5 keys to high performance in today’s workplace

Josh Bersin discusses the five key changes HR can implement to ensure business performance flourishes in today’s new world of work

High performance in today’s workplace is increasingly difficult. People are flooded with emails, text messages, conference calls and meetings (we call this “the overwhelmed employee” problem, which almost three-quarters of companies cite as an urgent challenge).

Managers have broader spans of control than ever before (our research shows spans of control of 14 and higher for many first line managers). And the increasingly global nature of business means that work, collaboration and customer activities happen 24 hours a day.

Adding to these changes in the workplace is the fact that many managers are not very good at helping people set goals, providing regular feedback, and giving people the development they need. And as a result of many of these factors, the annual performance appraisal process is also under attack: our latest research showed that only 8 per cent of the companies we surveyed felt their annual performance review process was worth the time they were putting into it.

What are we going to do? How do high performance companies manage this new world of work? What are the keys to high performance today?

Five key changes for achieving high performance

Let me cite five key changes to achieve success from our research:

  1. Empower small teams. Small teams often outperform big ones, when managed well. Fred Brooks, a historic manager in IBM software, found in the 1980s that the more people you put onto a software project the slower it became. This finding has been translated into the agile software movement, where small teams work together closely every day to build new systems.
    The same is true in other parts of business. A small (less than 10 people), highly empowered team led by a hands-on manager can communicate well, set its own goals, and create a highly engaging environment for everyone. Jeff Bezos calls this the “two pizza rule” – if there are more than two pizzas in the room for lunch, the team is too big.
  2. Develop hands-on managers. Leadership today takes place on the job – not behind a desk. More and more of our research shows that first-rate leaders are domain experts who coach their teams by getting directly involved in projects. That’s not to say they micro-manage: they are great coaches, they give feedback, and they hold people accountable. These skills are hard to find, but it’s important that you value such leadership and work to build hands-on leaders at all levels.
  3. Design flexibility into your workplace. Given the “always-on” nature of business today, high performing companies create lots of flexibility in response. Let people work at home, give people tools to work from remote locations, and create a work-space which lets people relax, move around, and enjoy the work environment.
    Small, agile teams often work effectively when people are comfortable and their personal lives are well managed – research shows that flexibility creates engagement, which in turns drives performance.
  4. Take diversity and inclusion seriously. Most businesses are now made up of highly diverse groups of people:  many ages, many nationalities, and people of many backgrounds. If you want them all to contribute and give their best, they should feel valued and comfortable. Diversity is the first step, but it’s inclusion that matters.
    Our recent research shows that only 13 per cent of organisations have achieved a truly “inclusive” work environment, so take the time to move beyond diversity as a compliance issue and make it a strategy. Look at how you can be more inclusive in your hiring, leadership, employee communications and all other aspects of HR.
  5. Create a sense of mission and purpose. Finally, one of the most important and often fleeting parts of employee performance is to create a sense of mission and purpose, which makes people excited to be at work. This can only be done by the top executives – they should define the business in the context of its value to customers and the community, not only by the bottom line.
    Deloitte’s research on corporate purpose shows that purposeful companies have higher levels of innovation, engagement, performance and customer service. This of course means hiring people that want to fulfil your mission – but that’s much easier when you’re all clear on what it is.

These five keys are big things to do – but they all focus HR on doing the right things for the business. Think about your own workforce and workplace: with these five key changes your business performance will likely flourish.