques and methods used in organisation design work that could help.  Three of them are:  facilitated face to face interactions where people listen to and work with people with differing views from their own, practice in critical and creative thinking (and related skills), community building activity.  I’ll briefly discuss each of these and offer some resources I’ve found useful.   

Facilitated face to face interactions:  accepting that current constraints mean that face to face meetings may be difficult, it is still worth investing in a large group intervention (LGI).   These can be very powerful unlockers of locked positions and I’ve been involved in many and various versions of them, including Future Search, World Cafe, hackathons, jams, and others.

They are both scary (if you are the facilitator) and huge fun (when they work well).   LGIs share 6 attributes:

  1. They are collaborative, large scale, inquiries – typically involving multiple stakeholders.
  2.  They create alignment around strategic direction and system wide issues. 
  3. They demonstrate the imperative for inclusiveness and widespread participation in the change process. 
  4. They provide a means to put systems thinking into practice and to be part of a larger more holistic strategy for change. 
  5. They are large groups – more than 30 – where it becomes impossible for each group member to maintain eye-to eye contact.  
  6. They are time-bound events.   

You can listen to an excellent interview with Barbara Bunker – one of the leaders in the LGI field here on the theory and practice of them.

There’s also a wonderful write up of a Future Search conference with IKEA –  ‘In this case, the world’s only global furniture retailer, IKEA, created in a single  meeting a new system for product design, manufacture, and distribution, agreeing to decentralize an agglomeration of “silos” that no longer served effectively. This was not simply a meeting to validate what top management already had thought up. People who had never met before created something that had not existed. Some 52 stakeholders examined the existing system, developed a new system, created a strategic plan, and formed task forces led by key executives to implement it. In 18 hours, the plan was made, validated, and signed off by the company president, key people from all affected functions, and several customers.’ 

Giving time and space to practice critical and creative thinking (and related skills).   There are many ways of learning some of these skills, some I’ve found work are:

  • The ability to challenge assumptions is one of the skills of a critical thinker.   I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago.  I am consciously practicing challenging the various assumption my own ‘confederacy of selves’ holds.   (I came across the term ‘confederacy of selves’ in a Knowledge Project clip on decision making with Sendhil Mullainatham  who used it). Recognising and challenging assumptions is hard but useful as of often leads to softening an entrenched position.   
  • Choosing to be a learner not a judger.  Over the weekend, I went to someone’s house and she had on her toilet wall a poster about learner/judger mindsets which was lovely to see – I rushed home to find my book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams, which elaborates on this. 
  • Use packs of cards to encourage different thinking.  Some I’ve used are Tension and Practice cards, Oblique Strategies,  Creative Whackpack  and De Bono’s six thinking hats all of which encourage thinking outside your current frame of reference.
  • There are a number of other resources that support critical thinking and the Human Systems Dynamics Institute is a wonderful source of 21 of them.  I’ve found polarity mapping (interdependent pairs), the four truths ‘that help you understand different perspectives that influence individual and group action’, , and conflict circles are three that I use repeatedly in my work. 

Community building activity: There’s a lot to be learned from the non-profit sector in community building on projects and amongst stakeholders.  Take a look, for example, at 8 ways to unlock the power of community (a WEF article).  And Steve Skinner’s article ‘How can we build strong communities?

Other sources of community building come from co-working spaces (e.g. WeWork) which employ community managers whose role is to build a sense of connectedness amongst the different users of the space.  Roles like this act to find common ground, via social activities, info sharing or similar.   

(When I worked at SiloSmashers, one of the community building activities we had was a skills share – individuals would hold a lunchtime session on non-work topic they enjoyed and that they thought others might be interested in – making an authentic curry, or wine tasting, or learning to ride a unicycle – that informal interaction goes a long way towards developing kindly relationships). 

I’ve touched on three methods of leaving a compression chamber – what are the ones you use that work to build connections, empathy, and generative thinking.  Let me know.


Organisation Design: Spreading the Word

In June this year, I was contacted on LinkedIn by Ivan Stefanović, one of the Program Directors of the HR Week event, to be held in a virtual environment (sneak peek here) on 22-26 November, 2021. The event is organized in 5 thematic days – Strategic HR, People-Centric HR, Digital HR, HR Development, and C-Level Day. The target audience is HR Practitioners in South Eastern Europe.  Ivan wanted to know if I would speak at the event on an organisation design topic 

Sadly, I haven’t visited or worked in many countries in that geography, but talking with Ivan suggests that the challenges organisation designers and HR practitioners face there are similar to the ones I’ve seen in countries I have worked in, so I agreed to deliver a 15-minute keynote, that ‘would help strengthen the position of HR as a strategic business function’.  

One of the things they offer in return for my participation is to have my books and other materials promoted within the e-library section of the event.  An ideal opportunity to spread the organisation design word amongst HR practitioners, and prompting me to comb through the year July 2020 – July 2021 to re-discover what I’d actually done – apart from comply with various coronavirus-related restrictions.    

I discovered I’ve done quite a lot.  As I did no face to face anything from 1 July 2020 until 1 July 2021 everything was virtual/online and is recorded somewhere.  Although some of it is on closed circulation, others of it can be freely viewed, read, listened to.  This following is a selection of my publicly available material, that I think will help spread the word on organisation design, that I’ll forward to HR week for their e-learning site.  

Making remote work #20 (Re) designing remote work This is one of a series led by the Organisational Design Community and hosted by Iulia Istrate, Skills for Mars.  It is a public service video-podcast in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Iulia says, ‘In this episode, we discuss the organisational issues surfaced by the pandemic and then move on to more practical advice on organisational (re)design that supports working remotely in all its forms. My guests are Naomi Stanford, Matthew Skelton, and Milan Guenther.’ 

What happens when Silver Bullets meet theory and practice?.. This was billed as, ‘Join Naomi Stanford & Steve Hearsum as we discuss what happens when a client’s need for an ‘expert’ with ‘answers’ meets reality.’   The questions we considered include: How far is the projection of expertise useful and when does it become an ethical consideration? What can we learn from our experiences as consultants and practitioners about how to work with clients’ expectations, however unrealistic they might be? What happens, as it has with Naomi, when guru status is conferred and how does that amplify the problem? In amongst all the theories, can there ever be one that passes for a Silver Bullet?

There were two webinars, catering for different time-zones.  The recording to the first webinar held on the 9th October 2020 is here and the second one on the 14th October 2020 here.  Because each was a free-flowing conversation, the content is different in the two.

In Conversation with Q5: The Future Workplace is Hybrid – Are You Ready?  A panel discussion considering:

  • The opportunities and risks of ‘hybridity’
  • What hybrid working looks like in different contexts
  • Hybrid working versus flexible working
  • The impact of hybrid working on culture
  • Creating your blueprint for the hybrid workforce

The recording of the webinar is here.  I also wrote a blog on this event, which you can read here.

Organisation Design 101: A Conversation with Naomi Stanford  Mee-Yan Cheung Judge of Quality & Equality asked me to contribute to her ‘Just in Case’ series of videos.   In this one I introduce the concept of Organisation Design by answering five questions: What is organisation design and what is its history? How do practitioners do organisation design? Are there examples of organisations known for good practice in organisation design? How do you become an organisation design practitioner?

Pandemic Response – Impact on Organisation Design: A Conversation with Naomi Stanford   This is the second video I did for the Just in Case series.  In it I unpack how the pandemic has had an impact on organisation design through answering the following questions: What is the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and other context factors on organisation designs? How are some organisations responding? What should organisation design practitioners be helping with now?

Intersection20  Reflections on the pattern of leaving  This was a conference presentation for the Intersection20 conference.  In their book Enterprise Design Patterns, the authors discuss 35 patterns that they’ve noticed in their enterprise design work.  One of these patterns is ‘Leaving’. Their opening statement on ‘Leaving’ is, ‘You have been working as an Enterprise Designer for a while now. After some time, you realise there is a mismatch between you and the environment you work in.’ They suggest leaving the work.

In this session I pick up on ‘Leaving’ and discuss it from several angles, based on my experience as an external consultant, as an internal consultant, as an ethical/values based statement, in terms of career enhancement/limitation of the individual, the courage it takes to leave, and so on.

IPC The Human Capital Hub Q & A with Dr. Naomi Stanford on Culture Transformation   Watch this video to find out more on whether organisation culture can be ‘designed’ or whether it just ‘is’.  During the discussion we touch on types of culture, whether an organisation has one culture or many cultures, and why ‘culture’ is so important to organisation effectiveness.

IPC The Human Capital Hub Organisational Design Q&A with Dr Naomi Stanford Watch this video to get more details on identifying the dysfunctional aspects of workflow, procedures, structures and systems and ways in which these can be realigned to fit the current business realities or goals as well as developing plans to implement design changes.

Three webinars I did for Caliber Consulting.   In order to view the recordings, you will have to click on the link, register and then you will be able to view the recordings (very simple).

AIHR Organisational Development Certificate Programme. This is a training programme which I and Giles Slinger developed. The organisation design unit comprises 4 modules where participants learn how to recognize the triggers for organisation design, through selecting the right model, to applying the Org Design process and overcoming common obstacles.

CXO Magazine Designing organisational agility This was an article I wrote that discusses the ways organisation design can help go beyond the surface-level of this century’s buzziest word (agile) and design a truly agile organisation.  To do this enterprises need to understand the intricacies of agility. And beyond that, examine whether an agile approach is likely to benefit their organisation at all.

Designing organisations: why it matters and how to do it well, is the title of the book I wrote during the year which will be published in March 2022.

What resources do you use that help spread the organisation design word? Let me know.

Forthcoming OD app

From Quality & Equality website

Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, Quality and Equality, is developing an organisation development app.  She has asked me to contribute a section on organisation design, saying ‘the purpose of what you write is to help users to get to understand what your specialism is, what are the required competences needed if they want to be like you – a specialist in Org Design, and tips on how they can pursue their mastery in this area.  As number of other contributors are doing similarly for their specialism and for app design purpose, we need the same structure for each piece:

 Part 1    – share a short personal journey how you get to have mastery in this area (what evoked your interest, why org design. etc)

Part 2 – what is org design, definition and what does this specialism do., a bit of the field history if there is any?

Part 3 – What are the required competences any org design specialist should have eventually?

Part 4 – what does one need to do to develop themselves + few resources if they want to know more?

I said to other contributors that this is NOT an academic article, this should be a practical, accessible guide to people who want to be organisation design specialists.   A simplified road map to help them know enough to begin their route and then know how to navigate to achieve their specialism.’

That’s a tall order in a short number of words (approx 1900) but I said I’d give it a go.   So, I’ll try out a slightly shorter version here to get feedback from you before I send on to Mee-Yan (with any of your thoughts included).

Part 1: My journey into organisation design accelerated when I worked for British Airways, (1996 – 2001) as an internal consultant.  One of my colleagues there was interested in organisation design and ran a couple of programmes for the consulting teams. 

I’d been heading into the design direction without fully realising it for probably the 15 years before.  My first career was in adult education and from there I moved into managing learning and development functions, but came to the conclusion (maybe contentious?!) that learning and development on its own does not necessarily lead to organisational change, although it may be of great benefit to the individual, or groups of individuals (as in team development).  

You’ve probably all experienced leaving a course on a high with all sorts of intentions of doing things differently back in the workplace, only to be stymied by systems, structures, policies, controls, and all the stuff that makes organisation design.  (Sometimes described as the formal elements, with learning/development/culture/behaviours as the informal elements).   

Thinking that organisations change only when there is a combination of intentional shaping of both the formal and informal elements of them, I got interested in systems and did a couple of Open University courses in systems approaches.  One I recommend now is the Post Graduate Diploma in Systems Thinking in Practice.

Part 2:  Thus, systems were in my interests, but a process and framework for applying systems change into the design work wasn’t there until the British Airways courses.  Then it was.   

Since leaving BA, I’ve taken many other learning paths around organisation design. You can read more about what I’ve found works for in my blog on the topic here.

I now define organisation design as ‘intentionally arranging people, work and formal organisational elements to effectively and efficiently achieve a business purpose and strategy.’ There are countless other definitions of organisation design.  But that’s the one that seems most appropriate for the analogies and methods that I use.

Accepting that organisations are systems and that systems thinking helps in design work enables designers ‘to step back from the system they are in, think about what they are trying to achieve in relation to the bigger picture, and collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders … encouraging them to assess and question the existing system – the boundaries, perspectives and relationships that could be relevant to addressing their design issues and opportunities.[1]   

Note that systems thinking includes thinking about the culture, behaviours and informal elements and, more specifically, how the formal elements are instrumental in shaping these (and vice versa).  It is not possible to do organisation design work without doing organisation development work.  Although it is possible to do organisation development work without doing organisation design work – but it may not be as effective as hoped.   See my blog on the relationship between organisation design, organisation development and change management here .

The field history of organisation design is problematic and contested partly because it depends on what we mean by organisation design.  Another of my blogs discusses this question.  Suffice it to say that we are moving from descriptors of organisations as mechanical systems and pyramid hierarchies (the language of pulling levers, triggers, chains of command) that can be manipulated,  towards descriptors of organisations as networks, collaborations, and complex adaptive systems that ‘emerge’ and can only, perhaps, be shaped. 

Part 3:  Mee-Yan describes competences as ‘the characteristics that define successful per­formance by a professional practitioner. It delin­eates who practitioners need to be, what they need to know, and what they must be capable of doing. It is a detailed description of an ideal performer.’    The Organisation Design Community certifies org design practitioners on evidence of practical experience.  It does not list required competences.  

The UK’s CIPD has an HR Profession Map with one of the specialisms being Organisation Development and Design.   This is at four levels and, rather than competences, states ‘what you’ll understand’ by category at each of the levels.  For example, at the Associate level, one thing you’ll understand is the ‘Macro trends that impact the design of organisations (eg sustainability, geopolitical, demographic, technology)’.

I don’t know if you can get to a ‘detailed description of an ideal organisation design performer’, as the work requires different competences in different contexts and situations.  My view is that critical thinking, and curiosity are required.  I read about the necessary attributes for a diplomat – ‘objectivity and scepticism’ and I thought they were apt for organisation designers. (Maybe org designers need similar skils to diplomats?)   

Another attribute organisation designers need is the ability to wield credible influence – all too frequently internal organisation designers are in a more junior position than people they are aiming to advise and their skills, knowledge and experience are side-lined.  External organisation design consultants typically do have credibility and influence but are not familiar enough with the organisational context to execute/implement the design.  More successful design work blends external and internal expertise.  Again, a couple of my blogs talk more on this.

So, there’s a sketch of three of the parts Mee-Yan is interested in for her app.  Any comments on this, let me know.

[1] How systems thinking enhances systems leadership, Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull,

Challenge your cicada instinct. Opportunities in crisis: take actions (part 2)

Last week I talked about the first four, of seven, actions organisation designers can take to seize the advantage of the opportunities in crisis:  think systems, encourage rebels. recognise complexity, experience the cultures.

This week, I’ll cover the final three of these:  challenge assumptions, stop the swirling, ‘confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.   

Challenge assumptions:   Last week I was talking in a webinar with Mark Cole, of the NHS Leadership Academy about the design opportunities in crises.  Around 40 people attended the session, and afterwards I asked one of them what he made of it.  His response was ‘What I am never quite sure on, based on my years in the NHS, is how much people understand and get org design – still many default to a structural lens only. So, I wonder if it’s worth sharing a quick definition / explanation to make sure they think similar things to you when you say org design?’

I thought this was a great challenge to my assumption that participants and I would have corresponding views on what organisation design is.  

For the next go round – a similar session I’m running next month, I’ll start with something on what is organisation design.  What though?  I remembered an article,  ‘Emerging assumptions about organisation design, knowledge and action’.  (Fortunately, I also remembered the name of the author, Alan Meyer,  so I was able to find quickly).  It was written in 2013.   

At the time it prompted me to extract and synthesise some aspects of the author’s thinking that still inform my work.  In my work the emerging assumptions have full emerged, but it may be that other I work with are still holding to the established assumptions.  (See table below).

Established AssumptionsEmerging Assumptions
Organisation design is about organisation charts.Organisation design is about systems and processes.
Organization designs should be hierarchical structures supported by organizational processes that control members’ behavior.Organization designs should emerge from “design thinking” and principles that generate empathy with users.
Designers should create structures and processes that ensure control, create stability, and absorb uncertainty.Designs should set in motion novel actions in pursuit of novel goals.
Designs should be developed by leaders.Designs should be developed through involvement of people who do the day to day work.
Design work is a spasmodic event.Design work is a continuous process.

Nearly 8 years later it seems that the ‘emerging assumptions’ are still emerging.  Will it take a full 17 years before we see them become established and will there, by then,  be other emerging assumptions?

I say 17 years, because when I was thinking about this how challenges to emerging assumptions come to full daylight, an image came to mind. I was in Washington DC in 2004 when the cicadas emerged after a 17-year gestation.  It was a staggering sight.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t there this May when, again, ‘billions of the loud, winged insects emerged from the ground in a quantity not seen in 17 years.  The sound of such a massive swarm is said to reach up to 100 decibels.’

One of the reports of this year’s cicada emergence tackled the question ‘How much has our life changed? Take a look back at how the D.C. area looked in May 2004.’

It struck me that although the context for organisation design has changed massively maybe the assumptions around organisation design haven’t changed, in much the same way that changes in Washington DC do not seem to have changed the cicadas assumptions related to their established life-cycle.   

Challenging assumptions is not easy (either for ourselves or when enouraging others). I often use a list of questions derived from Stephen Brookfield’s work on critical thinking, when I am working with others on organisation design. 

The questions are: 

  • What assumptions am I making about my organisation, for example, its purpose, capabilities and commitments?
  • What assumptions am I making about stakeholders, for example, their interests, capabilities and commitments?
  • What am I assuming, based on previous experiences, that may not be true now?
  • What am I assuming about available resources?
  • What limitations am I assuming to be so—and what surprises might I find?
  • What am I assuming about external circumstances?
  • What am I assuming about what’s impossible–or possible?

Stop the swirling:  Five years ago, I wrote a blog, Implications of Swirl,  a word I came across in a Bain brief ‘Four paths to a focused organisation‘ looking at change and transformation. They have a graphic that illustrates swirl that runs on the lines of:

  • Issue identified that requires resolution
  • New process/initiative proposed to resolve issue
  • Data needed to determine whether proposal merits go-ahead
  • Meetings scheduled to review data
  • Additional requests come from meetings before any decision to go ahead can be made
  • Data needed to answer requests
  • Follow up meetings to review answers before any decision to go ahead can be made (this cycle continues in a downward swirl).

The implications of this is that, first, a lot of people spend time and resource getting stuck in the data and second the issue is not resolved, instead heading towards the plug-hole the swirl leads to.

The image and the concept have stuck with me because it’s a very familiar scenario in my work.  Getting out of the swirl involves, among other things, being clear on decision making rights and authorities (lowest level possible), rapidly experimenting with small trials to test hypothesis (not waiting for everything to be ‘known’), clearly describing what is going on – see a useful blog on the value of clear description in unblocking situations.

Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.  This statement comes from James Stockdale, a United States military officer who was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War.  The Stockdale Paradox, as his experience is known is rooted in the fact that, while he had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was the most optimistic of his fellow captives who did not survive the ordeal. They could not contemplate the brutal reality of the situation they found themselves in.

I have set of reflective prompts to help people ask the brutal questions and confront their brutal facts. They come with the prompt, ‘If this set of questions is not brutal enough for you, feel free to amend or add!’

  • You’re in charge. So what?
  • What is working best in your business today? What do you do to contribute to it?
  • What is not working in your business? What do you do to contribute to it?
  • When was the last time you really talked to your customers/audiences/users about what they really, really want from you?
  • Are you prepared to give them what they want?
  • What are your most treasured assumptions about your people, customers, markets, products, services and yourself? What if one of them weren’t true? What would you do then?
  • Are you out of your depth?
  • Now, having looked at your brutal questions, what are your brutal facts? What are you going to do about them?

Which of the seven actions in this week’s and the previous week’s blog are ones you will take? Let me know.

Opportunities in crisis: take actions (part 1)

Keith Haring, Actions

Last week I offered a list of seven actions to help organisation designers take advantage of the opportunities in crises. 

  1. Think systems
  2. Encourage rebels
  3. Recognise complexity
  4. Experience the cultures
  5. Challenge assumptions
  6. Stop the swirling
  7. ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

This week, gives more on the first four of these, suggesting why each is useful and ways to develop skills in taking the action. 

Think systems: ‘Silos’ and ‘Silo-ed thinking’, are frequently heard words in organisation design. Leaders want to break down organisational silos. Several years ago, I worked for an organisation called SiloSmashers and it may have been there that my conviction that systems thinking is a required attribute of organisation designers, got accelerated. 

In my forthcoming book I talk more on the phrase ‘systems thinking’ which has many challengers. However, a practical start-point is to accept that organisations are systems – that is, they are composed of inter-related and interdependent elements, ‘linked together by dynamics that produce an effect, create a whole new system or influence its elements’. Designing being clear that an organisation is a system, which is part of wider systems mitigates against silos. If you want to learn more about systems then a good (free) start-point is a short Open University downloadable course Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice.

Encourage rebels:  When I offered this suggestion at a conference of government leaders. It caused great amusement and some bafflement.  Why would an employer want to encourage rebels in the work force? My observation is that if you want to change an organisation, you have to look for people who are kicking against the way it is and channel their energies into helping make the changes. There’s a very good website Rebels at Work, with multiple examples of why rebels are good for organisations.

My thinking on this was triggered years ago – not by one of my first managers who told me I was ‘unmanageable’ (not as a compliment!) – but by Debra Meyerson’s research on tempered radicals. Her book Rocking the boat: how tempered radicals effect change without causing trouble , although a bit dated, is well-worth reading. Good rebels are crucially important in offering alternative views, recognising inconsistencies, being curious and questioning, and usually energetic in their activism.  I came across a quote by Vladimir Nabokov the other day, ‘Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form’. Yes, hierarchical organisations try to weed out the curious – to the disadvantage of the organisation.   

One of the first actions you could take to encourage rebels is to print off copies of a wonderful Tanmay Vora graphic in his blog Sketchnote: ‘what rebels want from their boss‘ and stick it on every notice board in your building (or as a screen saver). Go on, I dare you.   See also What makes a good rebel? Consider becoming one yourself.

Recognise complexity: If you’ve ever read a short story by Ray Bradbury, The Sound of Thunder, you’ll start to get the idea of complexity. I read it first in my early teens and it’s one that’s stuck with me ever since.  In the story, a butterfly was accidentally crushed by a big game hunter who travelled back in time to pursue a tyrannosaurus rex. The insect’s death had haunting consequences that rippled through 65 million years to change, among other things, written English and the results of an election. Nothing was quite the same, as the hunter found when he returned to his 2055 departure date.  

If you’re not sure how to apply the idea of complexity, one activity is to use the Futures Wheel, created by Jerome Glenn, to identify the potential consequences of trends and events, but you can also use it in decision making (to choose between options) and in change management (to identify the consequences of change).  Another is to use the Hyper Island tool Unintended Consequences.  Either of these tools will be useful in generating rich design options.

Experience the cultures: Originally, I had this action as ‘understand the cultures’. Now, reflecting on my conversation with Memory Nguwi on cultural transformation that we had the other day, I’ve changed it to ‘experience the cultures’.   (Listen to the discussion, on Human Capital Hub here).

 I’ve changed it because I’m not sure it is possible to understand the cultures?  You can only experience them and then try and convert the experience into words or visuals that are transmissable in a way that will give others a flavour of your experience in order for them to see if it matches theirs.  If you can get to some common flavour of experience it makes it easier to look for opportunities to reshape the culture.

Think about the weather. You can describe it in terms of metrics – temperature, humidity, likelihood of rainfall, windspeed, and so on. But the metrics don’t convey an individual’s experience of that weather – which may depend on a number of factors and may differ from another individual’s experience of that same weather.  Similarly, you can do cultural surveys e.g. Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory, that describe the cultures in various metrics, but they do not provide much insight into how individuals experience the cultures. 

Notice I’ve used organisational cultures as a plural. I don’t think an organisation has one culture that can be transformed via a single label as in ‘a culture of collaboration’, or ‘a toxic culture’. Organisations have multiple cultures, perhaps with common threads running through them,  that are shaped by national cultures, professional cultures, and social network cultures and so on.  

The lack of one organisational culture is one reason if someone moves role, within the same organisation, it can feel culturally very different. (Take a look some info on cultural transformation through network analysis.)

Next week I’ll expand a bit on the other three actions: Challenge assumptions, stop the swirling, ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

Meanwhile, what actions will you take to seize the opportunities in crises? Let me know.

Opportunity in Crisis: Redesigning Organisations

There’s that moment when I realise that, months ago, I committed to presenting at a conference, and now I have to actually present. The day has arrived! So it was last Thursday, when I travelled to The Grove in Hertfordshire, to talk with participants at the Richmond Events conference, on the topic ‘Opportunity in Crisis: Redesigning Organisations’.

Being face to face with people, in a wonderful location that I’d travelled to, was a real novelty after months of only zooming from the same room. Just walking into the conference centre illustrated some aspects of organisation redesign – the room layouts, the instructions and policies, the hand sanitizing stations, the wearing of face masks, the social conventions around hand shaking (not) – what had The Grove management had to redesign to get all participants safely accommodated? 

My session outline ran: 

The challenges presented by the complexity of the overlapping crises of inequality, health, justice, technology, environment, culture and now the coronavirus pandemic, are presenting opportunities to reimagine products and services and recraft the role of organisations in society.

Organisations must become committed to making smarter use of data and technology, engaging the skills and time of employees, customers and citizens, and equipping themselves with the tools to innovate, collaborate and knowledge share. 

This session, through examples in action, encourages participants to reconsider how work is done, the role of workplaces, long-held assumptions, and how they can enable the possibilities and new opportunities for their organisation.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 minutes, and getting what I hoped would be an involving slant on it wasn’t easy. 

However, we started with questions about what constitutes an organisation – where are the boundaries of it that you’d want to draw if you’re trying to respond to these crises? Does it include suppliers, contingent workers, robots, partner organisations, your platform providers?  

Opportunity 1: Get to a common understanding of what constitutes your organisation, and why you are including or excluding aspects of it. This gives you the opportunity to see ‘the organisation’ differently, opening up all sorts of possibilities.

We moved on to looking at the complexity of the overlapping crises, Sadly, the 20 global problems discussed in Jean-Francois Rischard’s 2002 book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, remain unsolved, despite his assertion then that we had twenty years to solve them. (See image for the list).

In fact, the list has grown longer. We noted that cyber security, space junk, cultural tensions, erosions of democracy and various others, were not on it.  All these crises impact organisations whether people are conscious of it or not. For example, migration rules contribute to labour shortages, trade and competition rules to supply chain issues.  

Opportunity 2: Review the crises list. Take the opportunity to actively work towards designing your organisation in a way that helps solve as many of these as you see impacting your organisation. (Bear in mind they are interdependent).

We moved on to the pandemic considering the statement from McKinsey: ‘The coronavirus pandemic has placed extraordinary demands on leaders in government, business and beyond. The global scale of the outbreak and its sheer unpredictability make it challenging for politicians and leaders to respond resulting in a high degree of uncertainty that gives rise to disorientation, a feeling of lost control, and strong emotional disturbance.’  

Opportunity 3: Reflect on how your organisation has responded to the pandemic. Learn from it what has worked, what you’d like to keep on doing, what didn’t work. Remember there is no going ‘back to normal’. (See also an RSA blog How to create real, lasting change after Covid-19.)

Thinking about where we are now, led to discussion on the requirement for different thinking, fresh and intentional designs, and complete clarity on organisational purpose (the last from multiple stakeholder perspectives).  ‘Different thinking’ is rather difficult in my view. How do you encourage it? Some suggestions I proposed were using Oblique Strategies, 6-thinking hats, working with people from other disciplines, tension and practice cards.

Opportunity 4: The pandemic has shown us how we can rapidly change our thinking. Seize the moment to keep doing this in order to create fresh and intentional designs. (Listen to the Brave New Work podcasts)

The Economist has a list of ten trends to watch for in 2021. Looking for signals, identifying patterns in them, and then making meaning from them, require high level skills in collaboration, sharing knowledge and innovation.   One of the trends is a ‘less footloose world’, and two people working in the airline industry offered insights into the signals they and their colleagues are watching on this and the patterns, and meaning making they’re now beginning to redesign with, in order to reshape their sector.  

Opportunity 5: Become a trend spotter, looking for the strong and weak signals your organisation should be alert to. Use this as an opportunity to redesign for readiness.  NOTE: I talk more on signals in a chapter of my forthcoming book, ‘Designing Organisations: why it matters and ways to do it well’, coming in March 2022.

The penultimate section of the session started to challenge assumptions about work and workplaces, asking the questions:

  • What assumptions am I making about my organisation for example, its purpose, capabilities and commitments?
  • What assumptions am I making about stakeholders, for example, their interests, capabilities and commitments?
  • What am I assuming, based on previous experiences, that may not be true now?
  • What am I assuming about available resources?
  • What limitations am I assuming to be so—and what surprises might I find?
  • What am I assuming about external circumstances?
  • What am I assuming about what’s impossible–or possible?

Opportunity 6: Challenge your assumptions about work and workplace in order to develop new possibilities on these.

Finally, I offered seven actions to help organisation designers take advantage of the opportunities in crisis.  

1.      Think systems

2.      Encourage rebels

3.      Recognise complexity

4.      Understand the cultures

5.      Challenge thinking

6.      Stop swirling

7.      ‘Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’

 Opportunity 7: Take advantage of the opportunities a crisis offers. I’ll pick up on the seven actions above in next week’s blog. 

How would you create organisation design opportunities from the current crises we face? Let me know.

The adjacent possible

‘The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. ‘ (Steven Johnson)

As we’ve been edging our way through the pandemic, organisations and individuals seem to be increasingly looking at the adjacent possible, even if they’re not labelling it that way. A small example is the way work and community activities have moved from face to face to online: choir members may not have thought on-line practice and concerts from individual homes possible before the pandemic, but it was there as an adjacent possible – a reinvention of one way of doing something into another way of doing the same thing.  There you have an adjacent possible method. 

Or consider the ways organisations have started to actively consider their adjacent possibles. One such, is retailer, John Lewis who is ‘seeking partners for conversion of former stores to affordable rented housing.’ In this case store closures and changes to shopping patterns have been outcomes of the pandemic, but the stores and estate remain as physical space.  Converting them into affordable renting housing is an example of an adjacent possible asset use. 

The adjacent possible sprang to mind in my own life as I started an ‘Introduction to designing your own garden’ course.  The instructor briskly opened the course with the 6 principles of garden design: ‘unity, simplicity, balance, scale/proportion, rhythm/repetition, focal point.’  She then told us, ‘These can sub-divide and overlap, but are a guide to designing a pleasing space.’  This sounded strikingly similar to the principles of organisation design that I talk about, and similarly I note that they are a guide not a prescription.

Beyond the principles are then choices to be made about style in garden design. I discover, ‘There are approximately 7 distinct styles in garden design although they can overlap and sub-divide, but the main groups are; Formal, Modern, Cottage, Naturalistic/eco, Mediterranean, Exotic and Japanese.’ As she told us this, my mind turned to organisation structure, culture and leadership style.  Also note that one of the McKinsey 7-S‘s is ‘style’​.  I was amused to think that almost any organisation could be described in terms of one of those garden styles. Which one is yours? 

Moving on to the method for actually doing garden design. I felt, for the moment, in my comfort zone. The approach and capabilities are pretty similar. If you know the fairly standard project approach to organisation design which follows the phases, Assess, Design, Plan to Transition, Transition, Optimise you’ll know the garden design approach. 

I went off to assess my garden. This involved clarifying the purpose of my design, taking baseline data, identifying constraints (time, money, amount of light, orientation of garden, condition of soil and so on), mapping the stakeholders (wildlife, children, neighbours, etc). The terms used in garden design for this phase are ‘survey and analysis’.

At the start of the design phase for a garden, the advice is to develop a ‘functional list’​.  Our handout on it says, ‘It is a useful way of gathering all your thoughts about the design together, to get the best use of the space for your needs. It allows you to think about the practical considerations of the garden, not about design details but loose ideas.’ Briefly, it’s a list of essential and nice-to-have aspects of the design, that can be grouped and played around with as you consider the purpose, constraints, and design criteria.  Should we be including functional lists into organisation design methodology?

We then went on to develop design criteria for our garden design, and were then told to come up with 3 or 4 options that conformed to the principles, met the design criteria, were within the constraints, and included items on the functional list.  In any organisation design project, I recommend developing options to discuss – preferably with those impacted by the design.

As we presented our options to each other for critique, suggestions, challenge, the instructor provided familiar notes of caution: ‘There isn’t one right answer.’​ ‘Don’t just copy what someone else is doing.’​ ‘Do not think about the items in isolation, think about them as interactions in the whole, ask yourself how will the elements work together?’​  ‘Think of your garden holistically.’​   I thought of the multitude of times I’ve said similar words doing organisation design work. 

We’ve also been encouraged to visit a lot of gardens and develop a mood board. These too, could be transferable into an organisation design method: visiting other organisations to get a feel for them and noticing what catches your attention. The idea of a ‘mood board’​ is intriguing. How could one be used in organisation design? Should we be encouraging organisational members/leaders to develop one.

Then came the planning to transition phase from current garden to new design of garden. Because you’re dealing with plants not people it may seem easier, but it turns out that plants can be similarly resistant to change, can also be completely unpredictable,  may well give up if conditions are poor, or conversely flourish if the conditions are right for them. Plants seem to provide a reasonably good analogy for people.  

As in organisation design project planning, software programmes are used to develop the detailed plan. Rather than Microsoft project or similar we are using design software like Sketchup and GardenPlanner, that allows you to build your garden transition plans on line. In most of my organisation design work I’ve worked with a project planner who does all the detailed planning. But here I am learning a new skill, in my case Garden Planner, a visual tool.

Then comes the transition and optimise phases. The instructor warns us that implementing the garden design plan is difficult as all sorts of obstacles arise, and things grind on slowly – she keeps telling us to be adaptable and innovative so we can quickly respond to changes to the plan. Again, familiar organisation design phrases, but worth repeating.   

She also says that even when you’ve got to the end of the plan the garden is not fully functional in its new state and takes a couple of years to fill out and become what was intended and even then requires constant care, attention and encouragement.  For those who want immediate performance improvements from organisational design work that’s worth remembering.

So, I think I may have found my personal adjacent possible. It looks as if I might be able to swivel from organisation to garden design, should I choose to.

More generally, how necessary is it for organisations and individuals to consider the adjacent possible? Let me know.

Inclusion gap?

With all the talk of diversity, equality and inclusion I’ve suddenly become aware of a gap. Someone sent me a list of all the diversity interest groups in one of the UK Government Departments. One sparked my interest – the generation network. I wondered if it included the working grand-parent generation (baby-boomers?).  I don’t know the answer yet, but it would be good if so, as grandparents are a large group of the ‘kinship carers’ looking after children.

I’ve got interested in the topic, because many of my contemporaries are working grandparents. One – who took a short time off full-time paid work to support her daughter who had just given birth – emailed a couple of us saying, 

 ‘It’s hard for me to devote any time to work here [where her daughter lives] when I know a grandchild hug is just a room away. But I do love working! Not sure yet when I’m leaving here but have two grand-daughters back at home and I need to be there to help with as my daughter-in-law there is pregnant with third child – due in September. How do you balance it all? Open to advice!’

Another has adjusted her independent consulting workload to care for her two grandsons one day a week.  And I am now a grandparent. During the pandemic I came to the conclusion that my daughter and her husband could not work full-time from home, home-school their older children, look after their younger children, etc without more support.  I decided to leave my (more than) full-time work, become a freelancer, and move to a house 10 minutes’ walk from them. It’s been working well since last August.   But has been a massive lifestyle shift and identity crisis for me.  

The TUC (UK) did a survey in 2013 on grandparents in the workplace they found that nearly seven million grandparents provide regular childcare and at that time: ‘Working grandparents are more likely (63 per cent) to look after their grandchildren than retired grandparents (55 per cent).’ Research by Ipsos MORI in 2014 found that ‘1.9 million grandparents have given up a job, reduced their hours, or taken time off work, to look after their grandchildren. In some cases this means a loss in income.’ Thus, I am not alone, and  I’m guessing the figure is much higher now.  

The TUC survey notes that: ‘while the childcare provided by grandparents is hugely important, the TUC believes that this function is often not recognised or understood by employers. Of working grandparents who have never taken time off work to care for grandchildren under 16, around one in ten have not been able to do so because they have either been refused time off by their employer (3 per cent), or simply felt that they weren’t able to ask (8 per cent).’

Wide-ranging global research comes to the ‘overall conclusion that societies need to re-evaluate the role of grandparents, pay attention to the support they need, and systematically integrate kin and grandparental care into family policies. As caretakers of many of their grandchildren, who will be our future citizens, grandparents are guardians of all our tomorrows.’

Research in 2014 by Ann Buchanan reinforces the vital role grandparents play in children’s wellbeing. Her findiings started to inform UK family policy.  In 2016 the UK government announced, in its spring budget, a consultation into whether shared parental leave should be extended to grandparents.  An article on this reported that ‘The government’s stated intention to widen the parameters of the scheme to allow parents to share leave with grandparents reflects the changing shape of the family unit and recognises the growing role grandparents play in caring for children.’ However, in 2018 the plans to introduce working grandparental leave were put on hold and have not been revived. 

In the email exchanges we were having on the topic, another friend whose own parents have been ever-present in her son’s life, (he’s now 17) said: ‘As someone on the receiving end of the active-grandparenting lifestyle, who also is single, I can testify that there is no greater gift than this form of integrated coparenting while children are young. What you are both doing will mark those children with love and security for the rest of their lives.  It is, literally, impossible to raise children and work with both parts being done well. And there is no paid childcare that can provide the rich life experience of a dedicated grandmother or grandfather. The whole situation of having to work and produce children in the same phase of life is a poor design. ‘

 I liked the fact that she referenced ‘poor design’ in relation to child care, which prompted me to think about this further. Several design issues sprang to my mind:

1.      The design of work/jobs that skews gender equity. Women are typically in lower paid and more precarious jobs than men (in the UK, at least). They have been harder hit in the pandemic in employment terms than men. “Women are more likely to be on furlough than men and to work in sectors hit hardest by Covid, like retail and hospitality. And they bore the brunt of childcare while schools and nurseries were closed,” said Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC. “Without ongoing support from ministers, many more women face losing their jobs.” 

2.      The design of career paths. Innovative paths are lacking, with breaks from work frowned on in many sectors, and financial support for taking a break minimal or non-existent.  Why, for example do we need advice on ‘5 smart ways to fill the mummy gap on your CV?’ (and where is daddy in this?)

3.      The design of systems and policies to support kinship carers (and thus working parents). See Kinship, and Working Families both organisations lobbying for better carer support. Why did employers have such lukewarm support for including grandparents in the special parental leave regulations? Only 27% felt it was a good idea, with 25% saying it was a bridge too far.

4.      The design of ‘wraparound childcare’ that could help working parents i.e. breakfast and after school clubs, etc. This is costly and patchy in its availability, and now, as a result of the pandemic context, the whole sector itself is at risk. At the end of 2020 a coalition of 250 out-of-school providers called on the Government to provide ‘urgent’ financial support to save the sector from collapse. 

5.      The design of organisational cultures that would enable anyone, including grandparents, with caring responsibilities to maintain credibility, visibility, and feelings of professional self-worth as they balanced work and caring.  

Redesigning the childcare landscape in ways that made it easier for all involved in childcare, including grandparents, would be of benefit to society, organisations, families, and individuals.

Is this something you think deserves tackling? Let me know.

Image: Barclays survey

Toxic workplace cultures


Raconteur had an article this week on toxic workplace cultures. This coincided with some discussions I’ve been having with people who are suffering demoralisation and high stress as they experience what they describe as a ‘toxic workplace culture’.  

I’ve been thinking about their stories – which are sad and alarming.   One of them said, ‘I cry every morning at the thought of having to go to work’, another ‘I put on my mask of competence, grit my teeth, and know that I have to get through the day, I don’t know how long I can keep doing this’. Another, ‘there are so many red flags raised about the toxic culture, but nothing changes. I think the leaders just don’t want to know’.

What I’m understanding from their stories is that, in their organisations, the rhetoric around employee wellbeing and employee engagement is laughable. Those I’m talking with tell of high turnover, clique-ish/cartel behaviour, with-holding of information and feelings of alienation, isolation and exclusion. There is no sense or evidence that employees have positive autonomy, mastery or purpose. (See the RSA Animate, Drive, on this).

As I was listening, I started to wonder what triggers a toxic workplace culture.  A literal toxic landscape is a useful analogy.  Typically they are the outcome of things including poor systems and controls (safety, risk, accounting, etc), combined with leadership values and attitudes, and often employee collusion.  They can appear over time as seepage into the environment or they can appear as an event that is the outcome of a toxic culture.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a well-known event example, while the films Silkwood, Erin Brockovich and Dark Waters are some that explore long term seepage that generates literal toxic landscapes. (One that I heard about over the weekend was the coal ash contamination in North Carolina).

Investigations usually find that the contamination and/or the real risk of causing contamination was known but covered up or ignored, until it became impossible to do so.

Taking this analogy into organisational life, you can see similar roots of a toxic cultural landscape that will result in either a specific event, or that will continue as ongoing seepage until it becomes impossible to cover-up or ignore.

The story of Travis Kalanick, ex-CEO Uber illustrates. In him, you can see someone who seems to have deliberately endorsed (or even role modeled) the attributes that lead to a toxic culture.

The Raconteur article quotes, Clive Lewis, author of Toxic: A Guide to Rebuilding Respect and Tolerance in a Hostile Workplaceas saying, “A toxic organisation exhibits low levels of trust, has misaligned systems and incapable line managers who work hard to preserve their status at all costs.”  

This quote intrigued me, because what I’d heard from the people I’ve been talking with are the low levels of trust, and the incapable line managers, none had mentioned misaligned systems.    

In pursuit of more on the misaligned systems (I am an organisational designer!) I listened to an interview with Clive Lewis.   He talks about ‘the toxic triad’, which interact and are in play all the time.

The triad comprises:

  • The individual employees’ behaviours and interactions. Toxic employees are prone to sow discord and division. They can be “characteristically uncivil and are likely to pursue retribution rather than offer forgiveness”
  • The line manager. Toxic workplaces often have line managers who lack the competence required for their role and are often characterised by a “demonstrable lack of regard and compassion for the wellbeing of team members”.
  • The organisational systems.   On the systems he noted (expanded in the book) that toxic workplaces tended to:

value process (ticking boxes, sticking to the procedures), over interests – being pragmatic, applying common-sense

focus on hierarchies and organisation charts i.e. a command and control approach over enabling employee autonomy

have unclear role boundaries with overlapping remits rather than clear accountabilities

He also noted that from his experience public sector organisation are less likely to have the systems and resources to be able to deal with a toxic workplace. This is because the systems are more bureaucratic and have more red-tape to cut through than private sector organisations, and resources like money for coaching, mediation, pay-offs, building a well-being culture (see Betterspace on this last)  etc, are lacking.

One of the questions about a toxic workplace culture is can it be cleaned up? Possibly, and only if there is a real intention of doing so by all stakeholders, backed up by obvious and effective action on multiple fronts. 

More than 10 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we are still seeing the impacts of it, albeit some progress on clean-up and future prevention of similar events has been made/ For example there has been: international collaboration on effective oil-spill and other clean-ups, experimentation on what clean-up methods, continuous monitoring of the landscape changes as clean-up progresses, a lengthy investigation into how it occurred in the first place – which cited unclear accountabilities and cost cutting as two contributory factors, and significant changes to the regulatory environment.

Looking at the ways literal toxic landscapes are cleaned up could provide insights, adaptations and applications into a toxic organisational workplace in order to support its clean up. 

Whether the new CEO of Uber, Dara Khosrowshahi will be able to really clean up Uber, or whether toxicity will still lurk remains to be seen. There are many micro-cultures in big organisations.  However, he says, in an interview, that his mission when he joined was to root out unethical behaviour and promote truth and transparency, and he has established some systems and processes to do this. He also talks about the necessity to design a governance process that unifies the executive team to coordinate global operations.

An HBR article, Time’s up for toxic workplaces’  suggests three actions, to help clean up a toxic workplace culture:

  • Companies should increase awareness and educate managers about all costs associated with abusive conduct. 
  • Companies can incorporate or strengthen anonymous feedback channels where employees can voice their concerns and report abusive experiences without fear of retribution.
  • Organizations need to uphold and enforce fair and ethical norms in all aspects of company life

These seem ok (self-evident?) but not sufficient pointers. Designing systems and processes that act to lessen the risk of toxicity occurring and will spotlight the first signs of it (to enable immediate remedial action) might make a toxic workplace less likely to develop in the first place.

In both the literal toxic landscapes and the organisational ones, it seems that constant vigilance must be maintained to guard against the risk of toxicity re-emerging from the same source or from a similar but different source.  Well designed systems and processes will help with this.

How would you clean up a toxic workplace culture? Let me know.  

SIDEBAR: I’ve noticed that in toxic workplaces individuals can sometimes spiral into ‘sink holes’, that can make things worse. See the tool Avoiding the sinkholes for more on this.  Also, Amy Edmundson’s work on psychological safety is relevant.

Image from: Global Population Speakout

The future workplace is hybrid: are you ready

How would you answer the question ‘Are we clear yet what the problem is that hybrid working is trying to solve?’ It came up in the webinar chat the other week when I and some other panel members were discussing a related question,  ‘The future workplace is hybrid – are you ready?’ (You can listen to the full discussion here)

 What’s interesting about hybrid working is that has leapt into full view as one of the outcomes of the pandemic experience. For office workers the pre-pandemic ‘working from home’ practice, has become much more wide-spread (among certain types of workers), accepted, and facilitated by technologies. (See the UK’s statistics on this here)

Currently, every consulting company and business journal in the world (ok maybe that is an exaggeration) is offering, advice, opinion, how-to, how-not-to, white papers, reports, frameworks, pointers, and so on, on hybrid working. It’s getting very confusing.   Language use/terminology adds to the confusion. Some see hybrid as ‘remote’ or working from home i.e. place based, others include in the definition flexibility i.e. time based.  

 To design a hybrid workplace, first means recognising that time and place are two different, non-conflatable dimensions but they are not mutually exclusive.   One of the points emerging from our discussion was that organisations should agree a clear and specific definition on what hybrid working is – just place, just time, time and place, etc.  for their organisation.   Lynda Gratton, in her HBR article How to do hybrid right, offers more on this place/time question. 

 If you can clearly define what hybrid working is for your specific organisation then you might be able to work out what problem it is trying to solve.  But I’m dubious about looking for a solution to a complex issue – usually there are multiple possible solutions and the temptation is to leap into the first one that presents.    

Additionally, if we take a view that hybrid working is not trying to ‘solve a problem’, rather it has already solved a problem – that being the pandemic lockdown prohibitions of people going to a desk-based job in an office – then we can ask what have we learned from this so far, and what are the opportunities hybrid working offers going from here?

 An evidence-based research paper, ‘Why Working From Home  (WFH) Will Stick‘,offers some start-points. (Note the term they use is working from home, rather than hybrid).  The research found five reasons why WFH will stick:

First, they found the WFH experiences were better-than-expected. Many people enjoyed the experience of being able to live in a place of their choosing and still be at work. They found they had better work/life balance and the rates of sickness dropped. 

 Second, they noted organisations were making new investments in physical and human capital that enable WFH and organisations would be keen to foster a good return on that investment.

Third, researchers observed that because so many desk-based office workers were WFH during the pandemic that the stigma of doing so was greatly diminished (compared with pre-pandemic times). When leaders were seen to be grappling with WFH in the same way others were it became a more normalised way of working.

Fourth, researchers highlighted the lingering concerns people have about crowds, commuting and contagion risks. Many office work-spaces are being re-designed to maximise the health and safety of their employees and visitors, again an investment that must see some return on it.

Finally, they noted that there had been a pandemic-driven surge in technological innovations that support WFH.  (Indeed there has been a surge in patent applications in technology for hybrid working).

 The research survey data also projected three consequences of more widespread WFH,

 ‘First, employees will enjoy large benefits from greater remote work, especially those with higher earnings. Second, the shift to WFH will directly reduce spending in major city centres by at least 5-10 percent relative to the pre-pandemic situation. Third, our data on employer plans and the relative productivity of WFH imply a 5 percent productivity boost in the post-pandemic economy due to re-optimized working arrangements. Only one-fifth of this productivity gain will show up in conventional productivity measures, because they do not capture the time savings from less commuting.’

The findings and the consequences of these are all opportunities to design organisations that will make hybrid working work well minimizing the downsides

From an organisation design perspective, in thinking about hybrid working consider it not as looking for a problem to solve, but rather as an opportunity-state we are now in and have to carefully reflect on in order to apply what we have learned in the past year.   Going back to the panel discussion the key points on maximising hybrid working opportunities centred around each organisation getting good answers to these questions:

 ‘What are we trying to accomplish?’, be critical and consider what could work for your organisation and how it affects the entire workforce, avoiding the bandwagon effect.

What does hybrid working means for our organisation?   Unless there is a clear definition, it’s very difficult to design your organisation around it.  Webinar participants warned of the dangers of a blanket policy driven approach, or focusing only on the proportion of homeworking to office based days.   They also homed in on the ‘fairness’ aspect. In mixed workforces of desk-based and frontline workers e.g. hospitals, retailers, how can (or can) all employees have access to hybrid (and flexible) working?

To be successful in hybrid working what needs to be designed and/or redesigned? Consider the multiple aspects – the formal/hard ones including policies, workspace, systems, processes, protocols and technology and the informal/soft ones including leadership development, interactions, attitudes and behaviours.

How do we develop/maintain a healthy organisational culture in hybrid working? Consider your culture: how can we design those culture norms, interactions and experiences that people have when they’re in the same space together, in a hybrid world?

SIDE BAR: One point that I’m curious about is the actual proportion of a nation’s workforce who are in desk-based/office located roles. Given the volume of information about hybrid working it’s tempting to assume that it’s a high proportion, but I don’t know that it is. I asked the ONS if they could provide a rough estimate of the proportion of UK workers in desk-based jobs compared with those in non-desk based jobs. They came back saying: ‘Unfortunately, we don’t publish anything on desk-based jobs. However, estimates of employment by occupation from the annual population survey (APS) are available through the NOMIS website. If you are happy to make assumptions on which occupations are desk-based, you could probably use these estimates. We have also published employment by occupation estimates on our website. However, these estimates are not up-to-date, as the dataset was discontinued following a user consultation’.

What’s your view of hybrid working? Let me know.