Why do we work the way we do, reimagining how work can be like (Part 2)

Leadership Memo 2021-9

In the last Leadership Memo, I challenged us to reassess why we work the way we do, and reimagine what work can look like. I mentioned that after factories became commonplace, people put in place and formalised certain systems, structures and practices to manage work. 3 of such practices are:

  1. When: 9-5
  2. Where: factory/office/“headquarters”
  3. How: meetings are the best way to collaborate  

We examined practices #1 and #2 last time. Let’s do a recap of my challenge for practices #1 and #2, then we’ll examine practice #3.

1. “When”

What if organisations think beyond 9-5 and trust the teams of workers to set their own schedules based on their circumstances that keep them healthy, sane and productive?

2. “Where”

What if organisations think beyond the office and trust the teams of workers to decide where work happens, whether it be in the office, or some co-working space that is closer to their homes, or anywhere else that is most productive for them?

3. “How”

There is a long-held assumption that meetings are the best way for us to collaborate. This culture of meetings was established in the 1950s. Back then, it meant memos passed from one secretary to the next. Today, there are more efficient ways to collaborate outside meetings, thanks to technologies like emails, instant messaging, shared drives, etc

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, we simply replicated what we were doing in person, online. So, we still schedule meetings mindlessly, just like when we were working in the office. However, that type of virtual meetings are cognitively draining, hence the “Zoom fatigue”. When was the last time someone held a mirror in front of you the entire time during your in-person meeting? Your poor brain had to process your every physical move. Then, to compensate for the lack of office “water-cooler moments”, some organisations thought it would be good to have virtual events. However, those are just more meetings. Forcing people to attend only increases fatigue.

So, what if we were to work asynchronously by default, and set limits on time spent together during a day, or even a week?

The way we work (when, where, how) was designed around location (office). But bringing people back into the office full time is not the answer. Workers don’t want to give up the flexibility that they’ve gained during the pandemic. Remote work itself is not the problem either. The problem is clinging to office-based practices while our environment has changed. It is these outdated, office-centric work designs that are making us tired. We are working within systems that are not built for the environment that we are in. So, stop forcing a square peg (office-based practices) into a round hole (changed work environment). Instead, start designing work around human behaviour. Using a human-centric approach to design work (instead of an office-centric approach), employees will be more engaged. Engaged employees are more innovative, they focus more on business value than output, and they stay at their organisation longer. They are also healthier.

So, what we should ask ourselves is: if 9-5 had never been invented; if “office” were a foreign term; if the concept of a meeting sounded like gibberish – in short, if today were day one of the history of work – how would you design how you work? Drop me a note and let me know.

Latest happenings:

1. On 8 September, I’m giving a free workshop titled, “What does it mean by inviting people to the party?” at Liberating Structures DC group. We will tackle the question of Diversity as we take you on a Liberating Structures adventure that goes beyond ticking the standard diversity boxes. Come join me and register here.

2. On 29 & 30 September (& 1 October), I’ll be giving a talk, titled, “You don’t need to be HR to affect change. Just be a daredevil!” The way we do performance assessment and rewards & recognition can be either enabling or hindering agility. In this talk, we invite you to go on a tour with us as we share with you how we navigate the HR waters to increase your business agility. You don’t want to miss it! Register here.

3. The latest episode of my podcast is out! It’s from a brand new series on Agile @ Tesla. We dive deep with Joe Justice, chatting about Elon Musk’s desire and drive to innovate quickly. The result is tangible organizational agility at Tesla. We cover everything about agility, from HR and Finance to applying agile methods to product development and hardware. New episodes of the series will come out every few weeks, so check back often.


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