New ways of working must work for employees

11 August 2020
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My first job out of uni was Assistant Marketing Manager of the Royal Australian Mint, a government agency responsible for minting all of Australia’s circulating coins, despite receiving no public funding. We had to create our own revenue sources which involved creating and selling collector coins and minting honours medals and customised corporate medallions as well.

Our operational costs were high and when a new Controller (i.e. CEO) came in they set about on a program known at the time as “business process re-engineering”.

This involved looking at every one of the Mint’s processes using teams led by employees who used that process. Each team was asked to identify things that were frustrating or unnecessary or could be done differently or not at all. It was an extraordinary success.

The biggest lesson for me was that the very best ideas, the ones that saved tens of thousands of dollars and made the most sense, did not come from the leadership team. It was the people who worked in the storeroom, in the factory, and in the packing room (where we had people from 80 different nationalities) who saw most clearly how to innovate.

I’m sharing this because virtually every organisation is rethinking how they work right now because of COVID-19. The business press is peppered with comments from academics and senior executives who are sharing their joy at reconnecting with their families and espousing that now is the time to ditch traditional working hours, and in some cases offices, completely.

There is a saying that’s used by NGOs and the public sector: “nothing about me without me” which reminds us that policies must be human-centred and based on an understanding of the ‘lived experiences’ of the people it’s designed for.

The struggles that businesses have right now are very real and I understand the urgency for action. But I am concerned that executives are under pressure to make decisions that will significantly impact on the lives of employees without knowing what their ‘lived experiences’ have been like. We are used to being influenced by the people and data we have in front of us. But when so many employees who sit at the lower end of the power spectrum or have different perspectives from the status quo are literally out of sight, the so-called evidence base we are looking at may be completely flawed.

Indepth conversations with employees from a range of different roles and perspectives is the best way to address this. An online survey will not suffice. What leaders need is insights that show where they have room to flex, where significant challenges exist and the problems its employees most need it to solve so they and the business can prosper.

In other words, it comes back to identifying what the real problems are ahead of finding solutions. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect the leadership team to know this on their own.

And if you need it, my team is here to help.

 

Anne Wickham

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