No more 9 to 5? Reshaping the concept of work

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 9, 2020
I wonder whether we're asking the right questions when considering the future of work, wherever that happens to be done.

(@Rawpixel, from

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, with spikes of infection emerging around the world, the uncertainty about the future of work is a perplexing and complex topic. This story attempts to get to the essence of what needs consideration going forward. This is particularly pertinent given that governments are urging people to return to their 'old normal' place of work. 

In July, I noted that:

The American model of hire and fire at will is not going away anytime soon, as is evident from the expectations the financial markets have on how business will continue to react to the pandemic. That in itself seems to drive an expectation, at least by some, that we will see a return to the old normal. But then I don't know anyone who really believes that to be either desirable or possible. The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of business in ways that many never expected. More to the point, it has also brought the question of what work is, what it means and how it is conducted to the front and center of pretty much every business I come across. 

That was in the context of a story that started out looking at how Siemens is reframing its approach to work, broadly taking a 'mobile first' approach that assumes leaders can comfortably put trust in their people and that the measurement of outcomes is what matters rather than time spent on the clock. 

The shadow of the clock

At the time, I was careful to add that I was (and remain) far from clear about the answers going forward. However, the debate about time versus outcomes remains an ongoing element of the public debate in the networks where I am engaged. In this context I once again have to return to my good old buddy Vijay Vijayasankar who, on LinkedIn said:

So far no one I spoke with feels that remote work has been any less effective than work at office . But interestingly quite a few have this question in the back of their mind on “how do I know if people are actually working full time and not slacking ?” , followed by “how are you measuring productivity these days ?”

It is amazing that the corporate world is so tuned to age old concepts of productivity in terms of hours worked for some given compensation that even when output doesn’t seem to have variance from the past , they still don’t feel comfortable.

When I asked if hours worked was how they measured their staff in the past - no one outside consulting said yes . And those within consulting also had similar grief about their clients worrying explicitly whether the consultants are working all hours billed when they are remote.

My hypothesis is that remote work is now an accepted norm that people have taken its efficacy for granted . That is how I am rationalizing this renewed focus on efficiency.

In reading that, I had to giggle. Vijay will know that I have long argued that time and materials is not a good way to price and his stock answer used to be: "That's how clients want it." What he really meant is that's how clients have been programmed to accept it. The pandemic changes this perception because leaders have (finally?) realized that time is not the same thing as value.

Time spent is not a good measure of efficiency because it doesn't factor the differences in operating methods people deploy to get stuff done, capabilities, abilities to organize - the list goes on. Leaders have figured out coping mechanisms to flatten out those lumps and bumps but they don't address the fundamental problem of time as a measurement of value. The flip side is that time has to be controlled and that means reducing people to units of time that needs to be recorded, surveilled and commented upon. How dehumanizing is that?

Work as a human experience

As I have watched the various arguments unfold, it suddenly struck me that what's missing in the topic of 'work' is the variety of work AS a human experience. Consider that according to some reports, women have been disadvantaged more than men during the pandemic. This USA Today article makes the point that:

Nearly 11 million jobs held by women disappeared from February to May, erasing a decade of job gains by women in the labor force. 

In June, women regained 2.9 million positions, but those jobs, which are largely in the hospitality field, remain insecure as the spread of coronavirus forces new closures. 

Depending on the length of this recession and when an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, there is a possibility many jobs lost by women will never come back, said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). 

On the other hand, the other day I listened to a radio debate about the topic among women who are professionals but without children. They agreed that the social connections of working at an office matter greatly to them and therefore they like the idea of at least partially returning to the workplace. On the same broadcast, academics said that the variety of experience is making decisions around any form of return to workplace incredibly complex for both workers and employers. In that sense, the oft heard leadership cry of 'empathy' towards stressed people is not something you can simply utter and expect to be taken as meaningful.

In another example. I recently spoke with someone who told me they are experiencing low level and persistent anxiety. Their job isn't at risk but the dull sense of impending doom plays heavily and they worry this might lead to a spiraling of problems. This is a new experience for that person who has worked remotely for many years. How do people both cope with what is otherwise termed a mental health problem AND get the support they need from managements which, in my experience, tend to view mental health issues with about the same amount of sympathy as someone announcing they've caught a dose of syphilis? 

Four factors that matter

Is any of this unusual? I'm not convinced. What I think is happening goes something like this:

  • The last 100 or so years, generations of workers have been conditioned to think of work as a time related activity - the old 9-5 thing. It is a convenient way to view work, providing certainty to both sides of the employment bargain. 
  • The emergence of other ways to work - such as remote, gig and so on - but also types of work, such as knowledge based work, have not kept pace in terms of how they are viewed from a value viewpoint. The 9-5 model continues to rule. 
  • Generational expectations have changed as more women have come into the workforce. Check the progress reported in the USA Today article referenced above. But now we have millennials entering the management ranks and they bring entirely new values to the table in ways I thought at one time would be stuck in an industrial model. 
  • There is a growing recognition that the manner in which a raft of -isms, whether that's racism, ageism, homophobia, or class and poverty division play into our general well-being are emerging out of academic study (as it largely was when I was in university some 27 years ago) and into the mainstream but on which very little real progress has been made in what we now term 'diversity.'

For example, in researching for this story, I came across one about support networks written by Madeline Bennet in April that referenced Tony Prophet, Chief Diversity Officer at Salesforce. He's been in post since 2016 at a company that takes these topics very seriously but I am sure he will agree, as Madeline concludes:

When the current crisis is over, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

And that was JUST on the topic of women in the workplace.

Infinite variety and responses

As I have implied, the experience of women is both diverse and complex. It's hard to imagine how their experiences get parsed today in ways that reflect their collective let alone individual needs without a fundamental reshaping of what work means to women, how that is valued by those who provide work and what responsible responses to lifetime changes look like for both those who provide and those who offer work.

In short, where I believe the emphasis has to now go is to reframe the work discussion with empathy, for sure, but with a view to recognizing that the infinite variety of experience is not just a matter of fact but one that has to be addressed at a human level. Codofication will, I'm sure, be necessary but for me, that should only serve as a framework and not as a rigid set of criteria against which to assess a working person's entitlement to support. 

This is not wishy washy psychobabble BS. This is a reality that has, on reflection, been hiding in plain sight. The pandemic has put some of the issues within the area of human experience at work into sharp relief. Coping with children while attempting to get work done is a well known example but it is only one example of many. It's always been there for some, but now it is for many. In that sense, scale matters. 

What about those who are being pressured into returning to a workplace but fear their health might be at risk? Is it really a good idea to threaten those same people with the potential to be fired? Unionized workers in the UK are responding:

Civil servants have threatened to go on strike over Boris Johnson’s plan to bring them back to their desks. Unions have said it is still not safe for Government workers to return to Whitehall despite a push by the prime minister to bring up to 80% of civil servants back to the office by the end of the month. Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill wrote to department heads calling on them to make swift changes to ensure their offices are Covid-secure and can support the returning workforce. Ministers fear huge job losses in city centre shops if workers do not return to their pre-lockdown commuter patterns soon.

Should it come to that? Workday has just announced two new offerings, VIBE Central and VIBE Index, pitched at helping HR leaders advance Belonging and Diversity (B&D) initiatives and better VIBE—Value Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity—within the workplace. VIBE Central is intended to provide a foundation built on best practices content and reports to help companies see the diversity and representation of their workforce in one centralized place. Meanwhile VIBE Index is positioned as “the most comprehensive B&D index” to enable organizations to measure and compare belonging, equity, diversity, and inclusion for better understanding. 

It's a great way to grab attention to this topic and I know from experience in dealing with the senior management of that company for over 12 years that they mean it. But - I'd like to know how that gets parsed at the individual level and what that means for patterns of work, responses to experiences and, what technology can (hopefully) bring to the table to make work a better experience. I'd also like to learn how Workday thinks its approach might be spread more broadly into the business community. 

Final words

For me, the pandemic is a once in a lifetime opportunity across multiple dimensions but the one which matters most IMO is that of the human experience in work - wherever that might be - and how responsible firms can respond in ways that make the world a better place. Because at the end of the day, isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing?

A grey colored placeholder image