Does Work Really Have to be Like This?

March 20, 2021

If you were in the workplace 35 years ago, chances are you got a LOT more rest. If you were like most workers, your day started at around 9am. And when you shut the door on it physically at 5pm, you shut the door on it mentally as well. So you got 16 hours of rest from work every single day, plus a 64 hour break every weekend. That’s a full and complete break from every work system, every work conversation, even every piece of digital technology, aside from perhaps a tv screen.

9 to 5. What a way to make a living!

Not only that, but the work you DID do was likely highly structured. You knew what you did, why you did it, and when it was done. You worked alongside other people doing the same types of activities. And you took regular breaks from work during the day to recharge, and commune with your colleagues.

Things are WAY different now. For many of us there is no defined start of the day, and no defined end. We might be doing any type of activity at any time, switching context constantly, and with no structured breaks. Oh, and those people we work alongside? Often doing wildly different work to us on a completely different schedule. Somehow we have to figure out how to be effective as individuals and teams alongside these people. It’s a real wonder we ever get anything done.

How Technology Got Us Here

So, how did we get here, and what does it mean for the future of work?

Largely, the changes are down to technology. There have been dozens of technology innovations that have sent us down this path, but they can be largely divided into two, overlapping groups.

The first group is probably best called “Personal Productivity”, which started in the 1980s with personal computing, but really took off in the 1990s. As PCs began to arrive on our desks, it became clear that not only could technology improve OVERALL productivity, but it could actually make humans themselves more productive in the workplace. Today, software helps all of us do more in less time, just as our dishwashers and washing machines help us get the housework done in a fraction of the time of our ancestors. If you are using software to help you do your job today, it’s probably saving you hours each day, when compared to paper based alternatives. Think of sending e-mails or texts versus paper letters, knocking out a presentation in PowerPoint vs slides, or whipping up a quick financial model in Excel vs using paper ledgers.

The second group can be considered “Flexible Workstyle”. These changes began around the same time, but achieved something very different, and sometimes even reduced our personal productivity. These innovations, which include multitasking operating systems, the web, the extranet, mobility and app stores have combined to allow us to work with anyone at any time in any place and work in almost any way.

So if the first group makes us more efficient at doing work, the second makes it easier for us to DO work in the first place, and so makes it harder to break from it.

What it Means For Us

Collectively these are massive changes, and just as with every technological shift since the printing press, it’s had an enormous cultural impact. As technology helped us get more done, it became increasingly acceptable for our companies to ask us to “do more with less”. As technology allowed us to work outside hours, our definition of when work began and when it ended eroded. And as technology helped us do many different TYPES of work, what we were asked to do became more unstructured and ambiguous.

Looking back, it’s interesting to ask why we accepted this deal, but I think the answer is actually staring us in the face. Every individual innovation came with the promise of making our work or life easier, or granting us more flexibility. Who wouldn’t want that? Only the most prescient forecasters could foresee the effect each of these innovations would have when combined together.

But, after four decades of technology innovation in the workplace, here is where we currently stand: 120,000 people are dying each year from workplace related stress in the US alone (and before you ask, those are pre-pandemic numbers). Record numbers of people are reporting a decline in their wellbeing, and an inability to balance work and non-work demands. If you want to read more about it, check out the Harvard Business Review Series Beyond Burned Out – it should be required reading for any leader in an organization.

Today, if you are struggling to get through the day. If you are constantly interrupted, if you always feel you are dropping the ball and if you cannot switch off at the end of the day – you are now the normal one.

Looking Forward

This state of affairs is unsustainable. Not just for all of us as individuals, but for the organizations in which we work, as the Great Resignation is clearly showing.

At BillionMinds we believe that technology got us into this mess, and it is our best hope to get us out of it. We design our software from the ground up to help users to be the most EFFECTIVE they can be. Personal effectiveness is not about a never ending push to do more with less – instead it’s an acknowledgement of something that sports scientists have known for years – that peak performance comes from repeatable methods combined with organizational structure, built on a foundation of wellness to create consistent execution.

As we move into the Future of Work, this type of approach will become even more essential. Workstyles are going to become MORE flexible. The number of people doing highly unstructured and ambiguous work will double to around 2 Billion, including many that are not well predisposed to do it. And if they are going to not just survive, but thrive, they will need help. The next generation of technology must help each user find their personal effectiveness sweetspot – the right combination of rest, work, personal development and play to be sustainably effective over time, and to cope with the ever changing technology world around them.

It will likely never be 9-5 again, but hopefully with the right leaders stepping up, and the right technology to support them, work will begin again to take its proper place in the context of our lives, and be the best way to make a living.