Everybody is asking questions about the future of the office and the future of work. Leadership coach Sandy Burgham, the founder of Auckland's Play Contemporary Leadership CoLab, says we need to look deeper for answers.
JEREMY HANSEN There is a lot going on in workplaces at the moment – the so-called “Great Resignation,” more flexible models of working, a greater sense of employee power. What’s your take on what’s happening, and how should employers respond?
SANDY BURGHAM It’s going to take time for whatever the lessons are for organisations to become clear. People are saying, "What is the future of work?" But let’s face it, while some people are trying to force the future and imagine what this means and making money out of these predictions, we actually won't know for a while. Generally, there's a lot of panic about the future of work and I'm wondering why. Is it because people are losing money? If a business is making money and hitting its financial goals – which boards of private sector organisations are focused on – does flexibility really matter to them? I'm interested in the correlation between flexibility and the outcome and the output of the organisation. I wonder if some people are worried about flexibility in workplaces and people working from home because they subconsciously feel they're losing control of their staff. What they’re really trying to say is, how can we still control workers, rather than, what’s the best thing we can do for society?
There is another risk for employers too - generations younger than me have much greater social awareness, awareness of things like climate change, hierarchies, the patriarchy, all that stuff. What becomes really obvious to the younger generation who are working from home is that this physical distance allows them to view work with more objectivity. And they’re thinking, "God, I'm a cog in the wheel". They're workers. And they just want to get out. So I'm fascinated with the Great Resignation. To young people, I’d say, "Great. Go for it. Live your lives. Don’t grind on like my generation did”. Because in the old days – I started my career in the '80s – we were obsessed with climbing ladders. It was individualistic and competitive, the hallmarks of neoliberalism. I left my last large company gig because I felt all I was doing was serving the system and I just lost who I really was. I wanted to feel like me, to turn up, be myself, serve what I'm interested in and get paid for that. It seemed a tall order at the time!
JEREMY HANSEN Can businesses set themselves up in a way so that it feels as if young people can grow and develop within that structure?
SANDY BURGHAM I don't know if they can. There’s all sorts of research that shows that very few organisational transformation efforts have a long-term sustainable impact on a company. There is this magnetic pull of the norm, a return to ground zero, right? One of the things that will limit the ability to transform a situation is the conscious maturity of the people with the most power. What is ignored is the personal transformation that a leader has to go through in order to transform an organisation. Of course, I would say that a key thing for organisations to do is to invest in the long-term development of their people. But if the values of the organization do not resonate then these efforts will fall flat.
JEREMY HANSEN What part does flexibility play in this? Because in some ways it feels like it's alleviated the pressure on a lot of employees who felt that being at work for 40 hours a week, five days in the office was not an ideal scenario.
SANDY BURGHAM Of course what has been really good is that people can be real and say, "The reason I've chosen to be flexible today and work from home is because I've a life,” or just, “the kids are sick." That's never been factored in before. The interesting thing for me is, being 59 years old, is during my workplace experience you just had to deal with all that home stuff. Nobody was interested in being flexible. To be honest, I gave so much to the workplace I can't even believe my kids have turned out okay. Now I kind of like those Zoom calls when I see people's kids run in and out, because you can see you are dealing with a real person, and they are reminded of this too.
JEREMY HANSEN Is there still value in meeting in person, in gathering in physical space?
SANDY BURGHAM Have you read my favorite book, At Home by Bill Bryson?
JEREMY HANSEN No.
SANDY BURGHAM Oh, you'll love it. That will convince you we are social animals who need to gather. We like gathering. We want to be together. And the book Humankind, by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. It’s also great about gathering and that we are social animals. From a mental health perspective, yes, we like to be together. We communicate not just by speaking and seeing somebody on a screen. We communicate with our bodies, by the way we do things.
It’s interesting. You’ve got a lot of people talking up technology and how crucial this is. Indeed, platforms like Zoom are great for productivity because no-one can hide – when people get on to Zoom, they do work, they do meetings, it's task-oriented stuff. But even though people have tried to emulate the people-oriented stuff at work using tech – “let's do a funny quiz on Zoom!” – that's really tedious. Organisational culture doesn't work like that. I think this is a risk for organisations, how to create flourishing cultures in flexible workplaces. Human beings are social animals and we need others and want others even if career ambitions are often singular and individualistic.
JEREMY HANSEN There seems to be some agreement at the moment that gathering people together in erson is important to building culture. But a lot of research also suggests that plenty of people feel relieved not to go to the office because they have to code-switch when they’re there. How does a workplace make people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work?
SANDY BURGHAM I think that's bullshit, this whole "Bring your whole self to work". It’s just this glib thing people say, and what on earth does that mean? You can't bring your kids who are sick. You can't bring your dog. What they're saying is, just turn up at 9, we don't care if you're in your pajamas, just start working and making us money. That's what it means. But that still works for a lot of people – for instance, those who might be in their 30s and their 40s, with kids, who frankly are just trying to survive the chaos. I would say that they're not in that life stage where they have the mental space to care that much. I remember just wanting to survive those years, you know?
It's such a complex subject. I think generational things are interesting here. Think about Gen Y and Gen X. You're in your 30s and your 40s. You’ve missed what the baby boomers got, which was affordable housing and the opportunity to make massive capital gains. You're paying a big mortgage and you’re massively in debt. You're still trying to keep the identity up of being a successful worker. Plus if you’re a parent, there’s a lot of social pressure to not look like a loser parent. All those people are just trying to survive. There’s literally no mental space. Ask them about what they want in the office and they don’t care. A lot of corporates have been like, “Oh, come back to the office. The lunch is free and the coffee’s free and there’s drinks.” And everyone’s like, “I don’t really give a shit”.
JEREMY HANSEN What sort of responsibility do you think businesses have for the wellbeing of their employees? You mentioned that employers are worried about losing control of their employees because of flexible working practices, but some of them are also genuinely concerned about how they’re able to keep an eye on the wellbeing of their teams. And also how they can mentor and train them.
SANDY BURGHAM Organisations actually need to get curious about wellbeing because many people are dying inside. What is that about? Do organisations have a responsibility? Yes they do. It kind of goes with the territory and is related to whether we as a society have a responsibility. And we do, if we are curious and invested in creating a flourishing society. But it’s actually quite complex: most organisations aren't set up that way, because deep down, the purpose is about financial gain for a small group of people rather than contributing to a flourishing society. Of course I’m not anti-business. Businesses can and do contribute to society. They provide employment and massive social change will come from corporates more than governments. But it's a broken system. The fact that there are so many wellbeing issues shows it's a broken system. It’s not all the organisations’ responsibility. But if you have a whole lot of wrung-out employees, you have to ask who you are being as an organisation right?
There are many answers to all of this in indigenous systems. I’m really interested in what iwi such as Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei are doing. Not everything will be 100 percent perfect, but they’ve done some amazing things. To use corporate language, their ‘stakeholders’ are real people to them. They are whānau. One of the reasons why a lot of Māori may not want to work for large corporate organisations is because they'd rather serve their people, because it's more meaningful and actually, perhaps they can indeed bring their whole selves to work.
Sandy Burgham is the founder of Play Contemporary Leadership CoLab.