Meaning in Work

Here’s a wonderfully interesting TED talk from Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economist, on ‘What makes us feel good about our work?’. He explains various experiments that reveal a lot about what motivates us to work, and our need to find meaning and a sense of purpose in what we do.

I can relate to examples he gives about when work becomes demotivating; when we cannot find a reason why we are being asked to do certain tasks, or when our efforts seem futile or go unacknowledged.

The good news for managers and business leaders in the evidence he presents is that motivating people requires some very simple tools: things such as recognition and acknowledgement. Most of us just want to know that our work has meaning, and that need shouldn’t be underestimated.


Ironing Solutions for Cyclists

Even a hire bike will wreak havoc with your work wardrobe...

Even a hire bike will wreak havoc with your work wardrobe…

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I have a tendency to talk about jazzy companies with youthful workforces and flashy offices, and not without a dash of jealousy as I work in an air-conditioned glass box in the City of London and we don’t have a slide. Or a place for naps.

I did come across this little gem this month from Innocent Smoothies proclaiming the latest addition to their office: an ironing board.

I’m a cyclist, and I quite often have the same problem they describe: turning up to meetings with wrinkled clothes, or having to take public transport when I’m interviewing and I need to wear a suit. The thing about me however is I mostly buy clothes that don’t show the wrinkles so much so I don’t really lose much sleep over it. But my other half, who also cycles to work, keeps dry-cleaned shirts in a cupboard in his office, and he has to take the bus when he carries in a fresh batch of laundered and pressed shirts. What would an ironing board in the office mean to his working life, I wonder? How much money – and time – saved by not taking the bus and spent ironing in the office instead? And how much inspiration to be gained from those moments away from the desk when you’ve nothing to do but iron and think?

However, one thing that did dismay me from the Innocent Smoothies blog is the picture of their ‘office angel’ (intern?) modelling said ironing board in the above post. Does this mean that their intrepid supply chain guy is not doing his own ironing? Big shame.

Working Less – Keynes’s Grandchildren

A museum in Hanoi - getting their priorities right?

Sign outside a (closed) museum I tried to visit in Hanoi – getting their priorities right?

What has happened to the ‘leisure society’ that J M Keynes predicted back in 1930? In his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, Keynes predicted that on achieving greater economic improvement we would have a whole new attitude to wealth, resulting in less time spent on economic pursuits, and therefore a shorter working week and much greater leisure and freedom.

We’re  17 years away from that 100-year date, and right now it seems that Keynes was far off the mark. There hasn’t come a time when people have decided their material needs have been satisfied to the extent that they can work less and devote their energies to non-economic pursuits. We are far from the 15-hour working week that Keynes advocated. According to the 2010 CIPD report Working hours in the recession the number of long-hour workers in the UK has started to rise again following the loss of nearly 1 million jobs and a shift to part-time working at the start of the economic downturn. Presenteeism is increasing in the hope of workers holding onto precious jobs. And this attitude is continually espoused by those in power, or as William Hague put it a year ago: ‘There’s only one growth strategy: work hard.’ (Telegraph, 12 May 2012)

By EU standards, the UK has a high proportion of ‘long hours’ workers, and still the CBI lobbies continually for the UK to maintain its opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive (which permits a maximum 48-hour working week) in the name of greater ‘flexibility’. And the average Briton works 150 fewer hours than an American (where there is no legal or collective requirement to provide a minimum amount of annual leave) and less than Japanese and Australian workers. The long hours culture in many developed countries doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I read a Daily Mash spoof article yesterday, ‘Everyone to live at work by 2028’, which hits on the point pretty well: “THE government has revealed new measures to help you spend all your time doing work.” The Daily Mash makes light of current issues, but they also highlight a serious point here: are workers complicit in this long hours culture? Are we in fact responsible for choosing to work long hours to keep up the promise of ever-improving living standards? As the fake office worker puts it in that article:

“Work is great but we mustn’t lose sight of the really important things, like having more expensive things than others in your social group.”

If that is the case, then why do we do it? Is it really a choice between working all hours of the day (and sometimes night) or losing our standard of living? Again, it seems up to each of us to strike our own balance and decide when enough is enough. But when will the tide turn?

More on Keynes’s ‘Economic Possibilities’:

Larry Elliott in the Guardian: Whatever happened to Keynes’ 15-hour working week?

Make Wealth History –


There’s a lot of interesting writing and research coming out now and recently about Generation Y. Ipsos Mori are publishing their research into differences in political opinions of different generations and a recent Economist report on politics among young people in the UK showed that Generation Y (or as they are also known, the Millennial Generation) are also more likely to hold liberal political views.

But there has also been discussion around inter-generational problems in the workplace, caused in many cases by clashes between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Part of this criticism stems from older workers over what they see as the ‘entitlement’ mentality of Generation Y in their attempts to transform the workplace to suit their own needs. Generation Y feel entitled to good jobs, to work that blends better with their lives outside work, to work that has meaning, and to be evaluated on performance, not presence at work.
A recent Squire Sanders LLP employment law blog argues that rather than avoiding inter-generational conflict by not recruiting such demanding younger workers there are big advantages to businesses in recruiting ‘entitled narcissists’.

They argue for diversity in the workplace in general, and diversity is steadily becoming a reality for businesses to survive, rather than simply the politically or legally correct thing to do. Diversity is particularly important in this case as what Generation Y employees demand from their workplaces is also what will place organisations well in terms of recruiting employees of all ages (flexible working, a brand to associate with, meaningful work, recognition rather than money as a reward, a career rather than a job …).

Generation Y or Millennial workers are also important for business as they represent the new generation of customers and this presents another case for their inclusion in any organisation. Brian Havig at Gyro argues that the demands and sense of entitlement of Generation Y customers represent a kind of wake-up call for businesses.

Generation Y customers will test services as they expect more from what they buy. They will also test workplaces. In short, this is another area in which employers should be working to embrace a diverse workforce. Those younger workers who wind you up because they demand more may actually be the voice in your organisation who are driving up standards. They irk older workers because they demand much more than previous generations did, and without trade union bargaining. They will form part of the evolution of the workplace: those organisations who survive may well do so because they listened to the new generation of their workforce and managed to satisfy and retain them.

Where should we work?

I read an interesting article by David Amerland writing for on the debate around working from home, the controversy around Marisa Mayer’s rescinding of Yahoo employee’s working from home, and the debate raging around teleworking in general.

He concludes that in the end we ‘still need office face-time’ if the magic of working together on ideas is to happen.

I would totally agree that ‘face-time’ is vitally important. We are all aware that only a small proportion of communication is verbal so emails and phone or video conferences will only get you so far (the miscommunication problems you have when relaying difficult information by email will tell you that). But I would completely disagree that the word ‘office’ needs to be in his conclusion. It’s all about context, and sometimes the office is the very thing that stops ‘face-time’ from happening.

Offices, when not appropriately designed or suited to the needs of the organisation’s culture, can sometimes hold back collaboration. People hide behind piles of paperwork, deliberately avoid each other, and operate in silos even in one shared space. For a lot of offices, we might as well all be teleworking from different places for all the collaboration that actually happens. Of course, there is a lot of incidental conversation that goes on in an office, but most of the real communication still happens via email and it’s hard to wander across the floor to speak to someone or interrupt them.

This could also be the reason why office parties are traditionally so squeamishly awful: these people are not actually used to talking to each other at work, let alone socially. And the reason you have such things as ‘team-building’ and ‘away days’ to get people out of the office in order to force some real interaction.

Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette can talk about the ‘magic’ of people spending time together ‘noodling on ideas’ precisely because their office is designed for collaborative working (check out the recent Management Today gallery of images of their new Kings Cross office in London. In the middle of the all the shots of the big glass box, there is an office floor with actual floor cushions).

Another thing that happens a lot in offices when people get together is complaining. It’s another way of bonding with your co-workers, but it also reinforces negative mindsets, resistance to organisational change, and obstructive ideas. You could argue that it’s better to spend some more time apart from each other so that we can actually make the best of the time we are together.

The real challenges for organisations, especially those organisations trying to bring about cultural change (banking anyone?), is how to make the face-time really count; how to promote collaborative behaviour when the technology we use enables us to work individually and to connect and disconnect at will. Regardless of whether we work in an office, at home, or in the local wi-fi café, we can all choose to switch off whenever we like. If we really want magic or collaboration or noodling or whatever you want to call it, then we need to work on:

  1. Building a working environment that supports collaboration, wherever that environment is
  2. Creating space and time during the working day for people to actually talk to each other, and actually bring people together in a meaningful way
  3. Getting senior leaders to model the behaviours we want to see in everyone else

Maybe then we’ll get people to actually work together for the good of the organisation, rather than working separately and in different directions?



It’s something of a buzzword in HR-speak at the moment: ‘resilience’. The basic idea is that, as implied in every contract of employment, the employer has a ‘duty of care’ over employees, and one way of fulfilling this duty is to check in and make sure your workers have the means to deal with and handle the demands of their work. For employers of humanitarian aid workers, for example, the idea of resilience is really important as those workers need to be able to not only survive but also fully operate in hostile environments, and recover quickly from shocks and setbacks.

Resilience is about how you bounce back or recover form hardship, as well as how you can withstand hardship while it is going on around you.

In the past, HR has focussed on ‘stress management’ and ‘stress’ is often given as a cause of long-term sickness absence from work. However stress itself is a symptom, it is not a sickness in itself. We all feel stress to a lesser or greater degree, and sometimes it can be the thing that drives us to achieve. A more useful distinction can be made between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ and excessive pressure can eventually lead to severe difficulty.

Along with the current fragility in the global economy, competition on a more global scale and volatile markets are becoming the ‘new normal’, and organisations who can survive are the ones who are agile enough to adapt. This also means that those organisations will need workers who have the agility to adapt and react well to change.

I do not believe that resilience means being able to simply ‘put up with’ hardship, or work and work and not burnout. The Japanese have a word that describes the extreme end of this: karoushi. Which means, quite literally, death from overwork. There are Japanese people who work so hard and put in so many hours that they just stop living.

But that isn’t resilience, it’s endurance in the extreme, and I don’t think that it is in anyone’s interest (it’s clearly not in the interests of the worker concerned or their family). Resilience is not persistently sticking with things when they are harmful to you, it is the strength needed to cope with change, the agility to adapt to a changing environment, or the self-reliance needed to bounce back from criticism or projects not going completely to plan. It is survival, but the planned-out smart kind.
So how can we build healthy resilience in our workers and in ourselves? Coaching, gaining perspective, standing back from the fray, adjusting yourself and your reactions, spending time doing activities that provide a ‘reset’ or recharge you, building a ‘regenerative community’ of people who give you energy rather than draining you. All things that enable us to defuse stress, grow as individuals, and not just simply soldier on. I know of individuals making a good job of this within organisations, but I’d be interested to hear of any organisational programmes or managers actually succeeding in building resilience in their workers. Any ideas?

The Art of Hiring

Two big messages currently dominate the headlines around the labour market in the UK:

1. there are huge numbers of unemployed people, particularly young people, looking for work


2. there is also a skills gap and employers cannot find what they are looking for.

The CIPD points out in its ‘Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus’ report that employers often complain that young people are not ‘work-ready’. The report also points out that there can be barriers to young people securing employment through the design of employers’ recruitment practices.

A big part of getting young people into employment – that is, an essential part of young people being ‘work-ready’- is preparing for interview. But interview coaching is essential for anyone, and not just the candidates. I was once told by a university careers adviser that interviewing is an art form, not a science. Some people are naturally good at being interviewed, and some of us have to practice. Similarly, on the interviewer side, some find it easy to pull out the information they want from a candidate, and others really need to work on this skill. Still others are sorely mistaken in thinking the onus is on the interviewee to do most of the work in the interview, but this is not the case. To run a successful recruitment you need to know what you’re looking for, and have several techniques at your disposal to find out if the candidate in front of you possesses those skills.

I would agree with the CIPD report in that recruitment processes should be examined to see if they really are open enough for employers to get what they need out of candidates, especially young ones, and also to enable different types of candidates to present themselves well and have an equal chance of getting hired. In a typical interview when all has gone very smoothly and a ‘fit’ stands out head and shoulders above the rest it’s usually because we’ve ended up recruiting someone broadly similar to the employee who has held the role before. The emphasis often seems to be on filling a role quickly and with as little risk as possible, but in taking that approach we’ve most likely missed out on a candidate who could be equally as good in the role but who would also offer something different to the organisation than the last person.

When that obvious hire doesn’t appear during the recruitment process, instead of employers getting frustrated at the quality of candidates, we should be thinking again about the process and about how to meet candidates in the middle, perhaps by being more transparent about our criteria. There’s no need to lambast your candidates on the internet as I have seen from some  recently. Employers need to ask: what is the real reason our candidates are not up to scratch? Could it be that we haven’t been completely clear about what we were looking for in the first place? Or maybe we weren’t clear with ourselves about our criteria and we ended up interviewing the wrong people?

A great example of an organisation meeting candidates in the middle are the ‘Work with us‘ pages on CAFOD’s website. CAFOD, like a lot of NGOs, has quite a convoluted recruitment process, but it’s a good approach for them to try and explain the process to prospective employees. We can’t always assume that the best candidates are the ones who’ve managed to fill out the application form in the best manner, or we’ll only end up hiring people who are good at application forms (or good at producing killer CVs).

We also need to accept and get over the fact that what should be obvious to job applicants is seemingly not obvious anymore. It’s true that blatant job-hunting no-nos (don’t be late for the interview, do some research on the organisation you’re applying to, don’t lie on your CV…) seem to be lost on a few candidates. But it also could be said that what should be obvious to recruiters can also get lost in the panic to get a new employee into an empty desk (don’t answer your mobile during the interview, don’t describe the role in an completely negative way, don’t keep the candidate waiting because your schedule is disorganised…).

Problems in the recruitment process are not always on the candidate side. Just because there are lots of people out there looking for work doesn’t make it any easier to set the correct criteria and identify the best one for you to hire.  And I wouldn’t move to criticise candidates unless you’ve done all you can as an employer to make the process as clear and open as possible.