Stop Thinking of Flexible Working as a Perk - Forbes Contributor, Matt Ballantine

Stop Thinking of Flexible Working as a Perk - Forbes Contributor, Matt Ballantine

E1 S2 - Talk Roleshare Podcast

"Stop thinking of 'roleshare' or 'flexible working' as a benefit, and start thinking of it as another model of business practice. It's just a tool available for people and organizations to operate."
- Forbes Contributor, Matt Ballantine

We talk to Matt Ballantine, a "no non-sense" writer, technology consultant, and sociology aficionado. Matt is an author and contributing writer to Forbes where he often writes about the future of work with insights on sustainable and fulfilling ways of working. Matt is passionate about how we can bring "play" back into work to surface ideas, experiments, and innovation. For the last 6 years, he has been advising CIO, CTOs, Heads of HR on how to work better together.


Episode Transcript

Sophie Smallwood: Hey, this is Talk with Roleshare, I'm Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare.com. Today we talk with Matt Ballantine, a no-nonsense writer, technology consultant and sociology aficionado. Matt is an author and contributing writer to Forbes, where he often writes about the future of work with insights on sustainable and fulfilling ways of working. Matt is passionate about how we can bring play back into work in organizations to surface ideas, experiments and innovation. For the last six years, he's been advising CIOs, CTOs, heads of H.R. on how to work better together. Here's Matt.

Matt Ballantine: There are themes around how do you get people thinking about how they come up with new ideas, how they collaborate with those new ideas, how they start to experiment with those ideas and how they can do all of that in ways that aren't typical. The standard operating model within large corporations, which is you have a long extended business case analysis phase where you assess the feasibility and the general sense of an idea and then you make a massive commitment to it before you start doing anything. And that model works if you're doing things that you know where the outcomes are going to be, if you're manufacturing a car and you want to manufacture a new car, you know all the mechanics of how car manufacturing works for the most part. So, therefore, you can retool and you put in a new model and all is good. If you're dealing with entirely new realms, if you're dealing with digital transformation, if you're dealing with how people operate in new ways, remote working, flexible working, whatever, nobody knows how this stuff works. And so doing business case analysis to hypothesize about known states when the states are unknown is bonkers. But big organizations are so hardwired to work in that kind of way that it's been a lot of what I do is help them to find different ways to better work around that.

Sophie Smallwood: Right. So it's always sort of working against the legacy thinking. In essence, to me, it seems like you have this incredible career portfolio. It started at your A-levels and it's continued ever since and feels as though this is what it will take anyway to survive. And the future of work is people are going to have to be quite diverse and flexible and agile, and it might become less about like very, very specialized skills, but more about like, how do you reinvent yourself? How do you learn as much as possible in order to equip yourself with a diverse career portfolio? If you think about how people invest money today, it's always about diversification. I think it's going to be the same thing when it comes to your career and your place in the workforce. So tell me a bit about when we initially connected. I reached out to you. I was interested in some of your focus because you focused a lot on your background, sociology, technology. But the fact that you also write about flexible working, remote working and future work. But what was it about our startup and what we are in essence, looking to solve that piqued your interest?

Sophie Smallwood: It's a funny one. This piece of research I was doing last week, it seems to me there are three mindsets when it comes to the question, can we meet up for coffee? The first mindset is I will never say yes to anybody who asks me to meet up for coffee. And those are the sorts of people who often will ask to meet up with others for coffee. They're takers. Adam Grant's give and take is a very simple model, is givers, takers and matchers. So takers are people who basically, they're selfish. They will extract from you and they probably won't give. There are matchers. So people who are matchers will always look to see what reciprocation is likely as a result of anything that they do. And so if you say to them, can we meet up for a coffee and you don't give a reason, they'll probably say no. Or they might look you up on LinkedIn and see if they think that there is some sort of value to them meeting with you and then maybe they'll say, yes. You don't actually need with matchers to be able to give them much of a reason. I found saying 'I'd like to interview you for my podcast' or 'I'd like to interview you for my book', is often is enough of a reason for matchers to be able to say yes to an unsolicited request for a meeting. And then there are givers, people who will on the basis of karma or just because actually you can never know what will come out of a meeting, because if you try to pre-assess it on all the evidence that you have ahead of you, you're probably going to be wrong. And so it's worth saying yes to things because you may well find something interesting. You just never know. So for me, effectively, my route to market is based around the strength of my network. It's always worth saying yes because I never know what will come out of it. And if nothing else, there's somebody else I know. There's a guy called Rory Sutherland, he works for Ogilvy. He's one of their presidents or something ludicrous like that. I saw him speak last week and something that he said about was a very simple idea, but I think very profound, which is when you add somebody to your network, if you meet somebody new, it's not just additive, it's exponential. Because by getting to know somebody new implicitly, you are getting to know all the people they know as well.

Sophie Smallwood: Right. So it sounds to me you're saying you're the giver type.

Matt Ballantine: Yes, absolutely.

Sophie Smallwood: Yeah, I am too. I think I like this mindset of you just never know. I sort of like to think of myself as like a rainmaker a bit, being a connector. I enjoy connecting people and I also enjoy being connected. And part of me is like time management is extremely important. So there's always this conflict of like being a giver. But also how do you manage time management?

Matt Ballantine: This point about how you manage your time. We have become constrained into the idea and I think Network Diaries Outlook have forced us all to think that it's all a matter of being able to logically put things into boxes and have everything pre-planned, and that's the style of working, but it's not a style of working that suits everybody. Interestingly, I think that actually a lot of the technology that we have that supposedly is to make our lives more productive, are making us less spontaneous, making it harder to be able to get things done. It makes us stuck in traps around firefighting. And interesting, that particular thing, that metaphor of firefighting that's used a lot in organizations. I'm too busy to do that because I'm firefighting. And I've had a hunch for a while that actually it's a bad metaphor. And I last week got round to actually talking to a former firefighter to test that theory. And sure enough, it wasn't quite as I thought. But most of the time that firefighters spend at work, they're spending time practicing fire fighting, not firefighting, because if they just went out and fire fought completely in a reactive way, as this guy put it, it would be like one of those fire engines that arrives at a circus with the clowns in it. The walls would fall off and they'd be squirting water at each other and it'd just be an utter disaster. And what he said when he hears people in white-collar, knowledge-based jobs talking about fire fighting, that's what it brings up for him. This isn't fire fighting. This is clowns in a fire engine. And the thing about how actually we don't manage our time for productivity, we manage our time for efficiency of the diary, I think is a really big issue in organizations at the moment. And it's one that is almost entirely as a result of the technology that was supposed to make us more productive.

Sophie Smallwood: So how do we move away from needing to fire fight? Is the responsibility on the team? Is the responsibility on the individual? Because if firefighting is reactive, how do we move toward more practical way of working?

Matt Ballantine: There is a leap of faith required, and was part of the reason why I chatted with this guy last week, because I wanted to be able to explore a bit more about can we take that metaphor to be able to turn it into something more compelling. Something I've noticed in the past, there's lots of sports metaphors used in the world of work, and they're pretty useless because sport works to a set of codified rules everybody is clear about. And often, actually the sport is about how close to those rules can you get without actually breaking them. If you look at modern business, nobody actually knows what the rules are anymore for the most part. There's a certain set of regulation you have to comply by. But the rules of how your market operates aren't set down. They aren't codified. Nobody's people work to precedent that don't work to a set of rules. And moreover, if you look at the work of a professional sportsman, just like the work of a professional firefighter, professional sports people spend their time mostly practicing, to then perform on the day. And there is something really remiss in modern organizational thinking where we've heard of the 70, 20, 10 rule of learning and development, which is that 70 percent of your learning should be done in the work that you do. But this idea that actually people shouldn't spend too much time in structured learning, they should be spending their time actually learning on the job. The thing is, we never get the time to be able to reflect on what we are doing. We never get the time to be able to have the debriefing. We never get the time to be able to say, how did that go? What can we learn from it? And there are little bits of that built into things like agile methods. But this tends to get neglected. This sort of benefits management was supposed to be about this in the nineties, but none of that really ever happened because nobody cares once the project's been launched and it's actually being able to step back and say, what are we here to do? What are the things that we are doing? And how are we going to let a few plates drop so that we can make sure that we're spinning the right ones? Because if you don't make that assessment at some point, you're never going to break out of these reactive traps. And the reality is, as we all know, we can go on holiday and the world doesn't collapse. We can have colleagues leave the organization and the world doesn't collapse. But we try to make ourselves feel too important by thinking that everything we do is so vital and that nobody can survive without us and it's all so damn important. The reality is, it's not, and you've got to take a few risks, as you and I have spoken about, the idea of being able to take calculated risks, but to take some risks and not think that everything has to be delivered and everything has to be reacted to because you drive yourself mad that way.

Sophie Smallwood: Right. And it's sort of this idea of letting go, right. Being able to let go a little bit in order to be more agile. And this sort of moves nicely into this idea of role sharing. So when two individuals share a role and it's a type of flexible working, they have to let go. Each person has to let go a little bit. You can't be overly controlling, right, because you're actually splitting the role with another person. And at the same time, you need to be agile because you're working with another individual, that person might have a little bit of a different way of working, and you need to be open to learning. I think what you mention here about the 70, 20,10, makes me think a lot about learning and development. And I've always found that I learned well by doing and I learn well by learning from others as well, like having other colleagues teach me how to do something, watching them do something. And I find that this is something that works quite well in a role share, as I like to call it, a micro-team. But moving into this concept of teams and roles, when you think about the future of roles, what do you think that will look like in five to ten years?

Matt Ballantine: The first thing is, never predict the future because it's a fool's game. I can tell you what it will look like tomorrow and that will be pretty much as it is today. Beyond that is dangerous. If I put it into the context of where I see challenges in organizations at the moment and I know within where you talk about role sharing, you talk about this concept of micro-teams. I think one of the challenges for modern, large, matrixed organizations is that people no longer know the teams in which they work. And the challenge I foresee for role sharing particularly will be if people don't know the teams they are in now, then adding yet another team into the mix is going to make that even more challenging. I've got a very simple starting question, when I do consulting with teams to help them think about how they can work more effectively together, and the first question is where do you work?

And I have a wonderful hypothesis which can't be tested without the invention of a time machine, which is my favorite sort of hypothesis. And that hypothesis that if you'd ask that question 20, 25 years ago when I started working, you would have had a much more restrictive range of answers to that, than you do today, because as organizations start to adopt different sorts of flexible work in practice, it becomes an increasingly esoteric question to answer where do you work? And so the sorts you'll get, you'll get organizational, I work at the university or I work for Smith and Co., I work for the Department of Trade and Industry. You'll get answers that are about a particular sector. So I work in finance, or I work in government, I work in the media. You'll get responses that are geographic, I work in London, I work in Basingstoke. You'll get responses that are geographic but not specific. So I work at home, I work in the office, I work on the train. You'll get responses to that question, which will be about mindset almost. I work in my head, I work anywhere. And then you get ones that are, increasingly actually, you get responses that are technological. I work in Outlook, I work in Excel, I work on the telephone.

So there's a huge breadth of answers to the question about where do you work? If you then say in which team do you work? And I haven't tested this one as much. But my hunch is most people will respond to that, usually by saying their line management group. I work in the IT projects team. The IT projects team itself will be a group of people who report to the head of IT projects. And actually they never work together. They have a common interest in that they have similar sorts of work and they report to the same boss. But other than that, there's nothing in common that they have. They actually work in many teams. They'll be working on one or more projects at any given time. They'll be working, maybe doing some service improvement about how they deliver their projects. They'll be working in teams that are about sitting on committees, decision-making groups, project boards, steering groups, all of these kind of things.

And at any given time for the average knowledge worker, you find yourself in a half dozen, a dozen teams. And those different teams have different characteristics as well and the needs of those sorts of teams. The project is very different from a service delivery team. A group of people who are there to be able to provide relationship management is very different to a group of people brought together to sit on a project board. And I think that the challenge that we will have over the next five to ten years is that complexity is going to get even greater and people are going to wonder what the hell is going on, because we all think we know the answer to questions like where do you work or in which team do you work? But not until you actually collectively start asking those questions and allowing people to be able to understand different perspectives and come to consensus about what the answers might be. Do you have any chance of teams actually working effectively? Because if you don't know what teams you're in and what the teams are there to do, how the hell can the team operate?

Sophie Smallwood: It's really interesting. So you made me think a lot about Simon Sinek just now and why we should start with why. And I started to think in the future, will it be that it won't be so much about the where because the where will no longer be an issue we're already moving towards, you know, people working sort of from anywhere, or at least that's becoming a much, much more accepted notion. And companies that aren't on the boat are going to very fast fall behind in attracting talent.

Matt Ballantine: So I think the where will be an issue. I think the where will be an increasing issue. Because whilst we are able to adopt technology to enable us to work geographically from anywhere, that's not the same as thinking about the answers to the question, where do you work? And that working practices, and particularly management style has got a long way to go in most organizations to catch up with the reality of the fact that people aren't in the office every day, 9:00 to 5:00. So I think we've got quite a lot to go before the promise of being able to work anywhere becomes a reality. Also until I see offices designed primarily around group activity rather than individual activity. If you go into most offices today, you will find open-plan space that is devoted to row upon row upon row of desks where people travel to be able to sit in splendid isolation, wearing a headset, either conference calls or listening to music to block out the madness around them because their walls have been taken away. And then they will be having meetings with people on conference calls whilst in these physical spaces that have been designed to be to allow people to work independently on their own. That's bonkers. Utterly bonkers.

Sophie Smallwood: Yeah, it's really interesting you say this, because on one hand, I completely agree with you on the where and the challenge with sort of managing the where. And I find that a lot of the hurdles to enabling flexible working, and there's a number, but line managers and their concerns around how to manage individuals who want to work flexibly, yet remote, in a role share capacity, part-time, whatever it may be, line managers are definitely one of the biggest hurdles to making that happen. So the where in that sense completely makes sense. The other thing, too, is why are we doing the roles that we are doing as opposed to the what? What is your role? Might be irrelevant then, Why have you been doing those types of roles? What are your strengths? What is your experience? And that might become hopefully in the future more of the thing as opposed to the single title that you get.

Matt Ballantine: Yeah, and I think that one of the interesting things, if you look at the H.R. profession at a time when probably to my mind, we need help more than ever before in concepts like Role Design, H.R. are off looking at nonsense concepts like H.R. analytics, talent management and employer brand. They're completely distracted with other things and core competency of how to go about helping organizations to be able to put structures in place and roles in place that make sense for the organization, but most importantly make sense for the employee, because at the moment organizations tend to be able to define roles almost exclusively from the perspective of what is it that we are trying to do?, not, Is this something that anybody would want to be able to do as a job? For as long as there's that disconnect, there's this massive hurdle that actually the people who have responsibility for this in organizations are distracted, doing nonsense with wellness programs. Don't even get me started on wellness programs.

Sophie Smallwood: It all comes down to economics. If there is economic value in wellness, then it makes sense for companies. I mean, come on. Wellness is important, right? We all want to be happy in what we do.

Matt Ballantine: Absolutely. But wellness is important once you have sorted out providing fulfilling jobs. If you are not providing fulfilling jobs, wellness isn't a cure to the symptoms of crap job design.

Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. Ok, that makes sense. Totally right. Having a role that gives you purpose, that's fulfilling, that's in line with your strengths, as opposed to just having a kitchen filled with granola bars.

Matt Ballantine: Exactly.

Sophie Smallwood: Yeah, completely agree. Absolutely. I mean, listen, I like not having to spend money on food, but what's more important to me is having a career that feels in line with my passions and my values and my strengths, completely agree. You said something that I love, which is people don't know their teams and you talked a bit about that. But from a micro-team perspective, people who share roles, actually we find that of the teams that have been doing this, when they have success, is they genuinely like each other. And it's not that they've spent years getting to know each other, but there's just a likeability. You know, when you meet someone, whether or not you like them. I like you, Matt. You're cool. You and I, we jive. Right. So and it's not like we spent a whole lot of time together. You can find that out pretty quickly based on energy and sort of common values and some other things, perhaps. But I'd love for you to touch a bit on that based on your background and knowledge is how can teams get to know each other better? both from a core team of five people to a greater cross-functional team to a micro-team.

Matt Ballantine: So I think the smaller the team, the easier it is, because the two numbers that stick in my head with this are the seven plus or minus two, which is the number of things you can hold in your short term memory at any given time. And then 148, which is Dunbar's number, the seven plus or minus two. If you've got five, up to most nine people in the team, everybody can have a reasonable idea about what everybody is up to any given time. So you don't need to have overbearing process and structure in place for everybody to know what the other is up to. Once you get above around seven people, you start to get into a gray area where you need to be able to put structure in place, but nobody can see the point of it until you get up to about 150, which is the number 148 Dunbar's number, which is the number of sustained network connections that the human brain can cognitively cope with, more or less. Once you're above 150 into that sort of size of organization, having structure and process and all the rest of it is just a no-brainer because not everybody can know what everybody is up to. When it comes to thinking about what practically can a team do. I've been working quite a lot to be able to help people think about how they operate more effectively as a team. And the starting point is say who are you?, who do you as a group interact with? And what are the things that you are doing with those people that you interact with? And spending a couple of hours just mapping that out on the tabletop to be able to get people to see the complexity and the breadth of who everybody is working with. And just by going through that exercise, you find that people are able to challenge misconceptions, to be able to come to consensus about how things are today. But at that point, actually, I sort of jokingly have talked about the idea of homoeopathic IT in the past, which is where you do all of the actions around IT without delivering actually any technology. And actually just by going in and getting people to talk about how they work, can make a massive difference to actually how that group of people work together. And then beyond that, the work that I do with people is then to be able to say, OK, well, here's how you're working at the moment, where are the pain points, where are the challenges, where are the opportunities and then maybe how bits of technology might be able to help you better do things. But getting the time and space just to sit down and say, how are we working today? Can be all that's needed to be able to help a team work more effectively, as far as I can tell.

Sophie Smallwood: And do you think that that applies to a micro-team? So say you were having coffee with two people who want to share a role and they want to pick your brain on advice on how they should go about almost building a plan that they can share with their line manager and H.R. to share a role. What type of advice would you give them?

Matt Ballantine: Again, because the challenge with role shares isn't the getting the work done. The challenge is managing the relationships. So actually starting with the relationship map to say here's us, here are the people around us, here are the people that we interact with, here are the things we need to interact with them about. So therefore, this is how it's going to work. Either these people here, I've got stronger relationships. These people here, you've got stronger relationships. So therefore, let's divvy it up that way, or there's enough commonality about what we do at the moment to be able to enable us to manage both. Or we've got different professional specialties and that needs different call at different points. If you've got a query about X then I'll deal with it, if you've got a query about Y, then you'll deal with it. But just getting that laid out into some sort of pictorial form to be able to say here is who we need to be able to interact with. I think that is as good a starting place as any. Probably more important than starting by thinking about role, unless you've got very mechanical skills that need to be delivered.

Sophie Smallwood: That's a good point. But what about if one person is in essence, not part of the organization already?

Matt Ballantine: Yes, it's the same deal that I mean, you just start off by saying, well, here's how the map works at the moment. How might we approach? Is it expertise-based? Is it business-area based, business background based? Is it about personalities that you're likely to get on with? But I'm guessing that how we're going to manage the flow of information in and out, until you've actually mapped out what that flow looks like, you go immediately from hypothetical to having something you can actually talk about and start to think about how that might actually function.

Sophie Smallwood: Gotcha. Now, when it comes to sharing a role today, if you look at just the fortune, one hundred top companies, about forty percent of them offer shared roles or job share as a perk officially. But adoption is still relatively low. So why is that? Is there something that's top of mind that we're not aware of with the decision-makers when it comes to shared roles? What should people be thinking about around this type of flexible working in order to drive higher adoption?

Matt Ballantine: So two things. The first thing is, as you described it, as a perk, that mentality has got to change. That's like saying we use offices as a perk. It's crackers, it's not a perk. It's just a tool that is available for people to be able to extend how they operate and organizations how they operate as much as the individuals involved. So stopping thinking of it as a benefit and starting to think of it as just another model of business practice, like organizing things in projects or running stuff in office spaces or whatever else. The second thing is, although a large proportion of the fortune, whatever, saying they're doing it, how many people at top levels are doing it, how many chief executives are doing job shares, how many people at C suite level are doing job shares and the answer to that is very low. And of course, the answer to that also is if you look at the diversity and the rest is also still shockingly bad at the most senior levels in organizations. So role modeling from the top and stopping thinking of this as being some sort of perk and instead thinking of it as just a tool for how you organize your organization for me, very straightforward ways to be able to start really making an impact with role sharing.

Sophie Smallwood: I personally have never thought about it that way, that actually it shouldn't be considered a perk. Other people had mentioned role modeling before, and I thought that absolutely it makes sense. But how you see it and the perception is important.

Matt Ballantine: Absolutely. Because what it also does is it leads people to feel trapped in roles. And I'll just put up with it now because I don't believe that anybody else will offer me this because I'm being told this is a perk to my job.

Sophie Smallwood: Yeah.

Matt Ballantine: And then you end up with disaffected employees who don't want to be there. That's the worst place to be.

Sophie Smallwood: And that was Matt Ballantine. I find his point of view so real and refreshing. I have this urge to shout "yes, yes!" to almost everything he's saying. I love challenging the perception of flexibility as a perk. And that actually should be, duh, of course. Why wouldn't we do this? It totally makes sense. Just look at the numbers. Yeah, well, that's what's missing. We need numbers. We need to prove the productivity gain for companies of the various ways of working flexibly. And we can't bucket them all into one, part-time remote working, four days a week, role sharing. These are all different ways of working with different benefits. I'm Sophie Smallwood, co-founder of Roleshare.com. Thanks for listening and join us for the next episode of Talk with Roleshare.


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