HR can make collaborative workplaces a reality

Work will be more widely distributed in future, says the HR guru – which means we’ll need to find new ways to come together

We can’t be certain what the future of work will look like, but we do know that many of the trends that are beginning to emerge today – in particular, technology-enabled collaboration and widespread flexible working – will only become more important. But how will the role of HR need to change to influence, support and facilitate new organisational structures? People Management caught up with highly influential author and consultant Dave Ulrich, whose ideas have been pivotal in shaping how HR operates, to gauge his views.

You’ve spoken a lot recently about the importance of collaboration in the business of tomorrow. Why is it important, and how will HR support it?

Collaboration is an increasingly important organisational capability because individual skills are more successful when they combine to form productive teams. HR can ensure that a business has the ability to collaborate by making collaboration a part of who is hired, what is trained, how people are paid and how decisions are made. In addition, HR leaders can participate in office design – helping to create open workspaces that encourage collaboration. Collaboration will not come from a single activity, but an integrated set of HR activities.

How do organisations nurture the right sort of culture and values when work (and employees) are more distributed?

When employees work remotely, there can still be collaboration – it just might be more difficult. Technology may enable collaborative decisions by asking staff to participate in a decision (for example, by voting on a choice), so employees can feel like they have been heard. On phone calls or other technology-enabled decision protocols, values can still be exhibited. For example, I was on a call today where the facilitator asked how each participant on a global call was doing, consistent with a value of engagement and caring for each other.

How can HR balance the need to keep an eye on output while remaining flexible about how people achieve those outputs?

Tracking both outputs and inputs is a marvellous example of navigating paradox. A company has to have clear outcomes it needs to achieve, and clear processes for delivering those outcomes. HR can help by clarifying and sharing key outcomes. This means that all employees know what is expected of them to help the business succeed. HR can help translate an organisational outcome into a particular employee’s day-to-day behaviour. HR can also institutionalise outcomes (ends) and processes (means) by weaving them into the performance accountability and reward systems.

How will HR responsibilities be distributed in this environment? Will a less centralised model of HR work better?

HR in a distributed environment matters even more. First, is distributed work the right way to do work (there is a time for work to be done in a distributed way and a time for it to be done in a connected way)? Second, if a distributed work environment makes sense, HR should ensure the right processes for people (hiring and training those who can work in a distributed setting), performance (having clear accountabilities for outcomes and processes) and information (sharing the right information to make sure that work gets done).

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