IF THE HYBRID WORKPLACE IS TO BE MEANINGFUL, WE NEED TO SYSTEMATICALLY TRAIN OUR HUMANITY
The hybrid work model has tremendous potential. It can unleash productivity, shrink distances in time and space, and even contribute to reducing our carbon footprint. However, it also has the potential to dilute the culture of organizations, alienate people, and even lead to complete meaninglessness. Before we fully embrace this form of work, we need to be aware of its concrete consequences and how to vaccinate against them. Otherwise, it will be much more difficult – and expensive – to create a strong culture where people thrive and produce results.
By Nicolai E. E. Iversen, Chief Philosophy Officer, Voluntās
The number of people who find their work meaningful
Global Meaningfulness Report 2020-2022
We are in a meaning recession. The number of people who find their work meaningful has declined two years in a row – from 76% of all people in 2020 to only 64% in 2022. Especially, the feeling of belonging to our organization has plummeted. We don’t feel as connected, seen, or heard, and it’s harder for us to see how the values and virtues that define the culture around us align with our own. Coupled with a heated job market where the opportunity for a slightly higher salary and a fresh start glimmers around the corner, it’s no wonder that many organizations have focused on promoting well-being, retention, and making themselves particularly attractive to new recruits.
As a cardinal point in that effort, the hybrid workplace has galloped, strongly driven by lockdowns and forced work from home, as part of the answer to what the modern organization looks like. Flexibility, remote work, and virtual meetings have become a new normal in the way we work and collaborate. The praises and success stories are many, but the truth is that the narrative for the hybrid workplace is highly overrated, and in a busy everyday life, we risk forgetting to rethink how we can cultivate our culture and sense of belonging in a world that is becoming increasingly digital.
Because yes, we appreciate the extra flexibility. But most of us still want to spend the majority of our working time in the workplace – 3.5 days a week for men and 3.1 days a week for women. And most companies, even the modern and progressive ones, still have an “office-first” approach to what they expect from their employees. There is a good reason for this because even though culture doesn’t sit in the walls, it is created between people. And when we say goodbye to the physical space, we also say goodbye to a lot of intimacy, closeness, and confidentiality. Something we need to replace in other ways. The world’s most comprehensive study of what creates a good life unequivocally points to the most important factor for our well-being as good relationships with other people – belonging and connectedness.
A research group from Oxford last week showed how digital teaching and school closures during the Corona pandemic have led to significant learning loss among school children, which can still be measured here two years after the first school closures. My own nephew, who is one of the absolute finest people I know but needs an extra hand in academic terms, gave me his heartbreaking story of how he used to be able to compensate for his lack of academic flair by being able to ask his “stupid” questions to his teacher during more confidential breaks. Now – with digital teaching – he was either silent in class for fear of being exposed in front of everyone or relegated to writing on Aula and maybe getting an answer in 3-4 days.
Similar effects are taking place in our organizations as we recruit and onboard new colleagues virtually and increasingly meet and interact with each other in virtual environments. While we gain comfort, efficiency, and, for some of us, time, we also lose out on culture, cohesion, community, and tacit knowledge. After two years in the virtual cave, it can be hard to adjust to the outside world. There are other people on the road, loud noises around us, and the coffee machine is further away. It’s no wonder that the first people who emerged from Plato’s cave quickly sought refuge in the darkness again. They were overwhelmed by the light, by how the world really is, and so they retreated and settled for looking at shadow images of the real world. In the dark, you can wear sweatpants and slippers without anyone noticing. You can reach both the coffee machine, the toilet, and the bedroom within a short radius of your desk. Here, there are only planned or self-selected distractions.
Yes, life is hard, but it’s all the difficult things that give meaning to the good. And it doesn’t make sense for us to stay in the cave for too long at a time. So before we devolve into a clinical, meta-verse version of what it means to belong in an organization, we should cultivate our humanity and culture, now more than ever. In a future where we have more pixels and fewer physical interactions to create the same necessary sense of belonging and presence, we should at a minimum train our muscles, our processes, and our structures to reinforce what used to come naturally but now requires active effort.
At Voluntās, we have followed numerous organizations’ journey into the hybrid world over the past two years.
Here are our specific recommendations on how we can systematically (re)train what we risk losing:
Train all leaders (and employees) in active listening.
With simple techniques, you can strengthen the conversation culture and the presence – the result is increased inclusion and belonging as well as fewer misunderstandings.
Conduct a cultural “due diligence” of all steps in the employee journey.
We know that 89% of all failed recruitments are due to a lack of cultural “fit.” Only 11% can be attributed to insufficient technical skills. We have helped organizations create cultural stumbling blocks that ensure that the culture cannot be bypassed – even when everything is done virtually – and the initial results are very positive.
Create a dedicated “Belonging” strategy that is as ambitious as your IT strategy.
What architecture, requirements, rules, concepts, and rituals should ensure that as many people as possible feel a sense of belonging to the organization? Christmas parties and summer parties are no longer enough (and probably never have been) to make social relationships flourish. What started as a revelation of possibilities has a cost. Hybrid work forms risk exchanging productivity and comfort for a loss of meaning and culture. A loss we can only insure against if we take the effects seriously in time and adapt the infrastructure in our organization to reinforce everything we know people need to perform our best – in life and in work.
On 10th January 2023 Voluntās and the Center for Applied Meaningfulness took a giant stride towards establishing meaningful academic collaborations in India when signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Asia’s oldest school for professional social work.
On September 15th, 2022, Voluntas and the Arab Master’s program in Democracy and Human Rights, “Global Campus – Arab World” signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), laying the foundation for a new era of cross-sector collaboration in the MENA region.
Esbjerg wants to create the world’s most human university with a central focus on education, human development and a high degree of belonging.
Voluntas and the star architect company Bjarke Ingels group are supporting the project.
Based on Morten Albæks philosophy of a meaningful life, the students must embark on an educational journey based on becoming self-realized people who master their encounters with life’s coincidences, opportunities, and challenges.