The team sport we win by optimizing the way we work
Times and technologies may change, but the fundamental questions facing leaders resonate throughout history. What is the link between workforce well-being and productivity? What role can an employer play in helping an employee lead a healthy physical, mental and financial life? What does a healthy work culture look like? And how does all of this help retain talent now that the big quit seems to be more of an entrenched trend and less of a passing spike in dissatisfaction that caused 69 million people to quit their jobs last year?
Over a century ago, William Hesketh Lever, one of the Lever brothers who founded the soap company that would become Unilever, had a radical answer to this set of questions. Lever built an 800-house village called Port Sunlight for its workers and their families. Located in the north of England, the village included schools, a hospital, a church and a park. It is one of many company towns, or model villages, dotted across Europe built by 19th and early 20th century industrialists to provide a better life for their workers and families. – Today’s tourist attractions have a problem that we are still struggling to solve, as the data tells us.
Current Unilever CEO Alan Jope seems to have his predecessor in mind as he focuses on “a new way of leadership.” Jope is one of many to observe that nowadays more and more people want to work for companies that care about their health, family, career development and identity.
FIRST DROP IN A DECADE
Published April 2022, Gallup’s annual survey of US employees highlights the first decline in 10 years in the percentage of actively engaged workers. Only 34% of employees said they feel engaged in their current job, down from 36% in 2020. Specific elements of engagement that contributed to the decrease include employees’ level of agreement that they have expectations clarity, a connection to their organization’s mission, access to appropriate equipment and materials, and the freedom to do what they do best.
Gallup’s survey also found that less than a quarter of American employees – the lowest percentage in a decade – believe their company actually cares about their well-being. Given that work and life have never been so intertwined, these statistics have important implications.
HOW WE WORK MATTERS
Prior to the pandemic, many organizations approached wellness as an individual issue to be addressed through engagement with Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). But what the Gallup research highlights is a more fundamental link between well-being and work itself.
The principle of progress
In 2011, Harvard University professor Teresa Amabile and researcher Steven J. Kramer linked job satisfaction and engagement with a sense of progress: the Progress Principle.
According to the principle, managers can improve the working lives of their employees, and by extension the performance of their organization, by supporting progress in meaningful work, that is, work that helps people feel part of something bigger than themselves. Amabile and Kramer’s research found that “the more frequently people experience this sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run”.
The key for leaders is to show workers how their work contributes to the goals of the organization. Make work important.
According to cognitive-behavioral psychologist Tomás Santa Cecilia, societies have long been driven by false beliefs surrounding work, including the myth that multitasking is efficient. “What we see instead”, said Santa Cecila“is that people who multitask for a continuous period of time end up totally exhausted and stressed out. Studies show that multitasking puts stress on our central nervous system, especially the brain.
It turns out humans are actually a unitary species that just happen to be busy all the time. Worse still, once we lose focus on the main work we were doing, it’s hard to recover. It takes an average of 23 minutes to regain our focus once it’s gone.
Human productivity needs active management. A key step is to create productive work environments based on less context switching.
The link between well-being, productivity and the tools employees use every day to do their jobs is underscored by recent search by Salesforce among knowledge workers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Ninety-two percent of workers surveyed said technology was one of the ways to improve well-being at work. The research concluded that “those who are dissatisfied with their work technology […] are more than twice as likely as those who are satisfied to say they feel burnt out at work, and half as likely to say they are generally satisfied with their job. They are also twice as likely to leave their job within a year and half as likely to recommend their employer to others.
This is not a case of bad workers blaming their tools. Rather, they are bad tools that get in the way of good workers.
WELLNESS IS A TEAM SPORT
The 21st century answer to workforce wellbeing is not to build a corporate city that ties employees to one place – time, technology, and ways of working have evolved. The answer is to give them tools that allow them to work from anywhere, flexibly and remotely. The answer is to help them grow through meaningful work and collaboration with colleagues, without wasting time on unnecessary tasks that sap productivity. The simple answer is to understand that well-being in the 21st century is not a one-off struggle for individuals, but a team sport that we win by playing together.