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Working while playing, and playing while working

Last week I pointed out that what looks like work often isn’t, and what looks like play may be someone hard at work.

Consider the lady sitting in your office, hard at work on her computer. She seems to be very busy trying to get something urgent done. Take a closer look. She’s on Facebook, exchanging banter with her girlfriends. Which explains why she looks so happy in a place of work.

Or look at that gentleman sitting in that traditional place of leisure, the coffee shop. He’s looking at his smartphone with his headphones on, laughing with someone on the line. Relaxing by talking to a friend while enjoying a latte, no doubt. But move closer. He’s actually on a video conference call with his workmates. The team has a deadline to meet, but it is scattered all over the globe. They are hard at work – but their work does not look anything like what we used to think work is.

What are we to make of this world, where work is like play and play is like work? Those of a traditional mien will find it deeply unsettling. They will dismiss this new world of work as unworkable. They will demand that the young lady gets off social media in working hours; and they will insist that the young man sits at his official desk in office hours.

And they will fail to make this happen.

There are, of course, places where workers need to be physically present at their workplace. Factories, hospitals, retail stores, airports, police stations, bank branches, restaurants and many other workplaces come to mind. You will not get very far by allowing employees to work from home in these places. Equally, much work requires deep concentration. A nurse cannot be allowed to check her Instagram feed during an operation, for example. So some care is certainly needed in adjusting to this new world.

Yet adjust we must. If you fail to recognize that the way work is done is going to look nothing like it used to, you are living in denial. It is far better to understand the changes and work with them. If you persist with the rigid eight-to-five, Monday-to-Friday model of working hours for everyone, you will struggle to attract anyone who is young, and you will certainly not do very well working with women.

What the new mobility and connectivity does for us is that it gives us all options. We don’t all have to pile in to the same place at the same time in order to work; we don’t all have be stuck in traffic at the same time; we don’t have to all work under the noses of our supervisors. A thoughtful employer will give this a lot of thought. One approach may not fit all: some people actually work better in teams and surrounded by their colleagues; others work better in isolation, in environments that they are allowed to choose themselves.

Some engage wholeheartedly with gadgetry; others find them an artificial barrier in proper human engagement. Some enjoy the predictability of five working days followed by two rest days; others work better in short bursts. Some blend work with play effortlessly; others prefer to keep them apart.

My advice: know your organization and its needs. Know your people and their individual preferences. Dump outmoded ideas that came from a bygone age. Introduce flexibility and choice. Allow people to enjoy their work: being at work, as well as doing it. For too long and for too many, work has been a necessary evil, a tedious grind. The new technologies allow us all to rediscover an essential truth: that work is life, and great work confers great meaning to life.

Let’s conclude this series on the changing nature of work and the workplace next week.

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