How we get work done together: the world of work – a year in review

The world of work is continuing to evolve as we gather more data, make more connections and start to unpick the layers of complexity.

Here are some of the themes impacting our creativity and productivity, and the way we get work done together.

Re-thinking “efficiency”

Efficiency is about doing more with the least amount of resources possible and is traditionally associated with cost-cutting in the world of work. But how does this fit with the need for creativity and innovation?

An HBR interview with Jerry Seinfeld covered the reason why he cancelled his popular show. Seinfeld and his co-writer Larry David were essentially doing everything themselves without a team and were burned out.

The journalist asked Seinfeld whether he thought there could have been a more efficient way of doing things and whether a management consultancy like McKinsey could have helped. Seinfeld asked “Who? Are they funny?”. The journalist said no, and Seinfeld replied “well I don’t need them… In fact, if you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The efficient way is the wrong way. In my field. I can’t speak to any other field”.

Companies that need creativity and innovation, also need to allow for exploration and experimentation. The front-end of creativity – generating lots of ideas – is what’s needed to make sure that a team or organisation will eventually be working on the right thing. But this doesn’t align with a traditional view of efficiency.

To do great work, we need to be clear on what we’re measuring and how we’re measuring it. Perhaps we need to update our organisational thinking to obsess over productivity rather than efficiency, prioritise effectiveness over efficiency, or even rethink our definition of efficiency altogether to match more with what an organisation needs to achieve in today’s world.

The future of work, AI and automation

As we accelerate towards the future, there’s growing anxiety about the impact technology will have on employment and which jobs will still exist. But regardless of new advancements in AI and automation, this is a 500-year old argument. As long as we’ve been doing work, we’ve been looking at better and more efficient (!) ways of doing it.

We’ve moved into the era of knowledge work, and the jobs that will be safer than others are those that have thinking, creativity, thinking and human connection at their core. An interactive website – ”Will robots take my job?” – turned a dense research paper into an accessible infographic to show the likelihood that a job will be replaced by machines.

Rather than only considering how technology will erase jobs, it’s worth considering how we will work alongside it. AI has the opportunity to augment the work we do, such as data analysis, freeing up our time so that we can focus on more intuitive and creative work.

New ways of organising

The Gig Economy has influenced how organisations function. As more people join the freelance workforce, companies have had a growing network of independent specialists to source on a flexible and ad hoc basis. Bringing the right people together at the right time into temporary teams is an effective way of accessing expertise to drive innovation, and this has started to change the way that organisations work themselves.

Two Stanford researchers took this idea of “flash teams” further by building software that could apply it at an organisational level, creating a whole temporary organisation made up of independent workers to complete a project from start to finish. The experiment wasn’t without its teething problems, but it presents interesting possibilities for organising work, and places emphasis on the importance of teams. 

Teamwork has become about more than just working effectively together. It’s becoming an increasingly essential part of the way work is organised, and a larger part of our working experience. In companies, many workers are not only shifting towards working in cross-functional teams, it’s likely that they are involved in multiple teams (termed multi-teaming). This brings a new layer of complexity and stress, requiring workers to be able to manage their time more effectively. There need to be methods for facilitating this new teamwork, rather than leaving it to chance, ensuring that workers are supported to adapt to these new ways of working.

Remote working, or not?

One benefit that has been attracting new employees to forward-thinking companies are their policies on flexible or remote working. This makes it all the more surprising that some companies have put an abrupt end to people working away from the office.

There are various studies that have shown the positive impact of remote working on productivity and happiness. As a result, some companies, such as Buffer, have doubled down on their efforts to be effective as a fully remote company, whereas others have started to at least offer the option to employees.

At the same time, there have been many companies that have not been as successful in their remote working efforts. The biggest story was from IBM who, due to falling revenues from the past few years, reversed their policy on remote work for 2000 workers, hoping that proximity would lead to more creativity and productivity. Other tech giants such as Apple and Google are choosing to invest billions in their corporate campuses as an alternative way of attracting new employees. Is the jury out on remote working?

Again, it comes down to what a company measures as a mark of progress – personal productivity or collaborative efficiency. The former is improved with remote work, the latter with more proximity to colleagues.  It’s a tricky one, because really while we are more obsessed with individual productivity, we mainly get our work done in teams. So companies will need to keep searching for the right balance. Wherever a company chooses to sit, it’s clear that their approach to remote working forms a key aspect of its culture. 

Workspace and wellbeing

For the companies that do place emphasis on physical presence, there is a growing awareness of the connection between workspace design and employee wellbeing, particularly as we’re recognising the toll that being highly collaborative or a constant high-performer can take.

In 2016, Cal Newport introduced us to the idea of “deep work”, the need for individuals to separate themselves from distractions so that they could fully concentrate and focus, to increase both the quality of their work and their productivity. While open-plan offices are not ideal for this kind of work, it’s also more than splitting workspaces into “noisy” and “quiet” zones.  

Workspaces need to consider all the types of work that contribute to creativity and provide appropriate spaces for them, beyond brightly coloured rooms and post-it notes. When a workspace inspires creativity, it leads to employee happiness and engagement.

Another idea that has emerged is the importance of idle time and rest to support creativity. This challenges our ideas of productivity, but again we’re becoming aware that our “always-on” culture doesn’t lead to the best results. Although it will take a massive mindset shift to start accepting this within the workplace, research has shown that to foster innovation spaces need to cater for all types of work modes, from focused work to rest time.

Maybe it’s less about one-time renovations or refurbishments and more about responsive workspaces that continue to evolve with the needs of a company as it learns more about its workers’ habits and what’s needed for them to do their best work.

Creativity and productivity are so much more than having a desk to sit at to do the work. It’s about providing a space that people want to go to, feel comfortable in, supports the different types of work they need to do and makes them feel valued. Environment and culture are becoming more interconnected.

A more diverse workforce

The need for diversity is now at the forefront of the world of work. Not only are organisations aware that they need a better representation of the population, more studies are showing the positive impact of a more diverse workforce on business. The diversity of thinking and perspectives that come from different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and more is valuable, and essential, for innovation.

Diversity is good for business, but it’s also good for us personally. The article – How Diversity Makes Us Smarter – from Scientific American, originally published in 2014, was re-published in 2017 to emphasize this point. The more exposure we have to people that are different from us, the more it challenges us and encourages us to be more creative.

Jopwell Collection

Having more diversity at the table is a necessity for now and the future. There have been examples of product launches that have at best, missed an opportunity, and at worst, been hugely insensitive to large parts of the population, simply because there was a lack of diversity on the development team. We need to make sure different types of people have a part in creating the future we want to live in.  

This is just the first step though. Companies also need to ensure the environment and culture exist for different voices to speak up, feel safe and have their ideas heard. This is why facilitation is such a key skill for the future of work, to ensure everyone is able to contribute equally and to guide teams through the inevitable tough conversations that differences of opinion will bring.

Self-awareness

Teamwork is changing and as we’re starting to work across multiple teams and projects, work in new ways to get things done, and interact more with people that think differently from us, one of the most important skills we can develop for the future is self-awareness – gaining clarity about ourselves and how we are seen.

With the growth of cross-functional teaming, knowing how to build trust quickly and start projects successfully is key, and if each team member knows how they like to work and how they best work with others, this will smooth the process. Building this self-awareness at team level through regular retrospectives will help to improve team communication and productivity.

It’s fascinating to see how all of these concepts overlap and connect. The way we measure progress and performance impacts the work that we do. The type of work that we do informs where we work from and the design of those spaces. Those spaces and culture will also be shaped by the diversity of the teams in them. New technology is redefining our roles and our relationships with others. The way that we organise work will lead us to reassess the skills we need to stay current. Maybe these concepts will continue to converge helping us to create a better understanding of how we can work better together and thrive in the workplace.

All images, unless captioned, via Unsplash.

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