The Saturday Read ‘Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy’

The Saturday Read this week is a compilation of articles that appeared in the February 28, 2016 ‘work issue’ of The New York Times Magazine.

A group of journalists and writers contributed coverage on a variety of work/life topics, adding new perspectives from groundbreaking research, demonstrating that, regardless of profession, it’s all about the culture. And the culture is in need of change.

Organization culture determines who succeeds, fails, and communicates ‘hints’ through recruiting practices, and the daily process of getting things done; meetings, teamwork and office space.

“We do often work at home. But we also work at work, before going home to work more. The office has persisted, becoming even bigger, weirder, stranger: a symbol of its outsize presence in our lives.”

The ‘work issue’ is an interesting survey of some of the most pressing issues @work today. The sampling of the content below is meant to serve as an introduction, with a recommendation to take the time to read the edition in its entirety.

NYT staff writer, Susan Dominus challenges us to think about balance beyond policies by ‘Rethinking the Work-Life Equation’, reporting on the research of Phyllis Moen of the University of Minnesota and Erin Kelly of M.I.T.

“Workers in the experimental group were told they could work wherever, and whenever, they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met; the new emphasis would be on results rather than on the number of hours spent in the office. Managers were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues and were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work — an ill parent, or a child wanting her mom to watch her soccer games. Managers were given iPods that buzzed twice a day to remind them to think about the various ways they could support their employees as they managed their jobs and home lives.

The research found that employees in the experimental group met their goals as reliably as those in the control group, and they were, in short, much happier: They were sleeping better, were healthier and experienced less stress. Other studies examining the same workplace found that the effects even cascaded down to employees’ children, who reported less volatility around their own daily stresses; adolescents saw the quality of their sleep improve. A year out, and then three years out, employees in the experimental group reported less interest in leaving the organization than those in the control group.

…sometimes there is little more than tradition holding organizations back from making meaningful changes that bring tremendous peace of mind to their employees.”

Five years ago, Google decided to determine what makes a ‘perfect team’. Pulitzer prize winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg reports on the results in an excerpt from his new book, ‘Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business’.

“For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

Nikil Saval, who wrote about the evolution of the office in ‘Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace’, writes about new experiments with office space, ‘Labor/atories’

“The sudden efflorescence of the tech industry in the late ’90s took us from the desert of cubicles to the milk-and-honey offices of today. Many of the dot-commers had graduated from (or, very often, dropped out of) cozy university campuses to toil in big corporations. Starting their own companies, they recreated the effortless drift between work and play that characterized their college lives. The cubicle walls came down, and in the wide, open warehouse and loft spaces they occupied, exceptionally long workdays would be punctuated by frenzied Mario Kart races or fierce Ping-Pong battles. Creating a playful office became one of the standard ways of attracting skilled employees in a competitive environment: The hope was that a talented engineer wouldn’t leave a tech behemoth for the dinky start-up next door that didn’t have a gym and a resistance pool. Thus has the ‘‘fun office’’ spread throughout the world.”

Each of the articles provides a ‘take away’ to apply @work. If you’re a leader, you’ll rethink your approach as you begin to understand what your competitors are doing to recruit and retain employees. As a manager, you’ll learn ways to improve the daily routine of meetings, but more important, reinforce behavior that will encourage employees to be productive. For the rest of us, a window has been opened to view alternative approaches to work and workplace. What will you do on Monday to turn policy into practice?

 

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