The HR Juggler

Trends, Bends and Friends

Posted on: August 23, 2011

How many times does something have to happen in your workplace before it becomes a trend? Three?….four?…..ten?……twenty? I tweeted this question yesterday and got a fascinating array of answers, none of them definitive, but all of them insightful and interesting.

Graham Salisbury reckoned it to be three times on the basis that once was an occurrence, twice an occurrence and a copy, three makes a trend and four a tradition. Alison Ashford opted for the marketers version of 4 or 5 times, whilst David Goddin estimated 20% of the workforce and provided a technical looking link.

The original reason behind this mulling was because this year so far I have had an unprecedented number of similar happenings in my workplace, which certainly on the above basis, could reasonably qualify as a trend.  And I’d be interested to know whether other organisations are experiencing the same type of activity, or indeed other types of occurrences which could be classed as trends.

So my 2011 trend within the business is the sheer number of requests I have had (I estimate around 15 this year so far) of employees who are looking to leave the UK and work abroad and who are requesting to continue to do their roles from an entirely different geographical location. From Australia to the West Coast of America, from Bulgaria to Holland, the proposals are varied, although seem to consistently come from well-regarded employees who have compelling personal reasons why they need to or want to relocate. And this poses some interesting dilemmas for us as a business.

We are absolutely a global organisation and frequently (not always) have offices in these locations and in many cases the managers support the moves, often on the basis that they don’t want to lose the individual from the business. So far, so good. But these proposals are never simple and it s often my job to robustly challenge the  managers to critically consider them –

  • where does the role need to be based in the long-term?
  • is there actually a vacancy where Joe wants to relocate?
  • will we need to back-fill Joe in the UK to help him fulfill his dream?
  • do we have any HR set-up to actually pay and support Joe in this location?
  • as a business do we strategically want people to be in this location?
  • would we be even considering this if it wasn’t Joe asking for it?
This last question is often the killer question and the most important. Because if the superstar employee asks us to relocate his job to his desired global location, what do we do when the slightly-above-average employee asks the same thing? And if the very average employee asks? It soon becomes quite hard to maintain any degree of consistency or fairness, particularly if it has become completely divorced from business need.
So, in response to this trend, I have to admit that I spend quite a lot of time saying no. Not because I don’t value employees or trust them to work in different locations, but because I recognise that we have to have some degree of consistency with how we treat staff and the precedents we set. We are undoubtedly very good at being flexible…but there is a danger that we become so flexible that we actually forget to critically examine the business need for granting any of these moves. You may not agree with me on this; you may feel in this day and age employees should be able to work wherever in the world they want to provided they get their jobs done…the fact is that we, like many organisations, are simply not at that point yet.
As for the reasons behind this trend, and the sister trend of requesting sabbaticals, I suspect that it has much to do with the global economic environment, the attraction of relocating to another country and retaining a role within an organisation that you already know, whilst maintaining your length of service. I totally understand why people are asking for this and reducing their own personal risk of potentially facing a period of unemployment. These are most certainly interesting times.
I’d love to know what trends you’re experiencing in your workplace, what you’ve been noticing and how you’re dealing with it.

8 Responses to "Trends, Bends and Friends"

Working in a startup which has grown in staff numbers at a phenomenal rate this year, change is the norm and probably represents the only consistent trend! I therefore don’t want to add much on your trend analysis topic – but I did get a gut reaction to the figure of 15 requests to relocate globally this year.

Seems like a mighty healthy number of people who are experiencing life-changing personal circumstances coming to talk about it and ask if they can stay (albeit in some revised capacity). The vast majority of people I’ve known to go through relocation in recent times have done so by moving employer completely. In fact, I can think of only two in the last four years who’ve stayed with the same employer. What’ve you done to create such an open, communicative environment?? Love it.

Thanks for commenting James – you’re right, i guess that is the sign of heatlhy and open communications…funny how sometimes you can take things for granted in your own organisation that may not exist in others. How did we get there? Not sure to be honest, probably a combination of factors – but would love to have a chat further about it sometime.

What’s powering the trend to relocate? Technology. Technology has enabled us (well, those of us who only need a computer) to work remotely and with mobile, broadband and wifi you can stay online consistently throughout the day. Seems to me this is the big trend. I certainly benefitted from technology in that I could work remotely when I moved out of London. I knew I could do my work from outside the office so I asked if I could.Working abroad poses more challenges for the organisation I guess. Can’t provide any other trends, I’m afraid, as am now self-employed (that gives me a far better perspective on corporate life). Thought-provoking post, Alison. I’d echo James’s point about the fact it is great colleagues feel they can ask in the first place.

Thanks for commenting Martin…technology is an amazingly powerful enabler of a lot of these things, as you say. Its incredible to witness how life-changing these developments can be, not only in a generation but literally in the space of just a few months and years.

I’d love to be able to tell you the Trend that was happening in the office I was last in but through fear of getting myself into trouble I refrain.
However while I worked within a large retailer and we set up over seas it was maybe the hardest thing to keep in touch with people this was even only with an hour time difference and in order to cover the work that needed to be done in the UK I found myself working 7-7 so that I would be around for people to call me and the work load to be done.
In this case it would of been easier for me to relocate however with half the systems in the UK and half the systems we had to make do with me loggin in from the UK to the systems over seas.
The idea its going to be easy with all the technology is sometimes a myth becasuse it still needs human time and that unlike technology can’t be programmed to run through the night.

Alison you are being fair in saying no to people. Sometimes you have to do what is right for the business even if you know you are going to upset a few people along the way its the not so fluffy side of HR

I’d love to hear that story one day too :). You’re right that this isn’t just about technology and that human intervention is still needed…just as well for most of us too!

Thanks for commenting Jules

Got me thinking this one. I really enjoyed this post and surrounding discussion. For once, I thought I would join in. Perhaps less from an HR and policy perspective though, but more from the perspective of when people can be effective and how we can confuse what can be done with what actually works best.

Years ago (many years ago) I worked for BT (The Internet was new ish for most of us, I had a web page about my life. No one read it apart from me, but I guess it was a blog of sorts.  I used to put the address on Christmas cards! But that’s not the point). That was in 1997. 

BT (they used to be telephone company) gave me a mobile phone, a lap top, a lap extension (it was 1997) and a car, and decided I could work anywhere, despite being in IT strategy and project management. Essentially I was a collaborator but I hope in a good way. I left six months later when I realised that my throughput had crashed.

Not only do I thrive on working with people,  I get stuff done ~3 times faster when I can do so by running around an office to make things happen. Ok, 3 times is a guess…

Working remotely is ok, the tools help and some tasks are either solo jobs, depend on interaction through existing relationships or are about one to one transactional contact that works ok on the phone.  For sure, I have got better at establishing rapport through small talk over the phone with people I have never met. You can make it all work.  Sometimes  it is essential, particularly in global companies where the benefit of scale and reach exceeds some of the inefficiency. I do all of this a lot now.

My concern is that we confuse what can be done if we have to, with what works best for a given task and desired outcome. The organisation has to calibrate itself to be effective as best it can informed by  it’s values. Often being in the same place as others is THE killer tool, we are designed and skilled in direct interaction. When you are not in the same place you had better engineer the interfaces carefully, build great relationships well, hire special people, and define policy or, sadly, even process very well. The tools help, but that’s all. They are not a rationale for a location strategy for collaborative roles that resemble an outbreak of measles, extended communication cycles (compared to a good old row round a white board, Twitter is snail paced) and glacial agreement and action. To be clear, there are roles that can be done anywhere. The tools just don’t turn every role into one that can be done anywhere by anyone.

Anyway, off to the USA next week to meet 66% of the people I collaborate most with …

Hi Tony, what a great and insightful comment – thank you! So many really good points here and great to have your perspective – I agree with what you say about how working in the same place and time zone as others can be a killer tool and a huge enabler.

What can I say other than your comment was without doubt worth the wait 🙂

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