Stop Falling Into the Same Old Traps With Future of Work

Image credit: iStockphoto/alphaspirit

Looking busy has been an art and well demonstrated in this beer commercial. We all know the thrill of sneaking out for a drink at the bar, stretching a lunch appointment, having a longer meeting, and catching your favorite game while at work.

All these worked when the office was run according to traditional rules of efficiency. For many, it's about face time (and not the Apple app). We need to be seen doing work. Unfortunately, we extended the same principles when we digitized, digitalized, wired up, and added more monitoring tools to the workplace for remote working. And it’s creating severe burnout.

The uncomfortable truth is that the future of work is no longer about face time. And if companies truly want to embrace a new concept of working, they need to let go of traditional notions that have remained unchanged for over a century.

Asymmetric trust

Mention “future of work,” and often people imagine virtual workplaces through a mobile device with a person relaxing at home or at the beach. After three years of remote working, nothing can be further from the truth.

Yet, this idea of a connected or virtual workspace is nothing new. The fact that companies shifted to remote work and empowered virtual workspaces is proof that it’s an old concept.

It’s the same for tools we’re using to communicate and collaborate during lockdowns. Vendors created Zoom, Teams, and Webex when the world thought remote working was an employee privilege, not a necessity. Yes, they help us collaborate, but in the end, they replicate or augment an office setting (right down to the office backgrounds they offer as defaults).

It’s one reason why studies show employees have had enough remote working. They want flexibility but will trade some of it for office time where they can collaborate face to face.

All these show that we’ve yet to stop our 9-to-5 thinking. We have clung to it, even when studies show it does not work. An Inc article argued that we actually work two hours and 53 minutes on average. The rest of the time, we’re just filling it up with long meetings, constant emails, and, oh yes, social media.

The eight-hour work concept is ancient. It started in 1817 with Welsh activist Robert Owen. But it was Ford who cut down the daily hours to eight while doubling pay at the factories — much to the astonishment of everyone at the time. Offices simply adopted the same formula and never updated it.

Why this concept has remained comes down to employer-employee trust. This trust is tenuous at best and very asymmetric. Employers feel that they give their employees the privilege to work in their companies.

The pandemic shifted this trust dynamic. Employees no longer wanted to be corporate serfs. Instead, they see themselves as valued individuals. And many are fighting back by resigning, demanding better recognition, asking for more flexibility, or lying flat.

As employees renege, it allows us to rethink the future of work and redefine employer-employee trust.

Can a job be a dynamic destination?

An MIT Sloan Management Review article proposed that we need to integrate job redesign with work redefinition. Without this, it added, employers will continue to see employees as cost centers and not as having the capacity to create new business value.

The article used an example to explain its point. A regional U.S. bank asked its employees to redesign their work as they transitioned to new software. The net effect: employees jettisoned old tasks in favor of creating more time to focus on their internal and external customers.

This exercise also shifted mindsets. The financial analyst no longer saw his or her job as creating reports but to getting data into the hands of the underwriter so that the local customers can get the proper credit product. Likewise, learning staff no longer saw their job as creating new training modules but helping employees build deeper relationships with customers.

Essentially, integrating job redesign with work redefinition helps employees see the goal of work as a dynamic destination, instead of one that is ultimately tied to the company's financial value. Employees also begin to see their worth in their company and how they impact others.

Overcoming the efficiency trap

Would you employ an efficient employee or one who creates value for the organization? It’s a difficult question to answer when many current management principles still follow models of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management ideas.

The MIT Sloan Management Review article talks about three ways to break free from efficiency thinking:

  • Zooming out to understand what the unmet needs of the marketplace are. Such an approach allows managers to quickly see whether they have the right talent in the group and whether today’s tasks can help meet tomorrow’s market needs. This is difficult, as many managers remain focused on lowering costs and reducing errors. In addition, companies will need to support employees to focus on value and growth — not simply completing the task.
  • Employers need to redesign jobs to free up capacity. This means investing in automation, robotic process automation, and AI. Instead of re-skilling your employees for other tasks, help them create workgroups that focus on solving work problems.
  • By creating smaller but focused groups, you can redefine work across the organization. But it requires managers to have the skills and know-how to set new expectations and for frontline supervisors to have the ability to translate these into directions for the workgroups.

The approach puts additional pressure on the leadership's shoulders. They can no longer focus on narrow objectives or KPIs but need to create broader goals. They must also be able to pull talents and resources from different parts of the organization to form the right workgroups, which is difficult in today’s rigid organizational structures.  

Rethinking opportunity

However, when done correctly, these efforts help companies to focus on opportunity. It also changes corporate mindsets.

For example, companies need to see themselves as investing in opportunities for the employees when they invest in training and upskilling. They also need to ensure that their employees have the opportunities to use their newfound skills to ensure situations, as highlighted in this article, do not happen.

The good thing about this is that such an approach to working is not rocket science. This Wired article notes startups, research institutions, and universities already apply some of these principles.

The challenge has always been about applying this to real-world settings where there is a defined organizational structure designed for efficiency.

There are also drawbacks. If done well, employees will be motivated to stay longer to create new value. Such a “gravitational pull,” as the Wired article calls it, can impact work-life balance with your circle of friends becoming ever smaller.

But it should not stop companies from experimenting. The pandemic has made many employees question what it means to work. They are ready for a change; the question is whether companies are as well.

Winston Thomas is the editor-in-chief of CDOTrends and DigitalWorkforceTrends. He’s a singularity believer, a blockchain enthusiast, and believes we already live in a metaverse. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/alphaspirit