Debunking myths about the future of work

Is Big Data really big on usefulness, or potentially misleading? Is an ageing Western society like ours necessarily one in economic decline? Are energy politics designed to keep us economising on power use, and is this reasonable? And are HR directors ‘in denial’ about something fundamental?  Sreela Banerjee looks at the common themes covered by four speakers at JLA‘s recent breakfast talk. Can our deliberations about the future of work and workplaces be informed by any of it?

Lucy Adams, former BBC Director of HR
Lucy Adams, former BBC Director of HR

A panel of four speakers were ready to engage with us – we were a selected few, possible hirers of these speakers – and the theme was ‘debunking the myths’.  In corporate circles this would be called a professional ‘beauty parade’, set up by JLA, a speakers’ agency.

Lucy Adams came first – here is why you might have heard of her; she spent our money giving outsized severance payments to some senior BBC colleagues. Like much of the Civil Service, she has suffered from the OPM (other people’s money) syndrome.

Why appraisals don’t work

Severed from her £300k+ job at the BBC recently, she is now a potential JLA speaker. The myth she was debunking was that annual appraisals are fit for purpose. She said that they simply don’t work. As a ‘recovering HR director’ she said that neuroscientists now describe how the very mention of appraisals threatens our sense of certainty, status, fairness and autonomy.  ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ from a senior colleague elicits the same reaction as someone running up from behind us at night, wearing a hoodie’ = fight, freeze or fly. Yes, she is informative and amusing.  What did she say about the way we will work tomorrow? Her advice was to give instant feedback on behaviours which don’t contribute to corporate goals – easier to say than do, but mothers do this all the time, knowing that nothing else actually works.

Energising development

James Woudhuysen’s book, ‘Energise’ has a simple message – greater energy consumption is not an environmental crime, it is a mark of greater civilisation. He invited us to ‘stay out of the caves’, rather than retreat back into them.  I must say that this is hard to deny. The billion plus women in the world who are sitting every day with soap suds three quarters of the way up their arms for a big fraction of their lives will tell you that having a washing machine is one of their dreams – it will free them up, so they can work at something more suited to their aptitudes and interests – that involves more, not less energy consumption. Don’t spend money just on insulation says this professor – get more carbon neutral supplies in place, by doing more R&D.  He points out the duplicity of politicians in obscuring the real issues.  Here he is – take your own view.  I’m all for a future of abundant electricity really – clean energy and increasing consumption can only be good for most women, not to mention their businesses.

Working for longer

George Magnus (here is a clip) is a professor as well as a former economic adviser to a large merchant bank. He said two memorable things – that as we get older and remain fitter, so we will be expected to work for longer – which is actually really important to know. If you are between 35 and 45 years old, you will be expected to work until you are 68-70.  A long stretch awaits you.  Is this realistic? Yes – more of us are getting older, and fewer being born in the developed world. The other thing which stuck in my mind is that by 2018 some 45% of Boeing’s engineers and scientists will be eligible for retirement.  Having worked for some years in engineering consultancy, I can see that this is a major issue (May I suggest that we watch Boeing’s HR function for the next few years?  Will there just be offers of ‘consultancy’ that the retirees cannot refuse? We need to learn from their people-engagement and staff retention model, just in case they do something different.)

The limits of ‘Big Data’

Tim Harford was the last of the beauty parade – younger and a more confident speaker, the Undercover Economist’s busted myth was very simple – don’t believe in ‘big data’ when you are being sold a ‘result’ without proper causality being shown. Big data does not adjust for sampling bias – in other words, if you don’t ask a representative number of people, the answers you get can be rubbish. Just because Google can count it doesn’t mean to say that you have to switch off your brain – thank you Tim, most of us knew that.  Here is his TED talk, which pleads for humility and learning by trial and error – decide for yourselves if you like his style. I liked his natural diffidence.

What it means for women

As I walked back to the tube station, I was beginning to see a common thread in all that these four speakers had said.  Women already know that if you don’t give instant feedback to children, they don’t change their behaviour – Adams hinted that this is true of all people.  More women will need to be enticed into the workplace and retained if the economy is to recover. I wonder how long it will take us to change this ‘annual appraisal’ routine in large firms – can’t they see that the industrial model doesn’t actually work?

Magnus said that in our ageing society, more women will need to be enticed back into the workplace; without affordable childcare this will not be feasible. Perhaps he needs to read a book called ‘What mothers do – especially when it looks like nothing’ by Naomi Stadlen, which tells us that women who look after their own children do a different set of jobs, which doesn’t quite equate with externally provided childcare. Some women know this, and stay home for the crucial first years, in some instances – they need to be enticed back into work, apparently, for the economy to thrive. Here is a coaching company called Talking Talent based in Oxford who clearly believe that it is worth encouraging the 2.4 million women who are not in work but want to work to enter the labour market, and over 1.3 million women who want to increase the number of hours they work, to do so without compromising their home commitments.

Some of us chose to combine the two, and either work from home or stay in close touch to home, whilst running our own businesses. I believe that more and more big companies will need to live with this choice we make, if they wish to access the considerable wealth of knowledge and experience we ‘absent’ mothers have between us.  Woudhuysen is silent on the subject of either women or their businesses, though the advent of abundant clean power thanks to EdF’s plans for more megawatts of generation capacity, can only be good news for women, and their businesses growing, without facing power cuts. Having lived in places where these are commonplace, I am all in favour of avoiding them.

It is Harford’s views which might be of most use to women, at home and in business. He clearly has tried to move beyond the God syndrome of most men, (his words rather than mine) and if more companies adopt that view, (that trial and error is a useful way of perfecting a system) then there is indeed scope for real change in the world of business, and a better fit for women in it.

As mothers, we are the ultimate experts at trial and error – when we choose not to have children, the economy has big adjustment problems. When we do, we bring up each child slightly differently (one child will respond to a laconic late reminder, whilst another will appreciate on-the-spot clever verbal one-upmanship to make the same point) – we tailor our responses accordingly – the ultimate in client-focus.  When we move on to dealing with clients, we naturally bring flexibility to the table, and an innate sense of confidence which arrives from having done a job before, and succeeded, on the hoof, through humility, focus, and an accuracy arrived at through trial and error. No wonder so many of us don’t want to go back to the rigidity of hierarchies, inflated egos and meaningless annual appraisals!

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