Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken a hard look at the changing landscape of modern work, and we’ve challenged some common assumptions about how it can improve.
In part one of this series, we grappled with the myth of productivity, and why, despite our cultural obsession with doing more and going faster, the BLS reports economic productivity is growing at its slowest rate in 30 years. In part two, we looked at four of the biggest lessons from our survey of more than 500 US knowledge workers. Here, we’ll explore what our research suggests could lead to a better way of working.
Work has become increasingly complex and fluid. It often requires a growing number of software tools, and it tends to follow us everywhere—thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices. Information flows faster within organizations and is more decentralized than ever.
Under this new reality, our survey results suggest modern workers are struggling to navigate tensions between competing values. For instance, workers are torn between trusting upper management vs. those closest to the work. These tensions are everywhere at work—such as the balance between autonomy and interdependence, or how much to rely on established systems vs inventing new ways to do things.
Tensions themselves aren’t bad! Many workers said they got satisfaction out of finding the right balance between competing values. A healthy push-and-pull would often keep them sharp, increase their creativity, or make them better at solving problems. But on the flip side, workers who couldn’t successfully navigate their tensions felt drained, powerless, and unfulfilled at work.
What prevents workers from successfully navigating tensions? Sometimes it’s a company culture mismatch. Maybe one employee needs a clear set of rules for developing a project, but the vast majority of the company prefers a spontaneous, unstructured approach. Other times, it involves workplace tools. Perhaps the company has a standard of always-on communication—where workers can be reached at any time through a communication app—but some employees need more time for uninterrupted focus. Still other workers might suffer from rigid company policy, where a “butts in your seats” standard makes it easy to organize meetings, but prevents employees from ever getting out of the office and in the right creative mindset.
Regardless of the cause, the end result is burnout. Employees feel strained as they’re pulled too far toward one end of the spectrum, then feel powerless to change their position. Instead of finding satisfaction in balancing a given tension just right, they instead feel resentful for being forced to work, act, or think a certain way. Moreover, they feel disconnected, like they’re being blocked from doing their most meaningful work.
What success looks like
In contrast, workers who can successfully navigate tensions tend to flourish at work, and feel a sense of equilibrium. They get the distinct sense that they have the right mix of values, that they can work in a way that fits their unique style and preferences. They tend to find work engaging and perhaps even more important, meaningful.
What’s more, employees who find work meaningful not only feel better, but tend to report better outcomes. Many of these workers might be “slowing down to get things right,” but they’re having an even bigger impact as a result—something that’s better both for them and the company at large.
(Note that equilibrium is more about healthy work-life integration than “work-life balance.” Some respondents associated that term with a rigid standard for balancing the home and the workplace in exactly equal amounts. Instead, equilibrium is more holistic: it’s about balancing tensions not only between work and life, but also within work itself.)
What it takes for workers to flourish
Perhaps the most common theme among happy workers is agency. Workers who feel empowered to make changes, to choose a unique working style, tend to navigate tensions successfully. Rather than feeling boxed in, they can recalibrate and adapt as their life or circumstances change. This agency can manifest itself in three different areas.
Policies are a necessary evil of the workplace—rules that sometimes get in the way, but nonetheless, attempt to keep things organized. Still, workers can grow frustrated when company policy becomes too blunt, too one-size-fits-all.
Several workers in our interviews, for instance, described policies that required them to be at their desks for hours at a time, even when it wasn’t critical to their work. Others mentioned bloated hierarchies, where even small decisions required several layers of approval.
A few questions can help clarify whether a policy might prevent people from successfully navigating tensions. Are the policies reactionary, put in place as a response to a handful of edge cases? Did the organization create the policies years ago, when the company was smaller or differently organized? In either case, it’s possible the policies are discouraging some workers from making important changes to their schedule, style, or daily flow.
Next, it’s worth considering whether company policies empower employees, versus simply giving the organization power over them. A good policy helps an employee in a sticky situation (i.e. how to privately report harassment), or provides clarity in the midst of confusion (i.e. what to do during a crisis). Meanwhile, some policies simply limit employees in order to keep everyone in line (i.e. “butts in seats”). When policies can focus on “power with” rather than “power over,” workers feel protected without being limited.
Knowledge workers use a vast array of tools at work, from mobile phones to monitors, task managers to sales trackers, water coolers to desk chairs. Sometimes, employees get to pick what they use (i.e. a note-taking app). Other times, the company must keep it standardized (i.e. the HR portal for billing and benefits).
Still, workplace tools provide dozens of opportunities for giving employees agency, and those choices can range from simple to multi-faceted. Can workers choose a preferred brand of laptop? Can they arrange for an upgrade if it might help their particular job? What about the chair a worker sits in, and for how long (or for how many days per week)? When it comes to software, can workers sub in certain tools they prefer, so long as they work with the company’s broader suite of applications? To what extent?
Even then, deeper questions can arise. When the company wants to make a big change, how much say do employees get on that transition? And which features seem to get the highest priority? Are the tools easy to scale across the organization? Inexpensive as possible? Do they provide accessibility for different types of workers or working styles? Do they tend to help workers focus above all else? To be efficient? To collaborate?
Workers likely don’t want to answer all these questions themselves—and probably shouldn’t—but our research suggests most want to at least get involved from time to time. They want the option, periodically, to change course or try something different.
Here’s how our lead researcher, Jennifer Brook, describes the tensions around workplace tools:
“When work and people are seen as machines, they can be optimized, tooled, and oiled. Well-oiled machines can also break. They can dehumanize and break people by putting expansion, profit, and revenue above all else. When something is broken, our relationship to that thing is inherently limited — we can diagnose, we can fix, or we can throw away. It’s rare that we’re invited to participate with the making and shaping of that machine. It’s more likely that the machine is built to work on us.”
With the number of workplace tools growing everyday, it becomes all the more important to keep the human in mind. Machines have, and will continue to, make work better. But when humans feel cut out entirely, when the processes start to resemble a sterile lab or assembly line, employees begin to feel anxious and resentful. When implementing new technology, it pays to consider how people will feel and respond, as humans, then adjust accordingly.
Company culture is both powerful and difficult to change. It tends to crystallize over years—influenced by everything from a company’s founders to its history to its hiring tendencies. Where a policy can be reexamined, or a tool can be replaced, culture must evolve gradually, and only with buy-in from the majority of the organization.
A few themes came up when we spoke to workers about culture. Some said their companies had developed an expectation of 24/7 availability, where projects lived and died based on a Sunday morning email or late evening correspondence. Other workers said their organizations instinctually operated on precedent, or “the way things have always been done.” When workers clash with their company’s culture at a fundamental level, they tend to feel ineffective or ignored.
Given how difficult it is to change culture, the best first step might simply be acknowledging what that culture is. When employees are aware of their company’s cultural tendencies, they’re more likely to tolerate—or even celebrate—the occasional teammate who works in a much different way. This awareness can also help organizations gradually make changes, even if it takes many new hires and frank conversations to get there.
Here’s Brook on what it takes to have a healthy and fulfilling culture in the workplace:
“When work feels like it’s working well it’s because people feel a sense of belonging, they feel respected, and they feel seen. It’s working because of the connection they have to their teams, their purpose or mission, and their leaders. It’s these relationships that enable them to work with autonomy, help them develop clarity and feel a sense of ownership over their work, and have have a kind of flexibility at work that enables them to better navigate the numerous tensions in their life and work.”
A note on purposefulness
That said, what happens when workers still can’t quite find equilibrium, despite their best efforts to navigate tensions across policies, tools, and culture? We found that workers are more likely to accept slight imbalances when they find purpose in their work, like helping others or contributing to society. But even when a company’s contribution to the greater good is more opaque, employees are similarly motivated by a sense of purposefulness—that is, a feeling that everything they do plays an important part in the organization at large.
The way we work is going through a huge transition. In a 2017 study, researchers found early evidence that smartphones were decreasing both our attention span and ability to remember information. But perhaps more importantly, the study stressed that it’s still too early to predict exactly how bad this is, or what the longterm effects might be. We’ve had an explosion of new apps, new tools, and new technology over the last two decades, and we’re still figuring out how it should all come together.
On the one hand, all these new tools give us a lot of power, the ability to stay connected and to collaborate from anywhere, at any time. But increasingly, modern technology makes it almost impossible to disconnect, to give ourselves space from our work. Navigating the tensions and tradeoffs of all this new complexity is the key challenge of the modern workplace. How do we focus on meaningful work that actually makes an impact?
It starts with being more thoughtful about the workplace. As we observed in part one, constantly pushing to go faster and do more isn’t actually helping, with true productivity growing at its slowest rate in 30 years. It’s time for a new paradigm.
If workers can find agency when it comes to policies, tools, and culture, and to feel a sense of purposefulness, we stand a much better chance of winding up somewhere better than where we started. In the end, the problem isn’t necessarily with productivity itself, but the way we’ve tricked ourselves into a “more work, faster,” mindset. Perhaps we should focus less on volume and speed and more on successfully navigating workplace tensions. If workers can be find equilibrium in their work, maybe we can actually get to the outcomes and impact we’ve been looking for—both for workers and companies alike.