• Robert Bolton, Partner |
4 min read

One of the hot topics over the last few years has been concern about an employer’s role and responsibility for promoting wellbeing. This, of course, has been prompted by the Covid-19 crisis and the near overnight transition to home and hybrid working for so many workers. Equally, leaders have also been concerned about how to promote high performance and productivity, especially in light of the aforementioned hybrid working: “are they really working on Mondays and Fridays or just out walking the dog?” To paraphrase one CEO.

Our analysis points to the fact that over the next five years we will see a significant expansion in workforce analytics applications designed to give real-time insight into individual, team and organisation-wide employee performance. There are already many technology providers offering various forms of wearable technology that provide data on everything from health and sentiment to collaboration levels and performance focus. There are also developments from large technology providers such as Microsoft and their Workplace Analytics solution (for Office 365 customers and incorporated in their new application, Microsoft Viva) that bring new levels of insight for both individuals as well as for organisation leaders, focusing on productivity, optimal utilization of the working day, and collaboration and networking across the enterprise. Handled well, these technologies will be empowering to the individual and informative to organisations seeking to create better working environments and greater wellbeing.

The danger, however, will be that such data will point to symptoms, not systemic root causes. Much dysfunctional behaviour seen in organisations comes from the systems and structures that we place people in; no amount of data and feedback about an individual will overcome the inefficiencies created by poorly designed organisation structures. This raises the question of whether managers have the systems thinking skills to see beyond the data to why something is happening. The technology also raises questions of privacy of data and trust between employer and employee. In the next few years, for every exemplar use of these applications we are likely to see organisations creating a “big brother” world where the long-term effects are likely to be declining trust, reduced wellbeing and disengagement from work. Conceivably, the risks arising from the combination of intelligent automation and quantified workforce technologies may create a dangerous mix of rising automation anxiety as well as “job paranoia.” Hardly conducive to mental health.

The key, therefore, for leaders, consultants and thought leaders is to drive to the systemic solution that reconciles the push to performance as well as the need for wellbeing. Surely it’s not about “either or” but “and both”? The trap is that so many initiatives in organisation life are about following the latest trend and ticking the box; being seen to do the right thing rather than actually doing it. Pandering to the ‘narrative’, so to speak, and this is where non systemic solutions can come from; ones that actually harm rather than heal. Many of the practices at the turn of the century under the banner of “war for talent” could be argued to have had this effect. Forced distribution of appraisals and the aggressive “streaming” of people into ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ players. Pretty good for the wellbeing of the blue eyed boys rated as ‘A’ players but anyone else? These practices didn’t really help the performance of the organisations that espoused them either, Enron anyone?

More recently we have seen a rapid growth in organisations offering wellbeing services, including mindfulness, stress coaching, time to work on good causes, and of course the cementing of hybrid working as part of the employee value proposition. There are many more but the concern has to be that these initiatives can reduce a genuine concern to deliver an effective service to that of a commodity that “ticks a box”. It’s the difference between adopting a genuine discipline for deeper meditation versus offering a relaxation technique as a short term fix. The relaxation technique may be helpful for some but the commoditisation of wellbeing services on the basis of ‘one size fits all’, or at least ‘many’ denies the fact that wellbeing for me is going to be a different deal than wellbeing for you. Indeed, a superficial approach to wellbeing at work could be seen as a means of simply making sure that the capitalist system works better. Perhaps this argues for an alternative approach that emphases wellbeing by design for one and all. The systemic answer versus the superficial answer. To bring this to life I read recently about some research that pointed to the fact that an inclusive and diverse workforce led to higher performing teams; but only if those teams experienced psychological safety. Diverse teams performed less well where psychological safety didn’t exist. This requires that real and deep reconciliation between driving performance and at the same time, promoting wellbeing

Going back to the question that I started out with, the answer is “possibly, but let’s focus on root causes not symptoms”.  Now to walk the dog!

You can read more here Good work? (cam.ac.uk) about the partnership with KPMG and Cambridge University to promote well being at work.