I’ve been reflecting lately on why global work engagement figures are consistently so low. While there’s some variance in the data produced by the leading organisations who track workforce engagement data, I think it’s fair to say that engagement figures globally are pretty dire, indicating that only circa 30% of the global workforce is consistently engaged. I’m not sure what precisely that says for the remaining 70%.
In his recent book, Lost Connections, the journalist Johann Hari argues that workplace disengagement is a contributing factor to stress, anxiety and depression. I don’t disagree, but I feel compelled to unpack this in more detail.
I started my career in 1993, and so have a 25-year window of experience upon which to reflect. I cut a career in recruitment, working in the early days of the mobile telecoms industry to source and supply the engineering teams who designed, built and launched mobile phone networks internationally. When I look back, they were crazy times; the race was on for each country to deregulate and build multiple networks to add choice for consumers who had hitherto been restricted to using the state-run mobile network operator.
Back then, the focus was far more about delivering new technology and getting to the point of commercial service and monetisation. While of course there was method and process in the way these networks were built, only once the networks were launched was any real methodological rigour applied. Only then were processes and procedures created to ensure standardisation, efficiency, measure and control throughout the business.
I may be missing a trick (and I remain open to the idea that this could well be the case), but in my opinion, since the early 2000s, the world of work has gone entirely process and procedure-mad. Anything that can have a process written for it, does have a process written for it, often by someone who’s entirely disconnected from the reality of how that particular function actually works. I believe this in part explains some of the frustration so many of us feel when trying to deal with any kind of call centre. The computer says no and the consumer just has to deal with it. I’ve had the most exasperating and inane experiences with call centre agents who seem unable to deviate from their script.
This drive to standardise and codify every aspect of business is surely an effort to squeeze every last penny of value from the ‘production line’. Except we’re no longer working in an industrial age, no longer running a production line of ‘stuff’. The UK is now largely a service economy, and hey, guess what? This drive to codify has left consumers more than a little queasy. We’re sick to death of being treated like an extension of a process, and like our buying choices aren’t valued.
But what does it feel like to work in an environment where your role feels increasingly scripted, where any autonomy you may have had to deliver good work diminishes and where increasingly you feel like just another cog in a wheel?
In his 2009 best-selling book Drive, Daniel Pink pinpointed three key human motivators as being autonomy, mastery and purpose. ‘Autonomy’ is the means by which we’re empowered to make decisions over the way in which we deliver our work. ‘Mastery’ is our innate desire to get better at the stuff that we do, and ‘purpose’ is our wish to do something meaningful with our lives.
Workplace standardisation is the death knell for autonomy – we’re bound to deliver against documented guidelines, KPIs and SLAs that someone else mandated, heaven knows when (my observation is that processes and procedures don’t get updated awfully often – if it’s not broken, let’s not waste time trying to improve it, right?). If we have to perform work functions to the same SLAs each day, what scope is there for improvement? And finally, I’m not sure how many workers actually know how their work feeds into the bigger picture. Certainly, over the course of my career, I’ve seen few job descriptions articulate purpose in the context of the wider organisational vision.
Over-zealous process and procedure is one of the key reasons I fell out of love with head-hunting. Don’t get me wrong, I understand and appreciate the requirement for standardisation more than most, but in a very short space of time the recruitment profession became far less about quality candidate-screening and far more about a process where keeping costs as low as possible far outweighed any value that a decent head-hunter might bring. Recruitment processes became increasingly laborious, as in-house recruiters fought to ‘add value’, heaping on layers of complexity to confound even the most laid-back hiring manager or candidate. The cost of recruitment was easy to measure, but the cost of poor retention, not so much.
This codification of work seems to have evolved for the worse, though, as the financial ‘powers that be’ strive to identify ever decreasing amounts of cost efficiency.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen the rise of the zero hours contract; last month, the RSA published a report which evaluated the extent to which British workers are experiencing good work. Their findings are stark, pointing to increased precarity and job insecurity. This week the media reported on a DPD worker who died, tragically, after missing medical appointments because he was fearful of being penalised.
Zero hours contracts are completely unethical. They allow businesses to manipulate and control workers, offering little or no financial or job security, whilst penalising these same workers if they dare to be unavailable for work offered at short notice. They allow no scope for an individual to plan his or her work or budget for basic needs such as food or rent. Worse still, zero hours contracts distort UK employment figures, such that we’re consistently being told that unemployment is down, whereas in truth, more and more people are living on the breadline. Whilst businesses continue to inflate their profits, in-work poverty is rising, damaging the mental and physical health of millions. Whereas once zero hours contracts were the exception, increasingly they seem to be the rule.
This is the commoditisation of work and of humans. Whether we like it or not, we ARE increasingly cogs in the wheel, challenged to run ever faster for diminishing job security and opportunity to learn and grow.
This is why I think people are so disengaged en masse. Pitched against Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, not only is work failing to deliver self-actualisation or esteem, more damagingly, it’s increasingly failing to deliver psychological safety. If we continue on the path of neoliberalism, work becomes increasingly about driving profit, measuring success in financial terms only and completely overlooking business impact on society or the environment. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and societies and communities start to self-destruct under the weight of poverty.
While this all seems pretty pessimistic, I do however believe there is cause for hope. Now more than ever, we’re told that younger work cohorts are choosing purposeful work over big salaries, preferring to tackle global issues and make some change in the world. I think this trend is already potentially amplifying out to other generations, who are realising the workplace success does not drive happiness, and that intrinsic motivators are more important than the brand of car parked in the driveway.
I also believe that while technology innovators may advocate for an increasingly workless future, where computers, algorithms and robots fulfil hitherto human roles, ultimately customers will discern what kind of customer experience they want. And whilst I believe that some consumers will be happy with an A.I. interface, I also believe that others will want a human interaction, one which is connective and which fulfils our innate need to belong as social beings.
Cat’s recruitment career has furnished her with fascinating insights into how people behave in the workplace, particularly in response to change. She has a deep interest in human behaviour, organisational psychology and helping business leaders create sustainable, ethical and values-based working environments.