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 laboured away in dirty, dangerous and dull work. Today, 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 labour [to the poor], while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect.’ The dignity of labour ‘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 organisations 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 organised […] 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% 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.’
Keynes, John Maynard. “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren”. (1930): n. pag. Print.
Russell, Bertrand. “In Praise Of Idleness”. (1932): n. pag. Print.
Historically the answer was simple – money. That’s why the HR function of most companies goes to such extreme lengths to design pay packets (bonuses, team-based rewards, stock options and so on) and to decide through antiquated performance management systems who gets paid what. Indeed, it’s why they’ve been persuaded that senior leaders really are worth up to 200% more than the pay of an average employee.
Yet we have known for sometime that although pay might indeed be a valuable asset for an employee, it’s unlikely to be the driver for their motivation. Indeed, years of research have shown that this valuable asset turns out more often to be a source of dissatisfaction rather than a motivator. Most people don’t work harder, or more creatively or cooperatively because they are paid more.
So recently the search has been on for more ‘intangible assets’ that could be really valued by employees. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to work more flexibly, or the chance to work for a boss that likes you, or to work in a convivial open plan office that employees value. And indeed, perhaps it’s this combination that results in employees being engaged rather than disengaged.
I think – to use a simple metaphor – we are barking up the wrong tree. Let me explain. Over the last couple of years my colleague, the economist Andrew Scott, and I have been asking a simple question ‘What happens when most people live to 100 years’. It’s been a fascinating exploration. One undeniable truth is that if you live to 100 then you will probably need to work into your 80s. Now there is no doubt that over the course of a long working life money is indeed crucial – no one wants to look forward to an old age lived in poverty. So money is a valuable asset that a company can give to an employee.
However, across a long life this tangible asset, whilst important, has to be balanced by equally important intangible assets. It seems to me that chief amongst these crucial intangible assets is the type of work an employee is given to perform. Work that is valuable both now and as a hedge against the future has three crucial elements:
- It is interesting and allows workers to engage their mind and creativity
- It has developmental potential – particularly to in terms of capabilities that are ‘portable’ in the sense that they can be used beyond the current job
- It is non-routine so is unlikely to be substituted in the short term by robotics or Artificial Intelligence
For the sake of simplicity let’s call this ‘good work’. Now let’s play a mind game. Let’s assume that a leader in a corporation acknowledges that the intangible asset of ‘good work’ is as valuable to an employee as the tangible asset of money. If this were the case, what would we expect to see happening within the corporation? Here are five ideas:
- We would expect jobs to be analysed with regards to the extent that they are composed of tasks that are interesting, developmental and non-routine. We could even imagine that these job characteristics are rated against a common currency – let’s call this unit a ‘tang’.
- So when an employer is advertising a job, they are able to show both the financial assets the job is valued at (salary, bonus, stock options etc.) and also its ‘tang’ assets (interest, developmental potential, non-routine)
- When an employee is deciding on whether to take a job, they can balance the tangible and intangible assets it creates. They can decide, for example, that they are prepared to take a higher ‘tang’ rated job at a certain point in their career, even if the salary is lower. Or indeed take a higher paid job whilst acknowledging that the ‘tang’ value is low.
- It could be that managers who are particularly skilled at designing jobs for their team that have a high ‘tang’ value are celebrated for this sculpting skill.
- We might expect that if the ‘tang’ value of a job falls below a certain level then the whole job has to be re-designed to increase the ‘tang value’ by adding tasks that are interesting, developmental or non-routine. This re-design could be initiated by the manager, or indeed by the worker who is performing the job and who is encouraged to broaden the scope of the job to envelope more ‘tang’ rich activities.
Right now it is still money that dominates the negotiated relationship between an employee and employer. Let’s widen the conversation to include an equally important asset – good work. Perhaps by understanding the value of work with as much finesse as we currently understand the value of reward systems, we can begin to give employees a better choice about the deal they want to strike.
Australia has been the lucky country in the years following the 2008 global financial slowdown. However, as individuals, we’ve never quite believed that our economy was strong and recent warnings of slowing growth in China, (our largest trading partner) falling iron ore and coal prices, youth unemployment, as well as talk of a housing bubble following surging prices in our principal cities, have served to fuel national anxiety. The reality is, however, that Australia is actually well placed to transition to a new, broader-based economy, less reliant on commodities.
There is emerging consensus that growth needs to be innovation-led. The change envisaged is not incremental but potentially transformational. It will need a combination of discipline and courage, not least from our major companies who must lead the pursuit of new sources of revenue and growth. For HR this is not business-as-usual. Many of the policies, systems, processes and behaviours (our working cultures) which have served us so well at the end of the 20th Century need to be re-designed to fit the more dynamic market conditions of the 21st Century. This is an opportunity to engage all employees in designing their own futures.
One important enabling condition is the need for greater “flexibility” and there is evidence that Australian employers and their people are embracing it with alacrity. Last year Aecom, a global provider of management and technical services, analysed workplace surveys conducted by its clients to understand their employees desire to work away from the office. They found that between 31% and 54% of employees across the Resources, Finance, Retail and Media sectors would appreciate doing so for 1 to 2 days a week. This has important implications for the leasing of space in commercial buildings, for employee health and wellbeing, for workforce participation, for productivity and other areas such as transport infrastructure and the life of our cities.
Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company with more than 35,000 employees, has demonstrated how Government legislation and leadership can work with employers and their people to accelerate the process of change. At the end of 2013 CEO, David Thodey, introduced an initiative known as “All Roles Flex”, becoming the first large corporation in Australia to ensure that everyone had access to flexible ways of working. This followed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Fair Work Act 2009, enshrining in law the right to request flexible working arrangements. It also followed two years of working with around twenty other corporate and Government leaders as Male Champions of Change, a group established by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to help accelerate development of women as leaders. “What I really like about this approach is that it disrupts the status quo and encourages open conversations right from the start.” David Thodey wrote in November 2013.
Telstra, along with many Australian companies (for example ANZ, NAB, Westpac, CBA, Suncorp, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank) has over the last decade embraced the inclusive design of the workplace as yet another opportunity to have that conversation with their people about the future. It has given employees and other stakeholders, most notably customers, a voice in the design of the company’s future. It has reduced the cost of accommodation, created spaces which support collaboration, resulted in healthier, more flexible and environmentally more responsive buildings. This has put power in the hands of the organisation’s people to connect freely with others and to better manage their work and careers. This moment in history, and not just Australia’s, is an opportunity for the HR team to lead from the front, as thought leaders about the future of work, setting the need for change in the wider national and global context.
It must necessarily start with HR undergoing its own transformation, reimagining its role in developing and executing business strategy and reconfiguring its skill base so that its traditional strengths in supporting the management of people is balanced by strengths in leading business and culture transformation. Be prepared for conversations which are disruptive of the status quo but which facilitate innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems.
By Lynda Gratton
If you could name a single factor as the biggest enemy of employee retention in your organisation, what would it be? My guess would be job design – specifically, the availability of career customisation.
You might think your organisation already offers career customisation and improved job design, but let me make my point clear: improving job design is not that same as bringing flexibility into work. Many – if not most – large corporations have flexible working arrangements. But when it comes to improved job design – by which I mean initiatives such as phased retirement, job share schemes and, on- and off-boarding ramps, they are lagging far behind. I estimate that such companies have a period of three years at most to introduce these elements of job design before the lack of them starts to have a serious impact.
This is becoming an urgent issue. As things stand, when people want to customise their careers they do so by leaving the company. The most valuable people are building their career elsewhere because companies are not providing what they need.
This talent drain is just one reason why companies need to ramp up their experiments and pilots in the field of job design: and it’s about to get worse. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, life stage is becoming an increasingly important factor in people’s career choices – and people reach these stages at vastly different ages. For example, some employees will choose to become parents in their 20s, while others do the same in their 40s. As people start to live longer, we will see more and more people rejecting traditional linear career paths and opting for careers that move sideways, downwards, or even pause for a while. It is the companies that are dealing with these issues already – and the ones that act now to start handling them more effectively – that will prove resilient over the coming decades.
The importance of scale
So why are so many companies, many of whom have already invested heavily in flexible working and job design, failing so miserably in this respect? One reason is that companies have for too long associated the idea of career customisation with motherhood. Often because when women in particular leave an organisation, there is an immediate assumption they are doing so to start a family. In fact, what I’ve noticed about my MBA students at LBS is that often when they leave a company, it’s to start their own business. And a key reason for this is that doing so empowers them to take charge of their own job design.
A damaging side effect of associating career customisation with motherhood is a lack of scale. You may have some great improved job design initiatives but failing to scale them beyond the concept of maternity leave means that employees will continue to achieve career customisation by moving on.
The solution to this problem is to make career customisation fluid, mainstream and transparent. Healthy, loyal employees have control over how, when, where they work and can manage their careers in tune with the rhythms of their life. To enable this, employers need to let workers know that the design of their job can change according to their circumstances and that customisation is available to everyone, not just mothers. Above all, they need to know what their options are at each stage of their life and career, so that they can make the appropriate choices.
by Emma Birchall, Head of Research, Future of Work
Thanks to Twitter, I came across this blog by Microsoft HR Director Theresa McHenry for HR Magazine. McHenry’s main thrust is to remind us of the big changes taking place in business, society and our day-to-day working lives. However, at the same time, her post highlights the confusing advice we all receive around flexibility in the workplace. She starts off telling the reader to: “encourage employees to work flexibly” and then, a few lines down, reminds them to “where possible, reintroduce boundaries… and encourage colleagues to switch off in the evenings and weekends.” So, which one is it? If we are to create truly flexible organisations whereby work is no longer a place we go, but a thing we do, perhaps we need to wave goodbye to the idea of a Monday-Friday working week.
Flexibility requires us to look beyond the false dichotomy of “work” and “life”. Rather than perpetuating the narrative of achieving “balance” between the two, we must be bolder and aspire to the harmonious integration of all parts of our lives. This aspiration will be particularly important for the future of work as people embrace portfolio careers, working for many organisations and individuals at the same time. Preserving the traditional work schedules in this context will be increasingly challenging and, likely, unappealing.
At the Future of Work Research Consortium, we collaborate with some of the world’s leading organisations to find new solutions to long-standing challenges, and gain surprising insights into issues such as flexible working by taking deeper look. To find out more about how your organsation can get involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Flexible Working Shown To Be A Prerequisite For Productivity: Give A Little, Gain A Lot (modernghana.com)
- Skirting the Issue: Flexible working shouldn’t equal the Don’t Promote list (telegraph.co.uk)
- How Flexible Working Can Help a Business Attract The Best Staff (onsmb.com)
- Flexible working good for business (gulfnews.com)
- Why Leaders Need To See Flexible Working As A Strategy For Success Rather Than A Perk For Some Employees (forbes.com)
- Why Flexible Work Arrangements are the New Black (projecteve.com)
We’re always interested in the latest game-changing research, which is why we were so excited to have Hans-Joachim Wolfram, Lecturer in Occupational Psychology and Research Methods at Kingston University to speak at our recent workshop. Hans-Joachim turned many of the diversity field’s most familiar hypotheses on their head with some surprising findings from his research of surface- and deep-level diversity.
According to Hans-Joachim, when it comes to the work-family interplay, it is in fact job role importance rather than family life importance which increases the propensity to take up flexible working options, and it is those who place greater importance on their job role who experience greater positive spillover between their work and family life.
If you’d like to discover more about this fascinating area of research, watch the video online.