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The future of work is all about offering choices

Aug 30, 2020 Management, Sunday Nation

When my son was in his first year of formal schooling, I asked him which of the subjects he was being taught he liked the best. He answered without hesitation: “Golden Time.”

It turned out Golden Time was that hour of the week when the young kids were allowed to choose what to do. They could read a book, play outside, be on the computer – whatever. The point was: they could choose. And they loved it.

It didn’t last, of course. As he grew older, Golden Time disappeared from the weekly schedule, which became far more structured. Soon his life followed preset timetables and fixed time allocations. The world of work now lies in wait for him, forcing him to undertake specified tasks at specified hours.

Why do we remain so primitive in our approach to study, work and workplaces?

There is a line of thinking that has not left us, and it is this: employees are like little children. They are immature and irresponsible. If you give them choices, they will choose badly and become unproductive. We the senior folks are like their parents. We must impose discipline. We must make them assemble in a central workplace where they can be observed. We must make them clock in and clock out. We must set them tasks preordained from above, and give them deadlines. We must not let them chat too much, or, heaven forbid, laugh while they work. We must reward them for good behaviour and punish them for failure.

This may have worked in the factories and fields of the distant past, but good luck if that’s your approach when you face an uncertain world in which you need to attract people with creativity and imagination onto your teams.

2020 has been a most unusual year in the history of work. Never before were so many people suddenly sent home to work from there. CEOs who thought “flexitime” was some weird millennial concept suddenly found themselves on flexitime. 

The one lesson I hope rings in every boardroom and HR department from this moment onwards is this: people are different. And that’s great.

Look what happened during this whole remote-working forced experiment. Some workers took to it like ducks to water. They loved the fact that they could now structure their days and hours differently; they enjoyed the hours freed up by the cancelled commute; they found a way of remixing work time with family time. They remained highly productive.

Others completely hated it! Some folks are just terrible at working on their own. They need the camaraderie and constant presence of their colleagues. They get energy from interactions and shared thinking. They could not wait for social distancing to end, and were the first to troop back to the office, pandemic or not.

It isn’t just about personality types. People also have different contexts. Some have private spaces in their residences, conducive to home working; others simply don’t. Some love the fluid intermingling of family life with work meetings; others need to box things off. Some can make their screens become their windows to the world; others hate them and need to read body language in person.

As this virus eases off, I hope there is a long-lasting lesson workplace leaders take from it. One size does not fit all; one rigid way of doing things is passé. We should rejoice in difference and deploy diversity to address the multiplicity of challenges we face. Sadly, this has not been the case in most organizations, where the personality and preferences of the boss become those of everyone, by default.

The forward-thinking HR leader of the immediate future will approach it rather differently. The aim of the people function is not to hire unthinking underlings and make them follow orders; it is to attract talent. The aim is not develop clones; it is to develop creative thinkers who can bring multiple perspectives to the many challenges we face, and expand the organisation’s bandwidth.

To do that, we must return to the idea that choice is golden. Talented folks don’t want to work strapped in straitjackets; they want to have the ability to choose their spaces and hours; their styles and preferences. This does not mean enabling a chaotic free-for-all, though; organizations will always need rules, regulations and norms; and many jobs by their very nature require people to present at specified places at specified times. 

The trick is to stop inhibiting engagement and passion. The future of work involves making trust the cornerstone of employment – we trust you to deliver against your obligations; we do not try to micromanage you to death. Be you, be special, be responsible. Now let’s do great things together.

(Sunday Nation, 30 August 2020)

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