Month: May 2018
Blog by Emma Birchall for the Huffington Post and Hot Spots Movement
In 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled In Praise of Idleness. He was writing at a time when only the most affluent in society had the opportunity for leisure time while the poor labored away in dirty, dangerous and dull work.
Today, in developed countries the situation is quite the opposite. For the first time in history, the most skilled, highest earners in society are working the longest hours. But why is it that those who can afford the most leisure are now taking the least?
It turns out we still have much to learn from the old greats such as Russell and Keynes. Both had distinct yet complementary philosophies on the meaning of work that may help us understand why affluent knowledge workers, with above average pay cheques and already high standards of living, are slaving away to the point of burnout.
The first message is that as a society, we have had a vested interest in seeing work as virtuous. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the virtues of work were extolled by the affluent, upper classes who, according to Russell, preached “the dignity of labor [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.” The dignity of labor “kept adults from drink and children from mischief,” by distracting them with 15-hour work days. This ideology was reinforced by religious beliefs that the poor were far more likely to go to heaven than the rich, thus their gratification was coming, just posthumously. So what does this mean for today?
According to Keynes, despite entire populations moving into higher skill, higher paid work, “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” We ascribe status now to those who make valuable contributions to the success of organizations and our “busyness” has become a proxy for that level of contribution. Perhaps then, if we are to resolve the challenge of long working hours, burnout and stress, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning of work, its role in our own lives and in society as a whole. Now that we don’t need work to prevent us all from becoming delinquent on gin and to get into the afterlife, maybe we can reassess how we spend our time?
A second message from the works of the old greats is that how we spend our leisure time is also a point of contention. Both Keynes and Russell stressed the importance of leisure time in pursuing academic and creative interests. According to Russell, the small leisure class in previous centuries “cultivated the arts and discovered sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations […] without the leisure class, man would never have emerged from barbarism.”
Today, we might argue that these activities take place within institutions such as universities, businesses and NGOs. However, Russell warned that when “studies are organized […] the man who thinks of some original line of research is likely to be discouraged,” making it an inadequate substitute for real leisure time.
While our context has changed markedly since the 18th and 19th Centuries, perhaps there is still something to take from this. How can we liberate people to pursue their passions, experiment and innovate under the necessary pre-condition of “no required output”? Some companies such as Google and 3G have attempted this with their “20 percent time to play” rule, allowing employees to spend the equivalent of one day a week following up on an idea they have had on the understanding that it may come to nothing. But maybe, instead of creating rules around when and how much work time people can spend in liberated, free-thinking, we need to accept the fact that people need to be absent, disconnected and unrestricted if we want them to come up with new ideas.
In short, we need to acknowledge the value of leisure time and ensure that work does not encroach. Likewise, we need to reserve energy as well as time for the pursuit of leisure or else, according to Russell, “pleasures […] become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on [… as a result of our] active energies being fully taken up with work.”
Keynes predicted that we would all be working three-hour days by now. We’ve perhaps ended up closer to Russell’s depiction of “a large percentage of the population idle, because we can dispense with their labour by making the others overwork.” We simultaneously have people working extended hours and persistent unemployment.
Could our ineffectiveness at addressing the skills mismatches behind this phenomenon be in part because we can make the skilled overwork? Both Keynes and Russell expected it to take some time to transition into a society that can accept and create value through extended leisure, without blindly pursuing more and more work as an end in itself. But perhaps it’s worth remembering Russell’s departing line: “there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”
10 years ago, Lynda Gratton and Hot Spots Movement set out to figure out what the future of work would look like. Lynda had a hunch that there would be a massive transformation and was keen to understand 1. what was changing, and 2. how it would impact organisations, people and ultimately 3. how work would change as a result. We gathered an enthusiastic group of companies who would spend an academic year with us coming up with answers to these three questions.
You could argue, and we would agree, with the wisdom of hindsight, that it was rather optimistic to expect that after less than one year, we would have clear and concise answers.
10 years on, we’re still at it, and it’s getting more exciting by the day. In fact, it turned out that what we had started wasn’t a one-year research consortium, but a journey with an open-ended ticket, where the destinations and the routings are being defined as we move along.
The first leg of the journey was about identifying the major forces that would impact and partially or significantly define what organisations and work would look like, as well as the shape and form of future talent. We looked at technology, globalisation, societal change, demography and low carbon.
The second leg of the journey was spent on understanding how these major forces challenge fixtures of work such as – ‘work has a place’ – we work in an office or in a factory; ‘work has a time’ – we work from 9-5 or we work shifts’; and ‘work is a job’ – we’re employed to do a defined role, on a permanent basis. We explored what happens if these fixtures would no longer hold up, and we quickly moved from ‘if’ to ‘when’ as it rapidly became clear that the jury was no longer out on whether it would happen but only on how quickly.
The third leg was when we turned to investigating in detail what was happening in people’s lives, based on the understanding that at some stage (generally it should happen sooner than it does), work and organisations need to adapt to what is happening in people’s lives. We saw lots of evidence that rather than expect people – talent – to conform to how work had been organised, largely unchanged, since the 1950s, the organisation of work would need to change to attract and engage talent. So, we dove into shifting identities – how notions such as gender, family structures, age are now much more fluid and diverse. We established the need for organisations to create workplaces that embrace the whole selves of their talent and how they evolve, in all facets, over time.
All along the way, we have focused on how companies need to adapt their legacy people policies and processes. One of our favourite images to illustrate the status of people processes in many global organisations is an archaeological excavation site with multiple layers. To
understand how companies can address the challenge of having to attract and engage talent with/despite multiple era processes, we studied the Future of HR and particularly the importance of identifying and saying parting with sunset processes.
Are we at our final destination? Absolutely not! Because the future of work is impacted by how people’s lives change, by technology and by societal change, all of which remains in the making, our final destination is not yet in sight. There is so much we still need to understand, and over the next 12 months, we’ll be researching Agile People Strategy, the High-performing Organisation, and Digitising the Organisation. We’ll be looking into why so many big organisations are struggling to adopt flexible working widely, what digitalisation means for organisations, talent and work.
So my prediction is that in five years’ time, we’ll be as excited about the future of work as we were 10 years ago and as we are now.
Please stay in touch – this co-creational project is only possible thanks to great members of the Future of Work Research Consortium (www.hotspotsmovement.com).
The other day I was watching the Matrix, an epic sci-fi trilogy that depicts a dystopian future, in which the perceived reality is a computer-generated simulation. In the second part of the trilogy, during a very intense car chase, Trintiy, one of the main characters, finds herself in a situation in which she has to learn how to start a motorbike without having the keys. She was under pressure, and she needed to master the new skill very quickly. What happens next is Trinity calls the ‘Operator’ to ask for a ‘download.’ As her mind is connected to the matrix, the Operator is able to download and install the new skill, just like you would install a new app on your phone. This was the moment when I realised that sometimes, day-to-day work can be very similar: we find ourselves in a challenging environment that requires us to learn in the moment.
The ever-changing world of work and increasing longevity means that we need to learn continuously throughout our career so we can stay productive and relevant for a longer period of time. At the same time, the knowledge and skills we pick up in the education system becomes outdated very rapidly, therefore an unorthodox approach to learning becomes necessary.
Here are three things you and your organisation can do to enable rapid re-skilling:
- Create a learning culture that focuses on ‘pull’ learning: While traditional L&D focused on push learning, making these decisions for the learner, pull learning allows individuals to identify and meet their own development needs in the moment. The Operator did not make Trinity learn the new skill, she asked for it when she needed it.
- Shift the role of L&D from broker to enabler: the role of L&D needs to shift from acting as a broker between employees and learning to becoming more of an enabler of learning. This is the Operator’s role in the scene – to make sure people are enabled.
- Be proactive as an employee: Ask yourself what skill set you will need over the next 10 years and if you identify a gap, be proactive in addressing it. After every mission in the Matrix, Trinity assesses herself to identify her own areas to develop, so she can work out what skills she needs to master in the future.
To stay ahead in the future of work, we – like Trinity – will need to embrace learning new skills in the moment; and organisations will need to create environments that enable this.