Creating simplicity in the workplace

14 October 2015
Maduri Moutou

by Maduri Moutou

Senior People Capacity and Development Manager

The CHS Alliance is a member of the Hot Spots Movement, a specialist research and consulting team founded by Professor Lynda Gratton of the London Business School. Maduri Moutou, our Senior People Capacity and Development Manager recently participated in one of their Future of Work Forums in London on the Future of Human Resources (HR). She shares her thoughts on this focusing on how to create simplicity in the workplace.

What do most keynote speeches start with these days? A mixture of “It’s a complex world/disaster/context” or “the work we do is more complex” or from a staffing perspective “the global workforce is more diverse and their needs are much complex than ever” or ”our organisational structures are complex”… We have all heard it before, right?

So what’s the solution to manage this complexity? Well, according to Lynda Gratton, Founder and CEO of the Hot Spots Movement, keynoting at their Future of Work Forum earlier this week, a complex strategy with parallel processes and infinite policies is definitely not the solution. And here’s the idea: how about simplifying things, Lynda asked. How about simpler solutions to our complicated problems? Easier said than done you may say, but the human resources (HR) function has a role to play in this, in fact HR plays the key role in this.

Our HR functions have to influence at three levels: the organisational level, the management level and the individual level.

Creating simplicity at all these levels drive organisational performance. Simplicity removes the distractions that slow things down in an organisation, speeding up decisions making, and removing the “background noise”. Removing complex and redundant processes also enabled people to focus on the stuff that’s worth doing, the value-add activities.

How does the HR functions get this influence by the way? It’s because HR and HR processes touch every individual in the organisation, from CEO to entry-level staff. No other function does this in quite the same way. HR is in effect, best placed to cut through this complexity at all levels.

Yet HR processes and systems tend to be the clunkiest ones around. For example, HR processes never ever seem to have a finite timeline says Lynda: HR processes and initiatives just hang around. Whereas you take other functions such as finance for example, and the processes have a beginning and an end. Once it’s done, it’s done.

Lynda Gratton wants us as HR practitioners to look at these ‘sunset’ processes in our organisations and ask ourselves:

  • What needs to be reviewed?
  • What has lost its original purpose?
  • What can be banished?
  • What can be speeded up?

Does every recruitment really really need the CEO to sign it off every time? (by the way, that is an actual example from one of our members). Why do we do exit interviews if, afterwards, no one learns from them or makes a change?

If something takes time and money to do, we need to be sure that the value they add is more than the sum of the inputs. One example we heard about was that Adobe staff spent 1.8 billion (yes billion!) person-hours per year to complete performance management processes. Did the performance management processes need to take that long they are asking? Safe to say that Adobe HR teams focused some effort on reinventing performance management so that staff could spend less time on the process and more time of delivering.

Having looked at the organisational level, what about the manager level or individual level? We heard of one leading pharmaceutical (Pfizer) which ‘ditched busy work to focus on knowledge work’. HR encouraged managers and individuals to look at how they spent their time, and then empowered them to simplify their work.  This simplification was done at the individual and everyday level.  What they found was that staff were spending 20-40% of their time on non-core tasks, and these could be outsourced or delegated. The company set up a special on-demand service which was available to all employees 24 hours a day, and included work like transcribing meeting notes or data analysis. A review a year later found that employees had gain 66,000 hours back (good for the organisation), and staff were doing motivating and stimulating work (good for the individual). From a corporate point of view that probably means profit, from the humanitarian and development sector’s point of view it will mean better quality programmes and increased effectiveness for the communities we work with.

Of course, this large company had a rather healthy budget to set up an outsourcing arm to handle all of this low-value work being delegated out. However, no doubt that the payback will still need to be shown for the scheme to continue. But it made me think about what we, a sector with very lean budgets, could do. Many of us already do it for payroll or translation tasks for example. It comes back to value for money, doesn’t it? And asking ourselves what activity is high value-adding, which one is medium value-adding and which is low. And importantly what doesn’t need to get done at all. Just splitting these things up is a helpful thing to do in itself.

So does this lead to simplifying things – yes I think it does. The key message being that HR, like other functions, should spend time to review and simplify things, such as recruitment processes, inductions, reference checking, performance management etc.   And HR needs to be ruthless in letting the sunset on low and zero value-adding activities. If no one is looking at a given policy, it needs revision or it goes. Otherwise, those new and great ideas will never find the space to come into being!