Let’s not be co-workers. Let’s be co-people again.


As an avid enthusiast of organisations and the changing face of the workplace, I’ve always counted myself incredibly fortunate to be living through these amazing times. But if there was one thing over a 23 year history in some amazing companies that has been a sad byproduct of our evolution and that has been the general erosion of camaraderie within the workplace. Obsessed with new management techniques and the pace of technological change, this is an area that the Employee Engagement experts and other associated stakeholders have watched helplessly as a consequence of our times.

So for those young millennial types who we are led to believe have replaced physical relationships for virtual existences in worlds of warcraft, let me take you back to a simpler time. When I entered the fray in the early 1990s, the technology revolution was but a young child in nappies. I worked in an office with no computer on the desk and we had a typing pool. This strange concept saw a team of mature ladies whose only contact with the rest of the office was an in-tray and out-tray. The ongoing critiquing of a memo from me to the guy in accounts would take all day after 4 efforts full of different spelling mistakes and my need to keep changing my mind every time I seen the letter pop up in the queue.

As for the rest of the time, the office was just simply sublime for me. I was the office junior, completely wet behind the ears and a sponge for learning. All around me were baby booming legends with decades of experience licking envelopes with guidance inside and crafters of mind-numbingly boring manuals as part of a TQM initiative. But camaraderie was king.

Given our lack of technology and our relative levels of inefficiency given today’s shortcuts we were cheek to jowl every day. Turning up at 9am and leaving by 5.30, the day was fairly predictable – punctuated with banter, outdoor games played inside the office, lunches that were very often liquid-related and a range of characters whose personality  traits rather than professional artistry left an indelible presence with me. I laughed from start to finish, the jokes were risqué and cliquey and office visitors could sense the enormous bond that existed between us all as we lived out our days in that office in central London. All over the country this story was repeated and as a generation we took it for granted.

These times were dictated by the presence of lifelong careers, hierarchical mentalities, basic office kit and low expectations allowing groups of people to bond and stay connected in one place. We never sought to give it a label within the employee engagement text books but as we have now sucked it out of our existences, slowly pulling it back surely has to be on our people agenda given its undoubted advantages.

So, I hear you ask, why and where did it go ? The downside of the trends impacting us at a faster rate killed it stone dead as follows :

Technology, as we have all experienced, got bigger and more intrusive. The desktop pc became the focal point in the office and as the social banter subsided, the keyboards got louder.

Globalisation and the rising need for the movement of parts of our back office work to low cost countries (aided and abetted by technology plays and a thirst for outsourcing) has seen workplaces in traditional offices ripped apart as efficiency gains became the overriding strategy for some businesses without the wit to invest for growth but focus on cutting to the core.

Redundancy to me speaks of two consequences. Firstly, the very obvious short termism of companies reflected an inability to keep the skills of their workforce relevant and updated. But more coldly and clinically the arrival of the HR grim reaper, armed with a compromise agreement, enhanced payments and an increasingly employer-weighted rule book became endemic in many sectors as a quick win strategy for austerity. For those unfamiliar, it went like this :

Step 1 – Unsuspecting employee sits at desk organising his lunch appointment with his office buddy.

Step 2 – Employee receives phone call from manager to come to a meeting room on the 1st floor for a “quick chat”.

Step 3 – Employee enters room to see HR person sitting there with manager. Blood drains from employees’ face as one-way traffic takes place, paperwork in envelope gets thrust forward and pass and ID are removed. The person is eliminated from the company computer systems with a switch of a button from IT and is marched off the premises. His possessions are lifted and he is spoken of no more.

HR gets blame…..

Step 4 – Colleague doesn’t do lunch that day, the office gets distracted and the culture gives way t0 fear, anger and loathing.

Demographics, whilst I’m not going down the lazy generational debate here, it is true to say that expectations of lifelong careers growing up with the same set of people are increasingly things of the past. It’s inevitable with churn and increasingly dispersed teams of talent that forging intimate personal relationships like we did is difficult.

Finally, Estate rationalization amongst many of our larger firms were unfortunately led in a siloed manner by the property folk managing them, and the outcome was typically on producing savings for the enterprise rather than a conscious effort to manage the trends emerging. Flexible working in many of these initiatives were to encourage a withdrawal from costly real estate and make home working more palatable to the enterprise. The associated need to think about collaboration and the social space of work was not at the table that day. I’m still amazed at the misalignment between large swathes of flexible office workers and a underinvestment in conscious social collaboration efforts, leaving employees cut off in kitchens nationally with an ill-fitting support network or even social contact in some instances.

I managed to return to the scene of my camaraderie heaven recently nearly 20 years on. I was well positioned to having seen the changes around me due to my absence, as I crashed to the office floor on my knees in Charlton Heston fashion – “you fools, god damn you all to hell” . Estate had been rationalized, people were encouraged to be flexible and work from home and the old baby boomers had gone. This scene is repeated all over the country as we’ve watched social interaction replace itself with a 3 hour crafted e-mail to the guy facing you and who you don’t speak to, copying in the world to prove some point or other of being right.

So let’s be honest, this journey to killing off camaraderie has taken its time and is taking its toll. We set out on some of these courses for good, sound business sense and for others we as an HR function did the other divisions’ bidding to ensure the bottom line was improved or efficiency was delivered.

Going forward there is a need for leadership amongst the people function. The world of work will increasingly become more fragmented and potentially lonely as technology, demographics and talent shifts take place. This worries me as I believe we are still social creatures at heart and it’s important we grab the engagement agenda fully and construct barriers to the worst excesses of these trends.  To that end, I was heartened to see the CIPD and BIFM’s recent announcements of some joint working (courtesy of @SimonHeath1) and I hope they can bring enough momentum to embrace the slightly more influential members of corporate boards into a response that is truly people-centric and a proactive strategy to the fast growing trends we have allowed to dictate our changing shape of the workplace.

HR people. If you are not working at breaking down the silos with the other parts of your business and workplace ecosystem, you are not doing your job properly.

Until next time.


One thought on “Let’s not be co-workers. Let’s be co-people again.

  1. Pingback: Inside The Tent – Peeing Out | Work Musing

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