The Birches Group solution for job evaluation is Community™ Jobs.  In a prior article, we explained a bit more about our integrated approach to HR management through the Community™ platform.  In this article, we will delve more deeply into how organizations establish their internal structure, and how to measure it.

Community™ Jobs is intuitive.  It segments the workforce into groupings of jobs that are clearly distinguishable from one another in a progressive manner, zeroing in on the placement of jobs step by step.

The How and The Why

The first step is to determine into which of two categories a job falls:

The How and The Why

This division of an organization can be traced back to the military.  The Roman Army was the first large organization where roles were arrayed according to rank: the enlisted (“How” jobs) and officers (“Why” jobs). These military structures have been adapted by private and government institutions over time, and while they certainly have evolved a lot since Roman times, the fundamentals are still the same.

The two categories are complementary:

  • Why jobs focus on managing and leading the organization, and the origination and delivery of policies, products, and programs.
  • How jobs focus on executing processes and transactions, including quality control, under predetermined guidelines.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Community of Work – The Four Job Clusters

Within the categories of How and Why, we have identified two clusters of related jobs within each group, as shown in the diagram below:

Job levels found within each of the job clusters defined above possess similar characteristics based on their purpose and contribution toward the organization’s mission.

Fourteen Job Levels

Once jobs have been classified into their appropriate clusters, using the three job evaluation factors of Community™ – Purpose, Engagement, and Delivery – it becomes possible to finally evaluate jobs, level by level, into Birches Group’s fourteen Community™ job levels.

Beginning with physical or manual roles at BG-1 under the General cluster, all the way to organizational leadership at BG-14 in the Leadership cluster, the fourteen Community™ job levels can easily be adapted and used to determine equivalent worth amongst jobs in any organization.  The table below shows the values for each factor by level.

When an organization’s jobs have been aligned to the fourteen Community™ job levels, a foundation is established to easily ensure internal equity, measure market competitiveness on pay, assess skill level among staff and manage performance evaluation, using the integrated Community system™.

To learn more about Community™ and how it can support your organization, contact us.

Bianca manages our Marketing Team in Manila. She crafts messaging around Community™ concepts and develops promotional campaigns answering why Community™ should be each organization’s preferred solution, focusing on its simplicity and integrated approach. She has held various roles within Birches Group since 2009, starting as a Compensation Analyst and worked her way to Compensation Team Lead, and Training Program Services Manager. In addition to her current role in marketing and communications, she represents Birches Group in international HR conferences with private sector audiences.

In our work with hundreds of organizations, many apply long-standing, well-accepted approaches for the management of human resources. The HR function is steeped in traditional methods and so-called best practices for everything from job evaluation and compensation management to performance management. At Birches Group, we believe for organizations to innovate and thrive, they must be willing to try new things. Our Community™ Jobs approach provides a fresh perspective on one of the most misunderstood areas of human resources – job design and evaluation. Good job design and clear job evaluation are critical to fully support all other programs in HR.

How Community™ Jobs is Different

Job evaluation is traditionally a highly technical area of HR, reserved for the “job evaluation high priests” to compile results and share with the organization. Usually, job evaluation systems are complex and hard to understand, using many different factors to determine results.

Birches Group built Community™ Jobs to be simple and transparent, and easily understood by HR, managers and yes, even staff.  We also believe that job evaluation forms the fundamental underpinning of everything HR does – from compensation and recruitment to development and performance.  Every area of HR is impacted by job evaluation and job levels.

Just Three Things

Community™ uses three factors to assess work: Purpose, Engagement, and Delivery, across fourteen job levels, as shown in the diagram below:

The primary factor is Purpose, which answers the most critical question: why does this job exist in the organization? Purpose enables us to examine each role within the organization and determine its primary objectives and how it supports the overall mission of the organization.

The second factor of Community™ Jobs is Engagement, identifying how each job interacts and collaborates with internal and external stakeholders to carry out its function.

Delivery, the third factor of Community™ Jobs, examines how each role plans, organizes and delivers work to fulfill the organization’s mission. It focuses on how a job manages tasks, transactions, services, projects, or programs under its purview.

The three Community™ factors taken together allow us to understand how an organization conducts business across all levels of work, starting with defining the purpose of its jobs, determining their level of engagement, and examining how each of its roles organizes and delivers service.

The Six Indicators

For each of the three job evaluation factors, we have identified two indicators to connect the job directly to the skills and knowledge required for success:

Each of these indicators is used in applying the Community™ Jobs evaluation methodology.  But importantly, the same criteria are also used to develop standards in the other modules of Community™.  Community™ Skills allows organizations to measure experience explicitly by evaluating an employee’s accumulation of skills and knowledge over time.  Community™ Performance provides a standard for measuring achievement by considering how employees have performed against the standard established for their job level.

Job Evaluation in Action

What are some examples of how job evaluation results (job grades or levels) can be used in other areas of human resources?  Here are just a few:

  • Job descriptions.  One of the most unstructured and tedious task managers face is writing job descriptions.  And most of the time, they are just a listing of tasks and inputs.  Birches Group believes job descriptions should be purpose-driven, output-focused and written from the perspective of what the job must deliver.  Our approach for job description writing uses the job evaluation factors and indicators as a basis to describe duties and responsibilities.  Best of all, no job description will ever exceed one page!
  • Salary bench-marking.  We use Community™ Jobs as the job evaluation methodology when conducting our salary surveys in over 150 countries.  Every employer’s jobs are matched to a Birches Group level, enabling a consistent and fair comparison to jobs in the market with similar levels of contribution to the organization.
  • Salary management.  Organizations use job grades to build salary structures, which in turn provide managers with tools to optimize the organization’s competitive position and ensure high levels of employee engagement.
  • Skills assessment.  Managers will often say that employees with more experience should be paid more. But there is no standard for measuring experience other than time, until now.  Using the Birches Group Community™ job levels, we have developed explicit measures for each job evaluation indicator, arrayed over five separate skill levels.  This skills assessment tool can be used for multiple purposes, including pay management, learning and development planning, succession planning, promotion readiness, and ensuring unbiased application of starting salaries, to name a few.
  • Performance management.  The same three factors used for job evaluation – purpose, engagement, and delivery – can be used to measure achievement.  For example:

Purpose – Does the employee have good ideas?

Engagement – Did they listen and adapt to customer feedback?

Delivery – Did they deliver on time with high levels of quality?

Community™ Performance has a structured approach to measuring achievement by linking back to the job evaluation factors.

By focusing on the Community™ Jobs factors — Purpose, Engagement, and Delivery — managing all areas of HR is now possible using a simple, consistent, and integrated approach.

Bianca manages our Marketing Team in Manila. She crafts messaging around Community™ concepts and develops promotional campaigns answering why Community™ should be each organization’s preferred solution, focusing on its simplicity and integrated approach. She has held various roles within Birches Group since 2009, starting as a Compensation Analyst and worked her way to Compensation Team Lead, and Training Program Services Manager. In addition to her current role in marketing and communications, she represents Birches Group in international HR conferences with private sector audiences.

As the human resources function has improved and modernized over the years, a lot of positive changes have resulted. HR in many organizations is now a respected partner to business leaders, and increasingly are being asked to provide strategic insights about the overall people management for the organization. In most HR departments of any size, there is usually a “hard side” – job evaluation, compensation, benefits, etc. – and a “soft side” – recruitment, learning and development, succession planning, and performance management.  These two sides of HR are often managed separately and from totally different perspectives.

And that’s a problem!

While some argue this arrangement has worked in their organizations, what they don’t realize is this disconnect between the hard side and the soft side of HR has led to many of the issues organizations face today – poor job alignment, loose enforcement of compensation policies, and how reward and recognition are often confused with each other.

For the longest time, organizations have managed these areas separately, patching together using different tools built on different methodologies. How can we expect HR to provide a clear base of policies if their own approaches are not aligned and don’t even use common standards?

Community™ – HR Management Integrated

Community™ is Birches Group’s methodology and platform that integrates critical areas of human resources: job design and evaluation, compensation management, skills measurement, and performance management. Community™ uses a simple, clear, and consistent approach across all areas of HR, and the key is Jobs.

We provide a robust and powerful job evaluation system, Community™ Jobs. It is designed to focus not only on the nature of work and its value, but also connect the purpose of each job to the fundamental skills required for the role and the corresponding metrics that define its success. The job levels defined using Community™ Jobs extend the job levels into all other areas of HR – compensation and benefits, individual skills assessment, and performance management. 

Organizations using Community™ are able to integrate the key areas of their HR program and achieve better workforce engagement. When participating in salary surveys, performing market analysis is easy because all job levels are mapped to Birches Group’s Community™ levels, which serve as the common standard across all comparators. Community™ Skills makes it easy for managers to assess the accumulated skills and knowledge of their staff using explicit criteria outlined across five skills stages, anchored to the Community™  job levels. This enables companies to understand the capacity of their workforce and provide focused learning and development to build capacity for the future.

And finally, performance management becomes a seamless process because using the Community™ job levels to evaluate employee achievement by considering what outputs are expected for the job.  A 360-degree approach is used to capture the perspectives of the employee, the manager, and peers with whom the employee interacts, inside and outside the organization.

Community™ Solutions

Birches Group’s Community™ platform offers four solutions – JobsMarketSkills, and Performance, all integrated into one intuitive platform. Jobs and Market define the structural elements of an organization, while Skills and Performance focus on the organization’s people and capacity.

Organizations can enter the Community™ system through any of its solutions depending on their needs. Using Community™, organizations can start by defining jobs and job structures, and use these to ensure a competitive market position. Skills provides a mechanism to measure individual capacity, and can be used for setting individual pay, learning and development and more.  Performance is focused on how the achievements of individual staff are measured and rewarded.

Through Community™, our clients have access to an integrated solution that aligns both structure and capacity using one simple approach. It closes the gap that many systems have failed to address, bridging the hard side with the soft side of human resources.

Contact us to learn how Community™ can power the success of your organization.

Bianca manages our Marketing Team in Manila. She crafts messaging around Community™ concepts and develops promotional campaigns answering why Community™ should be each organization’s preferred solution, focusing on its simplicity and integrated approach. She has held various roles within Birches Group since 2009, starting as a Compensation Analyst and worked her way to Compensation Team Lead, and Training Program Services Manager. In addition to her current role in marketing and communications, she represents Birches Group in international HR conferences with private sector audiences.

The Future of Work

Nowadays the HR community often finds itself in the midst of a whirlwind.  There is almost no end to the articles, conversations, and learned prognostications about the future of work. By all accounts, it seems we stand on the precipice of a new world which will be vastly different from the world of work in which we all labored at the end of the twentieth century. The revolutionary changes which are just beyond our horizon are expected to either herald the long-awaited man-made utopia where we are freed of mindless repetitive tasks or the frightening dystopia where we are reduced to characters best depicted in Disney’s Wall-e.

As all this swirls around us, managers and staff are often looking to HR to provide some guidance, some safe path that will get us to and through this uncertain future while magically sparing most of us from little more than having our hair mussed. Within the HR community, we are generally dumbfounded. We just don’t know what to do since we simply do not know what to expect! We have all seen in the past twenty to thirty years the gradual disappearance of many classic office positions and occupations which fifty years ago formed the backbone of office functions.  Stenographers, switchboard operators and typing pools have gone the way of blacksmiths and bridle makers. So, we labor on and for most of us, we will deal with the future when it gets here. It is not that we are confident that we can confront the challenges; it’s just that thinking about them makes our heads hurt, so we would just rather not. 

Understand the Future by Remembering the Past

There is no point in being either Pollyannish or morose about the future.  As with most things regarding the future, insight into the future of work can be gained by taking a few steps back and looking at what has happened at similar crossroads we encountered in the past. This is not the first revolution. The current challenge is often referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, and it is said that the changes which are coming will be unlike any past transition. Yes, technological change can be very intimidating, but to assert that what is coming will be disruptive in a manner far exceeding past transitions isn’t quite right. The changes in society that came in the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth represented a massive shift in so many industries that the transformation which occurred touched every life on the planet. In the space of twenty to thirty years, ocean travel was transformed from wood and canvas to steal and steam. As a result, it enabled not only faster and larger forms of transport, it supported the massive waves of migration which defined this period. With trains and cars, the millennia dependence on horsepower disappeared. As a result, farms, which were the “gas stations” of the day concentrating on the production of fodder, shifted to growing a wider range of crops for human consumption, lowering food costs and supporting a population shift to urban centers.

The electrification of cities and factories not only spurred new methods of working, it transformed lives in unimaginable ways.  Inventions such as refrigeration (have you seen your iceman lately?) and the creation of modern sanitation and high-rise elevators literally enabled the cities we know today.  Air travel, radio and television were just a few years further on in the transformation of how we work and live.

Through all of these changes, the simultaneous destruction of old jobs and creation of new ones took place at a dizzying pace.  Another important change occurred that fundamentally redefined how we work.  Time began to matter.   Before travel in steamships and trains, it was not possible to accurately determine the time it would take to travel between two cities.  With the invention of the steam engine and all that followed, schedules could be devised, and our lives more closely governed by the ticking of the clock.  Time standards were developed in the 1880’s to bring order to the mess created by railroads, which each set their own time.

Time measurement combined with the development of more modern methods of production such as the assembly line transformed how we defined work from the effort to produce a finished product to a series of inputs that together make up the process that results in a finished product.  Moving from outputs — being paid for what we produce – to becoming a provider of one of many of inputs which contribute to production – led to the restructuring of work and reward.  Salaries were born.  We would not be paid for what we produced, but for the time we spent at work, molting into the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday definition of work.

The Next Revolution is Upon Us

What scares many of us today is the 9 to 5, Monday to Friday construct is crumbling before our eyes. How can we value contribution if not through the measurement of time? The answer to this question also lies in our past.  It is to focus on the outputs we create and not how long we spend making them. Returning to an output-based foundation for defining work is not an easy transition. Our minds and behaviors have been so conditioned and regimented by the clock that we fear without a time-based approach we will be exploited and find ourselves continually at work. Conversely, the promise of focusing on outputs can liberate us from a daily regimen and provide us true recognition for what we actually accomplish.

This is the challenge that lies before us: Can we transform our thinking and concepts of work that are only slightly more than 100 years old to enable a return to a view of work that prevailed for millennia before that focused on true value? Our only certainty is that how we work in the coming years will bear little resemblance to the man in the gray flannel suit that so colors our subconscious.

In our next blog on Let’s Talk about Work, we will examine how the new world of work is emerging and how human resources can help lead organizations through the changes that are upon us. To map this path forward, all we need to bring is an open mind, and perhaps to let go of some time-worn notions. It has been done before; after all, who ever thought humans could fly… until we did!

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

In 2006, Birches Group was a year old and I was going through the recruitment process. I was interviewed by one of Birches Group’s founding Partners – I was in the Philippines and Jeff was in New York – we talked on Skype. When I started work in our Manila office with seven other staff, all four Partners (our supervisors) were abroad. Now, 14 years later, we have over 100 staff working in international teams, collaborating with strategic partners in different countries, and engaging clients all over the world – mostly remotely. Our operations are enabled by our ability to work virtually through email, messenger, and teleconferencing, and almost all staff have laptops; technology keeps us globally connected and functional. But beyond technology, it’s our mindset and attitude that has made us an effective virtual team even amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are the five most important lessons we have  learned about virtual work:

1.Focus on Purpose and Output

It’s our experience that when everyone focuses on the purpose of their work– the what and why, instead of the how or where – processes, jobs, and teams can be flexibly configured to address disruptive situations. We find it easy to instill this purpose-focus in our staff because we hire people who are adaptable and who can organize their work in creative ways that are optimal for their own and their team’s productivity.

At the end of the day, our performance is measured by what we deliver – our outputs. We set productivity and quality metrics, regularly measure performance using our simple Community™ system, and celebrate good performance with bonuses of up to 2 months of base salary, all without a 9-5 office or having our managers looking over our shoulders.

2.Redefine the Workday and Workplace 

The “workday” is a variable concept in Birches Group and the “workplace” has always been entirely optional. Before COVID-19, we work remotely up to three days a week, and on whichever day we do come to the office, some come in at 7:00 am while others come in at 3:00 pm. Someone on my team works on the weekend and takes her “weekend” off on a Wednesday. This flexibility enables staff to avoid Manila’s horrible traffic and we work at the time of day that we’re maximally productive (for example, scheduling work hours that coincide with our client based on their workday).

The only thing that changed during the COVID-19 pandemic was that we put in place core hours from 1:00 to 5:00 pm Philippine time and our international teams – spanning up to 13-hour time differences – set overlap hours, all to maximize interaction and fight isolation. My Philippines-based team works directly with the Managing Partner in New York and we flexibly switch between morning and evening meetings.

While it seems that the workday is longer (I regularly do telecons at 9:00 am and 9:00 pm on the same day), it’s really because we can shuffle together work hours and non-work hours. It’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration, and we are able to easily make space for what we need to get done in our personal lives.

3.Eliminate Bureaucracy and Paper Trails

The workday and workplace are the peak of 1950s office technology, and paper forms and bureaucracy are its foundation. It was partly because we’ve progressively been eliminating bureaucracy and going paperless that we were well-prepared to go completely virtual in 2020.

Everything from our leave applications to medical insurance forms are available and submitted online through a third-party HR platform, BambooHR. Internal processes have few signatories and any that require them, we limit signatories to one manager or HR – and all of it is done electronically. Beyond streamlined processes, as an offshoot of our output-driven culture, we have established clear accountabilities, so staff know who to approach to get something done. This eliminates bottlenecks: our staff don’t have to be in the same place at the same time as their managers just to chase down that next signature, and work can continue without impediment.

4.Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

For us to collaborate in a flexible work environment, we adopted an attitude of “spontaneous accessibility”. We count on staff being accessible and responsive through email, messenger, or voice. When we are working, we respond within an hour of getting pinged and reply to internal emails within 24 hours. This doesn’t mean we require staff to be connected 24/7 – we still sleep, take leaves, and disconnect on weekends – it just means we distinguish between which engagements are truly urgent and which of them can wait.

Another change during the COVID-19 era: instead of our usual once a month management meeting with the Partners we now have them weekly but only for one hour. More frequent but shorter meetings allow us to target issues and get quick resolution. After each weekly meeting, the Partners send an email to everyone in Birches Group covering announcements for the coming week, updates on initiatives from across teams, and highlights of new projects won or new clients secured. Staff are assured knowing that business continues, and everyone is informed of what’s going on.

5.Strengthen Employee Engagement

It’s not just more communication, we also bolstered our employee engagement program. Our Employee Engagement committee continues to organize events like Friday evening watch parties and fun, social media-powered initiatives like Instagram Bingo. The committee organized a 15th Anniversary party which we celebrated last April 30, 2020. It was a one-hour party attended by a hundred staff on Zoom – there were live musical performances, videos and pictures of staff activities throughout Birches Group’s history, 10-year service awards, and toasts from the Partners.

Group photo of our team ahead of the 15th Anniversary Party

Human Resources organizes regular “lunch and learn” sessions hosted by different teams and attended by staff from across Birches Group, as well as a session on mental health and wellness delivered by our medical insurance provider. We also shifted our learning content to a learning management system that is easily accessible to all staff online. These engagement initiatives boost morale and foster closer cross-team connections, and most importantly, strengthens our community.

Virtual work is the new normal. These may be unprecedented times but as you can see from our experience, virtual work is something doable and worth doing.

How is your organization coping with virtual work?  Please add your comments and questions below, and of course, reach out to us if we can assist your organization in operating in the virtual world!

PJ has been working with Birches Group since 2006. He currently leads Birches Group’s Manila-based Design & Strategy team which is responsible for developing Birches Group’s Community™ integrated HR platform, delivering consulting projects, conducting client training workshops/events, and developing strategic communications and marketing initiatives. PJ goes where the work and clients are, and to date, he has traveled to 33 countries for Birches Group.

There is an old expression: Man Plans, God Laughs. COVID-19 has brought into stark relief the true meaning of unpredictability. While some public health experts tried to warn us, most of us did not see this coming and despite our best efforts do not really know where this is going, at least for now. One area which is directly impacted is performance management.

Frustration with the traditional approach to performance management has been percolating through companies now for several years. Our general reticence to change often keeps us pursuing a course of action well past its true utility.  Now that we have been given a pretty good jolt from our everyday reality, it is a good time to take a step back and ask: how should we value performance through both the predictable life in the office and now the uncharted world of virtual work?

There is an underlying arrogance in the design of classic approaches to performance management that presumes we can articulate a structure of cascading objectives across the corporation linking everyone. Invariably, shortly into the performance year, these objectives must be tweaked and adjusted, and in many instances, ultimately set aside as the business encounters unanticipated challenges and opportunities. 

It is the Birches Group’s view that the weakness of traditional performance management is it has always missed a fundamental truth: It is not possible to have objectives detached from the purpose of the job. With a focus on purpose, the achievements in a job become readily apparent. I may not know what will happen next, certainly very true today, but I do know the purpose of my job, and with that knowledge I should be able to perform and support the broader activities of my unit and my company. It is as simple as that.

Work planning has its value but only against clearly understood purpose.  When inevitable bumps in the road are encountered, focusing on the purpose of the job is the compass that can steer us ahead. Take the case of the HR Director who every year has a different tactical mandate and different projects to oversee. The purpose of the job of the Director is to lead the function in securing talent to the organization’s mission and to safeguard the integrity of human resource management. This focus, this purpose, remains constant.

By focusing on purpose, issues related to how and where I work begin to fade in importance. This is true for jobs across all levels and especially important for ensuring coordination within a team and integration across teams. 

Another fundamental weakness in the more conventional approaches to examining performance is poorly articulated job design. Job descriptions start as little more than blank pieces of paper and managers, with little or no guidance, are asked to set down the reason a job exists. The results are usually vague, focused on inputs rather than outputs, and do not provide a transcending view across the unit let alone the company. The fact is, most managers and staff cannot articulate what distinguishes a job at one level from another. Is there any wonder why managers struggle to assess performance consistently, let alone have a clear understanding of purpose?

In our Community™ approach, we have tried to clearly highlight the milestones of purpose across all levels found in an organization. This framework not only provides a clear foundation for establishing equivalent worth across a multi-disciplinary workforce, it also answers, as applied to a work context, the most important of all questions: Why am I here?

The COVID-19 challenge provides a true moment for reflection. We would like to believe that in a few short weeks, maybe a month or two, we will get back to the way things were.  If so, we would have missed out on a watershed moment in how we approach work and the organization of teams, and how organizations can move from what are essentially workplace and workforce practices from the last century.  Instead, we should all be focusing on how we will continue operating in a new reality, leveraging the benefits of virtual work in place of our historical habits.

The pressure to enable virtual work forces us to be clear about purpose, to free our teams from classic command structures. It forces us to become better at communications since our teams will no longer just be sitting outside our door.  And yes, it forces us to focus on outcomes over inputs since work can no longer be defined as time spent in a particular place. 

Without a crystal ball, at Birches Group, we have been preparing for the world of virtual work for some time. In fact, we had a very robust work from home policy in place covering almost all staff when the impact of the virus began.  When we decided very early on in the crisis to go fully virtual, there were few hurdles to overcome. That is not to say there hasn’t been some nervousness over what the future may hold, but this nervousness has much less to do with our ability to deliver our services but rather, whether our clients will be able to adapt to these challenges. In future blog posts we will share our understanding about this new virtual world in which we all now find ourselves. It does demand above all else a change in mindset about what we understand as value in the workplace.  The challenge we face is great, but the opportunity is even greater.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

Many years ago, when I was just starting as an HR Officer working in a large public institution, I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting that I found to be very instructive about life in a large bureaucracy. A senior manager had come to the HR Department to meet with the Director to discuss the career options of one of his long-serving staff.  In short, in the manager’s view, there were none. He used the term “deadwood” to characterize the quality of this staff member’s contribution to the team.  He had come to the HR Department so that we would do something to remove this burden from his unit.

Having now spent forty years working in HR, I have come to learn that one of the functions which we are expected to perform is to take out the trash.  In the above case, the HR Director responded thoughtfully.  He noted that the staff member in question had a long service record which, while not distinguished, was certainly solid.  He asked a simple question:  how did this staff member become dead wood? 

This is a blight that unfortunately is all too common in large institutions. In many of the training workshops I have conducted on job evaluation and organization design, at a certain point in the workshop I always ask the participants:  How did you feel on your first day of work? Since the participants were working in organizations that are highly mission driven and focused on great issues of public purpose, the responses were invariably the same: Proud, nervous, inspired, anxious to contribute, make a difference. I then would ask amongst the participants how many had served ten years or more. And how did they feel today?  Again, a set of responses with a great deal in common: Disappointed, detached, cynical and not particularly motivated.

Digging into these perspectives, we found the transition from inspiration to desolation was not related to levels of pay or benefits. So, what is it about these large institutions that can take a thriving group of bright, committed individuals and turn them into the petrified forest? Some of this can be linked to culture and the reality that comes with working in an environment that is often highly political. Another contributing cause is a failure of integrity in the day to day management of the institution. While these are not small issues, most staff over time are mature enough to understand that an organization created to address issues of public policy will be by its nature political. Failures of integrity are harder to live with, but fortunately have not been generally perceived to be pervasive. 

What is seen as the major reason for this decline in morale, the stultifying nature of the institution itself and how it manages staff. Dense bureaucracy with turgid processes that are impervious to change, uninspired managers who rose to their positions not based on merit or skill but rather mastery of the bureaucratic culture and most importantly a failure to recognize, nurture and challenge staff in their jobs. Job structures are rigid, you do the tasks enumerated on the job description and keep your head down. Time passes and if you still have a pulse a little more money is doled out with all the fanfare of receiving a bowl of gruel and not surprisingly receiving a level of gratitude equal to its appetizing nature.

Yet despite this sorry state of affairs, many staff still feel a strong sense of personal commitment. They may be disappointed in how they are managed. They are uninspired by their leadership. Some have cynically “checked out” and are hanging in for just what they can get. But they still want to know that their work matters and yearn for the day where that will be made more evident.

How can we turn this situation around? What is essential is to create a strong and personal link between the work of the individual and the mission of the organization. It is a mystery to me that perhaps the strongest asset of the organization, its inspiring mission, has been so poorly inculcated into the daily life of the workplace. It has squandered the very glue that binds the organization together. Small measures such as pictures of the work being done and regular briefings by organization leadership to all staff of the accomplishments in critical program areas are not hard to do but often just do not happen, and so even with us all working in the same building we become isolated and detached.

I know these measures can be powerful. One summer early in my career, I was an intern at NASA headquarters in Washington. This organization goes out of its way to connect all staff to its mission. Regular briefings, an inclusive culture, stunning pictures of its missions and personal expressions of gratitude from senior management and astronauts makes everyone know and feel that they had a part in getting the rocket off the pad. Although this was only a four-month assignment, it had a profound influence on my thinking about how an institution can behave. Beyond improving the general culture of the organization, it is essential that we rethink jobs and how they are designed. In the past posts a strong argument has been presented that the current approach of most organizations, with a focus on input over purpose blunts any hope to building a strong linkage of the person through the job to the mission. In our next post, we will show how organizations can make this transition.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

In chemistry, an agent which accelerates a reaction is known as a catalyst.  Whether the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace will ultimately be catalytic or just a passing nuisance remains to be seen. However, all the elements for catalytic change in how we work are present. It is an evolution that has been slowly creeping over the workplace for over twenty years. Unfortunately, like all change, it has often been resisted, ignored, denied, and avoided, usually by management!

The imperative brought on by COVID-19, that we do something now to keep people working when they cannot leave their homes, is prodding even the most stodgy amongst us to look past, and perhaps even let go, of the traditional office workplace. Had this event occurred even thirty years ago, our choices would have been frighteningly limited. Thankfully, modern technology has come to the rescue.

The classic construct of the workplace, even the word itself, has been radically transforming now for years.  Is anyone doing “office work” of any kind today restricted or limited to what can only be done in an office building from nine to five, Monday to Friday?

These changes – shifting from a set workplace and workday to virtual work and work-life integration – have often been characterized as burdens, invasions into our personal space, a violation of a sacred separation between myself as a worker and my life as a person.  However, today, during a global economic downturn and worsening pandemic, those of us who find ourselves able to work virtually are counting our lucky stars and looking forward to receiving that continued paycheck. What will happen when COVID-19 just becomes another flu, just another illness that is treatable and no longer impeding social interaction? Even the scariest predictions anticipate that this point will eventually arrive. Will most of us retreat into the past and the comfort and familiarity of the office and the pleasant relationships we have nurtured over the water cooler?

Shame on us if we do!  The truth is we do not have to. The virtual work world has arrived and is not limited to the odd occasional day of working from home. Perpetual virtual work is a transformation which requires us to think differently about what we do and with whom we do it.  It requires a change in mindset about the value and purpose of our work, how jobs are designed and how teams are organized.

How to move forward

For an organization to embrace this new reality and be successful in the integration of virtual work into their work culture, the transformation must start with clarity of purpose – and that means clear, concise job descriptions and good organization design practices for team formation. There is a surprising lack of clarity in most modern organizations, and solving this issue is a requirement for a successful shift to virtual work.

Our job design approach uses the three factors to focus on job outputs – why something is done in the job and how the job is carried out. This results in the crafting of job descriptions with no more than six functional statements aligned to the grade of the job, linked to the Community™ job evaluation factors used to grade the job. There is much which is insidious about the traditional workplace which we all simply accept like we long accepted the divine rights of kings. To free ourselves from the 20th century mindset we must approach our work differently and our organizations must enable this change. The first step is to bring clarity, true clarity to the purpose of our jobs and how our jobs fit together in teams. Most of us are completely unaware of just how poorly organizations articulate job purpose today. What’s the symptom of this? Poor job descriptions.

Ultimately, this lack of clarity and consistency leaves staff and managers often in a fog about what is to be done is their work’s real purpose. This also inhibits freedom of action and leaves managers and staff timid to pursue work more independently, remaining huddled in the safety of the way things are versus trying out new approaches to get work done. It is necessary to become methodical in job design to bring the consistency and clarity that is needed to empower workers to excel and to complement one another.

What do we mean about methodical job design?  In Birches Group we have studied this challenge deeply.   To bring consistency to job design, it is necessary to create a template base structure which presents the components of the all jobs consistently.  We have developed such a framework based upon three elements or factors which distinguish/define the level of a job across the full spectrum of work found in any organization.  These three factors are:

  • Purpose – Why this job exists
  • Engagement – How the job interacts within the team and with outside clients and collaborators
  • Delivery – What is provided as the service ensuring timely provision and of a consistent quality

It is important to note that what distinguishes this approach to the current typical way job descriptions are developed is the focus.  In the Birches Group method, the focus is on outputs; why something is done in the job over inputs about how a job is carried out. This results in crafting job descriptions of no more than six functional statements aligned to the grade of the job values which are the foundation of the grade. Building this strong linkage between job functions and the grade of the position brings the clarity that is needed for both managers and staff to understand the purpose and how this is to be pursued as part of the team. 

Taking this approach provides another big pay off. By describing the outputs of a job over the inputs provides a ready reference for assessing performance.  At the time of the performance review only a simple question must be asked:  Was this accomplished?

The next part is easy.  With clarity we can work from anywhere.  For almost any position (and we would maintain for any office position with the appropriate technology enabled), the work can be carried out anywhere and at any time.  Leaving the office behind does demand a new etiquette in how we interact.  In Birches Group, for example, we do insist that we use cameras when talking with one another.  We need to be accessible to our teammates and clients and hopefully, find spontaneity in our interactions. 

Yes, some of these changes require new approaches by organizations to enable their staff.  We have reached a point in the evolution of communications technology where the investments are not daunting, and the payoffs can be significant.  More importantly, does anyone doubt that this is road from which no organization can turn away?  Yes, we must approach job design as the point of departure in articulating the new boundaryless organization, enable our work with technology, and think of new ways to measure our performance.  And all of this can happen… Because, now, we can.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

Ok then, COVID-19 is not yet in the rearview mirror. Most of us are just trying to keep things going the best we can until we can get back to normal operations.  Will there be lessons learned from this experience or are we going to see this as a once-in-a-century phenomenon? We have presented in other posts that this moment can serve as a turning point…if we want it to.  It all comes down to how we think about the challenges social distancing and quarantine have posed in the organization of office functions.

We have tried to make the case that the biggest challenge to embracing the virtual world is not the technology but ourselves, our mindset about work and our subconscious need for control in the manner the traditional office with its vertical hierarchies and time/place dimensions. I often think that indeed this reticence is rooted in a fear akin to jumping out of an airplane for the first-time parachuting, an activity I must confess to have yet to try.  Yes, there are unknowns in going virtual. There is a risk of failure, perhaps not as bad as your chute not opening.  Most managers are very risk averse, and hardly anyone wants to go first. This is largely because we don’t know how or where to start.

To continue the analogy with parachuting, I am told the experience is delightful, quite liberating, a true sense of boundless freedom. From both the staff member and manager perspective, moving to a virtual relationship, perpetual or occasional, can have very similar attributes. The virtual world of work is supported by two pillars which distinguish it from the traditional office — trust, and a shared sense of responsibility. 

Not bound by time and place, it is fundamental that there is a strong bond of trust between the manager and staff member, and equally across the team. So much of the structure and nature of the traditional office is about control. While not many of us still must punch a clock on arrival and departure, there are usually articulated work hours where presence is required. What you are doing during those hours may not amount to a hill of beans but you must be there and be seen. 

There is an implicit assumption that presence equals work and commitment. Perhaps this assumption would not really survive intense scrutiny. In the virtual world, it all begins with trust. Trust that when given freedom, it will be returned with commitment. After forty years of working in office settings, I know presence does not equal work and I would not want someone on my team that I do not trust.

Without the shackles of the time clock linked to office presence, what is the stimulus to get something done? Working from home or elsewhere, would I not be goofing off all day like an unsupervised kindergarten class? Are we advocating some out there Montessori-approach to work? Yes, we are. The vertical hierarchies of the traditional office usually position staff in narrowly defined input-oriented functions. We not only told what to do, but how and when to do it. This places an enormous burden on the manager, robs the staff member of freedom of thought and finally, perpetuates the status quo in all things, slowing innovation and openness to anything new.

The workplace takes on characteristics of a prison with the manager as boss/warden and the staff members keeping their heads down and not rocking the boat. The job becomes defined as a number of hours you owe the company like a prison sentence you must serve every week to get paid.  It is not only a form of a physical prison but the traditional office structure is also a prison of the mind. Since this is the world we know, we are often hardly aware of its strictures. And like long serving inmates in any prison, over time we all become institutionalized and not only accept but take comfort in the narrow cells of traditional roles. 

It is often in vogue to talk about team empowerment. Lots of fancy talk usually without much to show in most organizations. And is there really any wonder why? Given the fundamental nature of the traditional office and its insidious character, an effort to build “empowered” teams is greatly stymied from the start. It is like trying to build a new engine on an antiquated design. Are we surprised why this engine fails to start?

The second pillar of the virtual world, shared sense of responsibility, is a natural outgrowth of the quality of the virtual approach. Since I do not have the boss looking over my shoulder, I must take responsibility for my work, exercise some freedom of thought and discipline to deliver outcomes that are the expectations of my job. The virtual organization counts on me to work this way, contributing not only my outputs but my ideas on how best to get the work done. It trusts that I will behave responsibly and work toward the purpose of my role, my team and my organization.

Making the leap from the traditional to the virtual does require as a first step that we think anew about how we define work and organizational structures. In his book, Utopia, Sir Thomas More noted:

“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.”

We have raised our staff and indeed ourselves in this traditional structure which has in fact corrupted our thinking. We need to prepare our staff to work virtually, to overcome their “first education” about work. If we do not, they will only be prepared to be thieves and live up to our lower expectations, and we will find ourselves punishing them and ourselves at the same time.

Where do we begin? We first must recognize the reality of our legacy approaches. The traditional structure and its definitions of work and hierarchy present a segmented, segregated set of relationships:

  • The grading structure separates jobs and staff in rigid boxes which are difficult to cross. 
  • The detachment of job structures from learning and development programs fails to link growth in skills with meaningful career development and therefore, staff get stuck. 
  • The opaque and pseudo-scientific techniques which have long prevailed in job evaluation keeps managers and staff in the dark as to what is it about the job that places it in the level in which it is found.

For a virtual world to work, we must bring clarity.  Here is what it looks like:

  • Everyone must know why and how the grade structure works, and it should illuminate purpose and reinforce the value of contribution at each level. 
  • We must create stronger linkages between the growth in individual skills and the movement of staff through the grade structure, opening new career development opportunities. 
  • As a living entity, organizations must develop the capacity to recognize and reward skills growth within grades using milestone which mark a career path.
  • Like membranes of a cell in a living organism, grades must become permeable to permit passage from one level to another when certain conditions are met. 

This will create a virtuous circle of development and advancement, motivating for staff and optimizing organizational capacity as shown in the graphic below.

Again, not to sure where to start?  If I may return to my opening analogy about the first time someone jumps from an airplane.  It is a scary yet exhilarating experience. May we suggest the first time you take a tandem dive. We know how to build these structures, how to move from the rigid to the living. We have done it. If you let us, we can show you how to make this transition and how a truly virtual and empowered workforce can be created. In future blog posts we will begin to set down the road map and the tools for the journey.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world

It is a commonly told tale that when he arrived in the New World, Cortez burned his ships so that the only direction to proceed would be forward.  There would be no turning back.

In many ways, it is a pity that this option is not available to organizations struggling to move from the 20th to the 21st Century in approaching organization design.  In three other posts, we have begun to set down the limitations of traditional approaches to organization design from the capacity to evaluate performance through to empowering teams.

Now, with organizations scrambling to meet the challenges of sustaining continuity in operations in the face of COVID-19, the limitations of 20th Century approaches and thought are being laid bare. It is not just a question of fit or utility, it is the realization that there are better ways. Technology-enabled teams can be free. Free to work across a variety of settings, free to interact with colleagues and clients not bound by geography or time, free to reflect on the true purpose of the work and how best to get it done. However, it is not simply what the New World can offer us, it is also recognizing what the traditional approaches have been taking from us. 

More than twenty-five years ago, one of my senior staff came to me to tell me he had to resign. He had been serving away from his home country for almost ten years. His father was ill and he needed to move home with his family to help care for him. I was greatly saddened by this news. Tossing and turning through most of the night, I just could not accept this was the only possible outcome. Why could he not just work from home? In 1994, this was essentially unheard of. There were no policies to govern such an arrangement and there were many details which would need to be addressed. Most importantly, the rest of the team would need to embrace this arrangement and the implications on their work.

A 20th century response to this would have resulted in the resignation of a highly-valued staff member, and all of the associated impacts – loss of organization knowledge, continuity, impact on the rest of the team, the need to recruit, train and integrate a replacement, etc. Yet all of these potentially negative impacts could be avoided by simply changing the rules.

In the end, we found a way to make it work and have learned many lessons along the way. The most important of these lessons is that for such an arrangement to work, you must focus on the purpose of the job over the structure in which it is carried out.  We need to have expectations regarding outputs and you have to let go of time as a variable. Frequent calls in the evenings and weekends became a norm with neither of us the worse for wear due to these changes. 

I also saw all that we gained, the retention of a highly talented staff member, at ultimately a lower cost, the extension of our working day and the capacity to reach a greater range of clients, and new perspectives on our work gained by stepping back and thinking more about purpose.  And, we enabled a valued member of the team address an important family issue, which we all will face in time.

Word spread around the organization regarding this unique employment arrangement. We had many teleconferences with other offices to describe how it worked and what needed to happen for this to take place. A few offices actually tried to pursue this approach, but none lasted more than a few months. When I enquired why they did not continue, it all came down to people on both sides could not meet the demands that this approach required.  The flexibility on time, the need to articulate expected outcomes and just the out of sight out of mind syndrome which made the offsite worker feel isolated and the home office feel detached.

In Birches Group, we continue to enable virtual work in many forms, from perpetual to occasional. It is not always easy and not all instances have been successful, but we have learned that as difficult as it can be, the benefits of not only retaining and motivating talent but also challenging how we approach work have paid off many times over. It has also underscored for me the dark, and yes insidious, side of the traditional approach. Under a traditional approach, the control orientation on input suppresses original thought and expression. It hamstrings us into an increasingly antiquated view of work defined by time and place. The vertical hierarchy and the mindset it creates is progressively toxic and will be a continued impediment to team empowerment. Isn’t it time to start thinking differently about this?

We have been living in this New World now for a few years. We know the freedom it has brought our small firm. We know it is a major factor in staff retention. Like Cortez, we also concluded there is no going back.  COVID-19 has confirmed what we already knew — this is the future of work and we have been able to adapt to it better than many firms because of the flexibility already built into our organization. Now that we have arrived in the New World, in our future posts we will focus on how our new society is built, how we create a culture of empowerment and shared responsibility. As we have already asserted, this requires as a first step to look at how we characterize work and liberate this definition from a control/input perspective to a purpose/output perspective. To get to the New World that is the essential first step, to think anew about what we do, not just how we do it.

Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group.  He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years.  Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries.  Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform.  He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world