Poor management practices are very often underpinned by the beliefs that workers are lazy and slow, according to Melissa Swift in her recent book Work Here Now.
“Believing people to be slow drives work intensification, as the ‘faster, faster’ exhortation gets built into every task and every job,” writes Swift, the North American Transformation leader at Mercer. “Believing people to be lazy also creates intensified work, as leadership requires more proof that work is getting done—generating extra documentation/reporting tasks for workers or necessitating monitoring that has the same effect.” (p. 29) Such beliefs also drive performative work, as people feel they need to show that they’re not lazy or slow.
Swift starts with the premise that “work sucks” and seeks to expose and name the counterproductive assumptions—such as the flawed beliefs above—and traditional practices responsible. Alongside that, she ambitiously presents a catalog of 90 strategies designed to make workplaces better. Work Here Now is in places overly obvious or unsatisfyingly broad, touching glancingly on topics ranging from cyberattacks to work visas. But it also has some valuable takeaways, including:
- Just do less. “Staying heads-down in too many activities can leave leaders and team members alike perpetually on autopilot, and stuck in endless loops of sameness,” Swift writes. (p. 65) You need space to think if you want to innovate, including to make your workplace better.
- Teach written communication skills. Emails, messages, and memos are essential components of the important ongoing shift to more asynchronous work. “Did anyone ever teach you, or any of your coworkers, how to write a great email?” writes Swift. “Might we all benefit from something like that? Absolutely! The better and more we can express ourselves in writing, the less time we need to spend working at the exact same time as someone else.” (p. 190)
- Work ‘out loud.’ In flexible, asynchronous workplaces, this means “showing your work” and explaining how you’re tackling problems so younger workers learn from you. “Start by simply adding a sentence or two of explanation every time you do a piece of work and hand it off to someone,” Swift advises. “Inevitably, they’ll ask questions and create a dialogue, building team-wide muscle in communicating around how work gets done.” (p. 192)
- Remove unneeded qualifications or aspects of work that limit who can do it. “The fewer time-and-place requirements for a role, the more, and the more varied, people available to do it,” Swift writes. (p. 86) Getting rid of degree requirements and employing formerly incarcerated people also importantly expands access to opportunity. Formerly incarcerated workers employed by Johns Hopkins Health System and Hospitals, for example, had performance evaluations as good as their peers. And formerly incarcerated workers are less likely to voluntarily quit.
- Manage performance by team. Individual performance assessments are extremely prone to bias, and organizations already often assess performance at a unit level to evaluate executives.
- Train for unconscious bias right before performance reviews. “Thoughtful quantitative data shows that performance data are incredibly noisy at best and downright biased at worst,” Swift writes. (p. 123) She cites research showing that factors such as who your boss is, how old you are, and which division you work for matter more to your assessment and promotion at some companies than anything else. She also points to research in which manager bias training a few months before performance reviews meaningfully reduced bias in the results.
- Practice reverse onboarding. Consciously identify ways you want new employees to change your organization and make sure their colleagues and managers are receptive and follow through.
- Make decisions with the people who are impacted in mind. ”Understand when you’re making a decision that affects your human workers, know who owns that decision, and identify who’s truly affected,” Swift writes. (p. 84) Organizations fail when they decide things based on projected financial impact, but don’t account for the people impact. Big tech projects are prone to snagging in this way.
- Choose tech for the right reasons. “What are you trying to solve? Who are you trying to solve for? Do you want to solve it for others? Are you sure that’s who you want to solve it for?” asks Wake County CIO Jonathan Feldman about any new technology, according to Swift. (p. 105)
- Support foreign-born workers. They experience more micro-aggressions and can suffer from uncertainty related to their immigration status. Foreign-born household workers are also often key parts of employees’ support systems. English-language training and organizational support through the immigration processes can help.
- ‘Reverse-engineer’ transparency. Use transparency to drive accountability for addressing unfair practices and outcomes. “What data, if it were visible, might truly prompt the people involved to make more diverse choices? Do they need to see performance review distributions by gender and ethnicity/race?” writes Swift. “If we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant, where should the sunlight be focused?” (p. 191)
To be sure:
- Work Here Now aims to cover a lot of ground in diagnosing and prescribing fixes for the problems with work. The result is that it can sit at an unsatisfying altitude between strategic and tactical levels, coming off as glib and obvious in places and consultant-speak in others. The book, for example, addresses how to select communications technology, but concludes there’s no right approach and you just need to use what works for your team. Plus, 90 strategies for fixing work is a lot to try to pack into a relatively short book.
- Work Here Now would benefit from more specific examples from companies. Poignantly, among the ones included are practices at Twitter to address burnout and provide management transparency, both led by a since-departed executive and surely abandoned under Elon Musk’s “extremely hardcore” regime.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- About 16 people die at work a day, compared to an estimated 100 daily in 1911.
- Only 4% of calls fielded by firefighters are fire-related. The majority are emergency medical services and rescue calls.
- One of the first books written about corporate HR was E. Wright Bakke’s 1958 The Human Resources Function, which noted that “the chief and central concern of the human resources function is not personal happiness, but productive work.” (p. 48)
- HR organizations spend just 13% of their time on strategic partnership with the broader business, according to Mercer research.
- The median organization has one finance employee for every 31 staff, one IT employee for every 28, and one HR employee for every 91 workers, according to data from Saratoga.
- “We lack language to capture work intensification, struggling with questions like ‘Why am I in so many freaking meetings?’ and it often sounds like whining when we complain about our jobs just being somehow…harder…than they used to be.” (p. 12)
- “Less feels good, consistently; more rarely does.” (p. 63)
- “There’s something sneakily brilliant about using contractors for emergent, misunderstood work—especially since people who seek out contract work often show high levels of agility and can frame the work better even as they’re doing it.” (p. 119)
The bottom line is that Work Here Now covers a lot of ground in showing the many ways that workplaces could be better.