Thesis: The future of work is an autonomy driven hybrid environment. Beware the status quo policy-driven hybrid environment.
HOOK- short story about self, making speaker relatable and providing background
I have a story I’d like to tell at the onset. A story that I believe will help illuminate our fundamental challenge with the workplace.
The year is 2005. YouTube was first introduced and we watched American Idol at the actual time it was aired.
I was working as a change leader for a Fortune 100 company. We wanted to be recognized for being an innovative, forward thinking company. A couple of us were curious about whether or not the way we were working was creating a barrier and preventing that from happening. We voiced our thoughts and finally someone said ‘okay, figure it out’.
So we began experimenting with an innovative framework. We didn’t benchmark. Instead, we created a platform unlike anything anyone else was doing, and it caught the attention of two social science researchers. What we realized was that we needed to change the relationship between managers and the people they manage.
The results of the experiment were mind blowing. The people on the teams that were part of this experiment were significantly outpacing the rest of the organization in terms of engagement, productivity, and employee retention after implementation.
But we learned that these gains were making people in the human resources department uncomfortable. Apparently we were breaking too many “work rules” - these strongly held beliefs about what work is and how we do it.
I felt like I was being pulled in two directions. Be innovative, lead change, figure out how to produce incredible results . But don't make anyone uncomfortable or push us out of our comfort zone.
Our experiment showed that true innovation in its essence requires getting a little uncomfortable. Real change is uncomfortable. It takes effort. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
The workplace has been broken for a long time. To this day we are still clinging to a 20th century management style and beliefs about how to achieve results. Like work happens between 8am and 5pm, preferably in the office, with permission to work some days from home. And of course, lots and lots of meetings no matter where you’re working from.
The way we think about work needs to change. It’s time to break some eggs - it’s time to experience the discomfort that comes just before real change happens.
Today I’m going to share with you a social science-based case for rethinking the institution of work.
In a 2021 McKinsey and Company report titled “It’s time for leaders to get real about Hybrid” the author’s state: “Once in a generation we have an opportunity to reimagine how we work.” For many, the hybrid environment has become synonymous with the workplace of the future. Employees are rejecting the return to the office with the associated grind of cranking out work from 9-5 Monday through Friday. Employers are designing hybrid environments as a way to reimagine the workplace.
But people working from different locations is not a new or innovative idea.
However I agree with the authors of the McKinsey report that we have a unique moment in time to truly reimagine how we approach work. At the same time there is a very real possibility that while we might convince ourselves we’ve reimagined work, we have in fact fundamentally changed nothing. You’ll understand how likely this may be how serious this possibility is as we continue.
Today I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned over the past 17 years of guiding organizations to design work environments that truly ameliorate our greatest customer and employee experience challenges. I’m hoping you walk away with a clear vision of what a truly new and innovative approach to work looks like - a contemporary hybrid environment contrasted with a hybrid environment designed with the same beliefs we had about work from the 1950’s - we’ll call it a “tale of two hybrids”.
Make no mistake, social science has identified the problem with work; we’re living in contemporary society with a 20th century management mindset.
So before our tale of two hybrids begins, I want to share with you what social science has taught us about what’s really going on in the workplace. The first concept is called the job demands control model, and the second is called the Myth of the Average.
PROBLEM DEEP DIVE
We stumbled upon the job demands control model back in 2005 when we were working on the innovation experiment I mentioned in my story at the beginning. The organization was experimenting with flexible work arrangements as a solution to the work/life balance conundrum.
As an employee, a flexible schedule seems like the best solution – giving us more control over our time because there’s flexibility around where we work the core hours we owe to our employer. What we hadn’t considered at the time was that focusing on hours and location was the fundamental problem, and that a flexible schedule makes things worse, not better. Let me explain.
In 1979, US sociologist Robert Karasek presented an assessment of stress and stress factors in the work environment. It has become one of the best-known models with regard to workload and work-related stress and emphasizes two important aspects: Height of strain or Demands, and Decision Latitude or Control
The Job Demand Control Model shows that the strain of the work itself does not lead to high psychological stress. It is about the combination of the strain of the work and the decision latitude or autonomy that the job offers.
Karasek's “job strain” model states that the greatest risk to physical and mental health from stress occurs to workers facing high psychological workload demands or pressures combined with low control or decision latitude in meeting those demands.
Now to illuminate what all that means, let’s take the job demands/control model and include the demands of our lives – both at work and outside of work. We have an ever-increasing number of demands on our time in our lives. Things we want to do, and things we need to do. We need to do things like laundry, take care of children, grocery shop and eat, clean, take care of our personal hygiene, sleep, and of course work. Then we have the things we want to do like reading, attending a school event, working out, watching television, spending time with friends and playing sports.
Here is where Karasek’s model shows us why no matter what we try in the workplace – flexible schedules, Policy Driven Hybrid, 4-day workweek or flextime – we are destined to be stressed out. Nothing that we’ve tried in the work place actually gives us more control over our time.This lack of control leads us down the inevitable road of never being able to meet all the demands in our lives, including work.
The job demands control model shows us a fundamental root cause of stress in the workplace. And the world of work is not talking about it or addressing it effectively, because the idea that we owe time to our employers each week is so central to the fabric of work – it’s imprinted in the DNA of work culture.
Workplace flexibility is a program that attempts to give people more control over their time but is fundamentally a paradox. For example, organizations that are moving to the 4-day workweek have simply shifted the hours that people do not have control over their time, giving you a greater loss of control for 4 days instead of 5 days. The broadly accepted currency of work is still built on a foundation of measuring people’s time, which increases stress as it lowers autonomy.
We’re living in contemporary society with a 20th century management mindset.
Now we’re going to quickly shift gears and talk about the second social science principal – the Myth of the Average.
Todd Rose is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate school of education. He explains The Myth of the Average in this way. A Navy pilot’s performance in their fighter jets depends fundamentally on their fit in the cockpit. The challenge back in 1952 was that pilots are not all the same size, so how do you design a cockpit that fits the most individuals? Why not take an average measurement of all pilots - like height, weight, arm and leg length - and create a cockpit that fits the overall average? But what’s amazingly counterintuitive is that when you do this, you create a cockpit that fits exactly nobody.
Have you ever considered why the seats in your car adjust in so many ways? It’s because not one of us fits the average. The Myth of the Average explains the impossible and dangerous outcome when we try and design an average and seemingly fair experience for people.
It appears that many oOrganizations have yet to learn this lesson and continue to create as close to an average employee experience as possible, under the misguided belief that this will create the most likely scenario for most people to be successful. It doesn’t matter if you’re a morning person, night person, introvert, extrovert, have kids, have pets, live close or far from the office – everyone must fit into whatever schedule is created for them. We all owe our employers time each week, during prescribed core hours, in approved locations.
We’re living in contemporary society with a 20th century management mindset.
Let’s take the Job Demands/Control model along with the Myth of the Average and show how these social science theories affect the way we work. Let’s dive into the tale of two Hybrids – One Hybrid that is policy-driven and one Hybrid that is performance-driven on a foundation of autonomy.
We’ll start with the Policy-Driven Hybrid Environment - our 20th century management mindset
In a policy-driven hybrid environment, leadership, management, or even teams themselves determine how many days everyone will spend in the office and how many days they’ll work from home. Everyone learns the company schedule or each team’s schedule. On a Monday morning everyone starts by thinking – “what do the company rules and policies dictate today about where I have permission to work from, and when am I supposed to start and stop?” If Monday is an ‘in office’ day, I’ll get ready and show up at a core hour start time – let’s say 9:00 a.m.
I have a fundamental question to ask right now… In what way are employees gaining more control over their time in order to meet all the demands in their lives both personally and professionally to reduce stress as noted by Karasek? And in what way have we created an equitable experience - like the adjustable moving fighter jet cockpit – rather than an equal or average one – which fits nobody?
In this policy driven or rule-based environment, we likely won’t not even ask these questions – after all, the policy states this is what work is supposed to look like. The rule or policy may even undermine engagement and be woefully inept for contemporary society.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive, The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us says this:
“Control leads to compliance – autonomy leads to engagement. Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and lead richer lives.”
Policy-driven Hybrid environments are foundationally about the control of time and location. Control leads to compliance. If we want to truly engage and motivate people at all levels of the organization, creating new policies around where, when, and how employees do their work simply won’t do it - it goes against what we’ve learned from social science. Pink said in his Ted Talk “There is a mismatch between what science knows, and what business does.” That’s right. We’re living in contemporary society with a 20th century management mindset.
POSSIBLE SOLUTION INTRO
What if you could balance job requirements with autonomy? What if we created a work environment using the lessons of Karasek and the Myth of the Average? Something that takes into account the work of Dan Pink and the data from the researchers he studied? Something that doesn’t just pretend to be innovative, but truly is? Let’s take a look at one possibility.
A performance-driven hybrid environment operates on the foundation of 100% accountability and 100% autonomy. In this environment each person can metaphorically adjust their own driver’s seat to maximize performance so that we all end up at the same destination safely. And instead of complacently defaulting to company rules and policies about work location or core hours, instead ask themselves two seemingly simple questions:
First: What do I need to get done today - both professionally and personally to meet the demands of my life, and what do others need from me? I’m performance driven by accountability when I connect with what success looks like in my life, and part of my success in life includes what I contribute to the organization. Knowing clearly what I’m responsible for achieving every day of my life gives me the incredible power to wield my autonomy to achieve all that I wish to achieve. This brings me to the second question.
2. What is the most efficient and effective way to meet the demands of my life - again, this includes my job. This is where autonomy, not policies and rules come in.
a. Policy at this moment would say I owe time at an approved location during certain days of the week and during certain times.
b. Autonomy at this moment states that rather than owing time I instead use time as a tool to take the actions necessary to be successful in my whole life – again, this includes work.
PROBLEM SOLUTION CORRELATION PERSONALIZED
I want you to think for a moment about your own experiences with work. Let’s start with the universal experience of “work time.” Do you work full time or part time? How many hours a week are you expected to be working? Are you salaried or hourly?
Where are you expected to be putting in your work hours? The office? At home? Hybrid? Do you need to inform team members where you’re working from each day? Do you need to be available during core business hours? If you don’t work all your hours in a day, do you feel obligated to make up that time somewhere else?
Is what your organization doing today to attract and retain today’s talent working? How are your engagement scores? Productivity? Health and Wellness? Work/life balance?
Organizations globally are all experiencing the same things in terms of optimizing human capital – your most important resource. How is your organization thinking about the future of work? Are they driving it through policy? Have you gotten new guidelines or rules around where you have permission to work from and when? Still putting defaulting to time and location first rather than the measurable results of your work?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then I caution you about expecting this new post-pandemic work environment to be any different than the one you had pre-pandemic. Managing or controlling time and location is the old currency of work. You’re still trapped in a permission-based environment, fueling complacency.
WRONG ASSUMPTION ABOUT SOLUTION
We’re living in contemporary society with a 20th century management mindset.
And what truly stresses me out is that organizations globally are continuing to make decisions about how to get the most from their human capital by continuing down the same path over and over and over again. We’re literally getting in our own way! Instead of differentiating ourselves in the war for talent, it appears that we’re benchmarking and copying each other.
Isn’t a sign of madness doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?
We need to stop and rethink what we’ve been calling “solutions.”. We need to step outside of what we’ve always been doing and take our cues from social science,and create something radically different. We need to UNPLUG ourselves from the 20th century management philosophies that haven’t evolved for decades, and enter an entirely different management mindset. It will require letting go of outdated beliefs about work and adopting an entirely different foundation.
Luckily, we have one more piece from social science to guide us.
The University of Minnesota did a 6-year longitudinal study of how a performance-based hybrid environment – one that is built on a foundation of autonomy and accountability –affects work and family conflict. According to Phyllis Moen, University of Minnesota McKnight Presidential Chair in Sociology and Erin Kelly a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, the study results were definitive: employees who participated in the organizational initiative said they felt more control over their schedules, support from their bosses, and were more likely to say they had enough time to spend with their families. Moreover, these employees reported greater job satisfaction and were less burned out and less stressed. They also reported decreases in psychological distress, which captures depressive symptoms that do not amount to clinical depression. (MIT SLOAN Press Release)
TRUE SOLUTION TO PROBLEM
I want to stress that a work culture based on a foundation of autonomy in exchange for accountability to measurable results is a proven solution backed by social science and the longitudinal study by Moen and Kelly. I am not espousing a philosophy today – these are facts. It requires pure management innovation; instead of managing people, managers shift to managing the work. They are no longer permission granters; they are performance guiders. If you want to build a competent workforce, you’ll get clear about what constitutes success for individuals and teams and let people manage themselves. If you want a workforce that’s compliant, you will continue to box people in using policies and rules.
EXAMPLES OF TRUE SOLUTION
So how do we get from our current state, to the future state of a performance based work environment? The buzzwords and messages we hear from thought leaders are on track.. However, what I’m not hearing where is the effective adaptive change pathway to achieve this new paradigm.success? Fortunately there is an example of a process that lays the foundation for achieving a culture of Autonomy and Accountability that was studied by Moen and Kelly - a process that leads us into the performance based hybrid model.
It’s been around for 17 years and it’s called the Results-Only Work Environment or ROWE for short. Organizations that have adopted ROWE go through a proprietary migration process that has proven to be successful over and over again in industries like manufacturing, professional services, accounting, call centers, for profit and nonprofit agencies, education, government, and so much more – on an international stage. It’s not a philosophy, it’s a system. A solid path forward to successfully evolve work culture to be in step with contemporary society.
ADDRESSES MISGIVINGS of why won’t work for them personally
I know some of you out there are saying ‘work is not a utopia’ and ‘that would never work at my organization. We’re different’. Well, I respectfully disagree, and let me share why. The proof has already been established. Workers inside of ROWE Certified Organizations report not having a desire to leave the organization even when they’re offered more money. A lot more money. And, it’s been proven through Moen and Kelly’s research, that organizations that invest in adopting the Results-Only Work Environment realize a 168% return on their investment from increased productivity, and a 50% ROI from reduction in turnover rates.
Fact - A small accounting firm tripled their revenue in 3 years. Fact - A manufacturing organization improved their on-time delivery rate by 90%. Fact - A retail business consultancy experienced 100% top-line growth in under 5 years. Fact - A government entity with 2000 employees noted that after 1 year in a ROWE they saw a 50% reduction in employees listing work life balance as a primary stressor.
TRUE SOLUTION AND WHY IT’S BEST APPROACH
We all know deep inside that the workplace is broken and there’s got to be a better way. We have to unplug ourselves from outdated management practices that social science has proven do not work. Practices that say we’ll get more out of our human capital if we control time, location. Practices that reward long hours and face time as signals of promotability. Practices that encourage too many meetings, too much busy work, too many perception-based judgements rather than data driven decisions. There’s never been a better time in history to create big and lasting change in the culture of work.
Our lives, our communities and our businesses depend on it.