The New Rules of Work
Issue 69: August 18, 2022
What is work? Where is work? What work matters? Why do we work? The traditional work models are turning on their heads. It’s been a long time coming since the Industrial Age, but we are at a crossroads moving forward radically in how we view and manage work … and our workforce.
Think of the current work-related cultural conversation: the Great Resignation, anti-Ambition, silent resignation, a next-gen mental health crisis, distributed work, essential vs. nonessential, unionization pushed by young highly educated workers, global health emergencies, purpose- values-driven work and a demand for corporate transparency.
What does it take to make a revolution? Or at the very least a fast-forward evolution? We are either going through a significant reset of work, or the tail end of a pandemic-influenced re-evaluation of work. Or both. Much has been reported about the post-pandemic (or ongoing, depending on where you stand on the issue) changes in work, so, instead, we are going to focus on a few key indicators that we believe are reshaping the new rules of work.
Because We Can
The next-gen entry-level workforce is forcing organizational change internally and externally. They are on fire pushing management to rethink work and how they want to be managed. And the millennials, the next older generation, is going through a deep retrenching of re-evaluating what’s important to them in terms of work/life balance and why they work in the first place. Many are victims of startup implosions. They are in the vanguard of the anti-Ambition movement, working to live, not living to work. It’s a matter of debate whether the pandemic shifted these beliefs, or whether it is the result of the collision of global conditions (climate, inflation, war, health emergencies, divisive politics, the power of the internet) that propelled a re-think. Whatever is happening out there in the world, it is impacting what’s happening in here in the workplace. Fluid, transparent, inter-connected and holistic—our work world is no longer isolated, insulated, or protected from the larger global shifting perspectives.
So, let’s look at the workforce, the leaders of tomorrow. Here’s a glimpse of their work me-first worldview:
- The Washington Post reports 41 percent of workers that have been called back to the office ever show up on Fridays, with no-show Mondays the runner up at 30 percent. This is understandably a nightmare for managers.
- Gen Z says they evaluate a prospective employer by studying the CEO’s public positions on social issues, thanks to the internet.
- It gets worse. Social media has become the go-to research tool; 82 percent of next-gen respondents in one survey said they research the social media accounts of the bosses before joining an organization.
- Organizational loyalty is on a downward spiral; workers are more loyal to their co-workers than they are to the organization.
- Glassdoor has become a key research tool for prospective employees and a management horror story for HR in any organization.
- 51% say they will never come back to work full-time in an office (Quartz).
- A portfolio career approach means that next-gens do not rely on an organization to define and guarantee their careers. They are defining their own career paths and not conforming to the organizational progression ladders that HR loves.
- They want a seat at your table, wherever the table is – office, online, metaverse – and if you don’t offer it, they’ll sit down anyway.
The Price of Work
The previous prevailing hiring policy was to replace older more expensive employees with younger less expensive workers. We highlight in our book, The Truth about Transformation, the continuing ingrained agism practices, intentionally and subconsciously, in many organizations.
The younger entry-level workers, desired by most organizations for their energy and malleability, are fed up, and noisy enough to get management’s attention to attend to better working conditions. Are they wrong? The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25/hour, unchanged since 2009. According to Axios, if measured in 2009 dollars, the minimum wage has fallen over the past 13 years to just $5.27 per hour. Consider a full-time worker with 40 hours a week; how is it possible to live on less than $300 per week gross pay? And part-time work may not be any better with scheduling that changes week to week. For part-timers it becomes hard to plan life at home with the kids. Or aging parents.
And then think about the fundamental shift in the relationship between employees and bosses. Derek Thompson writes for The Atlantic that “Up and down the income ladder, workers have new reasons to tell their boss to shove it. Lower-wage workers who benefited from enhanced unemployment benefits throughout the pandemic may have returned to the job and realized they’re not being paid enough. Now they’re putting their foot down over a higher wage.”
You can have the greatest culture of all, but in the end, it still comes down to “show me the money.” You can have the best management, people, products, and services, but if the workers can’t make a decent enough living then trouble is inevitable. That may seem more relevant to workers in hospitality and retail, for example, but young workers in the knowledge and service economy share the same outlook.
The Distributed Workforce
Remote work has become an attractive option for many who used to work full-time in offices. The shift has required a major adjustment in managing a distributed workforce and dealing with the high cost of empty office space. Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal, “Bosses are hoping the old reality will snap back as the drama of 2020-22 recedes, that people will start to feel they need to come back or can be made to. The work-from-home people are dug in, believing they’re on the winning side, that the transformation of work in America, which had been going remote for years, was simply sped up and finalized by the pandemic. In this tight job market, they have the upper hand.” On an existential level, she adds, “The decline in office life is going to have an impact on the general atmosphere of the country. There is something demoralizing about all the empty offices, something post-greatness about them. All the almost-empty buildings in all the downtowns—it feels too much like a metaphor for decline.”
Yes, but. The workforce has voted with its Zoom screens and remote work is a winning alternative. Axios reported feedback to Noonan’s perspective with a reader stating “The chance meeting in the hall was more likely to result in a conversation about football or the latest movie than some great breakthrough in creative thought. The most creative work I’ve seen over the years usually came from the most creative people, often working alone, often outside of the office.” Another response, “Not only are remote workers more productive, but they can also save money — on gas, auto wear and tear, time wasted sitting in traffic, flexibility, and in some cases, childcare.” And from a mental health perspective, “Marginalized or overworked people who’ve suffered due to the stressors of an office environment for years are finally thriving with some breathing room and flexibility.”
According to Vox, employers, think going into the office is good for creativity, innovation, and culture building. Yet, “nearly 80 percent of employees think they’ve been just as or more productive than they were before the pandemic, while less than half of leaders think so,” according to Microsoft’s Work Trends Index. Leaders are often detached from day-to-day operations and simply cannot correlate the experience of employees with where they may have created efficiencies or demonstrated higher productivity. The detachment is only attended to when leaders review financial or productivity reports.
The study, last summer, also revealed office workers reported that their employers would allow them to work from home 1.6 days a week: now that’s gone up to 2.3 days. And Vox adds, “For now, office workers have the upper hand. Many don’t expect to be penalized by management for not working from the office when they’re supposed to, partly because they don’t think management believes in the rules themselves.”
Here’s another thought. Why do we call our workspaces in our houses home offices? Traditionally we view an office as a place where work gets done. But law professor Ozan Varol writes in Fast Company, “An office is where good ideas go to die. An office conjures up images of cubicles, mind-numbing water-cooler conversations, personal attacks, half-empty cups of awful coffee, and headache-inducing fluorescent lights. Creativity, in other words, hates offices.” He continues, “So instead of calling my room an office, I started calling it an idea lab. An idea lab is where innovative ideas are born. An idea lab involves experimentation. An idea lab is for daydreaming. I love my idea lab (and I hated my office).”
However you view it, there is no simple formula or answer. Workers may not want to return to the office, but they are choosing to return to WeWork and shared workplaces. Bloomberg reports, WeWork’s offices-for-rent are back to their pre-pandemic occupancy levels. “WeWork’s offices were 72% full by the end of the most recent quarter — a dramatic increase from the 46% nadir in the depths of the pandemic, reflecting that companies seek hybrid-friendly office solutions.” Real estate services company JLL found that “a third of office workers are using so-called third places like cafes and coworking spaces to work, even when they have offices they can go to.” Offices are appearing to be the lesser choice with so many available alternatives. So, ask the hard question: Why? How do traditional workspaces have to evolve, and more importantly, how do management systems need to update their approach and style to create a meaningful ecosystem that attracts people and keeps them motivated and fulfilled? Give your workforce a good reason to be in the office. Work has become…well, work.
And there is another factor to consider in remote work: dependence on digital screens. There is some debate about how to manage employees who turn off their cameras and remain on mute during calls. According to a survey from software company Vyopta, “92% of executives say that unconnected employees probably don’t have a long-term future at their company and 93% assume that employees who stay dark on Zoom are less engaged overall.” However, there are other practical reasons for “going dark” during calls: Zoom fatigue, barking dogs, unruly children, bad hair days. The challenge then becomes changing expectations in managing a remote workforce that has so many choices.
The flip side is a surveillance approach that monitors who’s doing what on their computers during work hours, an invasion of privacy that would seem draconian. Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, of The New York Times report, “ In lower-paying jobs, monitoring is already ubiquitous: not just at Amazon, where the second-by-second measurements became notorious, but also for Kroger cashiers, UPS drivers and millions of others. Now digital productivity monitoring is also spreading among white-collar jobs and roles that require graduate degrees. Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, idle buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records.” They add, “This is such an intimate form of control. To be clear, some workers really are derelict. But for many others, this is about what happens when you need to grab 10 minutes to clear your head, or deal with a kid interruption, or take a couple of extra minutes in the bathroom.”
Work, in society’s view, remains physical presence, time dedicated and where performance determined via results remains elusive or feared. The WFH shift is going to question and reset many preconceived notions of work.
As reported by the National Institute of Health, “Economic and social policies created a change in ideology favoring individualism, materialism, and competitiveness, which are not compatible with human needs such as social connection and community, leading to anxiety and depression.” A Gallup workplace report reveals that 71% of Americans believe this is a great time to look for a new job and 58% are stressed at their current job daily.
Further, the report states, “…people driven more by extrinsic motives, meaning that they mostly do things in order to get something in return, are more likely to have shorter and less meaningful relationships than people who are driven by intrinsic motives, meaning that they do things because they enjoy them.” And that places pressure on managing this younger generation with different incentives and motivations.
A new survey by iCIMS, a talent acquisition software provider, reports among recent grads, mental health support is the top career expectation. That would suggest that college grads have a clear perspective on what they want and need from employers and how those employers can offer a rung on the individual’s self-defined career ladder and progression.
And then there is the issue of stress caused by an ongoing parental role imbalance. According to a report in HuffPost, women do the heavy load of cognitive labor in the household, dealing with schedules, caregiving and managing homework. “Millennial mothers are three times more likely than fathers to say they’ve been unable to work during COVID because of school closures or other childcare responsibilities, according to think tank American Progress.” Also, “Women face what sociologists call a motherhood penalty, which happens because they are seen as mothers first, workers second, and are judged, even subconsciously, by co-workers and managers for deviating away from that traditional model.” The mental health issues manifest in the difficult decisions women must make to balance work and career.
Workers of all ages increasingly want to align themselves with organizations that reflect their values and ethics. As stated, prospective employees research everything – especially the public positions the CEO takes on social, cultural, and environmental issues. The workforce wants to trust that they are on the collective side of right (however that right is defined) and have a shared purpose beyond the work that gets done. Axios reports next-gens are very particular about the company they’d want to work for where “they feel that they can bring their whole, true self to work.” They want to be accepted for who they are, not who they may become.
Employees also want productive, meaningful performance reviews with clear expectations of what they are to accomplish. This may sound pretty basic, but it points to a lack of transparency about goals. Lack of clarity from leadership is a death knell to employees. We have written about the break in communications upstream and downstream, the lack of consideration of what is said and how it is received, as well, how do or should individuals be transitioned to become part of a shared purpose. Without the coherency of expectations correlated to the definitions an individual has of their self-value and worth, reviews remain worthless. Perhaps it’s time for the performance review to go away and take more of an accomplishment-based evaluation with the recognition of the individual’s own goals for their career progression.
Another common complaint about the move to distributed work is that managers attempt to manage a remote workforce using traditional in-person management tools and strategies. There is a steep learning curve for leadership to transform their approach to managing, inspiring and training remote teams … and individuals. Remote work is tech-intensive, so leadership needs to be able to meet those demands technologically. Are your senior executives up to the task?
Since hybrid work appears to be the new norm, new rules need to be established to promote trust, which require that managers look at teams, accountabilities, KPIs, shared purpose and efficiencies differently. The end game is talent acquisition and retention, and employees seem to have more leverage than employers. The companies that fared the best with remote work are the ones that “established best practices for staying productive and connected while working from home and have codified their guidelines for the people who may have spent a decade or two working in an office before the pandemic arrived,” according to Lila MacLellan.
Research from Ferrazzi Greenlight reports the new model for collaborative work is to reduce meetings by 30%, achieve a 75% increase in peers coaching each other, to boost collaboration by 46% and profit from a 44% growth in accountability. The report adds, “Old notions do not serve the world we live in today and need to be left behind. We need to go beyond cooperation that exists as collaboration when necessary. For high-performing teams, the objective is to create a dynamic of constant and unbounded co-creation, one in which interdependent team members share responsibility for crossing the finish line together. They must share accountability for each other’s results and pick each other up when they need help.”
We should all be cautious however to recognize there is a fine line between managing and leading productive and satisfied workforces to a shared purpose, that is fulfilling for all involved and overly coddling individuals. Jon Haidt, social psychologist and Greg Lukianoff, First Amendment expert, have written a provocative book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, which addresses codding head-on. Their thesis is that on college campuses, everyone, students, and professors, are walking on eggshells and fearful of speaking openly. They believe that the “culture of safteyism,” AKA coddling,
“Interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.” Anecdotally, they write that “freshmen and sophomores manage to get controversial speakers disinvited, professors removed from classes, and administrators fired didn’t earn their place through acquisition of higher knowledge and advanced skills.” In a call-out culture, the ivied university walls have become “a place of surveillance and offense taking that stifles free speech and rewards emotionalism.” It’s a complex and often highly charged, divisive argument and has ramifications in the workplace. To combat an outcome based on lack of responsibility, skills development or enhancement, productive disagreement should be supported to balance discipline and emotion. Coddling may be part of the popular cultural conversation, but it can have negative long-term results.
Perhaps the most significant issue in this conversation is the need to redefine the office as the traditional heart of any enterprise. Look at the tech companies which have built monolithic headquarters as physical manifestations of innovation and enterprise with over-the-top architecture. Corporate headquarters have been the billboards for what brands stand for and how they project their images. But if no one is going into these buildings, what do these physical dinosaurs mean? And what is the new anchor for consumers to visualize an organization? The company logo? A website? We are at the crossroads of facing traditional corporate identity as an outdated concept. This may sound a little dramatic, but honestly, if work is predominantly remote or even hybrid, who needs these mostly empty temples to capitalism? And what is the new heart and soul of any company in terms of its employees and public-facing billboard for the rest of the world?
What are your thoughts? Where are we heading? Drop us an email, we would love to hear from you.