Rewriting the rules of work

May 20 2010 by David Thompson Print This Article

If you think about what you wanted to do when you were a kid, I wonder how many of us are doing a job that we dreamed about. Not many, I'd suggest.

As we grow older, the reality of life gets in the way and before long we are on a track that slowly unfolds in a different direction. Add in the pressures of finding a mate, succumbing to the cult of the mortgage, having kids, supporting a family and that dream

of becoming an astronaut feels like science fiction – nothing but a dream of the kid you used to be.

For the majority of us, then, the work we do is not the work we dreamed of. For the majority of us, work is just a means to an end. It pays the mortgage and supports the family. Sure, some of us find stuff in our jobs that we like. Some of us get a sense of achievement or fulfilment from our jobs at some level. But ultimately, a job does exactly what it says on the tin: it pays the bills.

And that's ok. That really is ok. Life is all about finding a balance. But for those of us who manage other people, who try to motivate other people, who want to get the best out of other people, this all raises some challenging questions. In particular, it should lead us to examine what it will take to retain our people in a job market that is slowly gathering momentum as we emerge from recession.

Before everything went awry in the world, this wasn't something that we, or, more importantly, our people, questioned. Now they are. "People are our most important asset" was a cliché trotted out by countless organisations when times were good but demonstrated by precious few when the chips were down.

After experiencing first-hand the way organisations behaved towards them, many people are reassessing the role that work plays in their life. Faced with prolonged uncertainly or, for many, the aftermath of redundancy, not only are they questioning, they are actively changing their behaviour.

And this is hardly surprising. Commitment, hard work and most painfully of all – loyalty – counted for little during the tough times. Result: people are reviewing their loyalties.

All the statistics of people changing careers, leaving high-powered jobs and retraining as school teachers, taking the opportunity that redundancy presented to them and following their life calling by setting up their own cottage industries – be it cake-making or consultancy, point to the same message. Work is on our terms now.

For managers and leaders, this challenges everything that we have come to understand about those that work for us. So, have we blown it? Have we pushed our people to the point where they have thrown away the rule book, reassessed what work really does for them, and completely repositioned it in their lives to the extent that work is no longer their priority?

Personally, I think we may well have done precisely that. But, all is not lost. In fact, frightening though this might be, I think this could be the beginning of a whole new world. A brave new world. But a world that may be personally challenging for many. And I don't mean our people – I mean for ourselves: those who manage and lead businesses.

This new world will ask us to do what many of us haven't done in a long time, if ever: put our people first. Think, really think, about them – as people, as individuals, as mums and dads, as people with dreams. Dreams that don't involve spreadsheets.

We will need to put ourselves in their shoes – think everything through from their perspective. How will this be viewed? How will that make people feel? How could that make people behave?

And that will require us to be someone that perhaps we have forgotten to be: ourselves. To stop blindly towing the corporate line on everything, to look at everything from our peoples point of view, to be honest, to be open, to take an interest, to help people to get what they want from work, not the other way around.

If we make work really work for our people – enable the work they do for us to make a real contribution to the life they are creating outside of the office, then they will stay, and they will give of their best. If we choose not to do that – and it is a choice – they will do neither of those things.

It doesn't seem like much of choice to me. These times they are a changing my friends. It is crucial that we change with them.

About The Author

David Thompson
David Thompson

David Thompson is the founder of Beyond the Dots, a boutique people & organisation development consultancy. He has worked in this field for over two decades, gathering his experience in a number of organisations and sectors, from retail to digital media to financial services.