Tag: Virtual Work

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.

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

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.

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