There are some big workplace structural inadequacies that still hang in the air; inadequacies that my generation has so far failed to nail down. They include the gender pay gap, diversity in leadership roles and flexible working.
It is possible to say there is some progress and that we should see the trends as positive, but we know that the path is long and winding, and the destination is not just around the next corner.
Superficially however it should be an easy destination to find – a place where women are paid more, fewer middle-class white men are promoted and where everyone can work from home. The fact the journey is so slow, but the destination is so clearly marked, must mean we can blame either the vehicle, or the driver.
In my view however to blame the vehicle or the driver is a diversionary pursuit that has only succeeded, so far, in throwing up a choking dust storm of disgruntlement and accusation. In this article I am going to suggest it is not helpful to blame the vehicle or the driver, but instead to look for a different path.
Today, a debate about gender politics, or diversity, or flexibility, will most likely not be a debate, but parallel monologues, where positions entrench, special pleading takes hold and the “negotiation” has a barely glacial progression. We take “sides” and give as much energy (or more) to defending our arguments as to promoting new thinking. We feel obliged to use the tired and discredited frame of what passes for political discourse, which in reality today is little more than ad hominem attacks on opponents and the dumping of statistics and misrepresentations as if they were wheelbarrows piled full of hyper-inflated currency.
The new path, however, is here already. A path less trodden for sure, but undeniably visible.
The people on this path are not empowered by new technologies, driven by grand ideals or informed by the populist politics of the right or left. This is not a transformation or revolution; it is more an awakening. A simple, dawning realisation that balance in our individual lives and in our collective experiences of the wider world, necessitates a reclaiming of power from fixed, structural tribal ideologies, to a construct of informal coalitions of common interests.
My contention is that the workplace is already becoming a version of this construct, one in which we are all passing through, but where we can commit our energy and creativity and leadership, to a like-minded group, provided we feel interests are aligned. Consider, for example the rise of interim work as a career choice, or the plethora of flexible workplaces where rooms or desks can be hired in communities of small entrepreneurial start-ups. We see it also in small “p” politics in respect of single-issue campaigns relating to the use of plastics, or for climate change and indeed on Brexit.
If we understand that the two engines for change are individual needs allied to communities of common interest, we have a different lens to look through when examining the gender pay gap, diversity in leadership and flexible working.
Through this lens there is less emphasis on career paths, and more emphasis on creating individual, sustainable and balanced lifestyles. We see the demise of traditional monolithic HR functions, not because they are bad per se, but because they will not be fit for purpose. Simply, there will be less need to set up clunky process-riven infrastructures when instead businesses must try to create environments in which people can thrive or else people will go elsewhere. The emphasis will be on curating the workplace environment, not controlling the people in it.
Through this lens political parties will be less important than political movements. We will not overly invest in charismatic leadership, but instead in the causes we believe in. We will also have a better idea of success because we will judge the impact made on the causes that we support and rely less on the excuses of leaders who put loyalty to them ahead of doing the right thing.
Purpose is key. A shared, common purpose means leadership can be shared too; workplaces can be collaboratively managed, and individual interests/needs can be recognised and negotiated. In this way society will find a better balance.
It is clear that we are going to live longer. We are going to work for more years before we retire. Our age-related infirmity will cost more. Our children and grandchildren will experience this even more than we will. Frankly, the planet will not sustain all of us and our environments if we do not seek a better balance.
To better challenge the gender pay gap, we should ask what is the point of front-loading the first fifteen years of a traditional career, when most people will also want to start a family in the same period and when we might work for fifty years anyway?
To better challenge our approach to diversity in leadership, we should ask what is the point of limiting the leadership talent pool to men and women who have somehow managed to outsource child care, when the collaborative leadership model can value a wider range of experience and apply it to a wider spectrum of needs over a greater span of time?
To better challenge our approach to flexible working, we should ask what is the point of working fifty hours a week with four weeks holiday a year, year after year, when it will cause burn-out in our fifties with another twenty years of prime working life ahead of us?
In such a rebalanced world, men and women will not be pressured to choose career over family, or to strive for a linear career path to leadership, or to sacrifice career progression for flexible working.
If we start to travel the less well trodden path, the current anxiety around the gender pay gap, or diversity in leadership roles, or working more flexibly will be a paradigm of less concern and relevance. The new paradigm will see individuals negotiating their needs to align to communities of common interest, leading when that is right, and working flexibly to suit the communities they support and their personal requirements.
I am conscious this may sound a little too much like hippy-shit-commune for your average middle-aged professional, hoping for the return of big-bonuses and an occasional round of golf. However, I am not saying it is a panacea for all the world’s ills, nor that it is inevitable. All I observe is that what people need from leadership today is a more fluid and interesting construct; and that the urgency for greater balance at home, in work and across the span of a working life, is forcing people to debate their needs today and for the future, and not just replicate the past.
Look for small things and a big picture is almost in focus. See the rise of shared work spaces and of credible multi-national interim resourcing businesses; see what these businesses say about why people like their models. See the Managing Partners talking about kindness and balance. See the General Counsel working part-time to be present with family and not to over commit to work. Note the number of career moves that we all now make to find places where we feel valued and can thrive again. See that we do not always seek promotion, but often look to move for a different development experience or a location. In all these things we are consciously curating balance.
See also the importance of sabbaticals and why employers want them for their people too. And crucially feel the continued and deepening emphasis on well-being, not just the rescue remedies, but the whole life-in-balance-with-work fundamentals. Again, in all these things we are consciously curating balance.
The big workplace structural inadequacies that I started this piece with, still hang in the air; they are indeed inadequacies that my generation has so far failed to nail down, but I am certain there is a way forward.
It is a way forward that only for now is a path less trodden.
Take care. Paul