The Pandemic Triggered Culture Change, Now HR Practices Have to Follow
The old guard should be uncomfortable with what’s unfolding.
What a great idea—evaluating performance, not based on interpersonal relationships, but on what employees actually produce! The recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why Managers Fear a Remote-Work Future,” highlighted issues that have already begun to ripple through HR best practices.
Although the article was aimed at a general audience, a couple of phrases made me think the author was writing for government—“the old guard” and their “empires.” That should be an issue in every organization but especially in those where people in the higher level ranks typically have long service. The old guard should be uncomfortable with what’s unfolding.
Almost a year ago a Harvard Business Review article, “Navigating Office Politics When There Is No Office,” anticipated what’s emerging: “Without the office, how can I pretend to work?” The author makes a point that is fundamental to the management of performance going forward: “A virtual work environment offers much more of an opportunity to be judged on the output of your work.”
The article raises a related issue that agencies will need to consider in the near future with the emergence of more hybrid work environments, with some employees returning to the office while others may never return. That triggers a very real possibility that organizations will develop a “two-tiered system of office politics” where those working in an office experience preferential treatment.
It’s interesting (and relevant) that researchers on behavior in organizations have largely ignored government. The exception of course is the National Academy of Public Administration and its many studies on improving agency performance. The 2018 study that focused on government’s “culture of compliance”—an obsession with following rules and checking boxes—summarized government’s performance problem. A key recommendation was to give agencies “flexibility for devising the human capital systems to accomplish their missions.” That’s even more important today.
The tight control is a serious impediment to needed changes and improved performance. Now, remote work and the change in manager/employee interactions has redefined performance management but also made it urgent to plan for the new normal going forward.
Loose v. Tight Cultures
The evidence for what the pandemic has triggered is closely related to studies summarized in the book by Michele Gelfand: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. She categorizes countries by the nature of their cultures. Japan and Korea have tight cultures while Israel and Belgium have loose cultures.
The traits that differentiate national cultures are similar to those in organizations. The loose/tight distinction is relevant to understanding the way organizations operate, the adherence to rules, the resistance to change, and the relationship between managers and their people. To quote from the book, “the military is the iconic example of tightness.” In the late 19th century, the railroads were the first industry with broadly dispersed workforces and they adopted military-style workplace rules. The civil service era was conceived in that era. Tight management was the common model in business through most of the last century, but decades ago leaders in knowledge organizations recognized that tight control was a barrier to great results and began to give employees more autonomy, focusing on the knowledge, skills and ability needed for success.
An understanding of the differences in the way organizations operate is important when the world of work is experiencing significant change. To be sure, there are successful organizations with tight cultures. They operate efficiently and rely on well defined, standardized procedures. Such standardization is deeply entrenched in the civil service system. But when “change is the only constant” and the new generation of workers has expectations that are incompatible with tight supervision, every organization needs to assess where established practices are a barrier to continued success.
With the new, loose work environment, the old guard will need to adjust. That starts with leadership. Gelfand cites the findings from a major, ongoing research study, Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE), that focuses on leadership styles. When the book was published, the researchers had accumulated survey responses from over 17,000 executives and managers in over 900 organizations across 60 countries.
The data show employees in loose cultures “prefer visionary leaders who are collaborative. They want leaders to advocate for change and empower their workers.” They want leaders who “work hard to get out of the way so that others may step up and innovate.” In contrast, in tightly managed organizations, employees want leaders who are “decisive,” value discipline and obedience,” “execute command-and-control management within a rigidly hierarchical organization.” Loose organizations have less discipline and reliability, but compensate with greater innovation.
The loose/tight differences are also important to recruiting and retaining young workers starting their careers. Research shows they share common personality traits and behaviors and look for prospective employers that have cultures that are entrepreneurial, embrace change, value flexibility, and give employees a chance to work with the latest technology. They value work-life balance. They still usually work hard and take pride in their work, but prefer to create a clear separation between their workplaces and personal lives. The early turnover of new hires is a warning; agencies need to understand why that’s happening.
The research conclusions are clear. But for government to use the information, agencies should first assess their cultures, the impact of the pandemic, along with current and projected skills gaps. The tight/loose difference is one of several considerations that affect performance. That 2018 NAPA report was not the first and certainly will not be the last to advocate giving agencies greater flexibility to manage talent.
A Canadian Idea Worth Importing
Canada introduced an idea that could help federal agencies transition away from the outdated top-down control model. It’s their “free agent” program and dates to 2016. Under the program, highly qualified applicants are hired to work project-to-project across government departments. “The department and free agent sign an agreement that specifies the length of the contract. The employment period is project-based, ranging from one to eight months.” Applicants get the freedom to choose the projects they work on and agencies “get access to a pool of talented civil servants to tackle their challenging policy issues.” The free agents are described as “entrepreneurial, risk takers, and innovative.”
Abe Greenspoon, the program’s talent manager, said in a 2018 interview, “our program attracts people who want to have an impact. We give them freedom to bring their unique perspectives to their work. The resulting increase in happiness and productivity is just amazing!” That’s commonly the experience when closely supervised employees are empowered and given time to adjust to their new autonomy.
The idea is similar to the strategy adopted by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency when it was created. Over time, NGA has asked as many as 30 occupational working groups—professional advisory boards—to address issues related to each occupation and define critical performance elements. The strategy included aggressive employee outreach and training for managers on everything from process instruction to soft skills training (such as holding feedback and coaching discussions with employees).
In other sectors, employee resource groups (ERGs) are increasingly common to address work and employment issues. In higher education and healthcare, employee teams are created whenever people management practices need to be reconsidered. There the practice reflects the cultural value, collegiality.
Most agencies will not have the advantage of starting from scratch. The Canadian approach provides the flexibility for agencies to move forward at a comfortable pace that enables them to tackle problems as they emerge and also give managers and employees the time to become comfortable with the change. With time, the idea is likely to gain supporters among those individuals who believe their talents are not valued. It may also be the only way agencies can offer Gen Z employees a work experience they find satisfying.
The DEI Executive Order
Canada’s Free Agents, the NGA PABs, and ERGs represent a shift in focus to empowering employees and expecting them to assume a broader, proactive role in organization management. Each strategy emphasizes the value of employee capabilities and output.
That is at the core of President Biden’s executive order on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Agencies need to assess all people management practices, eliminating bias and discrimination.
As such, it will be essential to address one of government’s least effective practices: employee performance management. In the current tight labor market, making better use of employee capabilities is essential to improving agency results.
In the words of one of Canada’s talent managers:
“I think we often forget the simple fact that organisations are made up of the people who work in them. Rules, processes, directives, policies —they’re created, maintained, obeyed, and broken by people. And so one thing I don’t think I could possibly over-emphasize … is that anything we’ve accomplished or not accomplished is because of people.
“Where we were successful, it was often because people had good ideas, people worked hard, people supported other people, people influenced other people, and yes, I believe people transformed other people’s beliefs or understanding of certain things. So my first and biggest point is simple — people are everything.”
Government’s human capital practices were developed for an outmoded work management philosophy. Those practices are now a problem.