CIPD Annual Conference 2021: Businesses have ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to change the world of work, says Gratton

London Business School professor kicks off this year’s newly hybrid event by urging HR to start thinking about long-term redesign

Businesses have a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to reimagine how people work, Professor Lynda Gratton has told delegates at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.

In her opening keynote address, Gratton, who is professor of management practice at London Business School, said the dynamics of the labour market were “absolutely in our favour” when it came to rethinking and restructuring the future of work.

“When nobody leaves, it's easy for your CEO to say, ‘why do we need to do anything differently?’” said Gratton. “[But] 50 per cent of your people are now looking for a new job; there's a massive surge in digital investment; and that's going to really help what we do.”

Despite the massive disruption caused over the last two years by the pandemic, Gratton said there were still long-term changes – not least a changing demographic caused by people living longer – that HR departments need to start thinking about.

“By January, if you're not doing stuff about the long-term redesign of work, you're not doing your job properly,” she said.

But, she warned, while it was important to listen to what employees want from future working arrangements, the focus had to be on productivity. “If what you do now doesn't increase productivity… it will all be pulled out again, probably about this time next year,” she said, citing the sudden decision by Yahoo in 2013 to end all remote working after deciding it wasn’t working for the company.

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“Yahoo at one stage said everybody can work from home whenever they want. And then the CEO said, ‘Hang on, creativity and productivity have gone down. So everybody's got to come back into the office tomorrow.’” said Gratton. “So you've got to focus on productivity, everything that you now do to redesign work has got to help make people be more productive.”
Similarly, when businesses think about how they use their offices in the future, productivity needs to be front and centre. Open plan offices are not good for focused work, Gratton said. “You went into the office… [and] because they're all open plan… you and your employees put your headphones on and you worked on your computer.
“So if you want to make the office worthwhile, it's got to be more than [...] a place that people go and put the headphones on. It's got to be a place where you actually celebrate people coming together,” said Gratton. “This is particularly important for younger employees for whom mentoring, coaching [and] induction are crucial.”
Gratton urged HR professionals to be imaginative about how they change the way their companies work, but also suggested they ask themselves two questions: What are the principles that are going to guide 
the organisation, and what are the characteristics of the organisation that need to be protected.
“That is your signature. That’s the thing that differentiates you from other organisations [and] as we move out of the pandemic, my prediction is we will see a much greater variety between organisations in terms of the deal,” she said.
Opening the conference, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said that over the last two years the expectations of the workforce have changed.
“People have stood back from their day-to-day and reflected: is this good for me? Is the organisation looking after me? Are they engaging with me? Supporting me? Connecting with me?” he said. “If we’re not meeting those expectations as organisations maybe we will see a much more significant resignation.”
Cheese added that there was also a renewed emphasis on wellbeing. “Over the last few decades, we lost sight of a lot of those things”, he said. “It was much more about efficiency and people as costs and units of production.
“Now we’re coming back to the reality that this is about humanity, human beings. And central to the idea of humanity and human beings is the idea of wellbeing,” he said.