Tag: integrated talent management

No matter where you are, COVID-19 is affecting all of us. We all have had to change the way we live, the way we interact with one another, and for most of us, the way we work in the context of the pandemic. With more and more countries enforcing lockdowns of cities, people are forced to work from home as they are asked to shelter in place. Organizations recognized that despite the pandemic, the proverbial show must go on, and virtual work is all of a sudden the new normal.

For a long time, organizations looked at virtual work as something in the distant future, or only applicable to other organizations, or otherwise not feasible. What COVID-19 pushed us all to realize is that the future of work is about enabling our office staff to work from anywhere. Virtual work is no longer the future, it is the present.

Many organizations struggle with virtual work because they are lacking in a fundamental (but often ignored) area of HR: high-quality, purpose-driven job descriptions. Managers are usually asked to draft job descriptions with limited guidance beyond templates, and they end up writing checklists of tasks that they believe illustrate what a job needs to get done, rather than focusing on the purpose of the job. This checklist approach is indicative of an input-driven mindset that struggles to adapt once disrupted.

Birches Group’s Community™ approach has enabled us to prepare and practice virtual work long before the pandemic began through the use of output-based job descriptions, putting zero emphasis on the physical presence of staff at work and instead focusing on what they deliver at the end of the day.

When organizations shift to an output-based mindset, it doesn’t matter what steps our staff take in their work or where they do it from – what matters is getting the job done. When disruptive events like COVID-19 happen, output-based definitions of work facilitate working from home because it empowers staff to be more creative in their approach to work, while at the same time freeing them from managers looking over their shoulders. We find that when staff are given this independence, it promotes a more collaborative work environment, one in which staff communicate more because they are not just following a set script. They need to explain their process and thinking, and get buy in from across the organization.   Ultimately, this even helps shift discussions on performance from cascading objectives to simply asking, “Did the employee fulfill the purpose of their jobs?”

In the different countries where Birches Group staff are based, we have been able to respond quickly, especially once local authorities have limited movement, locally or internationally. Having a framework in place for virtual work has allowed our staff to continue business activities as normal and maintain relationships with our clients, even as each of us try our best to manage through these uncertain times.

Contact us to learn how we can help your organization retool for the new normal.

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.

Organizational design and job evaluation can be simple things to understand. By not focusing on the simple, clear and purposeful aspects of work, many HR “gurus” have made this simple starting point more complex than it needs to be. The result is staff and managers who are unclear about their purpose and role, which results in ineffective organizations. To clear things up, we need to go back to the basics.

Birches Group Community™ is an integrated talent management solution that’s simple to use and brings clarity around the value of work. We fuse job design and evaluation, compensation management, skills development, performance management and consulting to bring order to your business.

Human resource management is more alchemy than science.  The mysterious ways HR tries to blend policies and approaches to create an effective workforce usually has the same disappointing outcomes as Medieval conjurers had with trying to turn lead into gold.  We at Birches Group think constantly about this challenge and why HR struggles to become more of an organized discipline.

The analogy of alchemy to the state of HR is particularly apt.  Alchemy as a foundation of science existed across the planet and held sway for centuries.  Only with the introduction of intellectual rigor and modern methods of scientific inquiry that relegated alchemy to its final resting place with astrology and magic.  A large reason for the fall of alchemy:  the rejection of ancient wisdom.

Many approaches to modern HR management similarly rest on broadly accepted notions that when examined with greater rigor simply do not hold up.   Equally HR often just cannot see the self-evident, fundamental contradictions that are starkly present before our very eyes.  A critical confusion reigns in HR’s (mis)understanding of jobs where it muddles the purpose of work (i.e. the focus of the job) with features of incumbency (i.e. the person in the job).

To bring rigor to HR it is necessary to bring clarity to the distinction between jobs and people.  This may seem obvious but it is all too rarely found in most HR programs. 

In Birches Group, our point of departure is that with clarity on job design all subsequent HR functions — from compensation setting through recognition and reward — can be well aligned and integrated.  Without clarity on jobs all that follows is out of focus and usually stymied in effectiveness.

There are many approaches to job design and evaluation.  Most of the classic approaches fail on two basic points: 

  • the evaluation criteria include elements related to the person and not the job; and
  • the methodologies are dense making them inaccessible to non-HR managers, and therefore are not compelling or convincing to the rest of the organization. 

However, the biggest weakness in conventional job design and evaluation is found in the information which is gathered about jobs themselves.

The job description in most organizations is a rather loathsome document.  Managers hate writing them, often cutting and pasting rough fitting passages from other job descriptions.  The result are descriptions of extreme inconsistency and questionable value either to support good job evaluation or as a founding document in support of other HR functions.

And it is of little wonder how this situation arises.  HR gives managers little to no guidance about how to describe work.  Little more than a blank piece of paper with possibly some identified boxes is provided. No briefing about the distinguishing features which define different job levels and how teams are formed are provided to managers. 

Birches Group has pursued a different approach.  Firstly, we have lifted the veil on job evaluation.  No more pseudo-science of point-factor evaluation; No multiplicative factors which overlap and blend person-based characteristics with job elements.  Simple and accessible is our mantra.  All that is needed is all that we give.  We use just three factors to illuminate distinctions in work, and organize work into four clear and complementary clusters of job levels.  The components of team are readily available for managers to understand how teams are formed.

And as for job descriptions?  Yes, we have developed a simple methodology which uses just six functional statements, no more or less, linking job design to the underlying factors which distinguishes its level.  Using this approach, managers are free to craft jobs with clarity which are compelling for staff and consistent for the organization. 

Getting job design right is just the first step in making HR a rigorous discipline.  What makes our methodology radical is we have not stopped here.  The principles and tools which support job design and evaluation in Birches Group have been refined and adapted to form the foundation for all following HR functions.  Rather than the disjointed disconnect that generally prevails in HR between structural policies (those governing jobs and pay) from people management policies (those which guide recruitment, development, and reward), our approach is seamlessly connected.  We start with jobs and really, where else would you start?  Jobs are at the foundation of every organization.  It is the conversion of mission into action.  That is why it needs to be done right.  The simplicity of our approach, our methodology, positions HR to partner with the business function by demonstrating a true role in building an effective workforce.  Only HR can undertake this role, it’s about time we start.

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 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

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