Work Is Still Work

After more than 40 years, Work isn’t as different as we think it is.

Every day I get up early and read my emails, and sure enough, there are at least ten messages from magazines, authors, book publishers, or consultants about “the future of work” or “the end of work” or “the new world of work” or “the disruption of work.” 

And I don’t even open them anymore.

Yes, of course, we have much more technology and we’re working from home (and from our cars, and coffee shops, and on walks), and yes, video is pretty amazing and so is voice recognition and so are chatbots and all the rest.

But at it’s core, Work is not that different than it was 45 years ago when I started work as an engineer.

To me, after studying this topic for more than two decades, the fundamentals are still the same. Each one of us gets up in the morning and “goes” to work, trying to do something of value, something that expresses our own personal aspirations, something that helps someone else. And we do this in a company, a job, a team, or in our own personal office alone.

The issues we face, regardless of technology and organization, are the same. Do I like the activities I’m doing? Can I do them productively and with pride? Do my peers and teammates care for me and let me say my piece? And am I paid fairly, generously, and in a way that I feel good?

I was just reading Barack Obama’s book “A Promised Land” and he discusses what it’s like to work in the White House. People work long days and weekends, they are constantly arguing and dealing with political pressure, and the team is made up of young and old, men and women, black and white and latino and asian, and lots and lots of politics. He mentions that even in the White House, among one of the most enlightened teams of leaders, women felt interrupted, left out, and ignored in decisions. And I remember feeling that way in 1978 when I started work right out of college.

So all the issues we think are new, disrupted, and different? They’re not as new as you think.

The big topic today is technology and the Employee Experience. How do we give people good tools, time to rest, a sense of productivity and belonging, and a workplace that is safe, collaborative, and growth-oriented?

Guess what. That’s what people were worried about at Exxon in 1978 and at IBM in 1981, when I was early in my career. We had all the same issues you have today.

Is it ok to come in late or work from home? Can I go out into the refinery without my hard-hat if I forget it in the office? Will the senior sales manager who is supposed to mentor me take time to listen to my immature questions? Does the company have enough training so I can fulfill my long term dreams? How come I wasn’t invited to the big meeting?

Those exact questions, which I talk about with HR managers every day, are not that different than the questions we asked a long time ago. 

My point is not that the world hasn’t changed: it has. We now work many more hours; we work in global interconnected teams; and we can find each other and message or communicate in seconds, where it used to take days. I came from a time when there was no voicemail, so a secretary filled out a little pink slip that said “Joe Called, phone number xxx” and stuck it on your desk. In fact at IBM before the PC came out we had a “steno pool” who typed our letters.

Well all that is still happening, just under a new name. The pink slips turned into voicemails and now emails or messages. The “steno pool” is now the “service center” that we interact with online. And the secretaries that scheduled meetings are now executive assistants, marketing coordinators, or even accountants and bookeepers.

But at its core, work is still work. And to me, if we want to design a new employee experience or safe workplace, we just have to remember the basics.

  1. People come to work to express and share their god-given gifts with others. Give them the opportunity and freedom to do this and they’ll do amazing things.
  2. People want to be treated fairly. Give them voice, include them in decisions, and share information so they know why decisions are made as they are.
  3. People want to grow. Give them opportunities to learn, try new things, and experiment with their careers and they’ll surprise you with their adaptability.
  4. People want to be recognized. Give them thanks, recognize what they do, and listen to what they say. These things create more energy than any bonus or new pay scheme.
  5. People want to feel safe. They want the workplace to be safe. They want to know people wont talk about them behind their back. And they want to know that leaders are watching out for them every day.

These simple basics have really not changed. And I would guess that my father, who started work in the 1940s, felt exactly the same way when he left college to become a nuclear scientist.

I’m not here to say disruption hasn’t happened. But let’s not over-rotate and write so many articles about change. I think the most interesting “change” is that the fundamentals haven’t changed for generations, and we, as HR and business leaders, can always go back to basics and make sure they’re in place.

I spend many hours a day with passionate, experienced HR leaders from around the world. Among all the things we talk about, by far the #1 is always “how can we make work better” for our people, our teams, our leaders, and our customers. Well rather than think about a total “redesign” of everything we do, I think it’s wise to look back at the fundamentals, and just make sure you’re focused on them in all your efforts. If you do I believe your new Employee Experience or Future of Work program is guaranteed to be a success.

PS Stay tuned for our new Employee Experience framework. It’s coming along and soon and I hope it helps you define your own “future of work” in your company.

Resources For The Year Ahead

Our Big Reset Research – detailed reports on what we learned from the Pandemic.

HR Technology 2021: The Definitive Guide – everything buyers, vendors, and investors need to know about HR Tech for 2021.

The Josh Bersin Academy – “The World’s Home for HR” – join more than 30,000 HR professionals to learn about EX, public health, technology, and more.

Pandemic Response: Building Resilience – the most in-depth study of ten best practices for business resilience.