Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

One way of working no longer fits all 09 Nov 2021

A friend and co-visiting faculty at the School of Politics, Policy and Governance (SPPG), Kemi Ogunyemi, invited me to a webinar on human resource management (HRM), which left me with profound insights about the changing world of work. The panel featured cutting edge human resource (HR) practitioners and analysts from blue-chip companies like Coca-Cola, Guaranty Trust Bank, MTN, and capital market leaders. The session reaffirmed some of what I have always known but also gave me some new insights, especially in the context of COVID-19, which requires we rethink all what we once took for granted about people and relationships.   

HRM is the silent lever that moves the corporate wheel. If you have never missed your flight or been double booked on your calender, or missed output delivery timelines, nor had a staff embarrass the organisation because they did not know the values or raison d’etre or you have never faced industrial action before because of worker disenchantment, then you have not experienced the value of the agility of a formidable HR leadership.

As we begin the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, featuring artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, machine learning and Internet of Things, countries and corporate organisations are finding they must evolve their value production faster. COVID-19 came into the mix to challenge organisational values and culture, including leadership, necessitating further acceleration in workplace evolution and adaptation. In the wake of this seismic shift are generational work style dichotomies, between what in the United States is called the “baby boomer” (those born between 1940 – 1960), Gen X (born between the mid-1960s – early 1980s), Gen Y or millennials (born between 1981- 1995) and Gen Z (those born between 1995 – 2012). For example, each demographic has different expectations of work security. A baby boomer (retiring or retired, in 2021) or Gen X was taught to work long and hard, and to think about security as a long term plan with resources tied down and left in the hands of a trusted(?) pension system.

Gen Y or Z workers are the CNNs (Computer Native Newbies), compared with their predecessor BBCs (Born Before Computers). They were schooled to work differently, as digital natives with vast online research capability, and work smart and not necessarily long years or in one place, because of the vast options to explore, including choices of investing in cryptocurrency and raising funds for their innovative ideas through crowdfunding. Experts say it would be foolhardy, therefore, to offer the concept of pension suited to Gen X to Gen Z workers and expect to keep them for long in the workplace. Yet, as Gen X ages and exits the workplace, the millennials and Gen Z are stepping in; they are the new workforce for the new future. Ready or not, the workplace needs to adapt to meet the needs of these new crops of workers. It is the challenge of the HR department to ensure this transition is seamless.

Labour history reminds us that during the first two industrial revolutions, workers had to congregate in a ‘workplace’ under supervision. The 21st century came with flexibility, with shift work introduced in new locations and industries as labour was increasingly outsourced to cheaper climes where workers worked round the clock to serve centres of capital.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated workplace flexibility, indeed questioning ‘what’ and ‘where’ is the workplace. It is now where and when there is work to be done, including at home. Feminists have always known this, which is why they decry women’s unpaid work at home. The Work from Home (WfH) model has now emerged, even as remote work – working outside the office location – has gained wider currency. So is the hybrid form of working, i.e., a combination of working in the office and outside it, especially via computers and internet connections. The bottomline is that one single way of working no longer fits all.  

The organisational work type, and the demographics of their customers, will determine the workable model of work. Strategy will only enhance performance. Businesses that will thrive must be ready to reinvent themselves or end up like Kodak: extinct. HRM has a strategic role to nurture this transition productively. There can be no untested assumptions. For example, old staff moving across roles would require new onboarding support. HR would also need to grapple with how that conforms to the organisational culture. Similarly, new staff would need to know the organisational culture and how to apply it, fit in, and settle down quickly in the workplace.

The new WfH or hybrid mode has less room for error and laxity. While there are fewer costs, still there are new costs. Computer hardware and connectivity tools have to be provided and work well, data – the new ‘gold’ – requires safety from cyberattack and must be regularly backed up, power supply is a necessity, and software licences have to be renewed.

The hybrid work mode does not automatically dilute company culture: it reforms and transforms corporate culture to suit the emerging trends and needs of the teams and the customers. This is what the corporate culture is really about. Culture is not static. It evolves as the needs of people change and with the social, economic and political trends. Once slavery was a norm; its now an aberration.

With working online for example, the balance of power is also shifting, or leveling out more, succumbing to a more egalitarian culture and enhanced interdependency of the digital workplace. For organisations that are able to shift their work mode entirely online, like twitter – which made that declaration post-COVID-19 lockdown, the headquarters versus field dichotomy is reduced. All the staff meet online and can speak with authority to different contexts. Subsidiaries can join big meeting at no significant cost to the organisation, and the organisation can benefit more from the strength of diversity of its teams and reduce power dichotomies.

On the down side, we will miss the camaraderie of jamming in the corridors and the elevator speeches. However, technology has continued to evolve to deal with social challenges of the digital revolution. And working virtually only makes moments of physical reunions more valuable and better utilised. Therefore, we still need to dress up, make-up and all, to sit before the computer and psyche ourselves up and comply with professional etiquettes. You don’t want to mistakenly turn on your video, or needing to stand up, only to unintentionally show you are wearing just a vest or a bra or a pair of boxers in the virtual meeting room. Remember, it is still the workplace.

In a hybrid working world, key performance indicators (KPIs) are very important. They accentuate W4: working well without watch (or unsupervised). Results will help appraise the time budget and effort minimally required for certain tasks. KPIs buttress the argument for flexi-hours and may now signal an ending to 9 – 5 desk jobs.

This new way of working requires collaboration and respect. The dinosaur BBC generation must understand the views of the chicklet CNN generation and vice versa. HR must plan differently for the needs of each. Human resource is not, and has never been, homogeneous.  

Trust between workers and line managers who should have the capacity to lead becomes crucial. With trust, mutual respect and all those intangibles that oil the wheels of progress, and clear measurable KPIs, there will be no need to micro-manage or track anyone. Set KPIs, and you preserve the orgnisational culture for new or old staff. The team lead can devote time to other things such as personal and professional development, for example, and still deliver stellar results.

A safe business environment is needed for employees to enjoy work and for assured productivity. Employees too must understand that there is a job to be done. Both management and staff need to work together for the good of the organisation.  Whatever the kind of work, the constants are shared values, KPIs, clarity, communication, choice, compassion, and collaboration. Ensuring these is the responsibility of HRM.

Amina Salihu is a development sector specialist.