Rethinking Work

May 7, 2024 16 mins to read

Why do we need to rethink about work today?

Just a day prior to the holy month of Ramadhan, the fasting month for Muslims, I was invited to a potluck lunch with the staff. Lots of food and festivity in the air! For some of the newer staff who had spent two years of their final academic years learning from home and another two years working from home, their views of the concept of work were very different to mine. I guess I have spent the last forty-three years doing formal work, nine to five, six days a week. I would think I was working even when I was studying although it was not perceived as work. Truly, work defines a person.

The potluck lunch and subsequent observations led me to this yearlong research project. ‘Rethinking Work in the Digital Era’ involved academics, researchers, professionals from the industry (both Chief Executives and Human Capital Managers), employees and entrepreneurs. I thought it would be easier for me to do a series of podcasts and write a series of articles and then try to put a book together.

This introductory article accompanied by a podcast is all about rethinking work with a feature on ‘Workplace Rituals.’ It is the start of a twenty-plus article series which will hopefully result in a concise book rediscovering what we have lost at work without forgetting the need to change to stay relevant.

The potluck lunch to me seemed like a really positive environment and the effect was heightened when one of the new hires spoke about the need for kindness and the gratitude journal, another about emotional intelligence while another team member reminisced about Oscar Winning actor Michelle Yeoh’s comment on not allowing anyone to tell you that you are past your prime and focusing on shattering the glass ceiling. To me, having stepped out of day-to-day operations after four decades at the workplace and solely focused on observations and research of the workplace, today, it was all very intriguing. I turned around to ask Adzahar Ibrahim, one of the leading human resource professionals in the region who is now assisting us, a few questions.

  • How has the digital wave and the Covid pandemic crisis triggered a quantum shift in the way work is seen today?
  • Have these changes transformed the way we interact with one another at the workplace?
  • How do we connect work and the workforce with the purpose of an organisation?
  • How do we restore some workplace rituals that created meaning and camaraderie at the workplace?

His answer equally intrigued me. He said, “Let us recapture the power of what we have lost.” citing a McKinsey Talent Talk. He went on to challenge conventional ideas of work and elaborated on the changing workplace and the changing employee. True, he said, the digital era with tools driven by artificial intelligence (AI) such as Chat GPT has impacted work dramatically. Maybe the digital interactions make people feel they are working alone. Yet, he emphasised that we cannot forget that greatness comes from collective effort. As Lord Meghnad Desai says in his book The Poverty of Political Economy, “Human beings need a vast network of cooperation because of the limited capacity of anyone to fend for oneself.”

So, what does this mean for the future of work, workplace, and the employee?

I invited three experienced and distinguished guests to share their views on the podcast: · Professor Duncan Bentley, President and Vice Chancellor of Federation University, Australia · Ms Achal Khanna, Chief Executive Officer, Society of Human Resources Management, India, APAC & MENA · The Honourable Dr. Mazlee Malik, former Malaysian Minister of Education who is currently Professor at the University of Cyberjaya

I asked Professor Duncan Bentley for his response from the world of education, given that most educational institutions had to shift to an online environment during the pandemic.

1. How do we capture the power of what we have lost at the workplace and on university campuses as human interactions today seem to have gone largely digital?

2. What can higher education do to merge the human and digital experiences?

He responded by urging everyone to learn from our experiences during the pandemic and to make the best of the learning we received interacting digitally while melding it with the social side. As interactions and social bonding are valued by people, we need to merge the digital experience and the human experience to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of people and to meet workplace demands. He shared about the Federation University’s ‘co-opt model’ where students gain a mix of digital, on-campus and industry experiences that were found helpful in seamlessly transitioning the students to their new workplaces.

I started to look at some research out there on the future of work. There have many predictions about the future of work. Questions such as “What is the impact of technology on work?” have dominated mainstream research.

It is evident that technology has certainly transformed the way we work. Technology has taken work to where the people are. The challenge today is that the boundaries between home and work have blurred. Working from home, learning from home and the remote-everything world has minimised interaction resulting in a ‘ME- world’ rather than a ‘WE-world.’ Questions such as “Are we going to have humans replaced with robots?” are pervasive.

Numerous stories of machines overpowering humans in many areas of human endeavour have surfaced in mainstream media. In 2016, Google’s AlphaGo, an algorithm that beat the 18-time Go world champion Lee Sedol, was based on a type of artificial intelligence (AI) called deep learning which involves training neural networks on data. Then, inferences are made based on patterns found in the information that is fed. Yet, Lee Sedol won one of the five games even though he was devastated with losing four games. There are numerous stories of AlphaGo making blunders, proving it is not invincible. In 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue Computer beat the world chess champion. It was a classic plot of man versus machine. This prompted the IBM CEO Ginni Rometty to say artificially intelligent computers will ‘change who you are.’ Deep Blue was considered to have then passed the test laid down by Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence. The media was abuzz with predictions of artificial intelligence catching up with human intelligence. Yet, Rometty was cautious when she said, “These tools are so powerful they will solve some of the most enduring problems—like food safety, waste, but like all powerful tools, we’ve got to usher them in safely into society.” In order for those technologies to thrive, trust and security will be necessary, Rometty observed. “A competitive differentiator for all…will be trust.” She urged development teams to “always remember the purpose of these technologies is to augment man. It is not to replace man.” There are important outcomes for computer science – to deal with complex calculations, do broad financial models, discover new medicinal drugs, identify trends, and carry out risk analysis, but in the end, it is always about augmenting humans and not replacing them.

To deliver the value proposition to stakeholders, work must be viewed from the perspective of three synergetic elements, says a McKinsey study:

  • Articulating the nature of work
  • Building the workforce of the future
  • Reimagining the workplace of the future I also sought out the views from the practitioners’ world. I asked Ms Achal Khanna, the Chief Executive Officer of the Society of Human Resources Management (India, APAC & MENA) for her views:

1. How can we capture the power of human interactions despite the overwhelming focus on digitalization, where ‘We’ may be replaced by ‘Me’?

2. How can we make work meaningful and linked to the overarching purpose of an organisation?

Ms Khanna referred to SHRM’s vision of ‘Better Workplaces, Better World’ and stressed on the interdependent workplace. “I am because you are. It is not isolation but connection.” While technology is a driver, human interactions are critical, stressed Ms Khanna. If we make work meaningful and improve skill sets for an uncertain tomorrow, then we have a better workplace leading to a better world. We can only have meaningful workplaces when there is sharing, collaboration and interaction. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said remote sharing, collaboration and interaction became a way of life during the Covid-19 crisis. He went on to amplify what he meant by ‘remote.’ In his 2020 annual report to shareholders, the first in the era of Covid-19, he said ‘two years of digital transformation have taken place in two months.’ Illustrating this, Mr Nadella pointed out three metrics.

Firstly, there were more than 200 million Microsoft Teams meeting participants in a single day. Secondly, they were generating more than 4.1 billion meeting minutes. Thirdly, Teams then was said to have 75 million daily active users. Physical meetings and commuting on planes for business meetings became relics. He added that every day Microsoft was working alongside customers to help them adapt to the new realities of the Covid-19 crisis and stay open for business in a world of remote everything. ‘Remote everything’ seemed to be the buzz word. The American psychologist Barry Schwartz whose book Why we Work provides us with a glimpse of the purpose of work in our lives, shows how work operates our culture and how we can find meaning and happiness in our own way at the workplace. His work focusing on the intersection of psychology and economics challenges prevailing myths in western societies. He challenges the notion that it is only pay that drives people to work every morning. Harvard

Professor Ranjay Gulati talked about achieving the extraordinary by unlocking the true power of purpose in his book Deep Purpose. After all, did not Viktor Frankl, the psychologist, articulate that meaning was the central motivational force in human beings?

At every stage of human evolution, we have seen work being conceptualised and seen differently. From the day when work was largely informal to Adam Smith’s describing work as we understand it today in his Wealth of Nations to Henry Ford’s assembly line, there has always been a quantum shift in the way the world saw the concept of work and performed work. The Watt steam engine, one of the driving forces of Industrial revolution augmented human effort to result in greater productivity. It was about augmenting humans rather than replacing humans as Ginni Rometty commented. Later the development of electricity as a source of power again changed the way people worked and also impacted life in many ways. Its commercial development meant electricity was not just for the hours of darkness.

While many credit Henry Ford on his innovative design of Model T, analysts point out that his real innovation was in implementing the moving assembly line. The standardised approach to his production line to work changed work forever. He also pioneered new ways to recruit and retain workers. In 1926, the Ford Motor Company standardised the Monday-to-Friday pattern; beforehand, the common practice was a six-day workweek, with only Sundays off. Finding it difficult to find workers and in an attempt to manage staff turnover, he also raised the wages to double the existing rates and reduced work hours from nine hours to eight hours.

Yet, the factory system that pioneered the division of labour and served organisations well has now been criticised for robbing employees of finding meaning in work. There have been several initiatives to humanise work. One such initiative was the shorter working week. Debates over the length of the workweek are nothing new. The length of a workweek has been debated for a long time ever since Henry Ford introduced a five-day week from the standard six-day week. While the five-day week was implemented as early as then, I remember most organisations in Asia only started to implement it in the mid 90’s and early 2000’s. I remember when we went to a five-day work week in the mid-90s, we grappled with managing people and outcomes. According to Jim Harter, Chief Scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at the US analytics firm Gallup, Henry Ford’s theory that a shorter working week with the same pay would increase worker productivity was largely proven correct. There have been recently calls for a four-day work week in recent times with experimentations starting with such an approach

in many organisations. While research studies described its positive benefits, it is of course dependent on the culture of an organisation, the systems, processes and technologies needed to implement it well.

While the calls for a four-day week have been intense in recent times, research from a Gallup study showed the take-up has been slow. With the Covid-19 crisis and working remotely from home taking centre stage in recent times, it has been proven that we can change the way we work very dramatically. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Programme Director at the California based non-profit organisation, 4 Day Week Global says, “the pandemic has made us look at work differently, and the great resignation has forced organisations to look at newer recruitment and retention tools.” Yet, everyone realises that the goals of a shorter work week can only be achieved by new tools and operating practices that boost efficiency and improve employee wellbeing.

Obviously there needs to be support from policy makers when we make such decisions, so I approached former Malaysian Minister of Education and now Professor at the University of Cyberjaya, the Honourable Dr Mazlee Malik:

1. How can we capture the power of human interactions despite the overwhelming focus on digitalisation where ‘We’ may be replaced by ‘Me’?

2. How can we make work meaningful and linked to overarching purpose in the world?

It was interesting to hear him say that the more we live in the digital world, the more we communicate in new forms and new ways and of course we are interdependent. Interaction is no longer a choice; it is a necessity in an interdependent world. He suggested that we explore the question “Why do we work?” This was the central question in Dr Barry Schwartz’s work. What do we want to achieve by working? Professor Dr Mazlee Malik postulated that certainly the three elements Love, Happiness and Mutual Respect make work meaningful and is something that everyone wants at the workplace. His contention was that every individual should search for meaning in their lives and they need to enable others as well.

Talking about searching about finding meaning at work and the potluck lunch, let us explore the concept of workplace rituals. So, what are Workplace Rituals? The potluck lunch was a trigger that ignited my interest. And, to me, it was a ritual that had promoted a powerful social bonding between employees. Rituals are repeated acts, customs which helps define a culture. They are a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, ceremonies, language, behaviours and generally accepted norms and values. Rituals define us and are almost always episodic. Ed Schein’s definition of culture identified three distinct levels in organisational cultures:

  • artifacts and behaviours – visible elements of a culture.
  • espoused values – organisation’s stated rules and behaviours.
  • Assumptions – deeply embedded and taken-for-granted behaviours in an organisation that constitute the essence of its culture.

Workplace rituals make connectivity much easier. Rituals stand out in the routine ways of work. It is about acknowledging, appreciating, celebrating and recognising one another when a significant moment takes place. It can be building habits and teams. Doing things together and helping one another becomes a way of life. Adzahar Ibrahim always reminds us of the practices within certain organisations where the ritual is seen as an intentional way of bringing people together.

While the ritual while can be done virtually, it is far more powerful when the physical aspect is experienced by team members. The ME becomes replaced with the WE. My Work becomes Our work. We want to get back to the WE and Our work without being seen to be mandating it in the changing nature of work. Events such as the Potluck Lunch, Mindful Mondays, Birthdays of the month, New Arrivals and Gratitude Journals of the Month are events that have people interacting with one another.

The Thank God It’s Friday (TGIF) event in a team enlivens the idea of the weekend and makes it a fun discussion reviewing successes and renewing the focus on work-life balance. A ritual has to be meaningful if we are to connect people and not be seen as an activity for the sake of an activity. We have to be thoughtful of rituals as they advance togetherness. As in the case of the potluck lunch, rituals provide opportunities for the younger staff to share their ideas and views in a safe space.

Given that the link to a purpose is so critical, rituals are valuable in providing that purpose, building connections to the supervisors and adding value to the meaning of the work one does. The greatest benefit rituals have for the organisations is to build habits and cement the organisational culture. Of course, creating and sustaining rituals at the workplace requires thought, work and effort. And it needs to be aligned with the organisational purpose for it to be authentic and sustainable.

The ritual of getting together in a remote everything world is more important now than ever before.

So, in conclusion, Rethinking Work in a digital era includes getting the human connection back at the workplace, finding the right mix between the digital and human experiences to meet workplace expectations. The potluck lunch was to me a social ritual that had powerful social bonding, as it offered a safe place to connect with one another and enable one to find the human touch in a high-tech world.

Thank you for reading this first article. I will be with you soon with the second article on Workplace rituals.

Do listen to the podcast and hear what the three distinguished guests have to say.

Visit Stuck in The Middle | Podcast on Spotify

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