The Employee Vs. the Organization

Sounds like some sort of a media driven grudge match between two heavyweight prize fighters?  It is – based in large measure on my own challenging experience working for 15 companies over the course of 30 years – but as an HR Director, I’m also telling this story from thousands of varying perspectives, through the eyes of my customers (the employees whom I represented).

What I’m about to talk about is the recipe for survival – for both the employee and their often emotionally and operationally dysfunctional organisations.  I’m going to be brutally honest and scrape down into root cause issues, exposing the ‘illness’ of poor employee experience at its deepest point.  I’m going to tear at the fabric of where we have come from (20th century Frederick Taylor-esque management) and what we need to do together to pull ourselves out of this death spiral we are subconsciously engaged in to meet the disruptive demands in a rapidly evolving digital era.  The reason simply is that over 30 years, having worked with intense projects with over 15 companies – I’ve tried hard to change the trend of organisations ‘doing things to employees’ vs. building effective environments ‘for employees to thrive.’

But alas, I too succumbed to those very slings and arrows, lost heart and eventually my sense of self-worth in the process of protecting so many others.  My vaunted ideas were often discarded as soft-touch emotional rubbish, my endless diatribes on the efficacy of building great experience whilst impossibly balancing the will of the organisational body with that of the individual’s needs and desires of each and every human participant were thrust aside – with the shortest route to more money and profit winning out.  The over-lording of the money men (Finance, Sales, Traders and Partners), the keepers of the political power structures (HR, Legal, Operations, IT), and the almighty focus on returning ever more outrageous quarterly profits always won out over my seemingly naïve ideals.

Yet, here in 2017, I’m witnessing a very interesting and hopeful counter-trend. We have all been swept up in the tsunami of deep digital tool innovation, which has suddenly picked up exponentially velocity and leapfrogged from Big Data to Data Analytics and straight into Artificial Intelligence application, fed by Machine Learning.  It’s been a dizzying perfect storm of technological achievement jumping out way ahead of organisational and operational readiness – caught everyone unaware and ill-prepared for the onslaught – but suddenly we’ve awoken here in the 21st century only to realise that the ancient organisation is struggling mightily to keep up, to stay innovative and remain competitive.  “Big is fragile, small is agile,” is a phrase I hear being thrown around.  Futurists are predicting that soon, full-time employment of staff will likely never exceed 3,000 people for even the largest organisations on Earth in less than 10 years time, due to advances in technology, A.I., automation and the gig economy.  Likely we will see organisations of no more like 300 full-time employees maximum.

The war over talent is only just commencing in earnest – as it’s now clear that Global Brands are under assault on a 3 dimensional front – Traditional competitors are fighting to out-smart and out-innovate their old enemies, some opting to become partners against the larger threat of the Disruptors from under the floor boards. And let’s not forget the new Goliaths that have emerged in Google (Alphabet), Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, Uber, SpaceX, Tesla and so many others who are literally pivoting weekly based on new found competence, and doing so almost as a  lark – to keep their voraciously creative engineers’ attention spans from running out the door!  Suddenly the employee is mission critical, as talent wars are ending up in pitched court battles and outrageous settlements – where bleeding edge skills for tools and processes newly minted barely exist amongst what used to be huge pools of unemployed college students.  Attracting, hiring, onboarding, training, paying, promoting, and engaging these needles in haystacks (especially the elite thought leaders in various tech fields), has never been more challenging.  And it’s not just about the almighty Pound or Dollar – it’s about the survival of the corporate overlords with their investors and share holders – who are spoilt for choice and can likely dump and run on a moments news about another emerging entrant worth pursuing.  There is no loyalty in a world spilling over with exponential returns on new technological innovations (Bitcoin, Etherium and the crypto-currency markets rising over 500% as an example).

That battle for the hearts and minds of critical talent has erupted into all-out war, and as I’m observing things at the moment in the world of technology, if the company doesn’t comprehend and embrace the art of nourishing the individual’s need to achieve self-actualisation – then what you may end up with is a Zombie Apocalypse (disaffected and disengaged employees) on our hands, leading to corporate talent bleed-outs, dissolution of traditionally structured organisations everywhere, and a handful of emergent, enlightened and disruptive Visigoth hordes flowing into the market from every direction to pick apart the carcasses of the FTSE and Fortune 500 venerable monoliths who have lasted these many years.

Make no mistake – this is happening today.  The bricks & mortar retail industry in American is a prime example.  According to the National Retail Federation, The retail industry in America supports 1 in 4 jobs today, is the largest private sector employer, is responsible for driving the entire US economy and currently employees over 42 million human beings in the USA. 1/6 of the USA’s total GPD is dedicated to the retail industry and supports an additional $1 trillion in other US industries.  $1.58 trillion is paid annually as salaries and benefits to the employees in this industry sector. In the last 2 years – major retail chains have had to shutter large numbers of physical shopping locations to preserve capital, tighten fiscal belts urgently and prepare for a huge shift in consumer behavioural shifts to online competitors, better pricing and more convenience in shopping.  Chains such as Macy’s, JC Penney, Sears and Roebuck, Nordstrom, Office Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond, The Gap, Barnes and Noble, and Sports Authority – all very well known brands found in every city worth its weight in America.  Likely they should have shuttered years prior, but this trend is unlikely to slow as we’ll soon see shopping malls collapse as their anchor flagship stores close their doors, and then what to do with all that dead real estate?  It’s starting to appear like a commercial graveyard similar to the old steel towns in Pennsylvania, and online providers such as Amazon.com are rocketing northward in building out its Prime delivery service – offering anyone a huge array of goods and services at their finger tips – from any device connected to the internet.

Darwinian evolution favours the Highly Adaptive and destroys the Hesitant Transformer.  I could wax philosophical for hours here – shedding light on the mindless pragmatism of the ‘old ways’ leading to the eventual downturn of traditional 20th-century marketplaces – but what’s the point?  We all know how the genetically inferior anomalies of nature’s random invention machine end.  In despair and eventual death.  Not a very enlightening prospect to consider and frankly I’m done with the pile of literature that points to the eventual destruction of all things slow moving and unimaginative.  So let’s get on with the fix, shall we?

Part 2/5 – What is the Problem Statement?  According to several credible employee engagement studies, one in particular sponsored by Officevibe, being a global, ongoing measurement of the current state of employee engagement in 157 countries, across 1,000 organisations over 1.2 million data points, as well as global attrition data mixed with a relatively sudden shift in highly specialised skill and competency requirements emerging from new technologies…The data are overwhelmingly pointing to ever decreasing levels of engagement, trust in leadership and management, job satisfaction, respect and allegiance to current employers as well as an overall sense of work/life balance and mental/physical wellness.

This is often seen as symptomatic of several factors lacking in the working landscape on a daily basis, including but not limited to:

  • Lack of recognition for work performed well (63% of employees reporting they don’t receive enough praise)
  • Lack of performance feedback (32% of employees reporting they have to wait 3 or more months to receive feedback)
  • Lack of general ‘happiness’ in the work environment (23% of employees globally reporting they leave work feeling ‘drained, or very drained’ every day)
  • Lack of personal growth within the work environment (56% of employees believe they don’t have any career advancement opportunities)
  • Overall satisfaction at work (23% of all employees don’t see themselves working for their current company one year from now)
  • Wellness at work (60% of employees notice that their jobs are taking a toll on their personal lives)
  • Ambassadorship – wherein employees would recommend their employer to a friend (57% of employees reporting they wouldn’t recommend their current employer)
  • Relationships with their managers – (31% of employees wish their manager communicated more with them)
  • Relationships with their colleagues (34% of employees reporting that they don’t think they have enough social interaction with their colleagues)
  • Company alignment – (33% of employees don’t believe their company’s core values align with their personal values)

Gallup polls have repeatedly uncovered that the level of workplace disengagement hovers at around 68% in the USA, and 87% outside the USA (adding up to a productivity loss of over $500 billion annually the USA alone, according to Entrepreneur Magazine.

Again, this is a complex set of variables that have a direct effect on these overall numbers, but the critical areas of importance for employees involves the following:

  • Sense of purpose that employees can align to, a positive statement about how an organisation plans to affect as large a population of a targeted audience to achieve a strong, positive outcome that doesn’t exist today.
  • A strong set of core values alignment by which all organisational decisions are metered against before being implemented.  Further – a set of core values that aligns psychologically to the human beings tasked with bringing those decisions to relative.
  • personal sense of mission and specific focus wherein people are tasked with specific areas of activity, can see the reason why they are undertaking those tasks, are capable of delivering those tasks within a reasonable timeframe, are supported in achieving those tasks and can see the impact of the successful completion of the mission at hand.
  • Trust in direct management and overall leadership of their organisations – feeling a deep sense of respect for the individuals who are setting the pace, delegating the work, driving toward results, supporting the employees to deliver, and providing a sense of direction regularly whilst always operating within the core values and communicating regularly the vision everyone is trying to achieve.
  • Receiving praise and recognition for work performed well, whilst at the same time, receiving constructive feedback they can act upon to improve areas they are less proficient or capable – and then be challenged to engage in those new activities to test their learning and apply new thinking.
  • Having a sense of mastery, capability, skill base and opportunity to learn at speed about new tools, techniques, operating methodologies and critical facts to be successful in addressing their current and future workloads.
  • A strong sense of camaraderie and esprit d’ corps amongst their peers, both in their immediate circle, but also cross functionally throughout the enterprise.
  • Having the tools and technology necessary to perform their work in any environment, whether it’s within a physically co-located environment or within a virtual context.
  • Having a personalised portal or aggregation of data over time that provides as complete a picture as possible with regard to an individual’s sense of personal and professional development focus, mapping out their performance over time, career trajectory, personal milestones achieved, areas of failure and recovery, developmental activities undertaken, all against the backdrop of a core set of objectives and key results set for oneself and presented in a dash-boarding format that is both manually and dynamically updated using tools provided by their current organisation (HRIS data, performance measurement results, training & development activity logs, sales or customer performance data, career path and pay & reward data, specific awards or recognition achieved.
  • A generalised feeling that the organisation makes work harder than it has to be, whilst requiring significant inputs to track and micro-manage employees without giving anything back to the employee in return to help them comprehend their own capabilities nor offer solutions for improvement.  This needs to be reversed.
  • There are also far more cavernous generational gaps made poignantly prevalent by rapid technological advancements, wherein GenZ (born in early to mid-2000) and Millennial generations (born in early 1980s), who are digitally native – extremely comfortable with all manner of technology, at home with advanced consumer electronics and comfortable with the pace of innovation and change that our current technological disruption is driving.  The issue is they are often being led by GenX and Baby Boomer generational members who are less apt to be keeping up with the current pace of change, the level of adaptive capability that various tools and software provide – and thus see it as less of a priority to catch the workplace environment up to our consumer experience.

This has left the vast majority of new market entrants with a deep sense of disillusionment with larger dystopian working environments. It has caused deep frustration across all generations as there is a general disconnect socially, technologically, productively and competitively – all the while technological disruption is occurring at rates never experienced in human history. Competitive pressures are well beyond traditional pathways and now occurring across industries, from well-funded start-ups as well as from traditional competitors – and we will likely experience a powerful upheaval of the traditional corporate landscape – involving insolvencies, huge uptick in mergers & acquisitions, break ups and joint ventures as well as wholesale dissolutions of the largest, most traditional  entities.

We see smaller, more agile market entrants perform more direct-to-consumer activities with only a fraction of the employee bases we’ve seen in the 20th century – owing to advances in technology, gig economy working, machine learning and A.I., and a whole new partnering and outsourcing economy that will no longer required corporates to own production of products end-to-end, but rather share it out in a sharing economy where specialised designers, makers, inventors, distributors, and networked hive contributors that will replace the previously fully-owned, end-to-end supply chains that make up the current mega-corporates whose organic inefficiency is choking their ability to be competitive in their respective markets.  Read Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organizations to get a sense of how technology unicorns are mastering their billion dollar valuations at speed.

Enter the need to re-think EVERYTHING…

Couched conveniently under the header of Employee Experience – this cacophony of negative sentiment translating into deep dips in performance, productivity, creativity and innovation – whilst creating financial chaos in markets and traditional supply chains around the world, has led us to reconsider the very essence of our commercial existences.  What’s clear is that we have lost our way (or not kept up) critical developments, methodologies and tools – and dead are the early notions about the organisation’s stewardship of the individual employee – driven by Henry Ford’s assembly line mentality, Frederick Taylor’s notions of Scientific Management, or the ‘Master-Slave’ relationships  Let’s not kid ourselves – a tightly benchmarked pay check and some sparingly weak benefits with a few company picnics and awkward recognition ceremonies do not maketh an enlightened Employee Experience.  Worse, this halfway house often insults the intelligence and sense of self-worth of our most powerful contributors – creating a cynicism that is unrecoverable with the best of intentions.

Taking into account the key areas of frustration and disconnect employees feel in the workplace environment around so many issues and challenges, where do we start with the reinvention of our relationship to one another – in an effort to recover from this nose dive and reset an authentic repositioning of our connection to one another?

by Jeff Wellstead

Jeff Wellstead is the founder of ex.design – an employee experience design consultancy.

As an Employee Experience Designer who brings the promise of the “future of work” today, Jeff works with businesses of all sectors and maturities, who are urgently seeking rapid adaptation and digital transformation.

He engages with a number of human capital, agile, OD, recruitment, product & innovation and productivity specialists who have been schooled in lean startup and lean enterprise methodologies.

Similar Posts