A Human Face for a Giant Workplace

Posted by Sally Dellow
19 Mar

Have Millenials and Generation Z got it right? They’re asking for human-scale connection, trust and creativity in their work and workplaces. The challenge is how to provide that in today’s giant, global hierarchies.

At Dramatic Difference, we serve many giant global clients, but we are (by choice) a very small team: Katherine Sum, Steven Peng and I are based in Hong Kong, Sean Worrall runs our practice in Singapore, and Alistair Scott holds the fort in London [Dramatic Difference Team]. Beyond that, we work entirely through long-standing collaborative partners, a global circle that is fiercely independent and intensely collaborative. We come together as needed in the service of a shared goal, united by shared values and high trust in each other’s talents, skills and positive intentions.

If I look at the backgrounds, nationalities, and skillsets we deploy (from our coaching team, facilitators and actors through to our accountant, travel agent, building contractor, delivery van driver, IT specialist and printer), we are a diverse — and deeply loyal — group. We have relationships that sustain over time and geography. We field teams for clients that cover Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, London, New York, and cities across the Middle East…

Yet we have no bonuses or promotions to offer our talent. We are all driven by interest in what we do, by service to our clients, by learning and personal/professional growth; we practice radical transparency, and we actively seek ways to enjoy working together, build trust and value each other not in spite of our differences, but because of them.  People don’t work for us, they work with us.

This collaborative spirit, creativity and cost-effectiveness are features of the entrepreneurial gig economy at its simplest and best. At my age it makes me chuckle to realise that I was such an early practitioner of this trend!

With everything we hear in our client organisations about “the war for talent” and the “difficulties of managing millennials and Generation Z”, I find myself asking how to make large companies more gig-like. This is because young professionals are in search of a different corporate model, characterised by a sense of purpose, personal care and visibility, direct experiential learning, and a collaborative circle where they can take responsibility, try, fail, learn and try again. They are increasingly unwilling to mould their futures around traditional organisational frameworks, pyramids and matrix structures. I don’t buy the tired complaint that they are “too entitled” and expect to get to the top without the effort of climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, I think they are walking the talk of their own idealism and choosing to burrow out the foundations of the corporate pyramid to flatten it – making the ladder irrelevant.

I’m way too old to be a Millennial; my children are Generation Z… Yet I identify closely with the working values of today’s young professionals. I have long been a believer in work/life integration, and in quality growth not just quantity growth. Thriving at work leads to creativity and is rooted in the motivational sense of autonomy and human connection. Most professionals I meet (of all ages) admit they’d like to have more of their heart in their work.

In the words of one of our favourite collaborators, Neil Crofts, of Holos: “Threat is the change you’re not leading.”  The war to recruit, retain and sustain talent is a huge threat to (and an exciting opportunity for) large organisations.  Can these mighty pyramids find ways to mimic the gig economy, become less hierarchical (in both mindset and structure), provide a sense of agility and regain some personal touch? Collaborative clusters, huddles, scrums, self-managing teams, reverse mentoring and smaller more autonomous work/business units are some of the avenues being explored by companies wanting both human scale and global reach…

What more is possible?  Please share your thoughts and ideas.