Future of Work can mean Freedom of Choice - Delegated power to control one’s own life helps Employee Wellness

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The Future of Work is going to be disruptive. Changing working patterns, accelerated like many others by Covid-19, create a different environment and new opportunities to optimise employee performance and well-being – which in our book reinforce one another and come together in greater empowerment.

From the employee point of view it means change and uncertainty, stress, and (possibly) less workplace support and more visibility. Paradoxically, one can hide pretty effectively in a 9-5 job, while one “self-trains”, as long as one copies enough people on emails and leaves a jacket on the back of one’s chair; whereas at home, one is actually rather visible, if someone is disposed to think that you are skiving off. Not good for holistic “employee wellness”; and “imposter syndrome” is probably pretty rife amongst remote workers:

“Common symptoms of impostor syndrome include feeling under-qualified for (or unworthy of) your job even though success after success proves your abilities”, as this blog explains. It also provides lots of solutions to this issue.

All good advice, but it doesn’t cover one aspect of employee wellness: empowerment. People work well and achieve mental well-being if they are told the required outcome and delegated the power to get the job done on their own terms. A corollary to this is that people generally don’t mind change, they mostly find it exciting and exhilarating, but they hate being changed, without being in control of their own destiny.

As an illustration of this, in the last century I was put in charge of, in effect, automating secretaries out of a bank (never happened, a secretary became a visible status symbol for top managers) by introducing Windows word processing, so a highly paid Bank officer could spend his or her time writing email and doing the work of a comparatively low-paid secretary. Lots of management issues there, but I was amazed how keen the secretaries were on Windows, despite being quite intelligent enough to realise what was being done to them and experiencing all of the stress associated with this. I think that the reason was, that for the first time in their lives, they were in control of their own immediate workplace, not having things done to them at the micro level (that usually made their jobs harder), by the remote gods of IT. They were empowered to customise their own PC, spend time fixing problems in their own PC, getting a buzz from a successful fix, even (dare to say it) playing the occasional game. Even this level of empowerment kept morale surprisingly high, despite the threat to their jobs.

Of course, as you’ve probably noticed, people spending one or two days a week nurturing Windows and their PC isn’t great for work productivity (unless you measure productivity in terms of time spent at the keyboard and number of digital artefacts, regardless of usefulness, produced). That’s the downside of empowerment – without effective goals and feedback it easily becomes time-wasting.

This is a management issue, of course. Set goals for remote workers (and even on-site workers) in terms of business outcomes and give them the freedom to choose how they achieve those outcomes. There’s a lot of help available for managing the future workforce available online, this Forbes article for example. It’s largely a question of trust. If employees want to play golf all day and work at 3am that’s fine, as long as they deliver the necessary outcomes.

But there must be guard-rails. Security matters, and employers are probably responsible for the health and safety of workers (depending on employment type – a bigger question for another time and place) and for overall project – or program (many connected projects) – risk management. If I am meeting all my objectives with the help of a bottle of vodka a night and no sleep, this probably isn’t sustainable, despite the urban legends –  and that puts the program at risk. But many choices – whether to use Microsoft Office or LibreOffice (the formats are interchangeable these days), say – are just that: choices. If indulging my own choices makes me feel empowered and lets me work more efficiently and keeps me happier, then what does my employer, or my line manager lose? If there really is a good reason for my employer to make a particular choice for me, then explain this to me, don’t just issue a dis-empowering diktat.

The important control for all this is communication – conversation. An informal zoom meeting on Friday afternoon for all of your workers, perhaps, and perhaps also ship out a bottle of beer/soft drink and a pretzel for everyone. Plus one-to-one zooms if necessary, and the availability of specialised mentors, if I decide, as an empowered worker, that I need one. Or, even, making line managers always accessible on the phone.

Empowerment is good. This is true irrespective of where the employee happens to be working. The issue may have been accentuated by the upsurge in remote working over recent months but it isn’t unique to that arrangement.  This is a great opportunity for firms – and individual leaders – to put into practice what many of them have at least been paying lip service to for years – creating genuine empowerment founded in a belief (which you kind of have to find a way of subscribing to, even if it doesn’t come naturally) that humans thus empowered will give more, achieve more and feel more fulfilled as a result of being enabled to operate in this way. And that’s largely irrespective of financial reward. (For more on this see Rutger Bregman’s book “Humankind: A Hopeful History”, chapter 13, “The Power of Intrinsic Motivation.”) And, by the way, going beyond paying lip service to empowerment will mean changes in leadership behaviour, style, definitions of success etc.

And always remember that, in general, people don’t mind change, which is inseparable from being in a Mutable Business, but they really hate being changed.

This post is part of our Future of Work series. You can read the previous post, the next post, or find them all in our Future of Work section. If you’d like to discuss how we can help get you prepared for the way work and business is changing, then please contact us.