Last week I went ConnectingHR Unconference 3 – #CHRU3 to its friends. I went to the first ConnectingHR unconference a year ago, though I had to miss the second event in the spring.
The theme this time around was “The Future of Work”. Given rising unemployment, increasing lifetime work (and decreasing pensions funding) and changes in the nature of careers, it seemed like a pretty prescient theme.
As seems to be common in these kind of events, we started off discussing some very open questions to get our mental facilities going and to help us come up with topics for discussion later. The first up was “what’s good about work?” The table I was at debated what work actually meant – how were we meant to interpret the question? (Being an unconference, of course, it was down to us to decide…) The answers to this preliminary included parenting, volunteering, hobbies and community activity as well as paid employment – though we generally concentrated on the latter, since that seems to be how society defines it. It is a spectrum, though.
Back to that first question, then: what IS good about work? Work is many different things to different people. My table came up with a long list: variety; social; money; security; routine; learning; something to keep us occupied; helping others succeed; making a difference; providing a purpose and identity; a sense of belonging and community; ambition; achievement.
Most of these are covered by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – things which we need to feel fulfilled. The interesting thing for me is that these needs can be met in many different ways – not just through employment: those other things we identified as “work” can go a long way to filling any gaps left in our needs by paid work – though to meet the most basic of Maslow’s pyramid – the physiological and safety needs – in our society we generally need money, and for the majority that means paid employment.
The second question was the flipside, then: “what is bad about work?”. A long list, again: stress; lack of skills; [rigid] job descriptions; unemployment; underemployment; perceived value; self esteem; how others value you; other people; tribal competition. There must be more. Many of these seem to reflect the social side of work – how others see us and, specifically, value us. For many people, their own sense of value stems from others’ perception. In a capitalist environment, society puts a financial value on our labour. The unemployed may think that they have no value.
Then we were asked what was perhaps the clincher, given the first two: “what would you like to change about work?” This was a bit like opening the flood gates. Here we go: discipline; company culture; society [let’s start big!]; creating a healthy environment; bad management; communication; focus – and identify – the real problems; give people the time to think; litigious culture; create organisations that value their staff; trust; innovation.
The last question is possibly the simplest: “what blocks change?” Another interesting set of responses: fear; uncertainty; risk aversion; organisation culture; mind-set; the economy; media; a lack of self-awareness; lack of time; loss of middle managers and their experience; politics, both internal and external.
I think any one of the points from any of these four lists could be expanded at length, and many of them are open to interpretation – the debate on, say, “bad management” could go off in all sorts of directions.
Whilst we pondered and decided on topics for the afternoon unconference sessions, there was a panel discussion with a difference. The event was held in the Spring, and one of the projects they run is helping unemployed graduates: several from this group sat in front of us and described their experiences. They were an impressive bunch, articulate and passionate. It must have taken a lot for them to sit in front of 70-odd professionals and discuss their feelings at facing rejection after more than 100 applications. Darius Norrell, one of the people behind the Spring, suggested that any process in which one party get nothing from it has to be wrong: most candidates receive a rejection with no feedback whatsoever. The only outcome is demoralisation – probably on both sides: companies don’t really have recruiters, they have rejectors.
There were tales of typical system dysfunction. Two stick in my mind: graduates told that to be successful, they have to be really focussed in their applications – but to qualify for jobseekers allowance (and presumably other benefits too) they have to prove that they are actively applying for as many jobs as possible; and the large number of applicants for graduate jobs – ie roles for people fresh out of college – told that they didn’t have enough experience. Life is tough for graduates seeking a role.
There were several recruiters in the audience, and they seemed pretty determined to change the way they work – which would be a good start.
I volunteered to run two conversations in the unconference session. The first – conceived before the session with the graduates – was around how society and workers cope with periods of un- and under-employment. (I can’t actually remember wording I used on the grid of sessions!) I didn’t (and still don’t) have strong views, but I think it is something that we will need to come to terms with. As a freelancer, I can spend long periods when I am not doing paid work; with UK unemployment at 2.6 million (8.1% of the workforce) at the end of August, nearly 1 million of whom are aged under 24, the impact on society could be large.
Needless to say, there were no answers. Periods of unemployment need not be unproductive: several people talked about using volunteer work to obtain new skills and maintain self-esteem and social contact – the “work habit”, perhaps – when society seems to not value our contribution.
The issue of youth unemployment is acute. At a time of high unemployment, 45% of business find it hard to recruit people and report that applicants have poor literacy and numeracy skill (among others). The need for experience before candidates are considered for positions explains the rise internships (and is presumably explained by increasing competition for prestigious jobs), and there was a discussion of the morality of internships – generally these were viewed dimly, limited to those who can afford to work for next to nothing – previously fulfilled by volunteering, now expanded into profitable businesses. It was suggested that making loans or grants available for interns might redress the balance in favour of the less-priveleged.
There were ideas of projects to tackle both unemployment and the bleak nature of high streets in the recession by using empty retail spaces for other types of enterprises, like Spacemakers does. (I worry that there is a danger that volunteering and pop-up enterprises may actually exacerbate unemployment and the recession by crowding out “for profit” enterprises: it would be interesting to know if there have been any studies on that.)
The other session I convened followed on from the third and fourth questions earlier (as well as my interest in organisation culture): what kind of culture makes organisations open to change and innovation? This was another wide ranging discussion. The difficulty of organisations to articulate their culture, and for the actual culture to reflect the espoused culture, featured: to what extent do senior managers really affect the culture on the shop floor? They clearly influence the culture – they set out the foundations – but their vision and values can be diluted by the time they trickle down. (Perhaps another advantage of flatter structures – senior managers’ ability to influence culture?)
The consensus seemed to be that organisations able to adapt to change and innovate would have high trust systems; embedded vision, values and culture promoting openness, listening, and accountability without fear; reward and performance management processes that reflect the values rather than work against them; and essentially embody “the learning organisation”. They’d need to value ideas, recognise and value individual and team contributions, and have a clear view of the behaviours desired in their staff and managers.
I also went to sessions on digital literacy (using digital tools to facilitate communication across teams and to promote collaboration); and using social media in organisations (more specific than the previous session, this looked at specific tools that can be implemented) – these sessions covered much of the ground that the unconference sessions of Tweetcamp did.
It was a great day – it is impressive what a bunch of people can do in a day. I do have one major quibble, though. The theme for the day was the future of work – the new world of work; it was only after the sessions had closed that I realised there hadn’t been any discussion about the future of work per se – no one painted a picture of what the future of work might look like. Since at an unconference the delegates dictate what will be discussed, I accept my share of the blame for this… But it would have been useful to have some debate. Instead, I think I shall have to paint my own picture in a future blog post…