What if Where, How, and Who You Work With Was Up to You?

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How do you feel right now? Is your vacation front of mind, are you refreshed, inspired, looking forward to new challenges? Are you in a good state of mind as far as work is concerned? Or are the post-holiday blues starting to bite?

What if you could feel relaxed, vacation-style happy and still do amazing work? This isn’t a pipe dream or fluffy start-up thinking. It’s a serious question, designed to help you and the people around you grow, evolve and beat the competition. It’s all about you taking control of how, where and with whom you do your best work.

…a wide reaching report by Gallup found that only 33% of US employees are engaged in their job with 51% actively looking for a new one.

According to the UK’s Chartered Institute of Professional Development, one in ten people regularly feels miserable at work. Echoing this, a wide reaching report by Gallup found that only 33% of US employees are engaged in their job with 51% actively looking for a new one.

Brands are certainly not complacent about unhappiness at work, and how the work space impacts people’s state of mind: Airbnb’s hospitality-themed Dublin HQ features a horse-shoe shaped bar in its reception, local phone boxes and meeting rooms modelled on some of the company’s house listings. Meanwhile online property portal Zoopla’s London Bridge HQ also has a house theme with work spaces based around a living room, conservatory, wine cellar and swimming pool.

In my view, none of this on its own has much to do with making people happy and empowered at work. Rather, these types of forced-fun environments can be part of the problem. What’s really making professionals miserable isn’t the lack of Instagram-able décor or toys in the office, it’s companies’ continual need to control how, where and with whom their people work, and attach KPIs to it. Having a nice work space is pointless if you lack the freedom to use the space in ways that make it easiest to do your best work.

Going back to your vacation, the chances are that – freed from your 9-5 office routine –  you had great work-related ideas and lightbulb moments. Contrary to ragingly outdated management theory, almost no one has their best ideas sitting at a desk or in a meeting. When it comes to maximising our potential as professionals and optimising our collective well-being, it’s time to stop viewing an office overhaul as the fix for all that ails an organisation. Societal changes, business and cultural evolution and smarter tools are giving rise to new – nah, better – ways of working. Companies need to embrace this fact or face irrelevance!

Let’s do an experiment.

  • Imagine that you could choose where to work. It could be in a traditional office. In a library. In a park. At a coffee shop. At home. Or maybe all of them in the course of a day or a week. Would you be up for that? Most likely you would. It might not even be that big a deal for your organisation. (If it is, lets point out that Gallup found that 37% of people would change jobs to have the ability to work offsite at least part of the time.)

Now, let’s take it one step further:

  • What if you could also choose who to work with rather than having to accept the people assigned to you? It’s a bit like choosing who you vacation with, and no one questions that do they? I know what you are going to say; it’s different in a business context. Everyone has their specific role, and the manager assigns people to work on a project based on the skills required and whoever happens to be free. But what if choosing team members was about people’s individual abilities, rather than their role or job title? At my agency, one of the best Experience Design minds has Full-stack Developer on her business card. But she is a brilliant human-centred thinker. What if I ignore her job title and ask her to join my project as an experience designer because she is the best fit? Go on, who would you choose for your current project?
  • One more step! What if you discarded your usual tools (desktop/laptop, Excel, Slack, …) and used a tablet with alternative apps, or even pen and paper for the majority of the working week?

“No, no stop it! That’s utterly unrealistic!”

No, it’s not. Whether it’s finance, manufacturing, healthcare or, retail, I’ve never come across a business that couldn’t benefit from a different, better way of working – one that can be quickly and easily implemented. Don’t believe me? Try it, I dare you!

And when I show you what’s possible, will you have the courage to do things differently? You and the human beings around you deserve to be happy, relaxed and working in conditions that allow your brains to problem solve creatively – even at work.

Still not convinced? In a study by Stanford University 500 call centre staff at Shanghai-based travel agency CTrip were set the same work, with half working from home for four days a week and the other half in the office.

The study found the performance of home workers increased by 13% over the study’s nine-month duration. What’s more, they needed fewer breaks, took less time off sick and reported higher levels of job satisfaction than those working in the office.

In this study, the choice was between working in the office or home: imagine if everyone were given the freedom to work under the terms that are best for them. To include control over where and with whom they work, free to choose their methods and tools. Would it be a disaster, or could it unleash previously unimagined levels of creativity and productivity? (Hint, it’d be the latter.)

By all means make the office a beautiful and inspiring place to work, it’s important. At the same time push for more control over the conditions in which you and your team members work.  You will surprise yourselves and your bosses in ways you can’t even imagine. And you won’t have to go on vacation to do so.

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