THE FLEXIBLE WORKERS
HR LEADER: Robert Orth, director, HR, IBM Australia & New Zealand
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“The days of everyone sitting in the office and there’s the manager and everyone sitting outside that office are gone,” says Robert Orth of IBM.
It’s this new paradigm that has Orth excited. He’s ensured his HR team not only reflects what’s happening in the broader IBM workforce but also leads it. Hence, it’s embraced flexible work and technology connections wholeheartedly.
His HR team falls into two groups: generalists (essentially HR business partners) and functionalists. The functionalists cover the typical areas – comp & ben, talent, OHS, diversity, etc. The functional area specialists at the high-value end are subject matter experts, with deep expertise, trying to look ahead, and designing or redesigning new programs and interventions. It’s up to the integrated services team to deliver these programs to managers. A service centre sits behind that structure, looking after transactional tasks.
Regardless of the type of work undertaken, Orth is open to flexibility.
“This is a big item to explore, which I think we’re leading on. It goes along the lines of: where and how do people get their work done? Work is what you do, not where you are, so this leads to an environment where you change your management practices to suit the flexibility, pursuing diversity and accessing a wider talent pool, and utilising technology to link everyone up,” Orth says.
This flexibility takes many forms in Orth’s HR team. For example, his executive resources manager is actually two people, one in Wellington, the other in Sydney, both working three days each with an overlapping day in the middle. “It works perfectly. I deal with them almost as if they are one,” Orth says. Others work a compressed working week, and many work from home a couple of days a week.
Orth concedes there is a balance to be conscious of. Those who desire to be close to the business – such as Orth and the other HR business partners – need to be around. It isn’t just about working from home three days a week and never coming into the office. “You’ve got to keep in touch,” Orth says. “The way we’d deal with flexibility – I would discuss what it means for the manager, that is, me, what does it mean to you, what does it mean for the team you’re working in, what does it mean for the client you support. You’ve got to take all those into account.”
Orth says the fundamentals of being a good manager – things like communication, motivation, direction, vision – remain in place. But they do morph with flexibility. “I keep using this word ‘outcome’. We’ve changed performance management structures to accommodate this. We’ve agreed your outcome, so you produce it. Time becomes a different sort of matter – it’s not like I’ll see you outside my office 9 to 5.”
It’s all part of the evolution of business, Orth says, before outlining the next phase: “If you take a look at us now, we’re trying to connect people more closely, to unleash innovation, and to get the collective intelligence going. And we’ll use technology in a big way to put people together.”
IBM uses multiple platforms, including Lotus Connections, to connect with team members based around the world. “Those old statistics: if you’re sitting in a building, 80% of the time you see people on your floor, 10% on the next floor, 5% in the building, and other areas hardly ever. This just opens it up,” he says.
While large group meetings now occur less frequently, Orth does like them – with a twist. He notes that such meetings should not be about imparting information– there are plenty of other avenues through which information can be disseminated – but instead it’s critical to get participants into “workshop thinking”: brainstorming, producing outcomes, interacting with each other.
“I like meetings to have something for the mind but also something for the soul, if I’m going to have people coming together. You could have workshops where you start the day with yoga, others where you have a resilience session about managing your life and stress and how you approach this. Some valuable things for the person to take away.”