Covid-19. Seven months in, and the past truly feels like another life. Nowadays, every time I see people shaking hands in a movie, or see a large group of people in a picture, I automatically think: “That’s pre-Covid!”

The pandemic took us all by surprise, and suddenly a lot of things had to change overnight. Work was one of them. And to be honest, lately I see a lot of companies and its people struggle with keeping up their productivity.

Right now, working together is tough. But to all those who want to go back to the old normal, or a slightly adjusted normal, it’s worth remembering that our old way of organising work and running organisations, wasn’t working for us either. Maybe on a superficial level it was, but there were more structural and bigger issues that needed to be solved. And the numbers show it. Covid-19 just magnified those defects and challenges.

If work is a broken leg, maybe we should stop hoping a band-aid will fix the problem, but see a doctor instead. Now is the time.

This article is the first of a three-part series that I composed of lectures I gave at Philips, Hyper Island and Frankwatching. This part will dive deeper into the problems we have with the way we organise today’s work. In the second article I will analyse how that problem came to be, and I’ll share solutions in the third one.


The facts

The evidence speaks for itself, the way we organise work and run organisations doesn’t work anymore. Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace is the leading research on employee engagement, and their latest global research of 2017 done in 155 countries, shows how bad things are. Their conclusion?

Only 15 percent of employees are engaged

Let that sink in. Only 15% of employees are engaged. According to Gallup, these people “are psychological owners that are highly involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. They drive performance and innovation and move the organization forward.”

While 15 percent of employees are engaged, 67% of them are not engaged. They are “psychologically unattached to their work and their company, and because their engagement needs are not being fully met, they’re putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.”

Most tragic is that 18% of employees are actively disengaged. According to Gallup, they sabotage the workplace because they “aren’t just unhappy at work — they are resentful that their needs aren’t being met and are acting out their unhappiness. Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged co-workers accomplish.”

However, these statistics are the worldwide averages. Unfortunately the numbers in Western Europe are even lower. Here, just 10% of employees are engaged at work, while the vast majority of 71% are not engaged, and 19 percent are actively disengaged.

Work is one of the places where we spend most of our time in life. Isn’t it sad that only 15% or even less of employees are actively contributing to their work and workplace, because they are enthusiastic about it?

Sadly, not only are we disengaged, our work makes us sick — literally.

TNO, The Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, registers each year how many employees have burnout symptoms. What do the statistics tell us? While in 2007, 11 percent of employees had burnout symptoms, each year, the percentage is higher. In their latest publication of 2017, 16 percent of employees had burnout symptoms.

The reason? While the physical workload, and the impact of our workspace on us haven’t changed since 2007, the psychosocial workload has. We have to do more work, or do it faster, while having less autonomy. A recipe for a burnout.

TNO calculated the impact burnouts have on the Dutch economy, and it’s no joke. It costs around 8.7 billion euros a year! But more importantly, how much does burnout cost your organisation? I’ve recently been talking to companies where a third of their employees are sitting at home with a burnout. We have to do something about that, right?

While these numbers are astonishing, it’s shocking to know that The Netherlands have the lowest rates of burnouts in Europe. So everywhere else, the percentage of burnout symptoms is higher. Read about that here.

And it doesn’t stop there. Each year, PR & Marketing agency Edelman releases their well known Trust Barometer. Their 2020 version reveals what 34.000 respondents in 28 different markets are thinking. Some statistics:

  • 80% worry about losing their job due to automation, globalization, workforce restructuring or an economic downturn.

  • 61% worry the pace of change in technology is too fast.

  • 56% believe that capitalism as it exists today does more harm than good in the world

  • 47% believe they and their families will be better off in five years’ time.

Disengagement, burnouts and worries about the future. Before Covid-19, the way we ran organisations, wasn’t working for us. And I’m not even talking about the societal challenges our way of working produced — such as climate change, an increase of inequality, polarisation, non-inclusion, short-termism, too expensive rents, etc. etc. etc.

And then came Covid-19.


The Pandemic

Overnight, we had to change how we work together. We learned new tools and methods to somewhat collaborate online. But after endless meetings online, I see companies struggle with three things:

  • Isolation & loneliness: Being disconnected from the office, your colleagues, and your organisation’s goals.

  • Monotony & boredom: Every single day becomes the same: call after call, after call.

  • Stress & uncertainty: Having to deal with high uncertainty, not being able to separate your personal life from your work, not being able to take time off, and working too much.

And the numbers show it again. Each year, Buffer publishes the State of Remote Work. Earlier this year, they published the 2020 publication together with AngelList. According to more than 3500 respondents, the biggest problem when working remotely is:

  • Loneliness for 20%.

  • Collaboration & Communication for 20%.

  • Not being able to unplug for 18%.

No matter if you’re a leader or an employee. Remote working affects us all, and few of us can sustain our productivity. That’s because working from home is more than just understanding the tools. It’s a completely different way of working, based on different ways of thinking about how people can be productive, how to work together effectively, and how to separate work from your personal life.

“Businesses are facing an existential crisis they are untrained, and unprepared for. There is no past practice, playbook, or inherited wisdom that can help. Literally everybody is making it up as they go along.” As Martin Wiegel, Head of Planning at Wieden & Kennedy Amsterdam, put it recently.

So working together productively during Covid-19, is tough. But going back to the old normal is not possible, nor what we should do, because the way we organised work before the pandemic, wasn’t working for us either.

It is clear what to leave behind, but not what lies ahead

But there is hope.


Hope

In her book Hope in the Dark, American author Rebecca Solnit writes inspiring words that are well needed right now:

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act."

While it’s clear that we have to leave behind a way of working and running organisations that results in unprecedented organisational and societal challenges such as unengaged employees, high burnout rates, low societal trust, leading to climate change, inequality and non-inclusion — it’s uncertain what lies ahead.

But in that uncertainty lies the power to influence our future. The pandemic increased the urgency to change how we work together. So amidst the loneliness, boredom, stress and anxiety lies an opportunity to change how we work together. Not by just adapting our way of working to remote work, but by going to the problem’s roots, by reinventing our work culture completely.

It’s time to rethink how people can be productive, how they can work together effectively, and what role work has in our lives. We have to change the fundamental principles of how we think about work, working together, and working productively. Because those principles we have today, and the behaviour that comes with it, are limiting us from actually doing our best work, and are the reason why we have structural problems with work.

In order to change these principles we have about work, working together and working productively — and thus change how we run organisations — we need to understand well how those principles came into existence. Next article I will tell how this happened, and why that’s important.

It’s clear that the way we organise work and run organisations isn’t working for us anymore. Today, we have the opportunity and responsibility to go to the roots of the problem, and try something more rigorous. Now is the time to act, to change how we work, so people and organisations can reach their full potential, and have a more positive impact on the society and world.

Instead of hoping band-aid will fix it, maybe we should see a doctor instead.


Marc Vollebregt makes working together work. If you’re curious to know more about how we can work together, contact me!