No Regrets: Work-Life Integration Part 5
This article is part of a 7 part series No Regrets: Integration Work-Life.
When Adam Smith originally wrote about specialization in the Wealth of Nations he probably had no idea this idea, amongst others, would be taken to relatively high extremes. Or that it would be used to model the role of robots and AI. His concept, exemplified by the idea of splitting the production of a pin into 18 distinct processes, was to demonstrate how to mass-produce and increase productivity. In fact, his ideas have been used and reused to justify the terrible treatment of workers, the creation of boring mundane jobs, and the advancement of self-interest capitalism where ‘every man for himself’ is meant to ensure a safe and fair society.
But not many people know that his first book was called ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ because Adam Smith was a genius but he was a genius Moral Philosopher, not an economist. So what might he think of the world that we have created? I suspect he would not be that impressed. He believed that an ethical system should come before a ‘self-interest’ model of capitalism. I suspect he also couldn’t have anticipated how powerful capitalism could get. We are in a place where pursuing self-interest doesn’t automatically incorporate caring for others as ‘means to an end’ for those without a moral core. Sadly you can treat people badly and they don’t always have the full choice to leave your employment, especially in the developing world.
An illustration of pin-making from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1762. (Wikimedia Commons)
Going back to Adams’ idea of specialisation then, it’s likely that a ‘factory floor’ filled with people doing one thing over and over again was not in his ultimate image of a thriving economy, if he had one. Most right-thinking people would appreciate that sacrificing physical or mental health for work is a trade-off question that shouldn’t even be asked of us, let alone one we don’t feel we can answer properly.
Leaders not only have a tendency to think in a traditional way when it comes to structuring the workday, but also when it comes to dealing with the people because it relies on consistency. Specialisation in factories as Adams imagined still exists but for many knowledge workers carrying out completely different and creative tasks, there is still a tendency for companies to treat everyone the same.
As a quick example lets’ take the post COVID return to work scenario. A lot of companies are starting with a business-led policy that everyone can adhere to. Some companies are asking employees what they want and then using that data to find a middle ground. The instincts of nearly all companies are not to listen to what employees need and then attempt to cater for everyone, or 95% let’s say. Instead, it’s to find the least offensive middle ground that can be rolled out consistently. It doesn’t have to be that way. Do you want to work from home all the time? Fine, let’s help with your set up and focus on your mental health. You want avoid the commute and stay close to loved one’s but can’t because you don’t have a set up at home? Great, let’s find you a local hub or coworking space. The list goes on.
Why not? Because it’s expensive to get personal – or is it? It seems a lot of the start-ups I have worked with recently are leveraging the theme of personalisation in their products. They are creating more bespoke benefits solutions, more bespoke working preference and increased choice around how we interact with our colleagues. Outside of work the trend continues – right now you can get personalised nutrition from pioneering companies such as Nourish or Personalised.co. The latter ask you a long set of quite personal questions to get you the right mix of nutrients, but Nourished have broken psychological barriers – they actually create the one pill (chew) perfect for you. That’s right one layered chew that ẃon’t look like almost anyone else’s. The next step for society will be taking blood samples and personalising all medicine.
So far, so sci-fi but what has this got to do with work? The cost of personalisation is dropping as data, AI and tech is making it easier. I grew up in the UK where there were only 4 television channels, then came the expansion of choice (with satellite TV) and then came the personalisation with Netflix (and other services) not only giving you choice but using those choices to create an entirely unique experience. You probably have something on your wrist that has various settings just for you, even though thousands of others have the same model but you have a set up unique to you. Personalisation within standardisation is the new norm. Except when it comes to employee policy. Sure we have created a few opt-in benefits here and there. But what about working hours? Can your people really choose? Do they have the freedom they were promised?
Organisations and society at large, have a problem that the people in control and whose opinions get heard the loudest are those who benefit the least from change. But we have ‘voice of employee’ tools to help with that too. The age-old excuses of cost, scale, speed are just evaporating and our employee experiences are becoming more individual at a snail’s pace when it could be rocketing. In fact, the aforementioned Netflix has effectively dispensed with any rules in order to ensure that the work experience has the possibility of moulding to the employee.
So those of us not on the breadline have a good amount of choice in our life, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Within reason, we can choose how much sleep we get, where we shop, what hobbies we have, how many (or any) children we have, who we live with and where we live. It’s not complete freedom, and we probably don’t have the choice of all of those, but it’s freedom nonetheless. If we believe that work can’t be similarly flexible, perhaps because we have that expectation or because of how our employers communicate expectations, we will design our fairly flexible lives around work. Not only do we do this but we often lose sight of exactly how much we have done so – outsourcing parental care to clubs and childminders, booking holidays at times that suit work, living our social lives around work hours/days.
But what we have seen in a post-pandemic world is that we have good reason to be cynical of a ‘we can’t’ response from business. Flexible working was one of the number one criteria for people looking for a new job in 2019 because it wasn’t widely distributed. Now some version of flexibility has become a baseline for all organisations looking to hire their top talent. Even those who claimed it wasn’t possible due to issues of security or supervision.