Strategic HR

9 HR Tactics for Less Workplace Complexity

by Lisa Bodell, CEO of futurethink

A recent Boston Consulting Group survey of global organizations found that procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and approvals have increased by as much as 350 percent in the past 15 years. To battle workplace complexity, HR can’t afford to view simplification as a one-off project: it must become our daily mindset.

Complicated signs

Through my innovation work at futurethink (and research for my new simplification book), I’ve identified proven ways to turn simplicity into a habit. These don’t require long-winded seminars: just the desire to reduce complexity and a willingness to experiment with new behaviors (several of which are in use at HBO, Accenture, and Novartis).

Through the HR division, employees at the senior and managerial level can be trained in tools and behaviors designed to enable individuals and departments to simplify faster. Review the nine tactics below and choose three that will address the biggest time-sucks or employee pain points in your organization:

1. Eliminate traditional performance reviews.

Professional services company Accenture did away with performance reviews in 2015. Instead of relegating feedback to a once-a-year exercise, managers now provide employees with feedback on assignments as needed throughout the year.

By providing reviews in real-time—instead of trying to recall mistakes or successes from 10 months ago—these check-ins enable managers to identify and resolve performance issues in a timely manner. And by removing the anxiety and formality associated with annual reviews, the feedback itself can become less threatening and more supportive to employees.

2. Reward employees for identifying redundancies and red tape.

While positive reinforcement isn’t a new concept, it’s been proven to spread the value of simplification across organizations. Publicly reward employees who make a successful case for killing a project, task, or policy.

3. Conduct annual meeting audits.

After U.S. telecom provider Sprint reviewed every meeting it held in 1 year—from standing and weekly status meetings to events, off-sites, and team gatherings—the company eliminated 30% of them. Direct team leaders to conduct their own meeting audit and cancel every meeting that doesn’t add value or has outlived its original objective.

4. Equip managers with outcome-focused solutions.

Train managers to resolve gripe sessions by asking “What do you hope to achieve through this dialog?” This tactic redirects a conversation from “My colleague always gets first choice when choosing holidays” to “I
want to pin down my summer vacation, and I need you to review my request this week so I can plan my trip.”

When managers guide employees to phrase their complaints as wishes, an issue like “I hate the new hire process” becomes “I wish the new hire process included only 1 level of approval and could be done in 3 days or less.”

5. Redesign your travel policy for convenience.

Travel policies are a pain point for many of today’s employees. Pharmaceutical company Novartis provided its business-traveling employees with more flexibility on hotel price and location by adding 40 hotel chains to its travel policy.

6. Establish unlimited vacation.

The delivery service Deliv reduced the number of HR and senior staff hours spent managing vacation days by eliminating the policy altogether. If time off affects a particular employee’s performance or work quality, empower managers to adjust the policy for that individual.

7. Identify irrelevant reports.

Is your department contributing to valuable reports or have some of them outlived their usefulness? Is duplicate information already compiled by another division? Analyze all the reports to which your team contributes for opportunities to streamline or eliminate.

8. Kill stupid rules.

When HBO conducted this exercise for the first time, more than 100 stupid rules were identified and eliminated to free up time and reduce bottlenecking. Through a Google Doc, the group continued suggesting more stupid rules to kill and other parts of the organization adopted the practice. Rule-killing spread organically throughout the company and is now a best practice.

9. Define employee roles by outcomes, not tasks.

Task-based job descriptions focus on processes, not results, so redefine roles in your organization for outcome-focused measures of success. For example, “write three to five press releases per month” could become “generate 20+ press mentions per month.” This approach shifts the focus from “how” to “what.” It flexes employees’ creative problem-solving muscles and empowers them to concentrate on what actually matters: results.

Of the above actions, which will have profound, tangible effects on employee morale and productivity?  That’s your starting place. When you simplify the policies that slow down or annoy employees you’ll score a series of quick wins that build support for a culture of simplification. By training managers in simplification techniques and behaviors, HR can help everyone eradicate low-value tasks and get to work that matters.

Lisa Bodell is the CEO of futurethink, an innovation-training firm that has worked with CUPA-HR, SHRM, and many others. A top-rated speaker at Google events, Lisa is the best-selling author of Kill the Company and Why Simple Wins. She serves as a board adviser for the Association of Professional Futurists and as a global council member of the World Economic Forum.