Beyond Ping-Pong Tables: Unveiling the True Challenges of the Modern Workforce

Beyond Ping-Pong Tables: Unveiling the True Challenges of the Modern Workforce
August 24, 2023

The content in this article is taken from an extended format of Dr. Kelly Monahan’s renowned TEDx talk: Hiding in Plain Sight.

Economists today would tell us we have the most agreeable jobs in human history.

But the prevailing data leaves little room for optimism:

  • We’re working more, not less than we were 30 years ago.
  • 45% of us have a negative attitude towards the future of work.
  • Nearly the same proportion (44%) foresee a decrease in the standard of living.
  • Robots will likely supplant ½ of our jobs over the next 20 years.

So why the paradox?

I’ve been studying the future of work now for over 10 years, and I’ve looked at survey data coming from people just like you and me, trying to understand what is it that motivates us and what’s the temperature of our workforce today?

It’s time we update our assumptions around people at work. We have a system problem, not a technology problem.

Most companies, (whether they be a start-up or a mature organization) are still stuck in an industrial-era mentality.

A century ago, most of us would be working in a factory. We’d be on the assembly line doing the same task over and over again.

Different time, different context. Right?

Well, when you look at the data, people were never really fulfilled and satisfied either with their work. Those jobs were built for robots, with humans temporarily occupying the space. Henry Ford famously said during this time, “I don’t want workers’ hearts or minds, I just need their hands. How do I just have their hands?”

Forty-five percent of us now work in some sort of business administration office professional job, but we’ve still left the heart and emotion at the door.

Instead, we took a cleaner, more superficial route to update and imbue our workspaces with sunlight, color, cold brew, ping-pong tables, and comfy living room furniture. And if you work remotely, you’ve likely blurred your personal life with your work life. Zoom meetings are visited with pajamas and sandals. Real work colleagues replaced with much more agreeable, albeit quieter, furry pets.

Aesthetics and comforts aside, we’re still confined to the same blueprint. 

And that’s because most jobs today are designed for specialized intelligence; completing specific routine tasks, something that AI does much better than humans.

But what organizations and individuals need, is generalized intelligence.

Many people want to focus on fixing the human. If you’re dissatisfied in your job today, maybe you thought, “It’s me, it’s something I’ve done.”

As a millennial, I’ll be the first to admit, we talk a lot about passions and finding that dream job. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think in order to make collective change at scale, we should focus on fixing the system. 

The 4 Ways We Fix the Workplace

We need all four of these things in order to function healthy in the workplace today:

1- Stability. Now, stability can come in many different forms. But stability often shows itself in three particular manners in the workplace.

    1. The first is income. And too many of our workers today who really support our economy are unsure whether their next paycheck is going to come.
    2. The second is around your working hours. Do you have a predictable schedule? Do you know what your workload is going to be like? Any sort of variability in that brings on a state of stress.
    3. And the third and maybe most pronounced today is a lack of stability in our relationships that we have at work. So many stories I hear of people just not knowing what they’re going to expect when they walk into the workplace. How will they be treated? And we have these relationships that are no longer stable. And we’ve accepted this. And this creates scarcity thinking.

A question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we bring a sense of stability back into our organizations and culture? 

2- Intellectual Stimulation. When I look at the data, it shows us that 33% of us today are actually underemployed. That means we have skills, we have education, we have capabilities that we can bring, but we’re not being utilized. And this actually creates a lot of boredom, and something that’s just as dysfunctional as stress is boredom in the workplace. There’s two reasons why this happens.

    1. One, we still have this mentality of 9 to 5 no matter whether or not you have something to work on. And so there’s many of us that choose to spend that time scrolling through social media feeds in order to keep ourselves engaged.
    2. The second thing is we don’t have enough psychological safety within our cultures to speak up and accept a diversity of thought. And so, we have people who are quiet, and who when they do go to challenge the status quo are told, “That’s just the way things have always been done around here.” We have to change our culture to allow people to speak up, to have diversity of thought, to create psychologically safe environments so people are intellectually stimulated.

3- Sense of Dignity. For right or wrong, we have so much of our identity today through our work. I told you before we’re spending more hours, not less, in the workplace. And so the question is, do you feel worthy because of the job that you’re in, because of the profession you have chosen?Economists have told us for many years that people, by nature, don’t want to work. We’re self-interested, we’re not going to do what’s right for the organization. But after a decade of studying and meeting with people face to face, looking at the data, people need work, people actually enjoy work. And I’m going to say nine times out of ten, they’re more likely to act on behalf of others than themselves. And so the question is, how do we bring our sense of dignity back to the workplace? 

AI is not going to solve this for us. This is not a technology problem, this is a human-to-human problem.

4- Meaningful Connection. You see, as people, we are wired to connect, not to compete. We’ve evolved as a species because of our ability to cooperate and collaborate. We are hardwired for connection. And the reality is our cultures and our organizational performance management systems are wired for competition. All of our work is interdependent. We need each other. We’re much more collaborative in the way that we accomplish work. Anybody who is in charge of others should ask themselves: How do I make other people better in this workplace? 

We are at a crossroads right now in human history. We can choose to use that to double down in efficiency, continue to create colorful walls, and yet eliminate jobs; or we can use artificial intelligence to unlock the innately human side of work, to bring back a sense of stability, to engage people in much more intellectual creativity work, to create meaningful connection, and to bring a sense of dignity back. The choice is ours.

Dr. Kelly Monahan is a Managing Director at Upwork, leading their future of work research program. Her research has been recognized and published in both applied and academic journals, including MIT Sloan Management Review and Journal of Strategic Management.Learn More

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