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The Future Of Work Is About More Than Work!

by David Brock on October 15th, 2021

We are facing, possibly, the greatest transformation in the nature of work since the industrial revolution–where we moved from primarily agrarian based work to industrial work. Many think this is being driven by technology, AI/ML. While these will have impact, much like mass automation, computers, the web, there is something deeper driving this revolution in redefining work.

Somehow, particularly at the highest levels of business and government we lose sight of the fact that, at it;s core, work is really about people. We read, increasingly, about the “Great Resignation.” In reality, it’s what my friend, Rachel Happe, calls the Great Re-evaluation.

This revolution has been years in the making, but perhaps intensified as a result of the pandemic. Work-life balance has been talked about off and on for ages. Often, the corporate reaction to work-life balance has been to offer services in the workplace, so they can get people to do more work. So onsite gyms, nurseries, cleaners, restaurants, meditation rooms become enticements not to create balance, but to reduce the disruption of work.

Despite these, the data continues to show year after year declines in employee engagement.

We see increases in job changes and reductions in tenure. A recent study declared, “Gen Zs will never work for a company for more than 2 years,” accepting that as a new law of physics. Rather than challenging ourselves with “how do we retain them,” we focus on “how do we get the most out of them while we have them.” We look at, how do we reduce onboarding time, how do we maximize productivity during that time?

This isn’t unique to Gen-Zs, though it’s fashionable to say they are different (where have I heard this idea before). The reality is we see similar phenomena across all generations–perhaps manifested in slightly different ways.

We redesign knowledge work, emulating the principles of the industrial assembly lines of the past. We chop up work, creating assembly lines where knowledge workers focus on perhaps the functional equivalent of tightening a bolt. them passing the work to the next person in the knowledge worker assembly line. We design these processes, focusing on efficiency, while they may not be very effective.

We forget the problems we discovered in manufacturing assembly lines. For example, a key to efficiency in manufacturing is the elimination of variability. Yet one of the key characteristics of knowledge work is variability–that’s why they call it knowledge work. It demands the skills to recognize this variability, figure it out, adapt, and take action. But for some reason, we don’t understand these things that have been common knowledge for decades, making the same mistakes again. So we create “knowledge worker sweat shops.”

We have attitudes about people as replaceable widgets–again a misunderstanding of manufacturing principles. If this person doesn’t work out, we can always replace them–and perhaps with younger people so we don’t have to pay them as much.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see the data around plummeting engagement or around increasing churn. It’s the result of the strategies we drive where we give lip service to the importance of our people–the data doesn’t reflect that.

And now, we are astonished by the Great Resignation. We react by doing things like increasing wages (of course money solves everything) or other cosmetic changes. Yet we fail to understand the root problems.

There is a lot of conversation about work-life balance. Yet what we are discovering after over a year of varied versions of isolation, the real issue is about life. People are forced to consider “What kind of life do I want, what is my purpose, who do I want to spend time with, what do I want to do with that time, …..” Work just becomes an element of these complex decisions.

Brent Adamson and I have our Friday afternoon calls. We try to challenge (sorry, couldn’t resist) the issues around selling, organizational performance, as well as tease each other. Increasingly, the conversations are dominated by, “it’s really all about people,” and the importance of identity and alignment.

Again, none of this is new, we have just lost sight of it, or have the arrogance to ignore the lessons of history. Deming, Toyoda, Ohno’s pioneering work on developing the Toyota Production System, was really all about people and creating workplaces where people are valued. Deming once said, “The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top! Management!”

Drucker and dozens of other “thought leaders” have written volumes about these issues. We read books like “In Search Of Excellence,” “Good to Great,” “The Fifth Discipline,” and others. We see study after study about the importance of purpose, values, culture, and talent. Yet, we ignore these, condemning ourselves to rediscovering and reinventing it–because things are different.

Fortunately, we have benchmarks of remarkable companies and performance all around us. Companies with strong purpose, values, and culture. Leadership that recognizes their success is driven by creating environments where people see they are valued, where people want to work, learn, and grow.

These organizations defy the data. They have high levels of employee engagement. They have the highest levels of performance and productivity. Their Gen Zs and other Gens stay around. I wrote recently of a couple of my clients that have average sales tenure of 7 and over 10 years.

How do they defy the now “laws of nature?”

These organizations also demonstrate the “causation” relationship between employee engagement and customer success/engagement.

We find ourselves confronting the “Great Resignation.” Many in management are wringing their hands, wondering what it means to their machines. “Do we have to pay people more, do we have to give them time off, to we have to let them work from anywhere?”

We should be looking at the Great Re-evaluation, or the Great Re-invention, with great optimism and hope. We have the opportunity to rethink everything we do–with our people, our customers, our suppliers, and our communities. We have great learnings from past transformations.

Life, business, work has and always will be all about people. I can think of no more exciting challenge and future.

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