One would assume that in a country like India where our forefathers (and mothers) have fought hard to gain independence and set up a democratic nation, the principles of democracy would extend to workplaces as well. While in principle, as business leaders, we all would like to believe that we have created democratic workplaces where every individual has a voice and is given freedom to operate and perform, the reality unfortunately is different. As they say, ‘Every father is a potential dynast,’ and so is every manager and business leader.
Data says merely 30% of employees believe that they have the right channels and means to reach out to their leaders. Hardly 40% would accept their workplace to be truly diverse, and even fewer vouch for fairness and equality.
Even if we discount these numbers as mere opinions, it still establishes the fact that a lot more needs to be done for creating democratic workplaces. George Mason in 1775 said, “We came equals into this world, and equals shall we go out of it.” Equality, therefore, is an important pillar of democracy, which unfortunately is not reflecting at our workplaces. But what does a democratic workplace mean? Does it mean widespread equity and freedom, or does it mean that every decision is taken by the permission of the employees? Would it not reduce the speed and agility with which businesses operate, and what about quality? Won’t democracy mean that employees might do away with lesser quality deliverables, just because the power of decisions lies with them?
The larger question that we face was asked by John Gardner in his 1961 publication, ‘Can we be equal and excellent too?’ Let me use his principles and some key insights from my entrepreneurial journey at
of working with leading enterprises of Asia to answer how we can create ‘democratic workplaces’. The word democracy comes from two Greek words: demos = people and kratos = rule, meaning ‘rule by the people’. Experts say democracy is made up of few principles — while their views might differ in some places, the most widely accepted principles are: Pluralism (acceptance of diversity of thoughts), equality in existence, right to petition. And all of this governed by elements of a civil society. Now when we apply these principles at work, we create workplaces where voices are heard, and equity is generated for all the employees alike, while maintaining agility and quality of work. Almost sounds surreal, but achievable if we take Robert Winthrop’s advice, “Nothing is owed to parentage or patronage.” But how do organisations create such an ecosystem? Here’s what we have learnt from our customers, which include organisations like Aditya Birla Capital, SingLife (Singapore), V Mart, True Corporation (Thailand), Compass, and many more:
* Pluralism — encouraging diversity in thoughts and actions: While over the past few years, diversity and inclusion have come up as an organisation’s agenda, it is still restricted to large enterprises who have budgets and time to spare. Even in most of the large enterprises, the definition of diversity at work is limited to bringing more women. We need to change that. Accepting pluralism at work means having people with different mindsets in the organisation and creating systems and processes where all of them are equally empowered to contribute towards the growth of the organisation. It is about creating a safe and conducive workplace where everyone can disagree, but still work together without feeling unsafe. As we adopt the “new code of work, the scientists and artists would need to collaborate for creating organisation’s success and democratic workplaces”.
* Equality — enable productivity without hierarchy: Remember the game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ we all played as children? Something completely different was communicated than what was originally intended. Hierarchies are similar in that way — they are slow, stall innovation and creativity, and are not made to deliver results in today’s world. Many HR principles and systems originated from military operations in world wars: It’s time to drop them. Especially while managing a workforce that is young, unapologetic and respects logic more than legacy hierarchical structures. So, the problem to solve is what Gardner eluded to, that equalitarianism and competitive performance are often in conflict, but doesn’t diminish our fondness for both. Therefore, the new code of work calls for three key elements to address the equality and performance paradigm:
1) A collaborative environment where teams or squads can come together on a short notice and deliver results.
2) It calls for easy access of information across all levels of hierarchy and it calls upon the ‘do-ers’ to take data-driven decisions and own their performance. For instance, in hiring, tests are not popular, but these assessments don’t see social status or belief systems, rather only intellectual gifts. Every year, the India Skills Report reiterates this notion of fairness that assessments bring in the world of fresher’s hiring.
3) In addition to this, the need for two-way communication is paramount. If as business leaders we are not able to provide channels for people to express freely, the chances of an engaged workforce get reduced significantly.
* Ecosystem that delivers in an organisation (Microcosm of civil society): 1) Measure what matters, outcomes — Derived from the title of a beautiful book by John Doerr, it offers an intelligent insight into the world of performance management at work. If there was ever a time in the history of businesses when performance management was crucial, it is now. And if as business leaders, we still believe that annual appraisal cycles are relevant, we need a wake-up pill. The evolving market demands businesses to translate their long-term & short-terms goals into actionables. A unique way to set high-performing goals is OKRs (objectives & key results). First coined & implemented by Andy Grove and popularised by John Doerr, OKRs officially became famous after their successful implementation at Google and many marquee organisations. This brings me to a very relevant quote from Gardner, “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
2) Enable achievement without boundaries: Not only work but workplaces too — anybody can be somebody. Work-from-home, freelancing, part-time jobs, gigs and more — People are demanding greater flexibility from workplaces. Traditional boundaries and time limits are no longer the yardsticks for measuring performance. With the concept of shared workplaces coming in (WeWork, myHQ, Skootr, etc), people are collaborating on ideas and working in newer ways than before. More so, in current times when the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed organisations to trust their people and bring in more democracy by enabling them to work remotely.
The world witnessing an upsurge in use of video-conferencing and collaboration tools for better productivity. The meaning of a workplace is now extending to any conceivable place a person can work from. Jose Marter famously said, “Mountains culminate in peaks and nations in men”. The same is true for workplaces too. It is up to us whether we would like to disrupt or be disrupted as the new world of work, also known as the new code of work, hits us.