The way we work is broken. Here are three ways to fix the employee experience


The pandemic has given us the opportunity to redesign work from the ground up. So how should we redefine the employee experience?

“Work today is killing us,” says Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner. “That’s the bluntest way I can put it.”

He’s not talking about contracting COVID-19 while working on the frontline or sustaining an injury while delivering UberEats. Rather, he says almost all workers are suffering: white-collar and blue-collar; full-time and gig workers.

The “hyper efficiency model” of late-stage capitalism is one of the major culprits, he says. It’s a model under which organisations strive to do more with less and operate as close to the margins as possible. 

“The World Health Organisation has suggested that overwork is now one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke globally,” says McEwan.

But that’s not the only problem. Organisational Psychologist Constance Hadley says many workers she speaks to, particularly younger employees, feel disconnected from their employers and peers at work.

“Humans are social beings, built to crave a sense of belonging and camaraderie,” says Hadley, who is a lecturer in the Management and Organisations Department at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. 

“Research shows that Generation Z and millennials are the loneliest generations. Often, they don’t really know their colleagues or their bosses. They’re not getting the psychological and emotional benefits of work.” 

The increase in remote work, of course, doesn’t make things any easier. The combination of overwork and isolation can have serious mental health consequences.

Yet we still feel compelled to keep going. McEwan says many of us have been pushing ourselves to our limits during COVID-19; a symptom of a work culture that demands 100 per cent, even in trying times. 

Plenty of people, both here and overseas, are concluding that modern work is just not worth the potential health risks it poses. 

Hadley and McEwan agree that tweaking existing processes is no longer enough to fix this problem. In order to remain profitable and retain staff, companies will need to fundamentally redesign the employee experience.

We only need to look back a generation to see how far we’ve drifted, says McEwan.

“My father used to trot off to work in the morning and was free to come home for lunch,” he says. “Then he’d head back for the afternoon. He didn’t work late, he didn’t bring his work home with him, and he seemed content. I don’t know anyone whose job looks like that anymore.”

How do we even begin to address such a large and complex issue?

1. Break away from tradition

In order to protect the wellbeing of employees, McEwan thinks we should take a good look at the ‘rules’ that currently govern work, starting with the most basic one: standard office hours.

“Nine-to-five is a vestige of years gone by,” he says. “We start work at 9am because, once upon a time, there was no artificial light in factories. Today, that’s not relevant. Besides, few white-collar workers actually clock off at 5pm anymore.” 

(Read HRM’s article about the research-backed answer to how many hours we should work each week).

He believes the office is equally out of date. 

“There was a time when we had to go to the office because we didn’t have computers at home. Today, the average employee’s home tech is way better than what their employer rolls out.”

McEwan argues that making flexi-time and remote work the norm rather than the exception would help employees better juggle the demands of modern life.

“Of course, that’s tough for factory workers or labourers… But what you can do for them is experiment with when and how the work happens.”

Split shifts, for example, allow blue-collar employees to work when it suits them; while increasing the variety of tasks that a blue-collar worker is trained to complete gives that employee the opportunity to step away from a particularly demanding task if need be.

In addition to increased flexibility, McEwan advocates for policies that limit the total number of hours employees work, such as ‘right to disconnect’ clauses in employment contracts and possibly even government legislation.

He also thinks it’s time to reconsider our preference for full-time employees.

“I heard an example last week where a software engineer quit their job to go and do labouring because they’re sick of being in front of a computer all the time.

“But what I would say is that people shouldn’t have to make that decision. Why not let them do both? They’ll end up delivering better work for you.”

(Hear more about McEwan’s thoughts on redesigning work by listening to HRM and Lendlease’s podcast episode ‘Burning (out) the midnight oil’).

2. Learn how to redistribute power

More flexibility wouldn’t just help workers better manage their lives – it would also make them feel empowered.

According to Domenico Pinto, Partner ANZ for the Semco Style Institute, that’s something they desperately need right now.

“We’ve created a system of work where there’s a real lack of autonomy,” he says. “We’re speaking to grown adults who, in their own lives, make [big] decisions… yet in a work environment, very often they can’t even decide which coffee brand to drink,” says Pinto.

Semco Style Institute is a unit of Semco Partners, a Brazilian manufacturing company that’s best known for embracing ‘industrial democracy’. Put simply, it’s a system in which workers make the decisions, and not managers alone.

Semco has been experimenting with this approach since the 1980s. 

“We started with small decisions, like, ‘What kind of uniforms do you want to wear?’ Pretty soon, it evolved into bigger decisions. ‘How do you want to work?’ ‘What kind of team sizes do you want to have?’ And, ‘What kind of hours do you want to do?’” 

(You can read more about Semco’s approach to letting staff set their own salaries here).

Industrial democracy doesn’t necessarily mean workers have unlimited flexibility, particularly if their colleagues think rigidity is a better idea. But it does make them feel more empowered, which Pinto believes is just as important. 

Five years ago, Semco Style Institute was established to teach individuals and organisations internationally about what Pinto calls “contemporary leadership models based on human-centric principles”. 

One client is manufacturer Australian Radio Towers. To begin, Pinto encouraged one of its managers to ask his team what hours they wanted to work. 

“The common consensus was to start early and finish early,” he says. “But there were also a few people who preferred to work a little bit later.”  

So the team started working varied hours, overlapping in the middle of the day.

“It has resulted in the team now being available for 11 hours rather than eight. The rest of the company has more access to them, which has increased productivity.”

“You can force a bunch of malnourished, disgruntled serfs to build you a temple, but you can’t paint a masterpiece on its roof under duress.” – Aaron McEwan, Vice President of Research and Advisory, Gartner.

Another Australian Semco client is trialling participant recruitment, whereby workers, not managers, choose who the company employs.

“What’s really interesting there is that when it’s teams deciding what skills are needed, very often it’s different to what the hiring managers think. So we’re seeing a lot of cost savings and better decisions about who to hire.”

3. Give employees some skin in the game

Over in the UK, industrial door manufacturer Union Industries doesn’t allow its 80-odd employees much flexibility. Nor does it involve them in the sort of decision-making that Pinto describes. Yet the company enjoys a remarkable level of employee satisfaction – more than a third of workers have been with the company for 10+ years – and it has achieved record profits in five of the past six years.

Managing Director Andrew Lane, says that success is because Union Industries is owned equally by each of its employees. 

It’s one of a growing number of companies in Britain that have adopted an ‘employee ownership’ model. Others include John Lewis (which comprises the John Lewis department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain) and home-entertainment retailer Richer Sounds.

Lane says there are compelling reasons to consider such a set-up. Research shows businesses with 30 per cent or more employee ownership are more productive, grow faster and are less likely to go out of business than their counterparts.

Workers benefit, too. Lane says employee ownership is the ultimate form of staff empowerment. It also weds the workforce to the company’s destiny. 

“The year before the pandemic, we had a factory fire and we lost our principal manufacturing facility,” he says. “During that year, everybody rallied together. We didn’t miss a single order. People really stretched themselves to keep our reputation intact while we recovered.”

Most organisations can’t or won’t be adopting an employee ownership model any time soon. But Lane thinks others can still learn from how Union Industries operates.

“Equal ownership means equality is embedded in our culture,” he says. “We’ve agreed that everybody will be treated in the same way.”

That’s why staff in clerical roles aren’t afforded any more flexibility in terms of work hours than those on the factory floor. “Because most roles don’t allow [flexibility], we don’t let others have that benefit.”

But no one seems to be complaining. In fact, when it comes to employee ownership, Lane thinks less flexibility is preferable. 

“Remote working is great in terms of childcare and all that kind of stuff, but cultures suffer. When you’re here at Union, you are in the Union culture. When you’re working from your spare bedroom at home, you are not.”

Redesigning the employee experience for the future

While some of the suggestions outlined in this story are relatively easy to implement, others require sustained effort and support from the highest levels of an organisation. So what can HR professionals do right now to address some of the problems that arise from modern work?

Hadley says organisations should experiment with targeted interventions that address burnout and loneliness. For example, one study showed that embedding small peer-group discussions into the work day twice a month led to lower rates of burnout and higher rates of job satisfaction among physicians.

“They were given an hour together every other week to talk – not just about work but also about what they were dealing with outside of work.”

McEwan says managers can start by adjusting their mentality. He encourages them to think of their team members as elite athletes, not employees. 

“That means making sure they’re well rested, well-trained and well-supported.” 

“Equal ownership means equality is embedded in our culture.” – Andrew Lane, Managing Director, Union Industries

Our future prosperity may depend on it. 

“The future of work is going to be all of the stuff that the robots can’t do,” says McEwan. “It’s going to be more complex. It’s going to require more creativity, more cognitive output and more emotional content.” 

In the future, he believes, it’s the companies that treat their workers with the most care that will drive the highest levels of performance and productivity.

“After all, you can force a bunch of malnourished, disgruntled serfs to build you a temple, but you can’t paint a masterpiece on its roof under duress.”

A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 2021 edition of HRM Magazine.


Learn how to re-think the employee experience and the future of how we’ll work with this short course from AHRI, Job analysis and Job redesign. Sign up for the next session on 1 March 2022.


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3 Comments
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Max Underhill
Max Underhill
3 months ago

Interesting article but seems to be avoiding the “organisational framework” in which we employ workforce and empower them to do what we employed them for. This is true empowerment, not some perceived empowerment “ More flexibility wouldn’t just help workers better manage their lives – it would also make them feel empowered”.

We have software like HRmonise to manage organisational and HR assets effectively – this is ignored in this article

Catherine
Catherine
3 months ago

I would love our Award system to be more flexible so that penalty rates imposed if employees decide to work outside of core hours, can be altered by genuine agreement. At the moment, even if the employee proposes a change to their hours to better meet their Caring needs, the penalty rates apply; so employers are disinclined to agree to such proposals.

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

The way we work is broken. Here are three ways to fix the employee experience


The pandemic has given us the opportunity to redesign work from the ground up. So how should we redefine the employee experience?

“Work today is killing us,” says Aaron McEwan FAHRI, Vice President of Research and Advisory at Gartner. “That’s the bluntest way I can put it.”

He’s not talking about contracting COVID-19 while working on the frontline or sustaining an injury while delivering UberEats. Rather, he says almost all workers are suffering: white-collar and blue-collar; full-time and gig workers.

The “hyper efficiency model” of late-stage capitalism is one of the major culprits, he says. It’s a model under which organisations strive to do more with less and operate as close to the margins as possible. 

“The World Health Organisation has suggested that overwork is now one of the leading causes of heart attack and stroke globally,” says McEwan.

But that’s not the only problem. Organisational Psychologist Constance Hadley says many workers she speaks to, particularly younger employees, feel disconnected from their employers and peers at work.

“Humans are social beings, built to crave a sense of belonging and camaraderie,” says Hadley, who is a lecturer in the Management and Organisations Department at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. 

“Research shows that Generation Z and millennials are the loneliest generations. Often, they don’t really know their colleagues or their bosses. They’re not getting the psychological and emotional benefits of work.” 

The increase in remote work, of course, doesn’t make things any easier. The combination of overwork and isolation can have serious mental health consequences.

Yet we still feel compelled to keep going. McEwan says many of us have been pushing ourselves to our limits during COVID-19; a symptom of a work culture that demands 100 per cent, even in trying times. 

Plenty of people, both here and overseas, are concluding that modern work is just not worth the potential health risks it poses. 

Hadley and McEwan agree that tweaking existing processes is no longer enough to fix this problem. In order to remain profitable and retain staff, companies will need to fundamentally redesign the employee experience.

We only need to look back a generation to see how far we’ve drifted, says McEwan.

“My father used to trot off to work in the morning and was free to come home for lunch,” he says. “Then he’d head back for the afternoon. He didn’t work late, he didn’t bring his work home with him, and he seemed content. I don’t know anyone whose job looks like that anymore.”

How do we even begin to address such a large and complex issue?

1. Break away from tradition

In order to protect the wellbeing of employees, McEwan thinks we should take a good look at the ‘rules’ that currently govern work, starting with the most basic one: standard office hours.

“Nine-to-five is a vestige of years gone by,” he says. “We start work at 9am because, once upon a time, there was no artificial light in factories. Today, that’s not relevant. Besides, few white-collar workers actually clock off at 5pm anymore.” 

(Read HRM’s article about the research-backed answer to how many hours we should work each week).

He believes the office is equally out of date. 

“There was a time when we had to go to the office because we didn’t have computers at home. Today, the average employee’s home tech is way better than what their employer rolls out.”

McEwan argues that making flexi-time and remote work the norm rather than the exception would help employees better juggle the demands of modern life.

“Of course, that’s tough for factory workers or labourers… But what you can do for them is experiment with when and how the work happens.”

Split shifts, for example, allow blue-collar employees to work when it suits them; while increasing the variety of tasks that a blue-collar worker is trained to complete gives that employee the opportunity to step away from a particularly demanding task if need be.

In addition to increased flexibility, McEwan advocates for policies that limit the total number of hours employees work, such as ‘right to disconnect’ clauses in employment contracts and possibly even government legislation.

He also thinks it’s time to reconsider our preference for full-time employees.

“I heard an example last week where a software engineer quit their job to go and do labouring because they’re sick of being in front of a computer all the time.

“But what I would say is that people shouldn’t have to make that decision. Why not let them do both? They’ll end up delivering better work for you.”

(Hear more about McEwan’s thoughts on redesigning work by listening to HRM and Lendlease’s podcast episode ‘Burning (out) the midnight oil’).

2. Learn how to redistribute power

More flexibility wouldn’t just help workers better manage their lives – it would also make them feel empowered.

According to Domenico Pinto, Partner ANZ for the Semco Style Institute, that’s something they desperately need right now.

“We’ve created a system of work where there’s a real lack of autonomy,” he says. “We’re speaking to grown adults who, in their own lives, make [big] decisions… yet in a work environment, very often they can’t even decide which coffee brand to drink,” says Pinto.

Semco Style Institute is a unit of Semco Partners, a Brazilian manufacturing company that’s best known for embracing ‘industrial democracy’. Put simply, it’s a system in which workers make the decisions, and not managers alone.

Semco has been experimenting with this approach since the 1980s. 

“We started with small decisions, like, ‘What kind of uniforms do you want to wear?’ Pretty soon, it evolved into bigger decisions. ‘How do you want to work?’ ‘What kind of team sizes do you want to have?’ And, ‘What kind of hours do you want to do?’” 

(You can read more about Semco’s approach to letting staff set their own salaries here).

Industrial democracy doesn’t necessarily mean workers have unlimited flexibility, particularly if their colleagues think rigidity is a better idea. But it does make them feel more empowered, which Pinto believes is just as important. 

Five years ago, Semco Style Institute was established to teach individuals and organisations internationally about what Pinto calls “contemporary leadership models based on human-centric principles”. 

One client is manufacturer Australian Radio Towers. To begin, Pinto encouraged one of its managers to ask his team what hours they wanted to work. 

“The common consensus was to start early and finish early,” he says. “But there were also a few people who preferred to work a little bit later.”  

So the team started working varied hours, overlapping in the middle of the day.

“It has resulted in the team now being available for 11 hours rather than eight. The rest of the company has more access to them, which has increased productivity.”

“You can force a bunch of malnourished, disgruntled serfs to build you a temple, but you can’t paint a masterpiece on its roof under duress.” – Aaron McEwan, Vice President of Research and Advisory, Gartner.

Another Australian Semco client is trialling participant recruitment, whereby workers, not managers, choose who the company employs.

“What’s really interesting there is that when it’s teams deciding what skills are needed, very often it’s different to what the hiring managers think. So we’re seeing a lot of cost savings and better decisions about who to hire.”

3. Give employees some skin in the game

Over in the UK, industrial door manufacturer Union Industries doesn’t allow its 80-odd employees much flexibility. Nor does it involve them in the sort of decision-making that Pinto describes. Yet the company enjoys a remarkable level of employee satisfaction – more than a third of workers have been with the company for 10+ years – and it has achieved record profits in five of the past six years.

Managing Director Andrew Lane, says that success is because Union Industries is owned equally by each of its employees. 

It’s one of a growing number of companies in Britain that have adopted an ‘employee ownership’ model. Others include John Lewis (which comprises the John Lewis department stores and the Waitrose supermarket chain) and home-entertainment retailer Richer Sounds.

Lane says there are compelling reasons to consider such a set-up. Research shows businesses with 30 per cent or more employee ownership are more productive, grow faster and are less likely to go out of business than their counterparts.

Workers benefit, too. Lane says employee ownership is the ultimate form of staff empowerment. It also weds the workforce to the company’s destiny. 

“The year before the pandemic, we had a factory fire and we lost our principal manufacturing facility,” he says. “During that year, everybody rallied together. We didn’t miss a single order. People really stretched themselves to keep our reputation intact while we recovered.”

Most organisations can’t or won’t be adopting an employee ownership model any time soon. But Lane thinks others can still learn from how Union Industries operates.

“Equal ownership means equality is embedded in our culture,” he says. “We’ve agreed that everybody will be treated in the same way.”

That’s why staff in clerical roles aren’t afforded any more flexibility in terms of work hours than those on the factory floor. “Because most roles don’t allow [flexibility], we don’t let others have that benefit.”

But no one seems to be complaining. In fact, when it comes to employee ownership, Lane thinks less flexibility is preferable. 

“Remote working is great in terms of childcare and all that kind of stuff, but cultures suffer. When you’re here at Union, you are in the Union culture. When you’re working from your spare bedroom at home, you are not.”

Redesigning the employee experience for the future

While some of the suggestions outlined in this story are relatively easy to implement, others require sustained effort and support from the highest levels of an organisation. So what can HR professionals do right now to address some of the problems that arise from modern work?

Hadley says organisations should experiment with targeted interventions that address burnout and loneliness. For example, one study showed that embedding small peer-group discussions into the work day twice a month led to lower rates of burnout and higher rates of job satisfaction among physicians.

“They were given an hour together every other week to talk – not just about work but also about what they were dealing with outside of work.”

McEwan says managers can start by adjusting their mentality. He encourages them to think of their team members as elite athletes, not employees. 

“That means making sure they’re well rested, well-trained and well-supported.” 

“Equal ownership means equality is embedded in our culture.” – Andrew Lane, Managing Director, Union Industries

Our future prosperity may depend on it. 

“The future of work is going to be all of the stuff that the robots can’t do,” says McEwan. “It’s going to be more complex. It’s going to require more creativity, more cognitive output and more emotional content.” 

In the future, he believes, it’s the companies that treat their workers with the most care that will drive the highest levels of performance and productivity.

“After all, you can force a bunch of malnourished, disgruntled serfs to build you a temple, but you can’t paint a masterpiece on its roof under duress.”

A longer version of this article first appeared in the September 2021 edition of HRM Magazine.


Learn how to re-think the employee experience and the future of how we’ll work with this short course from AHRI, Job analysis and Job redesign. Sign up for the next session on 1 March 2022.


guest
3 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Max Underhill
Max Underhill
3 months ago

Interesting article but seems to be avoiding the “organisational framework” in which we employ workforce and empower them to do what we employed them for. This is true empowerment, not some perceived empowerment “ More flexibility wouldn’t just help workers better manage their lives – it would also make them feel empowered”.

We have software like HRmonise to manage organisational and HR assets effectively – this is ignored in this article

Catherine
Catherine
3 months ago

I would love our Award system to be more flexible so that penalty rates imposed if employees decide to work outside of core hours, can be altered by genuine agreement. At the moment, even if the employee proposes a change to their hours to better meet their Caring needs, the penalty rates apply; so employers are disinclined to agree to such proposals.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM