Make workplaces worth the commute
'The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.' ― Brian Tracy
Psychological research suggests that being liked, being viewed as talented by colleagues, and being sufficiently motivated to work hard, are reliable indicators of ‘potential’. Potential tends to be associated with future seniority, status, resources, and decision-making authority. Those with seniority set corporate strategies and make high-stakes decisions, because that is how most organizations still function in one way or another - as vertical political hierarchies.
In this post I reflect on how aligned this way of thinking about 'talent' is to the development of engagement, inclusion, and effective hybrid working, in the world we are in today.
Ways of thinking about organization design have been shifting for some time towards approaches that emphasize collective success, collaboration, and flexibility, rather than rigidity and dependence on a few brilliant people.
Agile and less hierarchical ways of working can still allow exceptionally talented people to realize their potential. In fact, today’s ‘emerging talent’ may be better utilized in agile businesses, rather than in traditional bureaucratic hierarchies. The kinds of leadership roles being performed and the way talented people lead may just look and feel very different to the way that ‘senior leadership’ roles have been designed in the past. This may require some organizations to rethink how they define potential, and what qualities they seek to develop through their high potential programmes.
In one organization I worked with, which had a very traditional hierarchy, I often heard colleagues repeat the depressing complaint that the organization recruited many 'extraordinary' people but made them 'ordinary'. An agile organization does the opposite.
Organizational agility allows competent but not necessarily exceptionally gifted people, to do extraordinary things together. The impact and effectiveness of a team or organization that is designed and led in an agile way makes the very best use of a wider pool of talent and is less dependent on a few stars to get results.
The implication of this is that the way we design and build organizations deeply affects diversity and inclusion efforts. Agility and inclusion go together. Despite being meritocratic in principle, an unintended consequence of some high potential programmes is that they have encouraged a linear way of thinking about careers, and reinforced cultural homogeneity at senior levels. In an agile culture, anyone who has relevant knowledge and skill has a place, not just the most likeable, hard-working, or culturally confident.
It is possible that the seeds of inadequate diversity at the ‘top of the house’ - for example in professional services - are sown by inaccurately judging those who are superficially most conscientious and well-liked early in their careers to be those with the greatest talent. However, the need for agility is likely to require a loosening up of the traditional career model in knowledge-based industries, towards increasingly self-managed agile teams. Gig economy professional firms are already challenging the traditional career structure, working patterns, and political culture of professional services.
Research on organizational politics suggests that the ability to be political (in culturally appropriate, often very subtle ways) helps many people get ahead in corporate environments. Those who are street smart attract career development opportunities.
Agile businesses are likely to require that talent identification and development go beyond a focus on prospects for promotion in culturally parochial hierarchies. Progressive and agile companies go beyond just talking about inclusion. They grow a culturally inclusive atmosphere by encouraging collaboration rather than competition, diversity rather than homogeneity, creativity rather than conformity. In this sense, if we can think about careers, work and job design in more flexible and inclusive ways, perhaps more people might be deemed to represent 'talent'? Perhaps in an agile culture people would feel less pressure to engage in work-related social activities for the wrong reasons, just to 'show face' to their bosses or pretend that they are engaged?
Indeed it could be that more people would want to be in the workplace more of the time (rather than a spare room at home) if they felt it was psychologically a little safer? It might be possible for more people to feel that it can be almost as much fun to be physically at work as it is to engage in other kinds of social activity with friends outside of work. In the UK, following the lifting of COVID restrictions, there seems to be no loss of appetite for the latter. Bars, clubs and restaurants are regularly packed to the rafters with large groups of revelers of all ages- there appears to be no desire to "party-from-home".
However, if the ongoing visibly low level of daytime occupancy of offices in London is anything to go by, many people seem reluctant to commute to spend time in person with colleagues, as part of their employer's hybrid working pattern. For some people, commuting is itself likely to be a source of demotivation. COVID-related anxiety may also be a factor. It might also be that work is a place at which some people feel constantly observed, and judged, about aspects of themselves which have little or nothing to do with the tasks they are required to perform. In a sense, by choosing to stay at home, some people who already felt a little marginalised, may be hiding from palpable hierarchy, lack of productivity and political games they experience at the office.
Line managers and HR teams would do well to reflect on how they can make workplaces feel like places which are worth the commute for more of their workforce. For many, collaboration is turning out to be highly effective online. The motivation to be with colleagues is less about the quality of the physical infrastructure of the workplace - which in the case of much office space has anyway reached obsolescence in purely functional terms - than it is about the health and inclusivity of the psychological climate that senior leaders and line managers create.
How reliant is your organization on a minority of people perceived to be exceptionally talented?
How much do the people in your organization want to collaborate in person rather than online?
See also –
Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2017). The Talent Delusion: Why data, not intuition, is the key to unlocking human potential. London, UK: Piatkus.
My books are available on Amazon:
Strive: Unlocking agility and unleashing talent in a digital world
Change Agility: Leadership, transformation and the pursuit of purpose