Taylorism was never about giving people responsibility. It reduced workers to mere cogs in a machine. Scientific management was designed for mechanized work and is still the predominant practice of today. Yet, it is  wholly unfit for its purpose. In the information age, efficiency and innovation are achieved by giving individuals control and distributing decision-making through to all levels of an organization.

Author and McGill University professor Henry Minztberg has been calling for this alternative management paradigm for decades. His vision treats management more as an art than a science. It caters to emergent systems, which in our networked world, lets workers on the front line rise up to be leaders.

Aristotle’s view of the nature of happiness was summed up poignantly by philosopher Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do.” The key to living the good life is about being deliberate in how you expend your energy. It’s why some of the most purposeful leaders from Warren Buffet to Jason Fried have shockingly empty calendars. They appreciate they simply can’t know today what will be the best use of their time and energy tomorrow.

Freedom, it turns out, belongs to those who master their day.

Flexible Work at Work

Enter flexible working–a concept all too often misunderstood and poorly practiced. For one thing, employees often overcompensate and over-communicate to make up for not being in the office. Their smartphones double as beautifully designed handcuffs. When they do choose to exercise their freedom and work outside the office, they find they suffer as second-class citizens in the shadows of their less inventive and more conservative colleagues. And my personal favorite–the all too familiar claim of how some folks stay at home just so they can finally get some work done. That raises a highly disturbing question. Why are offices so inherently inflexible that they fail to provide a suitable environment to actually work in?

We should be asking ourselves how are we going to design a future where work doesn’t suck even more than it does today? We can start by giving employees greater control over their work–and in the process allow them to find more meaning. 

This is not some lofty idea, it’s just good business. Reports show 1.7 times higher job satisfaction and 1.4 times higher engagement for people who find meaning at work. Not surprisingly, those workers also stick around a lot longer with their employer. Freedom to find meaning in work is also good for the bottom line. In the U.S. alone, disengagement at work and the resulting loss of productivity cost the country more than $350 billion a year.

Flexibility, at its core, has always been about control. The most progressive and enriching workplaces cater to this fundamental human desire. We need to start treating employees like what they are: responsible adults.

Fluidity at Work (And Some Quick Hacks)

Intentionally directing your energy really requires fluid ways of working. Fluidity is the ability to move with dexterity in constant flux and, in some instances, be the driver of change. I believe there are three characteristics of a fluid work practice:

Deliberate: an unbreakable routine. A non-negotiable pact with yourself that you’ll safeguard your most creative times of the day and bring your best self to work.

Hack: If you’re a zero inbox kinda person and accustomed to filing emails…Stop. It might be something you take pride in and gives you peace of mind, but it really is a time suck. If you’re a typical office worker, by bedtime, you’ll have processed 124 emails. Email Filers (who create folders and file emails accordingly) play second fiddle to Searchers (relying on your trusty computer to do the finding for you). Finding an email by searching is achieved 41 seconds faster than locating it by folder.

Deep: a tendency to favor cognitively demanding work (deep work) over the less mentally taxing stuff (shallow work).

Hack: For God’s sake, keep your smartphone out of your bedroom. For starters, banishing your phone from the bedroom is just good sleep hygiene. You can get a good night’s rest, and be your best during the day. But it’s also extremely common for many folks to start their day by quickly checking social media, email, or their favorite website. That quick minute turns into 15 and besides robbing you of your time, it rewires your brain that leaves an attentional residue. This inhibits you from performing your best when it comes to your more critical and creative work.

Dynamic: a proclivity to seek change and adapt based on your mode of work, mood, circadian rhythms, and a myriad of other factors. Healthy experimentation is needed to continually improve and discover what best works for you.

Hack: Switching scenery for working as well as modes of working can be very powerful to ignite inspiration and help maintain your flow. Coffee shops have proven time and again to provide just enough distraction to be a fitting backdrop for many work activities. Likewise, it’s essential to appreciate what environment will best serve your given task-at-hand. It’s worth taking that extra travel time to get to the right spot if it means the best nourishment–physically, creatively, emotionally, intellectually, or dietarily. Changing up your scenery can do wonders for letting you get on with doing your finest work.

Busyness is also something to be wary of when at it concerns maintaining your fluid practice.  One of the biggest problems with being busy is simply not making the time and space to make good decisions on how best to spend your time. With our attention hijacked and cognition overloaded, you simply make bad decisions when your cognition is overloaded. You end up busy being busy along with feeling more anxious and missing the surprising links within your work.

That Sweet Spot

Finding meaning at work is not discriminatory. Whatever one earns above a certain amount (roughly $75,000), whether you hold this degree or that, work in a big or small organization, in one industry or another– finding purpose in work is possible. Only you know if you’re really contributing to the benefit of your organization. Only you know if you took a holiday, whether you’d be sorely missed.

There is a wonderful Japanese concept that loosely translates as “reason for being.” Ikigai is really about finding that thing you love doing and are great at, but also something that the world needs, and yes–something you can get paid for. This is the sweet spot–a life worth living.

We can all work towards finding our own Ikigai. We can cultivate our own practices–keeping them deep, deliberate, and dynamic. This will cascade into our teams–helping them perform better and into our organizations–making them more resilient. It’s an incremental shift that starts first with taking control and then building a fluid work practice.

Do this well, continue to evolve, and you might never “work” a day again.

Adapted from a talk given at the Toronto Design Offsite Festival on Designing the Future of Work – January 2018. 

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