Some 85 years ago, Bertrand Russell described a world in which increasing industrial efficiency would mean that the working week would shrink to 20 hours and individuals would be left free to pursue hobbies and leisure activities. While the commercial world of today runs far more efficiently than that of the early-twentieth century, however, it feels like we now work more than ever – and far more is expected of the average employee.
Indeed, while email and smartphones enable flexibility – connecting workers whether they’re on the beach or in a warehouse – these technologies also mean that we are always in reach. This in turn drives expectations that staff will be available and that they will be working at all hours. This is ultimately extremely unhealthy – and, in the long run, it’s counterproductive.
Instead, it’s far better to encourage staff to achieve a healthy work-life balance, pursuing hobbies and personal interests, and spending time with their families. And while supporting staff in having happier, richer lives is a pursuit worthwhile in itself, it also comes with the benefits of making work more manageable, preventing burnout and bringing new ideas and concepts to the business – hence driving innovation.
In the meantime, modern technology brings an endless range of distractions, from email, from social media and from the web. The solution in many cases – to have a productive meeting, for example – is simply to switch your devices off. There’s a reason, after all, for the current trend of apps that block internet access in order to enable focused concentration.
Change has to come from the top, though – and sincere commitment is required to achieve transformation. If staff are to switch off at the end of the working day, then their manager has to allow them to do so (a point that is obvious but not always observed). If exceptions to this rule become routine then you’re back to square one.
Some companies will make the calculation that they can get more out of their staff by making unreasonable demands – but doing so will ultimately drive resentment and fuel a toxic working environment. With a corporate culture running on these lines, continuous recruitment will be the norm and ambitious and talented staff will quickly look elsewhere once they get the lay of the land.
Millennials, meanwhile, have a reputation for having higher expectations than their forebears when it comes to flexibility – and businesses are accommodating this by including options for remote working and flexible-hours into their schedules. It can be more challenging to implement these innovations in the trades and service industries, however, where staff often have to be at a specific location at a specific time.
In cases like these, improved communication systems can empower staff by giving them the authority and freedom to act without having to return to base. This in turn drives a sense of autonomy and fosters expertise within the organisation – removing the need, and the temptation, for managers to engage in motivation-sapping micro-management.
A healthier life
While it might sound elementary, exercise and good sleep are also crucial levers when it comes to wellbeing. There is evidence that using screens late in the evening interferes with sleep (presenting one more reason to switch off), but there’s relatively little that managers can do to encourage their staff to get a good night’s rest other than enforcing “switch off” times and not expecting employees to respond during late hours.
They can, however, promote physical activity – whether via lunchtime running clubs or a five-a-side football leagues. Exercise is shown to reduce depression and anxiety and, as well as burning off stress, these activities can bring together staff from across teams and departments, thereby driving synergy and serendipity in the organisation.
Another motivational factor is to have a clear meaning to work – to define the organisational mission and to talk about how the business is helping individuals and the world. Plumbers aren’t unblocking drains, for example, they’re solving family crises; and builders aren’t just piling up bricks, they’re building someone’s dream home.
Taken together, these approaches can help to build a healthier, happier and more engaged workforce. And the benefits will be felt across the business – reducing staff turnover, boosting commitment and encouraging practical problem solving, with little downside.