There really should be no mystery as to the components of work that come together to form teams. Literally, for millennia this has been taking place. It is in vogue today to speak of “agile” organizations as if this is some breakthrough insight. Again, nothing new. In 480 BC, the Greeks, led by Themistocles, defeated the Persian navy at the battle of Salamis. Why? they were more agile. Outnumbered overwhelmingly, they adapted tactics and had better, more agile vessels. Some historians believe that the battle of Salamis is the most significant naval engagement in history for by defeating the Persians, the Greek city-states were able to evolve and bring a crazy idea like democracy into existence. Oh yes, despite his triumph, Themistocles was eventually exiled from Athens and ended up living in the Persian court, only illustrating the axiom that no good deed goes unpunished.

Agility in organization design was historically the only advantage that opposing forces could possibly muster from the Roman phalanx through to Mongol horsemen and archers led by Genghis Khan to Nelson at Trafalgar.  Technology played a much smaller role. We seem to have forgotten this. 

The principles of job evaluation and design are centuries old. The significant differences which demark levels of work and those characteristics which establish equivalence across different occupations have been well established and practiced while at the same time in recent times they have been distorted and obscured.

In the modern office, since the 1950s, organizations have employed job evaluation approaches that have refined and segmented the analysis of work to the point that only highly trained analysts could accurately assess job placement. The creation of point-rating methodologies became the zenith of this evolution, providing a quasi-scientific patina to what otherwise can be accomplished with some simple guidelines and a little common sense. While appearing to be “scientific”, in reality this dense layering only added complexity without bringing clarity.

I know this to be true since I have served for many years as a high priest of the old ways and a radical heretic trying to shine a light and spread the word on the true nature of job evaluation. We have forgotten the centuries long journey on how humankind has evolved its understanding of what is knowledge and how do teams actually form into coordinated complementary work units. The tragedy of modern job evaluation is that is has replaced clarity regarding the progression of knowledge with an artificial construct that is focused not on the demands of the job but the processes which govern and control its execution.

 I have come to learn that if we are to free staff and managers from the current rigid grade structures, we must first reveal clearly what is the basis for the progression of work represented in the grading system, and once empowered with this knowledge, hold everyone accountable for sustaining its integrity. 

The design of the Birches Group approach for assessing and illustrating job value rests on three simple factors which build from a core focused on purpose and augment this understanding with context related to engagement and delivery.

With these three factors, an evaluative framework is created where it is possible to establish clearly the role of the job and its placement in the grade structure.

These three factors form the foundation of our Community™ platform which begins with job evaluation and moves to provide an integrated framework supporting market analysis, skills assessment and performance management. Starting with job evaluation, the three factors are used to provide illustrative milestones which define the progression of work from its most simple through to senior management. These milestones are presented for the three factors in the table below.

Working with this progression, Birches Group has further refined the organization of work roles into four distinctive clusters which provides a useful demarcation of the focus of work as the levels progress. These clusters are presented below.

The clusters help provide greater clarity on work roles and how these roles fit into an overall team structure. What the clusters illuminate is the fundamental underlying structure of all organizations, the relationship between process and design or even more simply between roles which focus on how work gets done and roles which focus on why work gets done.  This relationship between how and why is critical to the successful operation of any organization. And while technology may have impacted levels of resources and approaches, the fundamental need to have a balance in any institution between the how and the why remains lies at the heart of success.

The focus of the how roles is more clearly presented in the illustration below. These roles are undergoing radical change as technology has reduced the need for staffing and has led to other innovations. However, whether done in a labor intensive internally or as an outsourced service, good process management aligned with organization mission is as important as always.

The How Roles

When aligned with job roles that support why work gets done, an organization achieves synergy and balance. The why roles give the organization its purpose and define what is unique in its existence and what it has to offer which distinguishes it from all other organizations.  Illustrated below, the why roles in the design and leadership clusters are the core knowledge of the organization.

The Why Roles

The Community™ model provides a simple but powerful platform which illustrates the interconnected nature of work and clearly showing the distinctive nature at each level and role as work progresses. Gone are the sub-segmented approaches and the focus on the internal over purpose found in “modern” job evaluation. With Community™ we have returned to the universal and timeless aspects of work that has brought teams together for centuries.

Through this approach, it is now possible to more simply and explicitly construct jobs and begin effective linkage to the individuals that actually carry out the work. We are learning that with the need to be more creative, work more virtually, this linkage needs to be enforced outside and apart from classic office structure.

In the next blog post we will address the basic currency of work, the job description, and how we can take what is usually a poorly written document and make it the cornerstone of human resource management.  Can’t wait to share this.

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


We now find ourselves in an unprecedented time where virtual work has become our new reality. As all of us are trying to get comfortable with working from home, there is a lot of talk out there about how to remain productive while we are away from our colleagues and our workplace. But what about staff development and skills growth? How exactly can we keep that going virtually?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was easy to monitor productivity and skills growth amongst staff. Managers can visibly see the progress of staff in the office, induction, and training was usually done in person, and learning on the job is easily supervised because managers and staff are co-located. As the world tries to embrace the virtual work model, organizations and managers must not forget that learning and development also must adapt.

In other posts on virtual work, we shared with you the advantages of purposeful job design and how it enables organizations to shift to a virtual work model, and how performance can continue to be measured despite disruption. While it is easy to tell staff to just keep working from home, the challenge is managers cannot visibly see them being productive, nor utilize their normal techniques of monitoring their team’s progress. And because most learning is done on the job, how can managers ensure employees are working in ways which help to upskill them in their work?

In Birches Group, we have taken a few measures to maintain productivity amongst our staff, continue learning and development, and still effectively measure skills growth, all while working from home:

  • We conduct our on-boarding programs online. This has allowed us to continue to recruit and orient new staff despite a shelter in place order. Applicant interviews and orientation of new employees do not always have to be done in person.
  • Our staff development has shifted to virtual learning. We have put in place a central online resource through our learning management system to house various materials on different topics that relate to their work. Staff can easily pull resources while working from home to assist them in everyday work.
  • We also believe that the slowdown in businesses caused by the current pandemic should not affect staff productivity. In fact, one of our teams in Birches Group shifted their learning and development tasks that are usually involved in external project work with clients, to focus more on internal product development which requires the same level of conceptual understanding, cross-unit collaboration on ideas, and focus on timely delivery.
  • Lastly, we use a clear standard to assess the skills growth of our staff through our Community™ platform. This standard is common to all jobs which our managers use as basis for discussing skills development with their staff and creating individual development plans.

We know the focus of HR in most, if not all organizations right now is getting their staff through the pandemic crisis. However, we must not forget that it still the responsibility of HR to enable managers and staff to continue building their skills and finding ways for them to develop even while we all work from home. By allowing our staff to find learning opportunities in everyday work and shifting the focus on other areas of their job, we can keep staff productive even during a crisis.

Interested in learning more about how we use Community™ Skills to manage learning and development?  Contact us for more information, and to schedule a demo of our software.

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.


Organizations and governments around the world are now taking different measures to ease the impact of the global economic downturn brought about by COVID-19. Unfortunately, many organizations of different sizes and across all industries have been caught flatfooted – with very little time to strategize and prepare for the sudden pandemic.

With a growing number of cities instructing citizens to shelter in place and closing many businesses, organizations and companies are now left with declining revenue. During these challenging times, how can organizations keep a sense of normalcy, at least relative to employee pay?

If there is anything that this pandemic has made us all realize, it is that modern organizations need to be adaptable. Adaptable not only to carry on work virtually, but also adaptable by taking quick supplemental measures to partially mitigate the painful consequences of economic turmoil on their staff. We know when employers act quickly, it leads to higher staff morale and engagement, even as the crisis continues.

While there is not really a ‘one-size-fits-all’ pay policy to mitigate the impact of a recession, organizations need to be thoughtful about the way they choose to approach compensation during this pandemic. What can companies do to support their staff in the near-term? What immediate measures can be put in place, but can also be easily incorporated once the pandemic is over?

One way to mitigate the effects of a crisis is by advancing temporary benefits, such as 13th month or year-end bonuses, if they apply to your market. Alternatively, employers have the option of introducing new short-term benefits relative to the crisis. In the case of the current pandemic, medical-related loans or allowances could help staff immediately purchase basic items that they need for the duration of the crisis. These benefits can serve as an immediate support to staff and can easily be incorporated into future compensation as the crisis winds down.

In Birches Group, we did not implement any temporary benefits for our team. Instead, we expanded our normal telework policy to include the entire team and encouraged them to continue working virtually from home. We helped equip our staff to be more effective tele-commuters through the provision of mobile wi-fi equipment and laptops when necessary.

Sometimes, mitigating the effects of a crisis is not solely about money. While an additional cash benefit can certainly be helpful during a pandemic, employees also want to know the organization is looking out for their safety and the safety of their loved ones. When employees are told to come into the office despite a shelter in place order, they are part of a skeletal workforce that needs to be physically present in the office to ensure business continuity, organizations must ensure worker safety via social distancing and other appropriate measures.  Some actions to consider include reimbursements for transport in lieu of public transport, which may be considered unsafe or even suspended, and meal delivery to the office to avoid unnecessary public interactions in restaurants.

The term “non-essential” staff is often used to describe those workers who are not compelled to come to the office, and therefore, should work from home.  This is an unfortunate label – after all, if the jobs of these individuals are non-essential, why do they even exist?  We believe all jobs are essential and all employees matter, and employers should use this crisis to emphasize these points.

Birches Group also recommends that especially in times of crisis, it is critical that organizations continue to participate in salary surveys in order to monitor market movement. While it is unlikely that there will be large shifts in the labor market data until the crisis subsides, when employers make drastic and uninformed decisions (usually based on hearsay) it often results in situations that are very difficult to manage when the crisis ends. During a crisis, it is wise to keep measures calculated and incremental, grounded on data, especially when the disruption is projected as short-term. Continuing to monitor the market allows the organization to position itself effectively.

We already know this pandemic will cause an economic slowdown in many countries. It is now crucial for organizations to get ahead of the crisis by ensuring that measures are in place to ease the effects of a global recession and to allow workplace flexibility through virtual work. These measures will ensure that the organization can continue in its mission and staff engagement is at the highest possible level.

To learn more about how Birches Group can assist your organization in managing human resources during the pandemic crisis, please 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.


Most human resources professionals are familiar with salary surveys. Consulting firms around the world offer labor market data and have been doing so for decades.

And, you would agree that offering a competitive compensation and benefits package is a key element in attracting talent to your organization and retaining and motivating that talent towards the achievement of your organization’s mission.

So, isn’t it odd there are still many organizations that don’t participate regularly in salary surveys?

Are Salary Surveys Even Worth It?

Some organizations believe salary surveys are luxuries – expenses with little value – and so choose to do without them.  Others simply purchase surveys on an ad-hoc basis when acute pay issues are encountered. Without regularly updated labor market information, organizations are unable to make informed, data-based decisions on pay – relying instead on anecdotal ‘evidence’ from staff and managers (who hasn’t heard: “Well, in Company X they pay Y dollars for that job?”).  Participation in salary surveys – especially for global organizations – is critical. 

It’s a big world.  Compensation and benefits packages, the rate of market movement, and general labor market conditions vary greatly from one country to another.  For organizations that don’t participate regularly in salary surveys, what they know about the labor market can easily become outdated or inaccurate.  Basing pay decisions (often one of the highest expenditures in an organization’s budget) on outdated, inaccurate assessments of the market simply because salary surveys are expensive, or relying on word-of-mouth market information, is – as the saying goes – penny-wise and pound-foolish.

But when it comes to surveys, what is it that you are paying for?

One Size Does Not Fit All

Many consulting firms that carry out yearly salary surveys take methodologies designed for large, developed labor markets (e.g. the US) and apply the same approach in developing countries (e.g. Uganda).  But there are big differences between developed and developing markets, as shown in the table below:

As you can see, there are some important differences between developing and developed markets.  The salary survey you choose should apply a methodology that accounts for these differences and captures the nuances in each country.

One of the most common mistakes companies make in developing markets is seeking only sectoral data.  There are several reasons why this doesn’t work:

  1. The sectors are too small.  There are insufficient employers for a meaningful sample.
  2. The sector is highly stratified.  There could be enough employers in a sector, but only a few are leading the market and the rest are well-below those levels.  The data is skewed low.
  3. You ignore other prominent sectors.  In developing markets, the leading employers across sectors will provide a richer market position than a single sector view.

Don’t overlook the international public sector, such as embassies and multi-lateral international organizations, and international NGOs.  These organizations are well-structured and provide competitive packages.  They recruit a lot of the same talent most large, global companies seek.

Birches Group Knows What Works in Developing Markets

Birches Group has been conducting salary surveys in 150 developing countries globally for almost fifteen years. Recognizing the limitations of traditional, developed-market-based survey methodologies, Birches Group tailored its approach to meet the requirements of developing markets:

  • Developing markets are dynamic and fast-moving:

We update salary survey data three times a year in order to reflect the most current data from participating employers.

  • Labor market competition is multi-sector:

We gather data from targeted, leading private industry companies (both local and multinational), embassies and governmental organizations, and international NGOs.

  • Job matching expertise is highly variable:

Birches Group specialists match your jobs, ensuring a high level of accuracy and consistency in our survey data.  The whole data collection process is streamlined and customer focused.

We Don’t Stop There

Birches Group’s new Community™ Market Compensation and Benefits Survey Report provides comprehensive labor market data in 150 countries in a standard format that is simple, concise and easy to use, and consistent across all survey locations. Each report comes with an Executive Summary that identifies your organization’s placement in the market (i.e. how far ahead or behind you are) and how aligned you are with market practices in terms of benefits. Further, all annual subscriptions come with a free custom cut that allows you to select a sub-group of organizations, so you can target the ones that are of most interest to your organization.

We are available to assist salary survey participants in interpreting the salary survey report, selecting their custom cut of participants, and extending their use of survey data to salary scale design. Visit our website to learn more.

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.


Attracting and retaining talent is an unending, multi-faceted challenge for human resources. There are just too many things to consider. From figuring how to make work engaging, ensuring your total compensation is competitive and equitable, providing great career opportunities, work-life balance – the list goes on and on.

Today’s workforce, primarily millennials and Gen-Zs, value your entire Employment Value Proposition (EVP), not just money, in evaluating their employment relationships.  A 2019 survey by Deloitte[1] bears this out:

Percent of Millennials and Gen-Zs who would consider leaving their employer (after 2 years and after 5 years) if they did not prioritize these issues:

It’s clear there are many facets of engagement that need to be addressed besides money, but how does money fit in?  Where does an overwhelmed HR professional start?

What is the Value of Money?

Often, the easy answer to attraction-retention issues is to throw money at the problem; some assume that a competitive salary stacked with appealing benefits is all it takes to attract the right kind of talent. When the employment relationship devolves into just the transactional (e.g. “All accounts are squared at the end of the month when you get paid.”), it ceases to be attractive, long-term, or motivating.

Not valuing money enough, though, can be equally dangerous. When compensation is done poorly, it is not just a waste of resources, it engenders perceptions of inequity (e.g. “We’re doing the same work but why am I paid so much less?”) and can easily disengage staff (e.g. “Why should I work to get promoted when the pay isn’t so much more?”).

The value of money in the attraction-retention equation must be contextualized.

What are you paying for?

Compensation is about procuring talent to get the work of the organization done: it is about paying for jobs. What does this mean?

If your organization has pay grades/levels, are your jobs properly aligned against them? Is each pay grade/level distinct enough from the others that they can form the basis for equitable pay? For example: do all jobs in your grade A have similar complexity? Do jobs in the higher-grade B (that are making more money than grade A) have higher level responsibilities? If you’re unable to answer “yes” to all these questions, then your pay has a jobs issue.

Further, if you use market data or salary surveys to design your pay scale and adjust pay, the most comprehensive and accurate external market data won’t mean much if internally, your jobs are all over the place. It would be difficult to compare like-to-like in the market if jobs are not well-defined. Market data will not fix internal job relativities (e.g. determining which jobs are more complex than others) and may even distort job relationships if the wrong assumptions are made of market data (e.g. are there really occupational differences in market data?).

So, even before the pay discussion, it is important to have a job evaluation framework that is consistently applied to slot different positions in your organization appropriately to level, that these are understood by managers and staff alike, and are seen as fair by all.

One Question, Many Complex Answers

When discussing pay with clients, after getting context about jobs, the next thing we ask clients is: “Who are you (as an organization)?”

Deceptively simple, this question opens up a much longer discussion about a concept that goes beyond just pay: the entire Employment Value Proposition (EVP). The EVP is a combination of the organization’s brand or culture, the actual work being offered, the potential for career or professional growth, and lastly, the salary and benefits that its willing to offer. So, not only does human resources have to think about ways to keep pay competitive, but also make sure the other aspects of their EVP are just as attractive.

But, coming back to pay, how much weight does compensation have vis-à-vis the rest of the EVP? Is pay the primary draw to the organization? Or is pay an afterthought, preceded by a compelling mission and engaging work that has impact? There is, of course, no wrong answer to this question, and things are not so black and white. It is likely a continuum with many shades of grey – “pay is important but…”

After answering “Who are you?” you can then focus on market composition and position. It is about how an organization can take a big market survey that is designed to reflect information of and for all comers, and target what is really relevant (composition), and target where it wants to be in that group (position).

Composition is about: “with whom do you compare?” Not all employers in a survey may be relevant. It is not just about competitors to whom you have lost talent, it can be organizations with whom you cooperate or work with. Comparators may include others in your sector as well as some from other sectors. Organizations relying on funds from donors may want to include the donors themselves.

Only when composition is settled, can position be discussed. Position is about: “how do you want to be placed against your comparator group?” Are you striving to be mid-market? Do you want to be the leader of the pack? Do you only have resources enough for a conservative position?  Is the position consistent for all levels, or do you want to be more or less aggressive in some cases?

Answering these questions should guide an organization as it defines its pay philosophy, policies, and methodology. But remember, pay is only a piece of a larger whole. Money is just a piece of your EVP, but you need to get it right as part of the challenge of attracting, retaining and motivating staff.

Attracting and maintaining key talent in your organization is a multi-faceted challenge that needs a multi-faceted solution. Birches Group’s Community™ is a human resources methodology and platform that integrates job evaluation, compensation and benefits surveys, salary scale design, skills development, and performance evaluation. Contact us to learn more about Community™ and our other services.

[1] Deloitte Insights, “The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019”, website  https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/millennialsurvey.html (accessed 22 January 2020)

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 more offices close and workers are asked not to come to work because of physical distancing and quarantine measures, talk of “essential” and “non-essential” employees have become more common. The use of these terms to distinguish between employees that are continuously required to be physically present to perform their job functions and those who do not need to be present is unfortunate.

Birches Group contends that each organization is a community, and all staff – regardless of their level in the hierarchy or their function – who are part of this community work to realize the organization’s mission. Designating some staff as “non-essential” is to admit that only some staff really work towards the mission, when in fact, all staff are essential.

The experience of COVID-19 has shown us how critical workers are, even at the lowest levels of organizational hierarchies. Cleaners work to disinfect office premises and handle potentially hazardous waste. Messengers and delivery drivers ensure that supplies and equipment can be moved to where they are needed. Ride sharing drivers allow key medical personnel to avoid increasingly risky public transit. The list goes on.

Devaluing the work of clerical and transactional staff can be a critical misstep: the work they do still has to be done, and if they do not do it, somebody else has to (you, perhaps?).  This creates an upward spiral of inefficiency and ineffectiveness as staff in the higher levels struggle with work that they were not trained to do or have not done in ages or simply overwhelmed by the distraction of multiplying tasks. The bottom line is that the organization ends up overpaying for what are essentially underperforming staff.

So, let us be clear – while businesses and organizations can be designated essential or non-essential during a crisis, the people who work for a business are all essential.

Unfortunately, some organizations designate only “core” business staff as essential. Again, we think this misses the point. Even in the context of a hospital where medical personnel – nurses, doctors, EMTs – form the core workforce and are expected to come to work amidst disasters and epidemics, functions such as Human Resources, IT, or Finance still deliver essential services.  Doctors still have to get paid, access to medical records and other digitized information still needs to be maintained, and medical supplies still need to be purchased and paid for.  With increasingly online systems and cloud computing, we would argue that all staff in these business support functions can continue to contribute to the work of the organization. It is often just a matter of preparation, good job and team design, and a change in mindset to effectively support virtual work. The only limit to deploying the whole workforce – again even in emergency situations – is infrastructure and creativity.

Others would argue that when organizations are confronted by declining business activity and slowing inflows of revenue, the sensible course of action is towards fiscal conservatism and austerity – and this unfortunately means cutting non-essential personnel whether by level or by function. Birches Group would counter that this is a failure of imagination. Aside from reductions to non-essential expenditure (e.g. forgoing travel in lieu of virtual meetings) there are also many ways to reduce overhead without cutting staff. Managers and leaders so often refer to their organizations as communities and families. In this community-family context, is it unreasonable to expect managers and executives to take pay cuts or forgo bonuses? In more extreme circumstances, is it difficult to imagine all workers agreeing to temporarily take less money (e.g. 10% or 20% less salary) so that everyone in the organization can continue to have a job for the duration? As organizational capacity is kept intact, the organization can continue to work at full capacity and mitigate declining revenues by having all hands-on deck.

In Birches Group, we have shifted all our staff to virtual work and equipped everyone to be effective as we are all asked to shelter in place. We have not made any cuts to staff pay or headcount, at most we have slowed hiring but continue to recruit and onboard new staff. Instead, we reiterate through constant communication efforts that all our staff contribute to getting Birches Group out of this crisis – that all are essential. This has kept up both morale and productivity, and our staff continue to collaborate across all functions and carry on with productive work.

This is not simply a short-term tactic; it is a sound investment in the future. Staff see that Birches Group values everyone’s work and will try, as best as we can, to keep everyone whole. Paying it forward, it is of little doubt that staff will opt to take temporary pay cuts to sustain all of everyone’s jobs. This cohesion is what we are investing in – that when we emerge from these unfortunate days, we will do so together.

We, managers, and Human Resources professionals, must reiterate that all jobs, all staff are essential. Especially in these most critical and dangerous times – and not only in hospitals or other frontline businesses and organizations – even as staff crave job security, they, more essentially, want to know that what they do is contributing to the organization’s sustained success. Our job is not only to find solutions to keep our organizations working but to affirm to each staff member: You matter.

 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.


It is just after dark.  A bell is tolling in the distance.  There is a rumbling of a wagon moving down the village road. A man calls out: Bring out your dead.

The year is 1348. The bubonic plague, aka The Black Death, arrived in Europe from Asia just the year before and would eventually kill over one-third of the population. There would be successive pandemics every twenty years or so, not just plague but typhus and many others. The impact of these waves of pestilence led to what some historians refer to as the shattering of society. Questioning whether all this suffering is really God’s retribution and asking if this is the best we could do in how we build communities. The Reformation to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment can all be traced to the shattering these pandemics brought to the Medieval world and Medieval thought. To be sure this journey had many horrific chapters from the Inquisition through endless religious wars.

These tumultuous centuries leading to the birth of the modern world were about questioning and resisting. Some seeking enlightenment and possibly a new path for mankind, while others, perhaps out of fear, sought a way to preserve what was and confirm the certitude of God’s order. Extending the nature of these societal challenges to our present-day situation with COVID-19 may seem like a stretch, but perhaps not too much of a stretch. In around three months we have gone from bare awareness of the challenge we were facing to efforts to mobilize the global community in an organized resistance. Things move faster now than in the 14th Century.

Like in the 14th Century, our primary defense is social distancing. We have not yet come to the point of torching our neighbors’ homes, and hopefully this will be avoided! Our efforts at a coordinated response can best be described as uneven. Even now, much of our response is to formulate a path that gets us back to the other side as quickly as possible and a return to normal.

For the world of work, COVID-19 though has sown the seeds for possibly revolutionary change. For companies where most staff are engaged in office work, the readiness of these organizations to support virtual work is being sorely tested. The painful determination of “essential” from “non-essential” and on which side of that line you may fall again brings into question how we are organized as communities of work. Understandably, the focus now is on somehow maintaining some semblance of operations, keeping people gainfully employed while hopefully sustaining business operations to the extent possible.  What happens when we get to the other side of this virus?  Will it be a return to normal?  Probably, and unfortunately, for most organizations this is most likely.

The technological advances which enable the virtual world are ever present and at our disposal.  What is lacking is the mindset to envisage a virtual company on a pervasive and on-going basis. This is the greatest impediment to a revolution in the workplace. This is the same mindset that thirty years ago was uncomfortable with computers on managers’ desks and the need to figure out how to use that contraption called a keyboard. This is the mindset that fondly remembers steno pools and carbon paper. While fading as the baby boom generation moves into retirement, it is still a dominant perspective which has created a deep and enduring legacy in organization design.

It was noted in a prior post that there is an insidious quality in traditional office structures. Built around vertical hierarchies that often resembled a caste system, the focus on the integrated relationships which govern work and job design is on inputs. By this, we mean jobs have been defined as a series of inputs which support the hierarchy. Tasks are enumerated linked to processes which often detaches the staff member from the ultimate and overall purpose of the job. Staff then cling to the processes which have defined their jobs and take comfort in noting their secure place in the hierarchy. Changes in how things get done move slowly and often face institutional resistance. We are all uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. 

The challenge of overcoming the traditional organizational mindset and the input focus on jobs cannot be underestimated or overstated. It is so deeply rooted that it is accepted as an immutable norm of which we are hardly aware. It is a given that this is the nature of work and yes, like the divine right of kings to rule, it is ordained. Today we can look back at the office of the 1980s and reflect on how quaint that world of electric typewriters, carbon paper and mail registries was. Yes, we can chuckle at the memory of first seeing a manager hunt and peck his way through an email and think to ourselves how far we have all come now, working in the cloud. We all have memories of senior managers insisting that the trappings of rank justified having secretaries print out emails and type responses from handwritten notes. Are these people still will us at work?

Unfortunately, yes, or at least their kindred descendants, are all around us.  The ultimate characteristic and purpose of the traditional input-based office structure is control. To keep staff narrowly focused on a set of defined tasks, rather than concentrating on the broader purpose and continually questioning is this the best way to get things done, is the result. What makes this so insidious is how it traps staff in rigid definitions of work and impedes natural growth and advancement. It perpetuates hierarchical relationships which do not promote team empowerment and has a lingering unpleasant whiff of gender bias. 

If COVID-19 accelerates the demise of this feudal structure, we will all be the better for it. Our “New Normal” must be a world where virtual and office based work blends and co-exists, seeking the optimal combination of the two, and in which the purpose of the job becomes the new focus of work, instead of just inputs and process.

Birches Group welcomes the opportunity to assist your organization in traveling down this new road of work and organization design.  Reach out to us (virtually, of course).

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