My headstone is going to read “Completely eschewed the term 'Back Office' in favour of terms that confer valued contribution of all roles, jobs and functions.”
Today, I attended a mainly positive and constructive national meeting on how the fledgling professional institute for the sector in which I work is going to develop. Unfortunately, I had to challenge a colleague round the table who used the term 'back office' when talking about how all staff may be involved in the future. She then indicated she was fine with the term and is a ‘back office’ person herself. Oh dear! I could not help myself in saying that I find the term demeaning, it makes us seem like we belong in a broom cupboard etc. and have no real contribution to the front line or the operations where all the 'real' work takes place. I find terms like 'corporate services' or 'essential corporate support' are much more acceptable. Although the meeting chair took my point, I wonder if I will be invited along to the next meeting! I have blogged about this before over 2 years ago on my old blog Basic needs, security needs and the ‘back office’.
(image from aviationarchive.co.uk)
Earlier this week, I chaired an in house meeting where during the round of introductions (with reps there from 3 predecessor organisations) one of the participants introduced herself as 'only' an administrator. Fortunately, I was not the only colleague round that table to react (in a positive and supportive manner) against anyone ever calling themselves 'just a...' or 'only a...'.
I do think this lack of confidence in the value of their views and contributions often expressed by office or junior staff is from the same stable as the casual use of terms like 'back office', or generally blaming other departments when things go wrong, or silo mentality. What these have in common is the ease with which others (those doing the 'real' work or having opinions that they perceive to matter the most) use such terminology or allow it to go unchallenged.
At best, this is just sloppy office or meeting talk, without much thought for the impact this could have on others or how pervasive it can be. An impact that has the potential to be harmful to organisational effectiveness, morale, team working etc.
At worst, this is a symptom of what I believe to be misguided views that some roles and teams have more value to the business and that others are all about ‘pen pushing’, ‘bean counting’, causing unnecessary ‘red tape’ etc. How often do you hear “someone in HR/Finance/Admin stopped me doing x, y or z.” I have made a habit of saying “Who exactly? Can you be more specific? What exactly was the problem or impact on you, and would you like me to take it up with the individual concerned?” Because, that's what they are, the nameless/faceless staff in these 'back office' functions - individuals, people who also want to do a great job. Most often, a name and a specific instance of unhelpfulness were not forthcoming. It was just easier for the grumbler to moan about an often hidden team, rather than think through what the actual issues and the impacts were, then attempt to address them constructively.
So how do managers, leaders, HR and L&D professionals, in fact all of us, address this? How do we make sure all roles, teams and functions are valued for the contribution they make to the whole success of an organisation? How do we make sure everyone feels valued and that they and their colleagues from all other parts of the organisation all appreciate what each other do and how it all fits?
Clearly, there is not a single answer to this and all organisations, whose cultures and behaviours are a direct consequence of the views held by the majority, are different. (I could get into a chicken and egg debate here.) However, I feel very strongly that a good place to start is to think about the language we use, and how we address each other, our roles and teams.