Is HR Standing By While Corporate Culture Changes?

istock_000009385044xsmallIn corporations around the world, the most profound culture change in living memory is taking place while human resource practitioners are sitting on the sidelines, often without knowing that it’s happening.

Contrary to the news headlines, it’s not driven by the recession, politics, crime or anything quite as noticeable.

Instead, it’s being driven by smartphone technology which is steadily putting 24-7 access to cell phone calls, emails, instant messages, text messages  and voice-mails in the pocket of every employee.  That this is happening is an inescapable fact.  Here’s the proof:

  • the UK had a 70% surge in smartphone use in 2009
  • the US is expected to have an 80% penetration rate of smartphones by 2010 (source: comScore 2010 study)

At the same time, workers are becoming more addicted:

  • 30% of workers who use technology feel the need to stay connected to work 24-7
  • 62% of at-work email users check work email over the weekend.  19% check it more than 5 times.  More than 50% check it on vacation, with the highest numbers coming from mobile users: 78% (source: 45th Annual Email Addiction Survey 2009, AOL)
  • 59% of those using portable devices check email as it arrives
  • 43% of users sleep near their email unit to hear incoming messages
  • 43% check email first thing in the morning (source:  Opinion Research Corp, 2007)
  • 25% say that of workers think that their supervisors expect them to be online after hours
  • 17% say that it is frowned upon if they don’t connect to work during their vacations (InterCall survey 2010)

Recent research shows that smartphone penetration in companies is rising, and it’s not too hard to predict that the time will come when more employees have smart-phones than desktops and laptops.  In other words, the number of employees who can be reached 24-7 will grow to almost 100%.

For companies, this means that they’ll be able to gain access to more of their employees’ time than they ever had before.  For corporations, this is quite a valuable gain in productivity, even if it amounts to a mere 2 hours per employee.  It means that the companies work can continue uninterrupted on weekends, at odd hours, on holidays, during vacations, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, funerals, etc.

The amazing thing is that this change in “teamwork” didn’t come as a result of any initiative launched by HR.  Nor was it decided by an executive committee on productivity.  Instead, it seems to have come in the back door when no-one was looking, smuggled in with today’s electronic Trojan Horses:  Blackberrys, iPhones, Androids and the like.

If you are an HR professional, you actually have a duty in all this, in at least three areas.

1.  Productivity

It’s devilishly easy to worsen one’s own productivity with one of these devices.  We all know people who interrupt conversations, meetings, phone-calls, projects, church services, driving trips and even runs in the park to respond to their smart-phones.  The fact is, those who respond quickly are the ones who are likely to be getting little else done.

In some companies, employees that are unwilling or unable to respond to all email within the hour are sent for “time management training.”  by contrast, those that are “hyper-responsive” and live on email interruptions are held up as role-models.  It might be the job of HR professionals to reverse these trends, and insist that worker productivity must be preserved by rooting out bad habits and destructive expectations.

Employee productivity is clearly at risk, but in most companies it’s unclear who is accountable for this critical metric.  HR needs to take the lead.

2.  Private Time

Smartphones, anxious managers and willing employees are all that are needed to turn a standard 40 hour work-week into one in which employees are perpetually “on-call” during every day and night of the year.   Unlike surgeons, who are on-call for specific lengths of time, an increasing number of employees never give up that status, and have become conditioned to dash for their smart-phones regardless of their concerns for their families, their safety and  their sanity.

Many do so because they are afraid of losing their jobs.

A company I consulted with has a CEO who thinks nothing of sending messages at 2:00am, and he fully expects the recipient to answer every time.  Of course, this behavior has a ripple effect.

His anxiety gets transmitted down the line, from executives to managers, all via smart-phones, until the message hits the right person… shortly before 3:00am.  His bright idea in the middle of the night to increase market share by 1.5% simply could not wait.

It’s little wonder that employees subject to this kind of lifestyle often burn out.

Where is HR while all this is happening?  Well, it’s not as if there is a meeting held to decide on how much private employee time to claim for the company.

In fact, most executives would make light of the fact that their employees are giving up more of what used to be private time, while enjoying the benefits of Saturday night, 11pm conference calls.  It’s not that they are without a conscience, but it’s simply not their job to add up all the costs and to ask the question: “Is this madness worth it?”

I believe that HR is ideally positioned to raise this concern.

3.  Legal Ramifications

Depending on your country’s laws, your hourly workers might have a case for paid overtime when they spend the better part of an hour responding to email over the weekend.

Also, when your employee crashes the company car on New year’s Day while texting a Vice President on an urgent matter, where exactly does liability lie?

In most companies, it’s unfortunate that most of these cultural changes will happen without anyone in HR noticing.  After all, HR is often the last to get new technology, and by the time the Blackberry’s are handed out in the department, the culture of the company might have already changed.

A few HR professionals, however, will see what’s coming and sound an alarm.

They’ll be prepared for the inevitable culture change that smartphones enable, and they’ll have a plan waiting for the time when smart-phones become as ubiquitous as PC’s.  They’ll have thought about policies to guide smartphone use, and be ready to provide training on how  to maximize productivity rather than destroy it.

They’ll be ready to show CEO’s and MD’s that their actions have a ripple effect, and that they need to make an explicit, informed decision about the kind of company culture they want.  To ignore the change is to invite a decrease in productivity, threats to employee’s life balance and possible legal action.

Francis Wade

P.S. For more on the latest in productivity thinking in companies, visit the 2Time: Time Management 2.0 blog at


Does HR Deserve a Place at the Table?

Businessman TextingAfter being in the HR profession for the last 25 years I am still amazed at a question that is still asked about the profession. Does HR deserve a place at the corporate decision- making table?

Sometimes to really comprehend the full magnitude of a question one must somehow decipher the real question that is behind the question that is before you. The question we are examining in our discussion is no different.  I believe that the real question is whether or not HR adds real value to the enterprise. Think about it, if something adds real and significant value to what is being done, it becomes moot (even nonsensical) to even discuss if it should be included.

I will resist the temptation at this time to take one side or the other in this discussion. Rather I would like to pose a few “pertinent” questions to the reader and allow him/her to draw his/her own conclusions.

Does HR understand the mission of their organization?

Put another way, does HR understand the “business” that their respective enterprises are pursuing. Notice that this is not a question of “what” you do, or even “how” you do it. It’s rather a question concerned with the “why” behind what you do.

A story I heard years ago (and one I have used quite a few times) will perhaps throw a bit more light on the point being made. I have been unable to independently verify the veracity of this story, but it still makes a powerful point. It goes like this…. A consultant meeting with a group of executives at a drill manufacturing company asked them what business were they in. They responded that they made drills. He asked them a second time and they responded with the same answer. He asked them a third time and they responded, this time with a noticeable frustration, with the same answer. We make drills (dummy!).  What happened next really seemed to confirm to them that they would have been better off keeping their dental appointment than coming to this seminar. The consultant went on to suggest to them that the real nature of their business was not the manufacturing of drills. I am sure that at this time some might have even had a good chuckle, perhaps reminding the consultant of the company he was visiting. The consultant continued and stated that their real business was the making of holes. The making of holes! In other words, the drills they manufactured, the “what”, was really to accomplish the “why” (the holes). As long as we remember the “why” of the business we will never veer away from our mission. The “what” can and will change with time and technological advancements (we can now make holes with laser) but focusing on the “why” will always keep us on track in accomplishing our true mission.

The question then is, does HR really understand the “business” that they are in. We may think that we do and the danger is for us to focus only on the “what” and the “how’’, but do we really understand the “why”, the reason we are in business. Neglecting the “why” can be a fatal error to any business and can even lead to its demise. An excellent example is Kodak, which at one point was the #1 film maker in its industry. Kodak might have retained that position if they had sufficiently differentiated the “what” from the “why” in their business. Kodak made a late entry into digital technology because it primarily saw itself as being in the “film making” business rather than in the “image capturing” business. It is very difficult for HR (or for that matter, any other corporate function) to adequately support an enterprise if they do not understand why they are there.

Does HR understand their role in the business?

If understanding the organization’s mission is the first step. Then considering the role that HR plays in accomplishing that mission should be the next step. HR has many roles to play in an enterprise. Some are legitimate and others, to be quite frank, are somewhat questionable. HR often finds itself in the position of having its various roles defined and shaped by others. HR is frequently what others say it is. This is often compounded by the fact that HR professionals themselves are often confused in their own minds as to the organizational roles they should adopt in order to be effective.

HR roles must go beyond that of being the employees’ ombudsman, the company’s cheerleaders, the morale builders, the conflict resolvers, and the party and picnic planners. These processes, though important, should not be the sole responsibility of HR. These processes should be embedded in the organization and shared equally by all departments. Becoming too closely identified with these areas can result in HR not being regarded as a serious player

HR has an important and strategic role to play within an organization. This role involves the proper management of the company’s talent in order to gain a competitive advantage.

Activities in this role will include the following:
•    Recruiting and selecting the right people.
•    Developing and implementing the necessary training processes to ensure that employees have the appropriate skills to be successful in a global economy.
•    Ensuring that the company has a competitive, cost effective benefits package.
•    Designing and implementing the necessary systems to accurately assess the performance of the employees.
•    Developing innovative compensation packages that will attract, retain, and motivate employees.
•    Creating and maintaining an organizational culture that encourages employees to maximize their potential.
•    Helping the organization and its employees adjust to changes taking place around them.

The above role is important and adds value to the organization. Pursuing such will give a great deal of credibility and respect to HR.

Does HR have the necessary skills to effectively do their jobs?

To adequately function in its strategic role, HR must have the necessary skills at its disposal. I hope that we are well beyond the days when it was incorrectly assumed that anyone, as long as they had a breath, was capable of functioning in the HR role. HR has evolved into a profession in its own right with its own set of skills. A review of some of these skills might prove helpful.

•    People skills – building trust, influencing others, sharing and communicating with others. High degree of emotional intelligence.

•    Organizational skills – information processing, delegating effectively, project management, decision-making.

•    Business skills – understanding and being comfortable with various business metrics. Business is about numbers and HR has to get use to this fact. HR has to be fluent in numbers and use them whenever necessary to support their various outcomes.

•    Political skills – appreciating the place and use of power in organizational settings. Leveraging what you have in order to get what you want.

•    Technological skills – being comfortable around and effectively utilizing the various technologies that are available.

•    Learning skills – being able to keep oneself and other abreast of what’s new and successfully integrating the information into the workplace.

•    Global skills – being aware of what’s taking place on a global basis and using the information to gain a competitive advantage.

•    Change Management skills – helping the organization and employees to embrace, adjust and become comfortable with the changes that are taking place.

•    Visioning skills – being able to anticipate future trends and challenges and preparing the organization to meet them.

These skills are very different and a far cry from those required of HR in the past. However, they are needed and very necessary for HR’s success in the present and in the future. Unless HR acquires these skills, HR will not be in a position to make any meaningful contribution at the corporate table, when present.

Nathan Charles