Sunday, 15 January 2012

Basic needs, security needs and the ‘back office’.

As promised, here is my blog on why I never use the term ‘back office.’ I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’, and will say why, but first of all:

I think ‘front-line’ staff in the public sector are invaluable. Many of them do jobs that shape, support and influence society, but with little recognition and currently, lots of government and media derision or ill-thought through pontification on how they could better do their jobs. However, many other staff behind the scenes work in public services for strongly vocational reasons and have a very high public sector ethos. They are giving of their skills to ‘make a difference’ to use a very overused phrase. However, it is predicted by the CIPD’s chief economic adviser that public sector employment will fall by 30,000 per quarter this year. Worrying. Losing ‘front line’ professionals is terrible news for members of society who depend on them (but that is not the focus of this blog.)

Hang on, I’m not too keen on ‘front line’ either as it implies there is a war going on in the public sector… or about the public sector? Maybe ‘service user/customer/client facing/delivery’ roles or even ‘professionals’? Of course, many essential corporate support staff are also qualified professionals, so this is a debate for another day! It does however, support my argument about valuing them equally, and not lumping them together into an anonymous, boring and dispensable-with group called the ‘back office.’

Back to the predicted continued reductions in public sector employment. Could these be these superfluous, paper-pushing roles never needed in the first place? Are they ‘office’ and ‘delivery’ roles (other terms we could use) that will lead to reduced services? Are these roles that are being outsourced to save money, so some of them will still exist but become private sector? All of this has been going on, although I would argue nowhere near as many roles in the first category as the public is led to believe.

So, why do I prefer the term ‘essential corporate support’? Well, as this blog’s title hints, I have been thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and why high quality corporate services make sure that the pyramid’s foundation levels are secure. Basic needs include air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep etc. The next level, safety needs, includes security, order and stability such as steady employment. By essential corporate support, I mean such services as HR, Finance, IT, Performance Analysis, Risk Management, Administration etc. Without those, or with an inadequate level of those services, most ‘service delivery’ staff could not do their jobs effectively.

As it is the service I know the most about, I will take HR as an example. First of all, is being paid on time and correctly a basic need or a safety need? You could argue either or both. Secondly, if one month someone is paid incorrectly, what does this do for their safety needs? I would argue that in such cases it is imperative that they can get hold of someone who knows the organisation, the terms and conditions in operation, and is able to explain what has happened, or better still, make sure errors don’t happen in the first place. The idea of having to contact a call centre operated by an outsourced contractor, and speak to someone not authorised to use their discretion, when feeling anxious about, say an underpayment on your salary, is not attractive. If you don’t get an understandable response, the anxiety, upset or annoyance felt can impact on your effectiveness (as your basic and safety needs are under threat.)

Making sure the data held about all employees is correct, always up to date, held confidentially and then used correctly to ensure salaries are paid takes more work by essential corporate support than many people realise. Not doing this properly, or cutting corners by getting this on the cheap, or cutting back on the ‘back office’ too harshly can end up costing more, when you factor in the time and energy taken to rectify problems – often by more senior (and higher paid) people or by individuals who should be out there delivering the ‘front line’ services.

You can apply the same argument to advising on annual leave, sickness absence, training, professional development, job design, recruitment, terms and conditions, dealing with conduct or capability issues, advising what to do if someone feels bullied etc. The list could go on, but I hope you get the picture. If these activities are not done effectively by essential corporate support, who understand and believe in the organisation, namely HR in this example, what happens? Nothing? Poor service? Disjointed services? Low morale? Whichever of these, employees’ basic and safety needs become increasingly unmet.  

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