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Time to rethink what workers want from work

by Lynda Gratton: Bestselling author, speaker and professor at London Business School.
Our collective experience of the pandemic has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink what the workers want from work and their working lives, and what leaders want to encourage and institute within organisations.

We’ve had a chance to question many fundamental assumptions, adopt new habits and form new narratives of how work gets done. We’ve learnt many vital lessons and are now faced with some significant choices – do we go back to our old ways of working, or do we use this as an opportunity to redesign work and make it more purposeful, productive and fulfilling for all?

In facing these choices, there are questions of purpose and capabilities to be explored. What is the company purpose that you want to enhance through redesigning work, and how will doing so support your values and enhance productivity? And what are the capabilities that you need to develop that will enable your company to meet this purpose, in terms of both individual human capabilities and machine capabilities?

Drawing from my own research and advisory experience, I have created a design process to support you in answering these questions about purpose and capabilities. It takes you and your team through a four-step process: understanding people, networks and jobs; reimagining work; modelling and testing your redesign ideas; and acting on your models and creating new ways of working.

This design process gives you the opportunity to create a way of working that resonates with your unique purpose and values, acknowledges the capabilities and motivations of your employees, and ultimately increases productivity and fulfilment. This is your corporate ‘signature’.

Understanding people, networks and jobs

The design process begins with a deep understanding of your company’s jobs and productive capabilities, people and their needs and experiences, networks and how knowledge flows. Without this deep understanding, there’s a risk that many of the new processes you come up with will be viewed as a fad in a few years time and be buried or abandoned.

Your work design will become a casualty if, in the next few years, it inadvertently erodes performance or meddles with the natural channels of knowledge that flow across the networks in a company, or if it makes employees cross or disengaged because they feel they are being treated unfairly. That’s why it is so crucial that, as you embark on the redesign of work, you understand what it is that enhances performance, how networks create strong knowledge flows, and what people want and will be engaged by.

My doctoral thesis on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was an early lesson in realising that people are not all the same, and at various points in their lives their needs and desires change. From the perspective of redesigning work, it makes sense to start by looking at the people in your company.

It is likely there are groups of people with similar needs and desires. The data from employee surveys or focus groups will give you a sense of what these are. Their needs will be the result of a whole host of factors – lifecycle stage, age, background, experience, personality and so on. While the results of surveys can be useful, my preference is to bring energy to this data by building a number of personas that create a compelling narrative of what it ‘feels’ like to be this person.

And while you can look at what people need now, it’s also possible to imagine what they might need and aspire to in the future. That’s important because, in redesigning work, the aim is to create a way of working that has validity and benefits both now and in the future. And to do that you need to have a perspective on the broad trends that will, over the coming years, shape what people want from work. You need to think about what all this means for ‘the deal’ between the organisation and the individual.

Reimagining work

The pandemic created an opportunity to rethink work in terms of both place and time, and in doing so created a whole host of opportunities and challenges: What is the optimal level of flexibility around where and when people do their jobs? Should you move towards being more virtual, or bring everyone into the office, or build a whole portfolio of flexible working practices?

Some leaders are reimagining work happening ‘anywhere’, others are asking employees to return to central office spaces, some are accommodating flexible time commitments, others are requiring staff to be available at core times, such as nine to five. Who’s right? As the type of jobs, networks and people tend to differ across companies, and faced with this variety, it’s clear that when you think about your own company you need to develop what is right for you.

Perhaps you have already experimented and redesigned work by establishing home working or by creating hubs where people have the opportunity to work closer to home. The companies who have done this have already learnt a great deal about how these new ways of working actually play out in practice. However, it’s important to realise that in most of these pioneering companies these experiments with homeworking took place in environments such as call centres. These are usually jobs with much explicit knowledge and where coordination is not crucial – typically people who work in call centres are relatively independent, spending limited time coordinating with each other.

Before early 2020 it was relatively unusual for corporate-based knowledge workers to work from home. For this type of work, the place of productivity was the office. Separate from personal space and outfitted with all the furniture and technology necessary to do jobs efficiently, the office was a place of congregation, where people gathered for one primary goal – to work. The impact of the pandemic was to dramatically move the design of work. For some, their place of work is now located in their personal space – their home.

The choice of place essentially impacts the energy and cooperation elements of productivity. Working in a distributed way, for example, from home, boosts energy because you are able to reduce commuting time and assign it instead to physical energy-boosting activities such as sports and recreation, and emotional energy-boosting activities such as spending time with family and friends. Working in a co-located place, such as the office, boosts cooperation and the possibility of serendipity via face-to-face encounters.

Yet there are downsides that mirror these upsides. Working from home can shrink your social networks and the lack of face-to-face encounters with your colleagues can reduce your cooperative productivity. Working from the office can deplete energy in part through commuting, which can add two or three hours to the day and mean getting up early in the morning and arriving home exhausted late at night. And sitting at an office desk for hours at a time and eating junk food lunches can reduce your health and vitality.

So, in redesigning work, your aim is to maximise the upsides, minimise the downsides and manage the trade-offs. You can do this by imagining the office as a place of cooperation, the home as a source of energy, asynchronous time as a period of focus and synchronous, connected time as the basis of coordination.

Modelling and testing your redesign ideas

It’s clear, then, that some ways of working will have clear benefits, while others will have trade-offs that you will need to acknowledge and account for. Once you’ve gained insights and a deeper understanding of the elements of work, the opportunity now is to bring it all together to model and then test the redesign of work. There are three criteria against which your model should be tested: that it is future-proofed, that it supports technological transitions, and that it is capable of being fair and just.

To be sure that the redesign model is future-proof, you need to have a view of how employees, jobs and technology might change over the short and medium term.

When you consider the type and location of employees, don’t imagine that what is occurring now will be static – you need to factor in significant transitions in the average age and size of the population. These transitions are occurring because people are living longer and having fewer children. The simplest way of thinking about this is that the longer people live and the fewer children they have, the older the population becomes and the faster the size of the population declines. Conversely, the longer people live and the more children they have, the larger and younger the population becomes.

There are tough questions to ask of the design-of-work model: are you stereotyping what it is to age and be productive, and by doing so closing opportunities to those over 60? And, in the redesign of work, are you focusing too much on the needs and aspirations of those in their twenties and thirties, whilst discounting the over-fifties? Often our view of how people age imagines rapid physical and cognitive decline.

Yet, while the period of morbidity has not decreased, it takes proportionally less of the total span of life as longevity increases. The result is that, when life extends, productive years increase.

Moreover, with the passage of time comes the opportunity to develop crystalline intelligence. This is the accumulated insights, networks, knowledge, wisdom and strategies that are built over time. It differs from fluid intelligence, which encompasses information processing, memory use and deductive reasoning. Over a lifetime there seems to be a constant fluctuation in the relative strengths of these different mental skills. Perhaps it’s no surprise, therefore, that some companies have found, when it comes to the design of work, that a combination of the young and old can be the most productive.

One of the astounding effects of the pandemic was the acceleration of digital skills and the extent to which it fast-forwarded the adoption of a wide range of new technologies. In the context of automation and the role of machines, while there will be major accelerations in this area in cognitive work, ultimately machine usage will be focused on algorithms and correlations.

Machines will not focus on the long-term human imagination that will be crucial to some work, but the impact of technological development is sure to shape what people want from work. People will inevitably be anxious about losing their jobs and motivated to upskill in their job or reskill to a new one. It’s inevitable that your redesign of work will encompass many digital and automated elements. So, as you go about modelling and testing your model, the extent to which it can make the most of these technological transitions will be a factor to consider.

When redesigning work, no executive deliberately sets out to deplete trust or create unfair practices, but it could be an unintended consequence. You should ask: Is the model for the redesign of work fair and just? Is it likely to build, maintain or deplete trust among employees? Businesses are facing a time of significant disruption, ambiguities and unforeseen events. In navigating through this period, employee trust will be a crucial asset.

High-trust organisations are more agile and flexible, and their employees are significantly less stressed, more energetic and productive, more engaged and satisfied, and less likely to experience burnout. Importantly, people in high-trust organisations are more likely to benefit from ‘psychological safety’ – they feel able to talk about their real feelings, to challenge others and to have confidence that their group will not embarrass, ridicule or reject their ideas and views; they feel more able to ‘speak up’. Creating a model of work that is fair and just will be crucial.

Acting on your models

The redesign of work is fundamentally about action and creation. There is no point understanding your company, reimagining it, and modelling and testing the new design if you don’t have the commitment to, or can’t get your employees and managers to buy into, the process and create the change. To create a new way of working that is future-proofed, that engages and excites employees and that enables the organisation to grow and prosper requires positive action.

The organisations that have successfully implemented this stage have all paid close attention to the pivotal role of good managers. Core managerial skills include scheduling and managing when and where people work, and managing team members’ performance and careers. Next, rather than seeing the redesign of work as a hierarchical, top-down process, companies have often embraced co-creation; encouraging employees to engage in the debate and using the insights and energy to build momentum across the firm’s networks.

Engaging employees is a foundational tool of my advisory practice HSM Advisory and opens up an important opportunity to create energy for redesigning work. Balanced with this need for co-creation is an acknowledgement that, as employees consider what could be an uncertain future, it is the leader’s narrative that can create meaning and focus.

We face real challenges, yet real opportunities, too. We have a chance now to fundamentally change our relationship to the work we do, to our colleagues and to our organisations. There will be obstacles along the way and our courage and taste for experimentation will be tested.

Yet, as I look at how people around the world are stepping up to debate, cooperate and build, I am convinced that we can create a future that will support us in being not only more productive in our work, but also more fulfilled.

To guide you further on this four-step design process, I have created a Redesigning Work Playbook that you can use and share with your colleagues. You can download it now at hsm-advisory.com/redesigning-work

This is an edited extract from 'Redesigning Work' by Lynda Gratton ©2022. It is reproduced with permission from Penguin Random House.

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