The world is suffering a disease. I'm not talking about famine or inequality. I'm not talking about global warming, American politics, or smartphone addiction. I'm talking about work.

The perils of the modern workplace are well documented. Spirit-sapping offices prioritize power dynamics and useless posturing. Work environments oriented around results, where workers are given control, are simply all too rare. Work is in serious disrepair.

Ineffectual management is ubiquitous and bold leadership is an exception. It's one of the main reasons why we continue to see sky-high employee disengagement around the globe. According to Office Vibe, 60 percent of employees report that their work is taking a personal toll on their life. Physically and emotionally they suffer. Too many workers show up every day at a sorry excuse for a workplace. A whopping 57 percent of employees say they wouldn't recommend their company as a good place to work. This begs the question--why on earth are they there?

For starters, many feel trapped. They haven't been given the one thing they need to turbo-boost motivation and increase job satisfaction. It all comes down to control. Like all aspects of our lives, we want freedom over how we get work done. We want to exercise judgment over what we work on, and when and where we work on it. Yet in so many workplaces, employees are stripped of these liberties. Restricting workers' control over how they work is actually one of the surest ways to lower morale, deflate motivation, and stifle innovation.

The Best Places to Work

Edwin Jansen is a recovering manager. After 10 years at a big Toronto-based technology company, he knew it was time for a change. He had to find his calling. An unreasonable fellow, he set about doing every exercise that might help him find his why. In the process, he organized weekly meetups to aid others in search of their callings. Prior to facilitating his largest yet meetup, Jansen says he felt a tingle throughout his body. It turned out Jansen found his purpose when he was helping others to connect to meaningful work.

In a series of subsequent events, Jansen soon found himself as head of marketing at Fitzii--a hiring platform that matches people with work they care about. Most notably, Fitzii is a company with no managers. Everyone manages themselves, and by virtue of this brings their best selves to work. In his quest to help connect people with meaningful work, Jansen has seen an entire generation adopt a new ethos:

"The individual needs to see that their success is going to be self-driven. 'I am going to pick myself, define what I want to do, what differences I want to make, and how I will be valuable to people. I am my own brand -- I am going to own it and make my way.'"

Cliché as it may sound, describing his transformation Jansen says it was as if a weight that he didn't even know was there had been lifted from his shoulders. It should come as little surprise, because when he took more control over his work, he became more humble and more hungry to become a better leader. He learned to manage himself better, and now helps others do the same. Jansen wakes up each day and knows precisely what he needs to do, and simply does it.

Jansen is adamant that giving control is the real remedy to one of the most pressing problems in business today. Disengagement in the workplace need not be an epidemic. Letting people manage themselves is not just good business, it's also humane.

Better Questions

We should be modelling our companies more like our cities. As cities grow, they get smarter, better connected, and more efficient. More patents are filed, more innovation takes places, more creativity flourishes. But as our organizations scale, they tend to get stupider. Decision making is increasingly centralized and slower, artificial power infests every nook and cranny, and people go home feeling diminished and diffused.

Reassuringly, folks at the world's most pioneering companies are asking better questions about how we can organize in work. Like Jansen, they are experimenting and learning what environments best nourish people. They continually ask: Do employees feel empowered to bring their best selves to work? Do they give more than they take? Are there strong social ties between colleagues? Is authority distributed in the right way?

The best places to work have many common characteristics. They prioritize activity-based working (ABW)--whatever mode of work you happen to be in, there is a space that caters to it. These places champion movement, encouraging happy collisions and interesting collaborations. They feature nature heavily, taking note from the science of biophilia, which helps boost productivity and creativity. But most importantly, they act as destinations; places that people choose to go because they can both give what they want and get what they need.

Being Human

It's time for a fresh approach and a renewed attitude towards work. I believe in the years to come, how we choose to spend our time and what we decide to work on is going to make us less mechanical, and more human.

Soon more than half of the American work force will be independent. Three-quarters of the world's work force is going to be made up of Millennials. Success is going to be self-driven. You'll need to understand how you add value in the world, adopt the right mindset, and have the aptitude to carve out and continually craft your career. Along with continuing education, self-awareness is going to be instrumental in helping you perform at your best. You'll need to keep your peripheral vision popping to see the connections between industries, disciplines, people, places, and beyond. 

Self-management will continue to gain more favor in the workplace. The practice places emphasis on you to direct your own time and cultivate rich rhythms and rituals of work. And self-efficacy is going to distinguish those who flourish versus flounder. In a world that is only changing faster and becoming more complex, being resilient is a need-to-have ability.

We can undo the dystopian future that lurks around the corner. We can design a future of work that we actually want. We can be sincere with ourselves and understand what each of us yearns for. More importantly, we can ask one another how we can help. Ultimately, each of us should decide how we want to organize in work. If we are what we repeatedly do, then how we direct our energy and spend our time is what really matters.

One by one, we can help put the world of work at ease.

This article is adapted from a talk given at the Toronto Design Offsite Festival on Designing the Future of Work, January 20, 2018. Sign up for my newsletter all about work here.

Published on: Jan 29, 2018
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