Where should the “Director of Work” fit into large organisations?

There are several questions mixed into this one question: what is “work”? is it different from the business itself? or, its many business units and functions? And why would “work” need its own Director? Then….where does that Director of Work best fit into any large organization? and what should they do?

I have not read the literature on this topic, of which I’m sure that someone will tell me that there is a ‘stack’…maybe not? But I would propose my own definition of “work” – it is the structured combination of tasks that a person carries out to contribute towards the achievement of specific organisational goals. Of course, these days, many of us work for several organisations at the same time. But each task is usually for one organisation at a time, or for a programme involving several organisations…which then becomes another organisation….and so on. But lets just look at an employee, in one large organisation. Lets call him, or her, Sam (could be male or female…makes life easy!)

Who advises Sam ‘how’ to work? Not, what to do – thats usually fairly clear, and dictated by line management or some form of matrix structure. But when, where, and how to work? Nobody really provides much in the way of vision, or policy, to help ensure that people are adopting ‘best practice’ ways of working.

Lets take ‘when’ to work first. Sam probably has a contract that says working hours are 0900 to 1730 (or similar), with a half-hour unpaid lunch break. But who actually works these hours, these days? Maybe some public sector workers, and union-backed employees? But most of us never take any notice of contracted hours – we work however many hours it requires to get the work done. Its all about output, not hours worked. So the Human Resources (HR) Director sets policy on working hours, but what about work outside of these hours? HR will probably say, thats down to the employee and his/her line manager. But how many line managers know how many hours their staff are working? In todays mobile, global, business environment, manager and employee may not see each other daily. How many line managers say “Hey, Sam, how many hours are you working each week? Too many, I think. You should work less, its bad for your health and creativity…”. Very few? Its up to us, isn’t it? Maybe, but who protects the vulnerable? Who makes sure that people do not overwork, get stressed, or worse. Work suffers, relationships suffer, society suffers…it needs to be managed. It needs corporate policy.

How to work and where to work used to be hard-wired to each other. But no longer, at least for most office-based, or ‘knowledge’ workers. Its a case of “have laptop, will travel”. Not all office workers need a laptop, but even desktop PCs are going ‘virtual’, so the employee can work from any desk, logging into any PC.

So lets take ‘where to work’. Sam may wake up in the morning, and start work straight away, thinking about the day, checking the BlackBerry, replying to messages. Stop for coffee and croissants, and have a shower. Then maybe a phone call or two before heading off to the office, or to a meeting somewhere else, or maybe staying put to work from home for a while. Sam’s partner probably works too, so Sam may stop for a couple of hours at 3pm to collect children from school, or visit the gym, walk the dog, or whatever. Then may work through until 8pm, before meeting friends in the pub. So what is the policy here for ‘where to work’? Maybe there doesn’t need to be one?

The problem comes back though, when one combines ‘when to work’ questions with ‘where to work’, and then looks at the most vulnerable employees. If Sam is already working too many hours, perhaps it is due to a skill shortage or lack of training. Or management problems with workload spreading. But if Sam (or manager) also has it in mind that work must be done in the office, and Sam has a 2 hours round-trip from home each day, that is simply adding to stress.

How to work is perhaps more complex again. It can be a combination of ‘when and where’, along with ‘who to work with’ at times. And at other times, ‘how to work’ can be solely the decision of the worker. Communication and visibility are often key factors. When is it necessary to have face-to-face meetings, and when can this be done in different ways – telephone, Skype, Webex, video-conferencing, etc.

Line managers are often ill-equipped to advise staff on ‘how to work’. They know what needs to be achieved, and they may (hopefully) set clear objectives and targets. But thereafter, its often, maybe mostly, down to the employee to get on with it. How much training to people get on the work tools around them? In my experience, its pretty patchy to say the least. Even diary, calendar and task management – how many people know how to use all the features of MS Outlook or Lotus Notes? But today, there are so many other software and hardware tools, from simple dial-in phone numbers to ‘Telepresence’ by Cisco and others.

Who brings together the ‘when, where and how’ of work, to set policy and options that can support employees?

HR has a role to play, for sure. But HR Directors do not set policy on ‘when, where and how’ to work. Line managers do that, to some extent. But, for the reasons discussed above, most line managers or Business Unit heads do not have the skills to advise on the options for ‘when, where and how’ to work. Or probably just as importantly, they often do not want to make decisions – they would rather avoid the issue of things like working from home, or stress of travel to work.

What actually happens, in many organisations, I would guess is a mixture of apathy and avoidance of responsibility (and therefore risk, in getting it ‘wrong’), with little support from the Exec Board. The HR department think that ‘work’ is the line managers responsibility, and the line manager is hoping that HR is dealing with any ‘human/personal’ issues that people have with their work effectiveness, stress, motivation, etc.

Enter, stage left…..the “Director of Work”

The Director of Work may sit in the line management area, under the Chief Operating Officer (COO), or under the HR area perhaps. But either way, the role would bring together the issues of ‘when where, and how to work’, looking at the vision for how the organisation should work most effectively, reviewing options, and setting policy for when these options may be most appropriate. The Director of Work would then also set a programme of training for line managers, to make sure that they have full understanding of all the options for when, where and how to work. And the human and organisational risks of getting this wrong – stress, inefficiency, morale, staff turnover, etc.

Director of Work meets Director of Workplace…

The Director of Work would be a key ally for any Director of Real Estate and Workplace Resources/FM. We all need advice on ‘ways of working’, and without it have to create our own policy by negotiation and discussion with business units and functions. The Director of Work, with a mandate from the Exec Board, would be a breath of fresh air for most RE/Workplace professionals….

Paul Carder


11 responses to “Where should the “Director of Work” fit into large organisations?

  1. Paul,
    A thought provoking piece. But I fear the introduction of this role would only lead to confusion and duplicated/overlapping responsibilities.

    My view is that it should be the Director of Real Estate/FM who should lead on this. A key part of this role is to bring new working approaches to the attention of senior business unit leaders and to seek co-operation in introducing them and setting policies for their operation. He needs to do this with the support and agreement of HR and IT Directors, the key allies in promoting the opportunity and the benefits. Whilst there may be resistance in some business areas, my experience is that by starting the process, gradually introducing it with directors who are positive, others will follow when they see the benefits for themselves. In my view there is no single solution to making best use of the workspace and people. It depends on the nature of the work. For example, flexible working is fine for people who work in technical, sales and marketing functions but arguably less so or not at all in customer contact operations, where close control of resourcing levels and customer service standards is vitally important.

    The other key element is having a property strategy that is agreed at Board level and which has the support of executive directors. This should set out a plan for efficient use of property and include high level policies relating to the introduction of flexible working that the business can adopt and develop according to the needs of the various operations within the business.

  2. Michael Docherty

    Hi there, i enjoyed reading this, and i think most of the points you raised are valid. I do think however that, for reasons of quality and risk management, what Sam does and how he or she does it shouldn’t be separated; on either a corporate and a personal level. So i consider that line management should take responsibility for both.
    I also consider that it is the responsibility of the business management structure to work with HR, FM & ICT in determining appropriate ways of working and the right tools to support them – again both for Sam’s welfare but also that of the business.
    That said i think that ‘work champions’ can be beneficial in encouraging the business to consider and adopt alternative ways of working, and in understanding the benefits and implications.

  3. And some may ask what relevance has my last post to “Where should the ‘Director of Work’ fit into large organisations?”

    If, as has been suggested, the role is created it will probably face the same trials, tribulations and barriers that are meted out to any who occupy ‘non-core’ business positions…a differentiation that to me is indicative of the tribal thinking that occurs in too many board rooms. At best, in most organisations, the incumbents will be marginalised at board level as cost, rather than profit generators.

    Property Directors and Facilities Directors who possess more than a superficial knowledge of ‘Property’ and ‘Facilities’ are few and far between. Those who do exist are often shoe-horned into those positions from previous roles in Finance/Accountacy, Economics, Law or even PR or HR, with an overriding remit to reduce financial costs rather than to improve the ‘work environment’. The position may be in many ways similar to that role defined as ‘Director of Special Projects’ historically viewed by many as a tenuous position, seated closest to the exit door of the boardroom.

    Of the many thousands of property leases in which I have been involved, only a handful have resulted in anything more than nominal and grudging compliance with the inbuilt lease covenants on both occupiers and landlords. The list of omissions and evasions is extensive. Long experience shows that non-compliances are due to two main factors.

    1. Ultimate decision-making and financial control are exercised by directors who, in the UK at least, mainly have no substantial background in Property, Facilities or Workplace Management.
    2. That decision-making is based singularly upon core cost reduction policies that translate too easily in workspace cost and space reductions and all kinds of rehashed policies that support such measures while completely ignoring the negative effects on the organisation’s people.

    The stance taken by Professor Harold Lewis is an admirable one. He has captured the essence of how corrupt the systems of corporate governance have become in too many organisations that are led either by greed, self-interest and/or stock market expectations that demand ever ‘better’ financial ratios.

    The message is that we can all do the basic arithmetic that will support budgettary cuts but the whole system of ‘profit at any cost’ stands squarely against those who so much as question it.

    So is such a role a tenable one? Superficially, yes.

  4. The previous comments only serve to show how inadequate the existing roles of Property/FM and HR directorates are at addressing these issues. IT are also inappropriate to foster the changes that Boards need to take account of – they have a main concern over ensuring IT performance remains paramount and a such are cautious in creating changes. The importance of Workplace Management needs an experienced, successful business Strategist and arguably should be in the Corporate Planning/Strategy unit. Workplace Management Strategy should be an accurate reflection of the Corporate Visions. In my view, Workplace Management is going to be a strong element in the reinvention of corporate businesses following the economic crises we are experiencing. The recent book by Ringland, Sparrow and Lustig “Beyond Crisis” is worth reading on this subject.

  5. Firstly they should not ‘direct’ unless they have substantial experience (not theory) of working from the bottom upwards for a substantial number of years.

    In starting such an exercise there are substantial risks of creating another ‘Island of Management’ empire; uninformed generalists yet again negating the opinions and expertise of other professionals (professional trespass) and even more arrogance of the uninformed. All these negatives are easily found in many large organisations today…too many chiefs fiddling while Rome burns???

  6. An interesting idea.
    If I understand correctly, the Director would combine elements of Human Resources (job design and performance assessment) Operations and CRE/FM (workplace design).
    Setting aside arguments about politics and organizational structure, for the moment. If nothing else, getting an organization to think about work in these terms would be a huge step toward addressing the tensions that often cripple effective delivery of working environments (writ large).

    Great idea – where do I sign up?

  7. I think in larger organizations this position might have potential. The pitfall would be the fact that it could be viewed as a cost generating function and therefore have limited ability to gain traction in the board room. Especially during economic downturns. Like the FM function, this position would be hard pressed to prove it’s worth by showing an ROI for it’s efforts.

    In smaller corporations, this position would probably be a luxury not afforded. Therefore, I think one component we’re missing is creating line management development programs that include this skill as part of every leader’s job expectation. Often, “when and how to work” is dictated by the work itself, the goals and objectives of the team as well as their geographic and even demographic specifics. Like performance management, all managers need to have training in this discipline so they have the tools to properly manage their Team’s work. It can be very specific from work group to work group. Possibly with too many variables for a one size fits all program. The line manager is in the best position to evaluate which common or best practices apply to her Team’s situation, if they have the expertise to evaluate it. In smaller organizations, without the luxury of a Director of Work, the development of this program would probably fall on HR.

  8. Let’s make it ‘Director of Business Services’.

    • why?? thats just yet another title?? and one that is not even in common useage in many companies, in my experience….
      I don’t see the link between “business services” and the discussion about “work”…..regards, P

  9. John – thanks for the thoughtful reply. Some of this line management training is now happening I believe, especially with development of online tools to help such as http://www.e-work.com/
    You may know Kate North at e-work? If not, I can introduce you.

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