Balance vs flexibility

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Tech entrepreneur Glenn Elliott thinks the workplace is pretty dysfunctional – but to makes things better we need to rethink our relationship with work itself.

Most people hate their jobs. It’s true. In fact, at any one time, about half of us are looking for a new one – even more at this time of the year. Something about returning to a job you don’t love after the festive break is a real catalyst for change.

But I’m one of a global minority of less than one in three people who are engaged at work – people who believe in their organisation’s mission or purpose understand how their role supports that mission, and deeply want their organisation to succeed. Most people just don’t feel like that, with work being somewhere they’d prefer not to be. It’s where the whole narrative of work/life balance comes from ‘a balance of nice things against the boredom (or worse) of work’ It’s where language like ‘compensation’ originates – we need to be compensated for the loss of life to work and toil.

It’s dysfunctional that, despite spending most of our best waking hours and youthful years at work, most of us accept it as necessary evil, something that, at best, should be tolerated. But surely work should be more? I’ve always believed there is something deeply human about working together with others for a common goal – that without meaningful work, life is rather pointless. But most of the time we think of work as a bad place and doing too much of it as a problem or a disease – it even has a name: workaholic! But, I ask, do we think of Florence Nightingale as having worked too hard? Should she have had more work/life balance? What about a concert pianist or acrobat – should we ask them only to play or practice between 9am and 6pm or otherwise be accused of being an unhealthy workaholic?

“It’s dysfunctional that, despite spending most of our best waking hours and youthful years at work, most of us accept it as necessary evil, something that, at best, should be tolerated”

The dysfunction is also visible in our relationship with the physical workplace. For many of us, the need to be in a particular space has long been eradicated by technology. Thanks to the Cloud, laptops and phones, the technology many of us need for work is in our backpack, pocket or handbag. The workplace has a role in collaboration, sure, but even then, only to collaborate with those based in the same location – surely limited for any of us working in and across global teams.

Despite the rapidly changing needs and opportunities at work, we struggle terribly with the idea of flexibility. We think of flexible working as a benefit or perk to be requested and granted or withdrawn. But flexible working shouldn’t be seen as a benefit to the worker – it should be seen as essential to the organisation. To not fully embrace flexible working means you’re embracing – or at least clinging on to – ‘inflexible working’.

Inflexible working – the status quo for many – is the idea that your work environment should be static regardless of the needs of your task, role or project. It creates wholly unnecessary and unproductive stresses. Productive stress, up to a point, is good for us – the drive to get a project to a certain stage or the drive to win the deal are productive stresses because good outcomes come from them. Unproductive stresses have no positive results – you want to have your head down to get that contract/tender/code written and you know the best place to get that done is your bedroom/kitchen/coffee shop/hotel lobby – but your office rules or politics say you have to have to waste four hours of the day battling through commuter traffic to get to a particular location for a particular time. Or you’re an early riser whose best time is 5am – but work only counts if you start at 9am.

Old fashioned workplace rules and design are used to mask or excuse a myriad of problems in the relationship we have with work. Being unable to trust staff that you can’t see is not a reason to force your staff to be within eyesight, it’s a reason to re-examine your whole workplace culture, from job design through to communications, management and leadership.

Workplace, workspace, whatever we’re calling it now, has a critical role in enabling people to do great work or, more commonly, disabling them from it. But it cannot right the wrongs of a dysfunctional working system by itself – for that we need to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationship with work.

Glenn Elliott is an tech entrepreneur, ex CEO and expert on employee engagement at Reward Gateway. His book, Build it : The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley in February. glenn@rebelplaybook.com