Lynda Gratton on evolving HR for tomorrow’s world of work

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With more than 30 years of experience in researching, educating, and writing about how people and organizations interact, Lynda Gratton has seen industries make big shifts before. Today, she sees all companies preparing for another.

“People are asking, ‘Why are we doing things like this?’ Was there a better way of doing it?” Gratton said. “Maybe cost comes into consideration. And then over time, it starts to refreeze, but in a different sort of configuration as it was. So if the crystals come back again, they’re in a different formation. And I think that’s sort of where we are at the moment. I don’t think that we have refrozen yet.”

In her talk with Jeff Schwartz during Gloat’s Book Club, Gratton touched on the topic that’s front of mind for nearly every HR leader: What will work look like going forward?

“I had realized the way we worked wasn’t working for a lot of people,” Gratton said. “Since what’s happened in the pandemic has had a profound effect on us, we’ve had a chance to really think about why we work as we do.”

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"So first of all, understand what's going on," Gratton said. "And I start with a job, interesting. Not the people, the job. That, what is this job about? What is it that this person is doing? What's the team doing? Then understand the person, particularly in terms of where they are in their own life, really.

"Then, reimagine, be as imaginative and as creative as possible," Gratton said. "And one of the things I'm doing is really keeping an eye on what all these experiments are. I've explored, for example, the Canadian investment company that said, "Everyone can work anywhere they want for three months a year." Or companies in Europe who are now saying, 'Let's go for the four-day week.' Or companies that are saying, 'Let's think much more creatively.' The Wall Street Journal council I was at, the founder of Airbnb was there and he said, 'We can work anywhere we want now. We don't need to be back in the office.' So all of these, I would label as experiments. We don't know yet whether they're going to stick, but they're interesting.

"And then, the third stage is an evaluation stage," Gratton continued. "And I would evaluate it really against two big questions. One, is it going to help you to be the business you want to be in terms of your purpose and values and customers. And secondly, and importantly, is it fair? Is it going to be something where, after a year or six months, half of your employee group, are going to say, 'Look, this is not fair. I can't do any of this stuff'?

"And then the final point, the fourth point, is about how do you enact it? How do you actually get it done?" Gratton said. "And here I call out three groups. Leaders, obviously, in terms of their role modeling and narrative. Managers, and then also, something about employees, which my own consulting practice, HSM, is very focused on. How do you bring employees along?" What's the mechanism of doing that?

"If you live to a hundred, unless you save a lot, which we don't do, then you're going to be working into your seventies," Gratton said. "And if you work into your seventies, then you really can't continue the three-stage life. The three-stage life, of course, being full-time education, full-time work, full-time retirement. That just doesn't work.

"And then if you layer on top of that, oh, by the way, the technology's changing and jobs are changing all the time," Gratton said. "And then layer on top of that, oh, and by the way, families are changing as well, then it just seems completely ridiculous. And so we then talked about the multi-stage life, which is where people A, have more stages. I think 24 is, I wouldn't see that as a possibility, but I can see there's going to be more job change. Doing different types of things, and then more transition.

"So if you are trying to live a multi-stage life, then what is it you need? And I would say there's a couple of things you need."

"One of the companies I wrote about in the book is Sage, which is a software company," Gratton said. "And the CEO said, 'I'm pretty agnostic about what we do about the design of work, except it's got to increase customer satisfaction. So if we design a way of working that decreases customer satisfaction, then it's out as far as I'm concerned.'

"So really understanding what are the principles against which you're going to test this, and then ask yourself, 'What are your leaders doing?' But one thing I would say, and we haven't really spoken about variety, but it might just be worth reminding everyone that we are seeing, I was going to go on a bit more about snowflakes and variety. The idea is that as you re-crystallize, there's going to be a lot of variety.

"And so, at the very beginning, someone said to me, 'Well, is it fine that Goldman is saying everybody's back in the office?' And I said that's absolutely fine. You know that if you're joining Goldman, then that's the deal. And I think within HR, we have to be very explicit about what the deal is and not pretend that it's something else.

"If it's a deal where everybody has to be in the office five or six days a week, working very long hours, that's the deal," Gratton said. "Now, you may find that there's not many people who want that deal, but Goldman feel that there are plenty who do, but they have to pay a lot for it.

"So I think the more that we can be explicit about what the deal is, and the more that we can provide variety between companies so an individual can choose the company that fits their deal. And I think that's going to be a very exciting part of what it is to be an HR person in the future, is to try and get that signature right. Try and build for your own company, or indeed for yourself, the thing that separates you from other companies, that really describes what it is you do, describes the purpose of your organization, gives people a clear sight of how it is you want them to work."

"I had realized that the way that we worked wasn't working for lots of people," Gratton said. "And so for me, what's happened since the pandemic has had a profound impact on us. And let me just say the ones that I see, I think that we got a chance to really think about why we worked like we did.

"I think what happened in the pandemic is suddenly, that was real. You were at home, you didn't see anybody for months. You did ask yourself, 'Why am I living like this? Could I find another way of living?' And so I see where we are now as a culmination of new skills, new habits, not going into the office every day, not commuting every day, spending more time with your friends and family."

"Psychologists who had been actually monitoring what was going on in the office before the pandemic showed their data, that said, well, actually, when people go into the offices in the past, they didn't spend all their time talking to each other because open plan offices were so noisy," Gratton said. "They put noise-canceling headphones on and just did emails. Let's not romanticize about what the office was. It was always a pretty dreadful place.

"But the second thing is that we actually learned that you could do quite a lot on Zoom," Gratton said. "So for example, believe it or not, Diana Gherson and I, who wrote this honestly lovely, lovely HBR article, have never met each other.

"She lives in California. And we did it during lockdown. And when I was in New York last week or the week before, she was in California, so we've never actually met. And we produced something that Harvard Business Review tell us is one of the most downloaded articles of this year. So you can create value without actually meeting people face to face."

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