Breaking the vicious circle and making work suck less

Originally written by Ea Ryberg on May 19, 2015.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

Earlier this week I was fortunate to meet Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google at his LSE talk. The topic was Bock’s new book Work Rules! – a call for companies and individuals to experiment with ways to make work suck less.

Bock argues for revisiting how organisations support and manage their employees, and he is taking an evidence-based approach to this with Google’s  People & Innovation Lab (PiLab). In his words CEOs don’t challenge HR professionals in their legacy approaches, because they have spent little time thinking through how it could be done differently. But this challenge must be taken more seriously. Unhappy, unengaged and under-utilised employees are hurting companies’ competitive advantage, because creativity and knowledge are vital to generate valuable products and services, and cannot flourish under these circumstances.

Waiting for best practices is a vicious circle

So, companies such as Google have realised that we must redefine how productivity is measured and managed in Twenty-First Century businesses, but to do this we need to experiment with techniques that might be counter-intuitive from a strict economic point of view. As Richard Thaler argued recently, supposedly irrelevant factors are very important.

Bock shared a few of Google’s techniques to find and grow new Googlers as well as keep them happy. Yet to truly make work rule we (companies, scientists and thinkers) need to change a lot more about how companies are run and invent many more techniques. I have been lucky to work with some clients who are ready to try new techniques, but most of them prefer the reassurance in us bringing new ideas that are already tried-and-tested. So how do we move beyond this vicious circle of wanting to change as long as someone else has already developed the new golden recipe?

Everything starts as an experiment

In the past year we have been gathering case studies and ideas, while experimenting with new techniques also covering HR practice. Unfortunately, we don’t have a PiLab with a bunch of number crunchers to back them all up with lots of data, but we do have hands-on insights from very different companies and a bunch of smart people working alongside them to solve similar challenges to those Bock faces. If I had the chance I would ask Bock a few questions about some of the techniques that we are working with right now, such as:

Can we test actual value contributions and cultural fit?

Bock highlighted Google’s principle of hiring committees which removes the pressure and bias from hiring managers and makes hiring a more objective choice. But other companies are exploring another technique where they invite candidates into a digital liminal space of the organisation. Here candidates can access some tasks, key information and interact with permanent associates. This technique has two major benefits: 1) candidates become contributors and can be assessed on the actual value they can bring 2) candidates are exposed to the company culture and vice versa, which gives a much better indication of the actual cultural fit. And of course, this is the entire premise of our friends at Somewhere – moving beyond CVs and job specs to find people based on culture and practice.

Can we source for passion?

Bock referred to a fascinating study on motivation and high performance employees. According to the research, the average proportion of motivated employees is roughly 1/3 across all industries, and there is a strong causal connection between the most motivated and the highest performers regardless of industry. But current hiring processes (internal as well as external) often overlook candidates’ motivation and passion for the subject matter. One technique we like using is volunteer task forces; a way to find and mobilise passionate employees and empower them to drive emerging business opportunities. If candidates are invited as contributors to a digital liminal space of the organisation, they don’t need to be pre-screened for specific jobs, but can rather show where they best fit by solving the tasks they are most passionate about. Furthermore, if companies make use of innovation time (i.e. Google’s former experiment that some companies are still doing), they can also use this approach to attract internal talent who are keen to drive strategic or tactical initiatives.

The above-mentioned techniques would require supporting activities to introduce them into traditionally-run companies and secure commitment to give them a try. But the techniques are examples of how companies should pick up Bock’s plea and start rethinking how their operating models are hindering their organisations from achieving success.

The next challenge is where non-Google companies (those who do not have the best engineers, number crunchers and organisational scientists to develop their Human Resources techniques) should start, remembering that the alternative is that we will never break the vicious circle- work for most people will still suck and companies will suffer as a result.

Get started!

We suggest that all employees, no matter their title, start questioning what is broken with organisations’ way of managing work and performance by reading some of the great material there is on this topic (for example here, here and here). Let the ideas marinate, talk with colleagues and find like minds in your organisations. At some point, most will get excited about the true potential that exists in the organisation. Then it is time to find a solid method for experimenting with new techniques.

At Postshift, we believe that organisations need to make change routine and test novel approaches to management while accepting that not all of them will work, and organisations need to be ready to disregard those that do not. To Bock’s point, this requires that organisations take an evidence-based approach which allows them to measure and manage the outcome of experiments. Our approach is to enable companies to become Quantified Organisations that systematically work to improve the organisations by testing and tweaking.