This is the era of the employee as a whole person. Remote work, corporate investments in DEI, and taking that gratuitous foosball table out to the trash are all part of a mindset shift that acknowledges that everyone's time on earth is valuable. Companies are coming to realize they compensate people for the value they bring but they don't own people or even their time. That's a fallacy whose time is ending.
Earlier in my career, suffering through the hierarchies and egos of the cutthroat world of fashion and advertising, I dreamed of a future when people would work independently and organically in affinity networks rather than squeeze into top-down structures. In this future, people would be compensated for deliverables, not controlled by a clock.
It seemed only logical that a lattice-shape leadership framework, one that accentuates relationships, teamwork, and individuality, would replace top-down linear structures. That's not to say there'd be no boss to set standards and guide teams in operational structure and business strategy, but the deliverable would be what's measured, not the window dressing of office politics and meetings that often get in the way of the work.
And now, here we are. The beginning of that sea change.
Employee as a Service
Think of your employee as an organization of one providing a service. Imagine a lawyer, a doctor, a therapist. Sure, you want to have a positive fruitful working relationship with them, but unless you have a meeting scheduled, you don't tell them what time to come back from lunch. That's a different model than the butts-in-seats time-is-work philosophy that contributed to driving 4.4 million people to quit in April and 45 million over the course of 2021.
Humane leadership that treats employees as valuable contributors doesn't just help employees. It frees employers from the arduous task of babysitting employees. Without fear of retribution, employees can feel galvanized to roll up their sleeves and solve problems.
We feel a pride of ownership and an affirmation of identity when we're treated like the autonomous operators we are providing individual contributions to a shared goal.
A Shift in Employee Accountability
In this paradigm, a leader communicates objectives and expectations from their strategic purview and the employee communicates disparities or conflicts from their purview, which is one of boots-on-the-ground execution.
Both parties should be clear and in agreement about expectations and priorities and be open to iterative changes, but only the employee can know if their workload constitutes a realistic time/workload ratio for them or if the methods suggested work. If the expectation is misaligned for an employee, the employee should feel comfortable communicating challenges and come to the table with solutions on how they can deliver meaningfully on objectives in a reasonable amount of time.
Essentially, employees need to feel safe to manage their time effectively and communicate any negative impacts.
Another point to mention is that human beings tend to rise to the level of your belief in them, a phenomenon called the Pygmalion effect. If you want to keep an employee, set aside resources for their personal development and self-care.
The Psychology of Motivation
A friend once told me nobody past the age of 5 likes to be told what to do. It's generally true that being scolded or admonished is rarely compelling. And now, emplooyes just aren't having it anymore. At the same time, being led by a guide offering clarity and structure, someone who sees you as an equal-but-different contributor, is productive.
Being valued fulfills a primal need to belong and be accepted. That quippy T-shirt that declares we don't care what other people think of us is an artificial conceit. We may not feel the need to have everyone like us, but the fact is we thrive when we have a sense of belonging.
The whole world is reeling from the loss of the familiar but this shift in work values is a cause for celebration. If we rise to the occasion, we can achieve a healthy work life that takes our full lives into account and honors our deepest talents.
Autonomy, trust, recognizing each person's unique intelligence, and respect for difference are the things that employees -- excuse me, people -- crave.
After all, people do their best when they're looking forward, not watching their back.
Here are some ways you can start right now:
7 Ways to Get on Board the Future of Work as a Leader
- Consciously address the growing demand for an equitable, flexible, representative, and increasingly autonomous workforce.
- Ask your team what constitutes meaningful work to them.
- Set people up to succeed. Be crystal clear in your expectations and needs while leaving room for creative solutions and ideas.
- Make sure the tech you employ in the workplace works for the people using it.
- Have your employees come to the table with their perspective on timelines.
- Don't be afraid to ask hard questions at quarterly check-ins. Ask about happiness and comfort levels.
- Here's a big one that deserves it's own article: Seek employee perspectives on operations, product, and customer feedback without penalty. Create a system where people can contribute observations and have them fold into leadership meetings, not just to understand employee satisfaction, but the health of the company, customer experience, and product excellence. These are the kinds of insights I've been hired for as a consultant and what I've done as a workshop leader and I've seen the results first hand. No need to wait for consultants; Embed feedback and employee opinion into your company culture and operations.
Enjoy the new era of work.