How modern work has become alienating, and how to fix it
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide
Apple Park, the Apple HQ where workers recently protested against the call back to the office.

Modern knowledge workers are rebelling. They are overloaded and have had enough. They are saying no to returning to psychologically unhealthy workplaces, unrealistic expectations, demotivating work environments and an unproductive way of working. We are deep in the messiness at the cusp of innovating how we can better work together. And it turns out that if you want to understand how modern work has become alienating, and how to fix it, you can take inspiration from an unexpected source: modern hunter-gatherers.

A lockdown’s resounding sigh of relief… 

One of my coachees, let’s call her Claire, is a senior leader in a large organisation. She loves her job. She enjoys the great people she works with, and she is very happy with where her career has taken her. So I was surprised when Claire shared just how relieved she was when Covid hit her country and everything was shut down from one day to another. Smiling at me, she recalled: 

“I cancelled all of my travel plans, and my body literally went ‘Aaaah’. I suddenly realised how much pressure I had been under with all the meetings and travelling. Working at that pace caused too much stress on me and my body, even though I’d thought I liked it.”

With a nostalgic expression on her face, she let out a big sigh as she told me that.

… and the contested return to “the new normal” 

Alas, Claire’s back to the old travelling frenzy. However, the experience that the organisation did just great without the travelling has left her doubtful as to whether all these face-to-face meetings around the globe are necessary.

Claire is not alone! Legions of knowledge workers no longer want to sacrifice their time for unnecessary commutes and travel. As bosses more often than not want their workers back at the office desk, that creates conflict. Like when Apple’s CEO Tim Cook summoned back his workers to the Apple HQ for at least a few days a week – causing an uproar. 

What is at the bottom of the conflict over remote and onsite working? 

In a thoughtful article in the New Yorker, Cal Newport sees a bigger picture of what is going on in the world of knowledge workers and why they are so disgruntled about the “return to the office” requests of their leadership. Modern work has become alienating and exhausting.

That’s why the struggle between employees and employers is not just about the WHERE of working. It is also about the HOW of working. 

Remote work on its own does not tackle the problem of a work culture and expectations which make modern office life frantic and frustrating. Workers ache under

  • the inability to engage in deep thinking in open offices
  • the constant distraction by instant messages, emails and the like
  • rigid work schedules that are experienced as school masterly, and many more

Rather than looking into the future for inspiration on how to turn modern knowledge work back to being motivating, productive, and balanced, Cal Newport looks back into the past and to the edges of contemporary work life.

A deep history of the human relationship to work

Calport shares key findings of anthropological research into the work lives of modern hunter-gatherers, which has boomed since research into isolated tribes in the Kalahari overturned beliefs about their lives of hardship.

To reimagine the HOW of professional life, Newport derives inspiration from several recent works on how modern hunter-gatherers work. He calls it a “deep history of the human relationship to work”, and his article points out where modern office life might have strayed too far away from what is a natural and balanced way of working that we humans are made for. I’ve distilled the key points for reflection.

Here’s what we know about modern hunter gatherers’ relationship to work

  1. Hunter-gathers single-mindedly pursue one goal at a time. Once they’ve obtained the food, they eat it on the same day or casually over the next few days. In other words, they get an immediate reward.
  2. Hunter-gatherers spend 40-50% of daylight hours at leisure.
  3. Hunter-gatherers have a varied daily schedule, distributing leisure time throughout the day. For example, hunting involves long walks through the forest and only a small portion of hunting time is spent with the focused and strenuous work of the actual hunting. Their work thus includes natural long breaks. What’s more, if hunting proves difficult and the sun burns hot, they take a nap without thinking much of it.
  4. Hunting-gatherers get long and thorough training, until they master the art. They spend their whole childhood and adolescence getting trained, starting at an early age when they are given toys to familiarise themselves with hunting tools whilst playing. By the age of 5, young kids accompany hunters into the forest to observe, at age 12 they start hunting small game, at around 18 they learn to master the art of hunting bigger game. Throughout their youth, they train diligently not just for hunting, but for each of the tasks on which their survival depends.

The modern office worker’s experience is quite different

  1. Office workers rarely get an immediate return for their labour. When we attend meetings or answer emails, we might advance, but we rarely finish projects, which often take months before completion.
  2. Modern office workers have to repeatedly switch between different projects and objectives during one office day, devoting little flow time to any of them.
  3. Modern knowledge workers are always on. Our work life is organised by the factory model: with a set schedule of hours a day at a steady intensity, without significant breaks, let alone a few hours in the afternoon to let the mind wander! In addition to that already strenuous way of working, work life intrudes into evening and weekend resting times through mobile devices, disturbing both inner peace and physical and mental relaxation.
  4. Modern office organisation leads to fragmented mediocrity. While modern knowledge workers are highly educated and skilled, they are constantly distracted, so that they barely get a chance to apply their skills and talents. Instead, constant distraction leads to mediocre results. It is not a skills problem, but a problem of permanent partial attention to everything rather than full attention to one thing. That leads to the severe side effect of the paramount loss of motivation and engagement we notice today.

How could these insights inform the work of a professional who is organised in a team and an organisation?

  1. Overload: Our brains struggle with switching repeatedly between different projects. Instead of pushing these many different projects on knowledge workers, what could a pulling mechanism look like? Imagine workers could pull a project to work on and only once they’ve reached a stopping point in this project, they would pull another project from a centrally managed project pool. That would allow for focus and the achievement of a number of objectives, one at a time instead of achieving no objective at all. 
  2. Continuous level of high intensity: Computer work tends to be more ambiguous in terms of results than, say, building a table. With no physical proof of achieved work to point at, knowledge workers resort to demonstrating busyness, which in turn leads to intensity. Now imagine what it would entail to establish a “results only work environment”? This approach could grant workers autonomy over when and how they accomplish their work. Self-determination plays a big role in motivation and engagement.
  3. Distraction undermines the human striving to master a skill. A marketeer cannot write a great campaign whilst exposed to constant pings or meetings in his calendar. What if you created rules to reduce distraction and create flow times. For example, emails and chat tools can only be used for a) information or b) questions that can be answered with only one interaction. All other requests can be relayed to “office hours”. A worker could thus reply to a request that goes beyond one interaction by asking the co-worker to make time for a quick call during office hours: a daily fixed time for real-time conversations on issues that require back and forth communication, but no meeting.

As Newport points out, none of these ideas is easy to implement. Rather than offering quick fixes, he wants to spur our creative thinking. Solutions to our modern office challenges require deep and systemic thinking. Only systemic thinking will allow us to innovate work life so as to create environments where people can do their best work, and are motivated to do so, because their work environments and rules set them up for success instead of failure, overwhelm, and growing frustration.

If you want to explore how to create a work environment that serves your people and your bottom line, get in touch with us.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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