Why isn’t work working? Most of us in advanced nations are stuck in economies with diminishing or already zero productivity growth, despite continued advances in technology; only 13% of employees are engaged despite moving into higher quality work now that automation has taken over a lot of the dirty, dull and dangerous tasks; we’re more educated and skilled than ever before, and yet we still struggle to create innovative teams. These are the three dilemmas that my fellow keynote speakers and I, at the Irish Management Institute (IMI)’s National Management Conference, sought to address a few weeks ago. During an intense and thought-provoking day, I joined Boston Consulting Group’s Yves Morieux, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group – Rory Sutherland, and strategic foresight company director – Thimon de Jong, to explore these issues with more than 200 business leaders.
We began by looking at how our personal and working lives have been made more complex by technology, and how social media in particular has become so pervasive in our lives that we are now ‘addicted citizens.’ Thimon shared the results of an experiment that separated people from their smart phones for just a few days, putting them into an MRI scanner afterwards only to find that the withdrawal had affected their brains in the same way as withdrawal from hard drugs. This chemical need to be always connected extends of course beyond our personal lives and into the way we work, a topic we then moved onto with a focus on the implications for productivity. Indeed, the advanced economies’ productivity crisis is rooted in organizational complexity: as the business world has become more complex, we have created structures and processes with the aim of retaining clarity and accountability in our organisations. However, what we’ve actually created is matrix structures, middle offices, and additional layers of complexity that our employees struggle to navigate. And if we’re wondering why employees are so disengaged at work, then there’s our answer: disengagement is the proper and sane response to the chaotic environment we have created.
In addition to creating complexity, these processes and practices have also encouraged overly competitive behaviours, despite management rhetoric promoting collaboration as the only way to spark the next leading product or service. These competitive environments have also amplified our risk aversion. Every process we have, from performance management to project management, signals loud and clear to people that not being wrong is far superior to being right. In what is termed ‘defensive decision making’, we are compelled to make decisions whereby we come off least bad in the worst case scenario: we will choose the boring “play it safe” option over the innovative one every time, and a boring advertising campaign that fails is the fault of a bad product, whereas an innovative campaign that fails is the fault of the advertiser.
So, that’s the long and ironically complex scenario of what’s not working in our organisations. But what did we have by way of actions our delegates could take to simplify work, unleash productivity and enhance engagement? The first action was to facilitate the process of ‘digital balance’ among employees, enabling them to switch off and avoid being overwhelmed by ubiquitous message streams and demands. Ensuring people are not overwhelmed is essential if we want them to step out of their comfort zone – the necessary precondition for sharing ideas and collaborating.
The second, poetically simple step was to understand what others do at work. Go beyond the job descriptions to really understand the content of your team’s work, how they spend their time, what their average day looks like and take that as the starting point for simplifying work, stripping out the burdensome processes that add little value and create distraction. Doing so will address both the challenge of stagnating productivity and the puzzle of low employee engagement.
Finally, apply an understanding of human psychology to the way we design and run our organisations. When creating the necessary structures to keep the oragnisation moving, use insights from psychology to anticipate how people will perceive a process and how they will react. Too often, we have turned solely to economic theory to understand how employees will respond to carrot and stick type incentives, ignoring the weight of evidence from psychology that our behaviour is governed by far more emotive systems than could ever be understood through such a narrow, singular lens.
By Lynda Gratton
The topic of emotional vitality has recently become increasingly popular in HR circles – and the general consensus is that if you are an employee, your emotional vitality is suffering at the hands of your employers.
This might be important news to individuals, but why are so many companies interested? Why do they care if people are stressed or tired?
The reason is that as work becomes more complex, balance and creativity are becoming increasingly vital to competitive advantage – and it’s a well-established research finding that while tired, stressed people are perfectly able to do their normal everyday tasks, they are also less able to be creative.
Stress is your biggest risk
So, what exactly are organisations doing to destroy their employees’ emotional vitality? The #1 answer everywhere is stress – and there are three reasons why.
- Demands and obligations – Stressed people often cite the number demands and obligations placed upon them at work as a key cause of stress. What this tells us is that stress often originates from the design of work, with many employees finding themselves faced with ridiculous demands as a result of poor management and duplication of effort. To combat this, companies need to design work to manage the demands the demands placed on people and to reduce the amount of unimportant tasks people are required to perform.
- Discretionary time – My research shows that when it comes to stress, the issue is not the hours people work but whether they have the capacity to take time out to rejuvenate themselves. We could all work for 12 hours a day. In fact, many of us have been selected for our jobs because we have the ability to do so. The important thing is that we can’t do it all the time. What matters is not simply taking time off, but when we do it and whether we feel we can do so. There’s nothing wrong with expecting employees to be always-on as long as they know that is the nature of the job and they have ample time to recuperate.
- Constraint – If you ask what drives Gen Y workers what drives them mad at work, presenteeism is often the answer. Younger employees resent the need to stay in the office until 10pm and the constraint of having to be “seen”. In fact they find it upsetting, since working additional hours affords them little advantage. Crucially, this is not about flexible working but about job design and recuperation.
These issues matter because stress is a huge problem – one so big, it’s actually business risk. In fact next time you conduct a risk analysis, you should probably include stress on your risk list. And as you can see, job design is key when it comes to mitigating this risk.
The importance of the work-home cycle
As research by academics such as Hans-Joachim Wolfram shows, the work-home cycle also has a huge role to play when it comes to managing and combating stress. This cycle can be either caustic and draining, or positive. Work doesn’t have the monopoly on stress – a person’s home life can be stressful too – but for the most part, people leave home feeling authentic and resilient at home because it is a place where they can feel authentic and have the opportunity to recuperate in a supportive environment. However, if people leave home feeling guilty or anxious, it can affect their stress levels at work. By the same token, if an individual leaves work feeling networked, inspired by things they have learnt, this has a positive spillover into their home life: in this context, work is good and the knowledge and connections gained there can be a source of support for the family.
To get the balance of the work-home cycle right, organisations need to stop thinking about work and home as two unconnected spheres, because they are incredibly connected. Companies must think about how they support families and about whether employees have enough scope to ensure a cycle of positive spillover.