WorkWoes Act III: Stacking the Deck (For Disaster)

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When I started my career after college, it was in journalism—the really old-school kind where I worked in a small-town newsroom writing city council stories for a daily newspaper.

To say the way we worked in that office was outdated would be a huge understatement.

Despite it being 2012 and there being tons of new technologies emerging every day that could help us communicate better, create more agile workflows, and build more effective teams; the way we worked was as outdated as our office: A squat, brick building with flickering fluorescent lights and cubicles that created physical barriers which were mirrored by the metaphorical barriers that littered our workflow.

That job sucked for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest ones was evident when I suggested a simple change to our process—working in Google Docs rather than Word to make real-time collaboration between team members possible. People responded with blank stares and one question: “Why?”

From the top to the bottom of that company, innovation that promoted better communication and fixed inefficiency wasn’t valued at all. In fact, my managers couldn’t imagine why I would even suggest such a thing. Dejected, I headed back to my cubicle, feeling like a cog in a seriously old-fashioned machine.

And too many workplaces today, in 2019, still operate just like that one.

That’s just one example of how work is designed according to old-fashioned frameworks that make employees disengage. And when employee engagement is low, it hurts the organization and everyone in it.

People Want Jobs That Mean Something to Them (But They’re Failing)

Employees want to be engaged in their work, yet they simply aren’t.

The data on this is pretty alarming:

  • 48 percent of workers left a job because it didn’t meet their expectations.
  • 90 percent of workers would be willing to give up 23 percent—nearly a quarter—of their income in exchange for doing work they love and find meaningful.
  • 81 percent of job seekers said they were looking for new jobs because they weren’t satisfied in their current or previous ones.
  • The top reasons employees cited for leaving their jobs were dissatisfaction with management (22 percent), problems with company culture (17 percent), and unfulfilling job duties (13 percent).
  • 70 percent of employees self-reported being unengaged at work and 14 percent of those said they would leave their job if they had an opportunity to switch to one they did find engaging.
Illustration showing that 9 of 10 workers would trade money for meaning

Study after study and survey after survey show the same thing: Employees would rather have jobs that engage them, but they don’t. That lack of engagement is not only making them feel dissatisfied with their jobs and companies, but it’s driving them to look for work elsewhere.

How We Got Here: 100 Years Without Major Work Innovation

When is the last time a major innovation changed the way people worked? I’ll give you a hint: It was the work of someone who’s come up a few times already in this series.

If you guessed Henry Ford, you’re right.

Not only did the founder of the Ford Motor Company revolutionize productivity by reducing factory workers’ shifts from 16 hours to just eight—he also revolutionized the way those factory workers did their jobs with the invention of the moving assembly line.

Picture showing the Ford assembly line in 1913

With mobile assembly lines, workers were able to specialize in just one small part of building a car and do that same job, over and over, all day. Instead of a team of workers building the whole car, which would take about 12 hours, fewer workers could assemble an entire car in just two hours and 30 minutes.

Assembly line work is monotonous—no one ever denied that. But Ford’s innovation gave people a chance to make good money doing unskilled work during a time when higher education wasn’t as accessible as it is today. It was a turning point in the industrial revolution that pushed the American economy into overdrive, helping the country become the world superpower it is today.

Here’s the problem: The moving assembly line was introduced in 1913, and there hasn’t been an innovation that changed work on such a grand scale since.

That means that for over 100 years, the most recent major innovation to the way people work was the one that made them, almost literally, cogs in a machine.

It’s been a freakin’ century. Work has changed. But the way we work hasn’t kept up with these changes.

Why Outdated Frameworks and Inefficient Processes are Making Your Workers Check Out

The landscape of work is definitely changing.

More and more companies are in favor of cross-team collaboration; agile, ever-changing workflows; and remote and distributed teams. The problem is that many companies are trying to fit those modern work styles into old and outdated frameworks, so it’s not working as well as it should.

Imagine if people in your office communicated not via Slack or email, but by hand-delivering memos they created on a typewriter. It would be wildly, frustratingly inefficient. How often would you actually take time away from your work to type out a memo on an old, inefficient machine and hand-deliver it to a colleague?

This is an extreme example, but it really highlights how workers feel about being forced to use outdated technologies when there are better ways to use the innovative tech they’re already familiar with to do the job.

Technology is often what steers our work practices. In a workplace that’s open to embracing new technology all the time, that can be a positive thing. But most workplaces aren’t like that. Workers get locked into certain structures by the tools they have available, and then they get stuck using those tools in order to keep working within the existing structures. It becomes a vicious cycle that prevents workplaces—and the employees within them—from innovating.

This creates several distinct problems.

Possibly the worst thing that can happen within your organization is the atrophy of critical thinking. When your workers become so reliant on those tools and processes, they never have to think outside of the box—so they don’t.

This is when that “cog in a machine” feeling kicks in. Workers begin to feel like drones who aren’t valued and can be replaced at any time and by anyone.

Comic strip of person pitching an idea to a manager

Employees who feel this way tend to phone it in at work. They become scared of or uninterested in taking risks or being creative.

Remember that story from my early journalism days, when management rolled their eyes at my suggestion that we use a new technology to improve communication? I had a ton of other ideas, but after that reaction, I never brought up another one. Instead, I did my job within inefficient processes that had been there for years, becoming less engaged with every frustrating day. That’s decidedly not how you want any organization to make its employees feel.

Another common problem is siloed teams and people. Teams and individuals get cut off from working with other teams or other organizations because it’s not part of the process—or the communication and collaboration channels don’t exist.

As knowledge work makes up more of the professional landscape, the more openly we’re able to communicate and collaborate the better the work outcomes will be. Defensive, departmental silos are part of the outdated set of frameworks that don’t fit modern work.

Modern Work Requires Modern Work Practices

So how does a business solve the problems that arise when workers feel dehumanized and unengaged? What can modern businesses do to increase employee engagement?

The first step is often to get an idea of how engaged your employees even are. The problem is that engagement is an emotional thing, and emotions are difficult to quantify. If an employee says their engagement is a 7/10, what does that even mean?

That’s why it’s important to measure engagement in ways that give you an accurate reading.

Some best practices include one-on-ones between leadership and employees, exit interviews, and frequent (think once a month) pulse checks that ask employees to give quick feedback on how they’re feeling about their work, the company, its culture, and their level of engagement. The key here is to measure engagement in a number of different ways, and frequently enough to get a sense of how it’s changing over time. It’s tough to assign a specific number to how engaged your employees are, but constantly checking in and measuring will give you the most accurate perception of their engagement.

Next, imagine your workplace without any team structures. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Without designated teams, who would work together and why?
  • How would people communicate differently?

Use the answers to those questions to determine whether your teams are siloed and need more freedom to cross-collaborate naturally.

Lastly, think about an employee’s “work journey” at your company. If you had to map out a work journey like you would a buyer’s journey, what would it look like? Would it be a sprint or a marathon? Is it a single path, or are there many different branches the employee might take? How easily can they progress—and do they know how?

These practices will help you gain a better understanding of whether your employees are suffering due to a lack of engagement, as well as problem areas you may want to focus on to improve it—such as teams, communication, or individual career development.

Act III, Fin: Re-Engage Your Workers and Recruit Them for the War On Work Woes

As remote work is becoming more common across industries, an interesting trend is emerging: Remote workers tend to be more engaged than their in-office counterparts. It’s hard to say exactly why, but there are a lot of plausible theories:

  • Remote workers have more flexibility, and thus can create the schedules that work best for them and their own cycles of energy and productivity.
  • Remote teams embrace more technology—videoconferencing, instant messaging, email, voicemail, and more—to communicate, meaning they’re more experienced communicators with more channels at their disposal to keep collaboration flowing.
  • When managers allow their team members to work remotely, it shows they trust and value that employee. That makes employees feel less like cogs and more like humans, fostering loyalty and better engagement.

In other words, remote teams have to do the opposite of what causes this particular work woe, and the result is happier employees who are more engaged.

Graph showing 4.3 million employees work from home at least half the time

This doesn’t necessarily mean remote teams are the only way to combat low employee engagement, but it does mean companies can take note of the possible reasons remote workers are more engaged and try to replicate them in their own work environments.

A key thing to note: Employers can’t force their employees to be engaged, and employees are unlikely to be engaged unless their employers are actively participating in engaging them. It’s truly a team effort. Like most work woes—employers and employees need to work together to build the kinds of work cultures we want in our modern world.

If you haven’t already, check out our Work Woes Act I, where we look at work-life balance, and Act II, where we explore the dark side of productivity. And keep following along as the HelloSign team investigates other work woes that are unique in the age of the knowledge worker.

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