For a long time, I’ve been helping clients redesign their workplaces and improve the space they work in, wherever that may be. And lately, I’ve been helping people and companies rethink how to make their workplaces more healthy. And I love it. But as fun and challenging as this can be, I’m concerned that we’re only scratching the surface of a much larger problem. Which is that “work” as we define it today is broken.
In addition to many conversations with academics and business leaders, I’ve been engaged in research with Harvard School of Public Health’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) and closely following research coming out of New America’s Better Life Lab. The issues surfacing from these experts is remarkably consistent and begs the question, what is the real problem we are trying to solve for when it comes to work and the workplace?
10 Reasons Work Isn’t Working
- We’re always on. We have technology that allows us to work 24/7, so we do. Work has no boundaries, and workers are struggling to create those boundaries.
- We’re sedentary. Most workers today sit all day and are suffering from obesity (35% of Americans), along with chronic diseases and maladies as a result. This is crippling our health care costs and a huge burden to families.
- Our commutes are getting worse. The average American spends an hour commuting (30 minutes each way) and has been gradually increasing each year. Of course commuting is much worse in larger cities and all of these time commuting eats into workers’ free time and sleep.
- Mental health is not given attention it is due. We are chronically stressed and anxious in our jobs. Stress at work is the 5th leading cause of death in America.
- Our business models are outdated. In many professions, we are still selling our time, rather than our value. We’re locked into a 40-hour workweek that no longer makes any sense for the work we do. Our managers don’t have the proper training to manage “flexible work” and have a hard time putting and emphasis on deliverables, not hours.
- Our leaders don’t represent us. 8 in 10 executives in American companies are white men. We can’t seem to break through the color and gender barriers that are preventing our leaders from representing the people they are leading. Same stats apply to the U.S. Congress (80% white male).
- We’re just not that into our work. Only 33% of employees are engaged in their work in the U.S. and only 15% worldwide.
- The loyalty is gone. The employer-employee social contract, which was so important after WWII, is now completely broken. A few years ago, friends who worked at a large bank shared with me how they and hundreds of others were fired one morning by robo-call. They were laid off without actually talking to a human.
- Our successes is measured by short term goals. Most companies measure their performance month by month, and quarter by quarter. They have to, because this is the market-based system they operate in. What is alarming is the fact that long term planning is no longer really that long term. Most “strategic plans” I see are only 3-5 years out, and these are for very large companies. As a result, workers are put under continuous scrutiny and pressure.
- Millennials don’t see the point. If you were taught to think outside the box, to value your own unique voice, to take care of the Planet and to maintain work-life balance in school, would you look at the jobs available to you today and get excited? I don’t think so. We keep harping on “what Millennials want” but really, it’s what we all want. A job that values us as people, taps into our values and keeps us engaged.
The hard truth, is that work is not working for us. On the whole, most people are really struggling with work-life balance, and desperate to make our work more meaningful and to fit into our larger life-plan. There are also a sizable number of eligible workers who are not working and want to, or are working part time and would really like to have a full-time job with benefits. Our issues with work are messy, complex, and can’t be worked out in a spreadsheet.
All this sounds like a design problem.
But not the kind that can be solved with a sit-to-stand desk or a nice collaborative café space. The problems with work today require us to take on big issues like flexible work policies, occupational health, leadership and job training, the impacts of anxiety and addiction on our workforce and creating new tools that measure value. Because if we are truly going to design a sustainable model for work in the future, we’re going to have re-build work from the ground up. It will require us to break down silos and bring us into conversations that are outside of our comfort zone.
I say all this because as much as I love to make beautiful workplaces and buildings, I want to help the people working inside the spaces I design to be happy and fulfilled too. I want our workforce to be productive and to have jobs that allow them to be valued, to set their own boundaries, and to be gainfully employed for as long as they want to be. I want to develop a more sustainable and effective work model. Things aren’t working right now and we can fix it if we start at with a properly defined “problem statement.”
So how’s this for a call to action: Let’s redesign our work so that it enables our best thinking, allows companies to be resilient and helps people to thrive. Let’s reset expectations of success and take the long view. Let’s get to the core of what’s not working and tackle that. Because everything else is lipstick.
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Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture and engineering firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.