Blog Future Work Report

A Manifesto — we can’t go on like this

It took me about a week at my first job to make me conclude that there was something wrong with the way people worked. It was 1992 and I’d just graduated from college, where I’d had freedom and flexibility — in retrospect, an arts degree at Cambridge University is a great example of a progressive and nurturing working environment (without the pay).

You have deliverables — an essay a week — but nobody cares how, where or when you did the work, so long as you handed in your essay the night before the supervision with your teacher. We were trusted to work, and encouraged do other things we’d enjoy — play a sport, act in a play, write for the university newspaper. That was part of being well-rounded — making us happy and better able to do the work. There was also a pastoral care component, where regular meeting to check in with us and see how things were going in a holistic way (not just talking about grades).

So I’d worked hard and got a good degree, but now I was out in the real world. I got a job at a communications company producing newspapers and publications for government departments and large organizations — this was in the days before the internet, so we wrote and printed a tabloid-sized monthly newspaper for London’s water company (now it would be content marketing and social media).

It was a good job for a fledgling writer, but it was 9–5, Monday to Friday, with a 30–40 minute commute at either end of the day. From the beginning, there were problems. I couldn’t be productive for that many hours straight (who can?), and I couldn’t understand why the shops were even open, since everyone with any money was stuck in their jobs the whole time. I also hated the structure, the crushing sense of inevitability that I knew where I’d be every day for the foreseeable future.

It was a huge step back from the freedom and flexibility of Cambridge — it felt like being back at a really bad high school. I got my head down and did the work, but all the time I was thinking, ‘this is what grown-ups are supposed to do for 40 years?

I lasted around a year before running off to Dublin to do a Masters degree.

There has to be a better way

Fast forward to the present day. I’m 43, living in the Southwest of the U.S. with my wife and daughter. Over the years, I’ve worked in a range of jobs, from fast-paced Silicon Valley tech companies, to researching and writing my own book; from working on communications for non-profits to running my own web design and content firm.

Through it all, that sense continued that there had to be a better way to work than the industrial-era model of clocking in and out, showing up to an office and playing the role of the obedient employee. And I’m not alone: for a lot of people, it’s not the work itself, but the daily grind of meetings, presenteeism, minimal vacation time (I’m looking at you, America), commutes, and inflexible arrangements that grinds us down. The average worker puts in too many hours, is disengaged and unhealthy.

But the good news is that an increasing amount of research and the examples of progressive organizations are showing that there is a better way — approaches that are more productive, make employees healthier and happier, and are more environmentally sound. As William Gibson says, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed — there’s a huge gap between what we know works and what most organizations are still doing. And in this gap millions of people are toiling away unnecessarily when they could be following a much richer path.

I call this better way Future Work, and this blog is the Future Work Report. I gather research, interviews, news and thoughts from progressive people all over the world, combined with my own insights and experiences, to help us all move towards future work.

Blog Future Work Report

The benefit of small benefits, or why Evernote employees get their houses cleaned

When I was working in the Silicon Valley in 1999, amidst all the stress and long hours of my job, I vividly remember the anticipation of walking into the break room on Fridays, excited at the thought of the bagels and pastries they provided for us.

We lingered a little in getting our coffee, and it seemed like a kind gesture and a way of marking the start of the weekend.

My then employers are far from alone in this — Evernote employees get their house cleaned, Google’s offerings are famous, including on-site massage, haircuts, and concierge service, while other offerings include fresh fruit and veg deliveries, unlimited Kindle downloads or Starbucks cards. But why are small tokens of appreciation so popular among more progressive organizations, and why do they work?

Such benefits perform several functions: from a purely practical results-based perspective there are some obvious pluses:

  • they can make a company stand out to potential employees
  • they can lead to greater productivity, fewer sick days and improved retention
  • they help keep people working longer (you don’t have to nip out for a haircut at lunchtime if you can use the Google salon),

That might be enough for some organizations, but in the right hands, they also sends a much more profound message that the staff are cared for — they’re not just thought of as producers of whatever widget the company trades in.

Some of the benefits look at health issues, and we know the toll work can take on our bodies. Others, like the house cleaning and concierge services, overcome one of the major issues that face employees — the challenge of balancing the everyday chores and errands with work commitments. Old-school employers might let you have time off for a doctor’s appointment, but expect you to do all the other stuff (house cleaning, shopping . . . ) at the weekends.

Callum Negus Fancey from Let’s Go Crazy Holdings (owners of several growing companies) has a good interview here discussing the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) he employs with his firms. In it he discusses how he’s trying to reduce the ‘friction’ his employees experience as a result of their work — it might be that they don’t go to the gym as much as they want to, or that they would like to spend more time with their family. To attract and keep the best people, and keep them motivated and creative, he sees it as the company’s role to help minimise that friction.

To me, that’s a great way of looking at it, and it acknowledges that people have a life outside of the office and tries to help smooth annoyances out before they become reasons for resentment.

Candy for Doctors

Employers could simply add a little more to the wages of its staff to cover many of these benefits, which would allow people to choose exactly what to spend it on (new bike instead of running shoes, espresso machine instead of Starbucks card). I could definitely afford to stop and pick up a bagel on my way to work on those Fridays in Redwood City, and as a proportion of my entire benefits package, one bagel a week was almost not worth counting. So why break out all the perks individually?

Happiness research has the answer. Harvard researcher Sean Achor points to experiments where patients gave doctors some candy at the beginning of their consultation. The happiness boost from getting a small free gift improved the doctors’ diagnostic ability markedly.

This from a one-off gift of something that cost pennies. Imagine the ongoing attitude benefits of these regular kindnesses. As Achor says, “Data abounds showing that happy workers have higher levels of productivity, produce higher sales, perform better in leadership positions, and receive higher performance ratings and higher pay. They also enjoy more job security and are less likely to take sick days, to quit, or to become burned out.”

Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, (talking to Business Insider) agrees: “Happy workers make better products . . . The output we care about has everything to do with your state of mind.”

Not Just for Tech firms

Many of these examples are from tech firms or agencies who clearly have the money to spend on perks like this. But it can be even more important to make this kind of effort when you’re a smaller organisation.

I did contract web content work for a small non-profit for many years. The staff were overworked and underpaid, but every time I’d go up for a meeting, the conference room table was groaning with pastries and nice treats. If baked goods could talk, they’d say, “I know we can’t pay you lovely people what you’re worth, but we do appreciate your efforts.”

The other thing the non-profit did was give five weeks’ paid holiday — again, something that was easier to offer than more expensive benefits, but definitely an important sign of appreciation.

Small inexpensive benefits, like letting people work from home some of the time, bring their dogs to the office, or closing at lunchtime the Friday before a public holiday are good options when you don’t have a lot of money.

So whatever your situation, look for small ways you can ease some of your employees’ friction to make them happier and improve their performance.