seagull sitting on top of the head of a statue in Rome

Differentiating What Is Familiar From What Is Effective in the Workplace

October 14, 2022 Digital Workplace
Steven Hunt
By Steven Hunt

It would be easy to pinpoint March 2020 as the key time period that has shaped our modern working environment.

But that would be short-sighted — and wrong.

Because the period that informs our modern working environment goes back much, much further than that. In fact, it goes back at least as far as the Roman Empire, over 2,000 years ago. Many methods we still use today — that companies still rely on to remain resilient in 2022 — originated with the Romans.

Take hierarchical organizational structures and their associated “org charts” as an example. In Roman times, work was largely defined by where you lived. Your location, in turn, directly dictated who you worked with and what work you did. Hierarchical org charts mirrored the way the workforce was structured geographically. This was effective in that time and place. But managing organizations using hierarchical org structures doesn't make sense in a hybrid world where people work on constantly shifting, dynamic teams that are often unrelated to where people live or what cost structures they report in to. The main reason we still use org charts isn't because they are particularly effective, but because they are highly familiar.

Suffice it to say, in many areas of work we’ve been prioritizing familiarity over effectiveness. Are we asking ourselves the right questions now? What systems and modes of thinking are still relevant to the way we work today? What is best suited to our time and place?

The pandemic certainly highlighted areas where employers were falling victim to outdated philosophies, but it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about work if we just stopped to critically examine what were doing: remote work can be highly effective; entire subsets of workers are being wildly undervalued; employees will leave if they’re not being paid or treated well and have alternative career opportunities.

These trends are all long-gestating. Change has been coming. COVID-19 simply represents a point on the ‘Evolution of Work’ timeline. So it’s time we build a path forward — to a future that will look much different than the past.

The Nature of Work Changes Far Faster Than the Nature of People

Work changes. People don’t.

What do I mean? The things we want and need out of work (purpose, social connection, accomplishment, a sense of belonging, access to resources to support ourselves and our families, etc.) have not changed much throughout human history. This is because the core psychology of people does not evolve at the same pace as technological innovation and societal change. What has changed is the world in which our work exists and how exactly we’re able to pursue the things we want and need.

Two key drivers are spurring on the tectonic changes currently impacting the working world. They are reshaping the work environment but not the characteristics of the people in it:

  1. The Digitalization of Everything: We’ve all seen technology creep into every facet of our lives. This is causing changes both on a business scale (shorter average company lifespan, increase in acquisition rate of companies) and a human one (no longer any need to have work constrained by geography, connected to work at all hours, increasingly specialized career focuses and more).
  2. Demographic Changes: People today are living longer and having fewer children. The life expectancy in the US has increased by 38 years since 1910. And the global birth rate has declined 51% since 1950. We have reached a point for the first time in history where, in many regions of the world, more people are leaving the labor market than entering it.

These drivers are transforming the way employers and employees think about work in a contemporary context. Put briefly, Number One is changing the nature of work and the skills companies need, while Number Two is making it increasingly difficult to avoid skill shortages. You can see how that creates significant challenges for companies. Still, what people want out of work hasn’t changed. What has changed is people’s ability to get what they want from work and what companies need people to do while they are working.

Work today is physically easier than ever. On the flip side, it’s psychologically more difficult than ever. As technology continues advancing, this scale is likely to continue tilting more and more out of whack. That’s why we need to make demands of the technology.

It must equip people to feel meaningful and impactful in their work. And it must enable them to collaborate, remain agile and truly care for each other as people.

But it’s one thing to know we need our tech to do this. “How,” you might ask, “will we actually do this?” Well, it starts with retraining our transformation focus. Creating impactful technology, for instance, is far more important than creating innovative technology. Sure, innovative AI and machine learning tools may be able to evaluate employees in a statistically sound and streamlined way, but is that actually effective? Is it unbiased? Is it what anyone wants? Ultimately, employees want to be treated like people, and they want to be evaluated by people. Not machines.

For too long, technology has been designed and developed with a very company-focused mindset (i.e. revenue, productivity, speed, profit, etc.). But that focus must be balanced with a human one, one that helps employees create relationships, communities and lasting connections with both each other and their employer. We must more effectively balance what companies need with what employees need. This doesn’t just call for a shift in our technology; it calls for a shift in our entire mindset.

Related Article: Let's Not Go Back to 'Normal'

Taking Action: What Companies Can Do Right Now

When I received my Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology, I never imagined I’d end up working at SAP, where I’ve been fortunate to advise some of the biggest companies in the world on the intersection between technology, psychology and work. Over the course of nearly 15 years of doing this work I have learned that the effective use of technology depend far more on the mindset of company leaders than the functionality of technology solutions.

The thing about tech is it’s neither good nor bad on its own. Its impact is entirely dependent on how we use it. And the time is coming — just as it did for other Roman inventions like bronze swords and lead plumbing — for dramatic and permanent change.

This time, let’s make sure we’re on the right side of history. Otherwise, we may end up stuck in Roman ways of working. And if you know your history, despite its many amazing accomplishments, things did not end well for the Roman empire.

About the Author

Dr. Hunt’s work focuses on using technology to increase workforce agility and performance through improving employee experience, development, engagement, inclusion, and well-being.

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