Perry Timms is an HR powerhouse, with over 30 years of experience in people, learning, technology, organisational change and transformation. He’s Founder and Chief Energy Officer of PTHR, a published author, and a regular on the list of ‘HR Most Influential Thinkers’. We discuss the difference between ‘dirty energy’ and ‘natural energy’ and how to maintain a balance, how HR has evolved to meet a very different set of challenges, and why it's the perfect time to reflect on company culture and business identity. Here are Perry’s thoughts.
Can you start by telling me a bit about you and your background?
I joined the workforce in the late 1980s, straight from Sixth Form. After stints in admin and team leadership I got involved in projects, which I guess now would be considered business re-engineering projects. If we fast-forward to the 1990s, I was working on lots of tech programs, not as a coder but a project manager. Because I was so involved with the tech and knew it inside out, it made sense for me to then train other users and that was my gateway into training and HR.
In 2003, I moved into Learning and Development (L&D) and then got more involved in Organisational Development (OD). I already had good experience of working on business change projects, so it was a natural progression really.
It was in the early 2010s that I discovered the concepts of agile organisations, self-management, and leaderless businesses. Then in 2012, I set up my own business, PTHR. What we do is fuse those concepts with traditional HR thinking and create a next-stage, hybrid solution. It was just me for quite a while, but there’s now nine of us across four time zones and we operate as a self-managed team.
Can you tell me a bit more about PTHR?
We have a mission: ‘Better Business for a Better World’. What we see ourselves doing is helping companies to recalibrate their people, processes and tech by creating a modern, dynamic and more humanistic version of their business.
We’re very OD in our approach. We take a step back and look at all the systems that our clients are operating with. We then help them to better serve their customers, their employees and ultimately their business needs through a number of methods including consulting, learning, coaching, and confidence building. We’re different to other businesses in that we don’t work with our clients for long. We operate in short, agile bursts. The aim is to create a strong sense of energy and capability within our clients’ businesses, so that when we move on, they can replicate on their own.
Let’s talk a bit about your book, The Energized Workplace. What does it cover and what can readers expect to get from it?
The book is about re-designing workplaces to places where people can flourish. There’s a focus on the importance of managing your energy and not your time. I think it’s more relevant than ever before given the current situation. People are feeling fatigued. There’s a feeling of monotony and a lack of stimulus.
Wellbeing is high up on the boardroom agenda, but the book goes far deeper than some of the more common wellbeing initiatives. Instead, I cover how can you systemically create conditions where you are aware of what people are giving you energy wise and what you can give them in return. I cover how to create conditions which are optimal both on an individual level and a wider business level. If you're in OD or HR looking at wellbeing, design and flow of work, and sustenance then the book has plenty of practical advice, tips and tools.
If you could give a top tip on how to help people feel re-energised, what would it be?
I would encourage people to think about their role on an atomic level. That means taking a step back and thinking about how much work needs to be done in order to consider a day a success. I urge people to learn to understand what they're capable of. I see a lot of people who feel like they haven't accomplished anything because they aren’t sure what they’re capable of, or they’re not sure what would then give them a feeling of achievement and fulfillment.
It’s so important to punctuate your workload with a sense of appreciation. There’s a bit about this in the book. I talk about how you can do it by timeboxing your work and understanding the nature of a task. Is it complex and immersive? Or is it a combination of little things? At the end of the day you should be able to reflect on what you’ve measured and achieved, and you should feel good about it. Making a positive contribution gives people a massive cognitive lift.
You talk a lot about ‘dirty energy’ vs ‘natural energy’. Could you explain a bit about more what they are?
When I talk about ‘dirty energy’ I’m referring to the almost archetypal artificial supplements that we need to keep us going. I used to see it a lot on my commute, people drinking cans of Redbull early in the morning, and the need for copious amounts of coffee just to make it through a meeting. All these things are affecting our biology and physiology. They’re a spike, an artificial stimulus and all they do is serve the purpose of masking a lack of our own energy.
The opposite to that is the clean, sustainable energy sources, things like the relationships you have, the stimulus of overcoming challenges you set yourself to learn something new, a bit of research that sparks your creativity, or feedback on an accomplishment. Things which validate the fact that you’re fulfilling your purpose are what I consider renewable, natural energy.
I’ve seen people who are utterly, utterly, flourishing in organisations and it’s really clear that they get exactly why they’re there and what they do. They don’t need any supplements because they aren’t battered by their work. They have renewable, natural energy sources which spurs them on.
What can you do to try and keep the balance?
It can be hard and it’s something I’ve had to work on myself. As somebody who is very committed to what I do, I’ve had to get better at controlling my on/off switch.
For example, if it’s the end of the day and I've been flat out but I've got something to do which is quite complex, I know that it’s dangerous if I try to do that before I go to sleep. I now make the conscious decision to get up a little bit earlier to do the task, as I know that my brain will be fresh. It means that I’ll take an hour to do it in good energy time, whereas if I try to work away until midnight, I’ll put in 3 hours of pretty poor work and I won't thank myself for it in the morning. I know that for some people, they’d go to bed and it would play on their mind and maybe stop them sleeping. But over time, I’ve developed trust in myself to get up, even at 5am in the morning, and get a task done. I think it's little things like that which make a big difference.
Do you think a lot has changed for HR in the three years since you published your first book, Transformational HR? Or do you think things are similar, but circumstances have caused us to take a different approach?
I’ll be diplomatic and say a bit of both. What I will say is that where I'd hoped we’d be and the progress I would have expected to see from 2017, hasn’t quite materialised.
However, there are plenty of positives. We’re seeing a strong focus on a number of key areas such as inclusion and belonging, the environment, and communities. There’s a sense that businesses are thinking about more than just profit and HR teams are talking about ethics and our sense of stewardship.
Businesses now realise that you have to look after your people, they’re not a disposable commodity. Recruitment teams are now hearing candidates say that they want to work for a company because it’s a good fit for them. We’re seeing much more alignment between candidates and business culture.
Another really big shift is that for HR, we’re now talking about how we can influence leaders. Five years ago, we wouldn't be having those conversations, we were still too apologetic. I think we’ve made real progress in that sense. The response of HR teams to the Covid-19 pandemic has been nothing short of heroic and this has helped the cause. They’ve certainly earned their chance to go to the board and share their ideas, to be a bit more bold, more agile, more inventive, and to play their part in ensuring that businesses remain human-centric.
Covid-19 has really pushed wellbeing up the boardroom agenda. But do you think we’ll see tangible changes, with businesses actively doing more to look after their people?
I do see change, but I think there’s still a long way to go. Wellbeing is prominently featuring in the narrative at board level and rightly so. Businesses are no longer saying ‘if people leave, we can just get other people to come in’, there’s been a shift. The mindset has changed with businesses focusing on their people, their skills and experience, and their connections. Hopefully this change will then translate into actions, but we’re not there yet.
It would great to see a standout company come forward and say they’re focusing on wellbeing. It would be so powerful to present statistics backing up the impact that wellbeing initiatives have had on performance, staff retention, and company culture. I think if we can get to a position where businesses can say ‘because we’ve implemented wellbeing initiative X, the impact on business and employee performance is Y’, it will get a lot of people’s attention. The result will be that organisations will stop playing lip service and will see wellbeing as a powerful performance driver.
I know that wellbeing is high on the agenda for PTHR. Can you tell me a bit about what you’re doing?
We’ve introduced ‘Wellness Wednesdays’, which basically means that PTHR is closed on a Wednesday. The change was about energy management. We’re all really enthusiastic about our work, but being in the same place, looking at the same screen, doing pretty much the same thing every day was tiring us out. We were seeing 40 hours on the clock but in reality, we were probably only seeing 32 hours of high-quality work, so it made sense to punctuate the week. So, Monday and Tuesday we’re on and working, Wednesday we do whatever’s good for the soul, and Thursday and Friday we’re back on and raring to go.
How have your clients found the change?
They think it’s great. They're now apologetic if they send us an email on a Wednesday. I had a client the other day who told me that they had a meeting to get booked in. But that they wouldn’t schedule it in on a Wednesday as no one from our team would be able to join.
What results have you seen from Wellness Wednesdays?
My sense is that our focus is much sharper, we look less tired and we’re working much more optimally. We now need the metrics to back that up, but we should be able to report those soon.
How to maintain company culture in a remote working world is another challenge facing HR teams right now. As an entirely remote business, have you got any tips or anything you’ve seen success from?
I think the main thing for us in terms of building and maintaining a strong company culture is a focus on being clear, open, and engaging in our communication.
In the past there may have been a tendency for employees to have a focus on their work, their team and their department but not to take a wider interest in the business, its strategy and its financials. Those things were considered a secret, known and understood by only the leadership team. We’ve turned that on its head at PTHR and have adopted a radical transparency approach. Everyone knows exactly why our business exists and I think that’s one way to make people more aligned to a goal and vision and to feel a bit more connected. It sparks entrepreneurship and learning.
Another challenge we’ve had to overcome is the fact that we’re all self-managed. So, to overcome this, everyone at PTHR is paired up with a colleague. We were finding that sometimes there was a lack of appreciation for people’s efforts as others in the business wouldn’t necessarily know what others were working on. Pairing people up makes sure that there are appraisal type conversations going on, discussions around what people are struggling with, what’s gone well and what they need to learn. I think in a dispersed world we need more of that, people pairing up, working together for three months or six months and then moving on. That intimacy creates culture and a strong sense of belonging.
Remote onboarding is also another significant challenge facing teams right now. What are your thoughts?
Onboarding is really interesting. I've had some really bad experiences of onboarding, including turning up unexpected on my first day, having to read a manual for a week and all that sort of stuff. I think we have a great opportunity to take another look at the onboarding process. Now we haven’t got that proximity, I think we have the chance to be quite gentle and deliberate about the process.
Welcoming someone into a new team can actually be quite overwhelming as there are so many names, roles, and processes to learn but now we can do a complete rewrite of things. It’s opportunity to do things better.
Do you think the leader of the future looks different post Covid-19?
Yes, I think so. I’ve heard a number of stories about leaders conducting themselves really well in the last few months. The common theme is that there’s been a mixture of really clear communication about the facts, and an honest explanation of what the business is doing and why. It then goes one step further and there’s a sense of vulnerability, with leaders admitting they don’t have all the answers and that they’re relying on their people to offer feedback and ideas to help with business recovery.
There’s no doubt that employees are starting to feel differently about their relationship with business leaders. There’s a realisation that actually, they’re decent human beings. There’s open and honest dialogue, a sense of approachability, and the invitation for employees to innovate.
In terms of competencies, I think leaders need to enhance the way that people feel about the company and that’s where storytelling comes in. It will be key in driving a sense of belonging.
The ability to connect with people, openness and clarity are also key leadership traits needed for the future.
I know you’re a big fan of agile working. But what does that look like for HR?
I have two definitions - or ways of working - in my mind. The first is based around the responsiveness we’ve had to see from HR teams given the current climate and the fact that they are so dispersed and working remotely. The second is more of a project approach. Breaking things down into small steps which are all very focused on the people you are trying to solve the problem for.
The second definition is how we work with our clients. This more agile way of working allows us to be more responsive, more creative and more inclusive. Speed is another real benefit of working in an agile manner. It’s much quicker getting to the root of the problem and finding a solution. It’s more of a mindset. I think that often people think that agility can mean that a project becomes messy, but that certainly doesn’t have to be the case.
Another hot topic right now is the challenge of upskilling and reskilling. What are your thoughts?
I think employees and businesses need to be aligned. We should be asking people what they’re curious about and helping them architect their own journey alongside business need.
For me there are a few questions to ask. It’s not just about stacking up more skills. We need to work out what skills we don’t need as much of, before working out the ones we need to augment, supplement, and bring in.
We need to think about the way that people learn. We know that we can’t just stick people in a training room. We know that we have to do it in a mix of different ways through things like mentoring, immersive simulation, reading, applied thinking, projects and experience. We’ve been talking about blended learning for eons but now we've got no choice and that's a good thing.
Finally, is there anything else you'd like to cover?
It would be wrong of me not to talk about topics such as inclusivity, social unrest, and Black Lives Matter. Things which have come to the fore at a time of uncertainty as businesses work through their pandemic response. Rather than feeling as though they are competing forces, I think it’s a case of stepping back and asking yourself a few questions. ‘Who really wants to come and work for us? And ‘what do we provide for our people which gives them comfort and safety?’
It’s the perfect opportunity to look at our Employee Value Propositions and to rewrite them to reflect the wants and needs of 2020 and beyond. Let’s incorporate things like dealing with physical proximity, remote working, flexible hours, inclusion, belonging, and fairness. It's a really strong chance to start to present a new way to engage people about what it means to work somewhere.
Learn more about Perry's latest book The Energised Workplace
If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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