Human relations at work are not the same as HR
Twenty-first-century work is not like it was in the old days. In the UK, we have shifted from a manufacturing base to a knowledge economy. More of us now spend time at desks and in front of computers where once upon a time we might have spent our days at a workbench or a machine – or even at home looking after the kids. Lest we forget, the transition to knowledge work is a key part of the gender re-balancing of the workplace that is such a feature of modern times.
Management is not immune
And just as the nature of what we do as work has altered, the way that we work and the way we are managed has also changed radically. Open plan offices, shared breakout spaces and hot desks are all a million miles away from the days of the executive bathroom, padded office doors and reserved car parking spaces.
In the process, the business of business has become immeasurably more efficient. Modern human resource management now has access to data at all points of engagement and that means not only that businesses are able to manage the costs of their labour they are also better at the business of HR.
Once upon a time, those two little letters were liable to provoke a roll of the eyes and shake of the head, matched only by the weary smile that was reserved for “health and safety”. In fairness, HR and health and safety alike have been more stigmatised than they deserve – both are incontrovertibly necessary and neither is inherently evil.
Coming in from the cold
In contrast to the bad old days of control and command, modern work has become increasingly democratised. Serial studies have shown that successful knowledge work derives from individuals who feel invested and valued by their employers, and who feel they have a voice in shaping the decisions that govern their working lives.
There is, inevitably a balance to be struck. Someone still has to be in charge and there has been much academic criticism of so-called post-bureaucratic organising that, supposedly, disguises control in the robes of consensus. Whatever the merits of that argument, few modern workers would relish a return to the working and management practices of the previous century.
Evolving organisational ways of being
There are businesses that cut against the conventional grain. As the flagship for all things “scrum”, the WordPress organisation – an entity seemingly devoid of structure – shows that there is more than one way to achieve commercial success. The business of business management is evolving every bit as fast as the technologies that enable it.
And that again is a reflection of the technology that underpins contemporary business life. Communication is not only greater in quantity than at any point in the entire history of the human organisation, it is also richer in quality. And it is that ability to engage and co-operate as never before that is part and parcel of our modern way of working. The old days may have had their highlights, but they are not a patch on the very human working relations that knowledge workers enjoy today.
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