The Traditional Work Model is Broken, So Now What?

When I read the recent New York Times article, “Young People are Going to Save Us All from Office Life,” I had two reactions.

First, I thought it clearly outlined why the traditional work model, under disruptive pressure for years, is broken as employers grapple with the next generation’s inherently flexible approach to work and life.

Second, by identifying many of the roadblocks that have stymied progress to date, the article offered a roadmap of next steps to help leaders address the challenge:

Roadblock: Younger workers “demand and expect” flexibility.

  • Next Step: Thoughtfully reframe what’s happening. See it as a mismatch between a “default sensibility” about the way work can be done, and the current more rigid, traditional time, space and process expectations that, in many cases, could be reimagined.
  • Result: Leaders feel less defensive and more willing to listen. They are more likely to meet in the middle to transform work so that it’s a win for the business and all employees.

Roadblock: Leaders think “balance” means working less.

  • Next Step: Language matters. Ban the word “balance” and shift the goal to work+life fit. As I noted in the article, what younger workers are really saying is “I will work hard for you, but I also need a life.” Flexibility is not about working fewer hours, “It’s about employees shaping jobs in ways that fit with their daily lives.”
  • Result: The focus shifts from what you “can’t do” (balance) to the possibilities of what you could do based on the unique realities of a particular business, job or person (fit).

Roadblock: Older workers want younger workers to “suffer the way they did.” 

  • Next Step: Position culture-based flexibility as a continuum of possibilities that all people, teams, and managers can leverage to get their job done and manage their lives. At one end are small, informal day-to-day shifts that help everyone of every age, and every level, be their best on and off the job. The article highlighted a number of “tweaks” such as exercise, walk the dog, volunteer and go to the doctor. At the other end are more formal resets that officially change the way work is done. Those resets, at some point, can offer older workers an attractive path to a flexible semi-retire.
  • Result: The culture shift to high performance flexibility is seen as a win for all ages.

Roadblock: The business benefits from everyone being “always-on”.

  • Next Step: Actually, research confirms and anecdotes from the NYT article illustrate, if you give good performers greater flexibility over how, when and where they work and manage their lives, they will consistently go the extra mile. That can mean the willingness to respond to calls and messages after hours or while on vacation when necessary.
  • Result: Culture-based flexibility can be a powerful performance enhancement strategy. When implemented well, organizations start to define what really matters, meaningfully measure productivity often for the first time and people deliver.

Roadblock: Formal flexible work arrangement policies don’t work for every job.

  • Next Step: It’s not about a rigid, one-size-fits-all policy, program or benefit. High performance flexibility happens when everyone asks, “what needs to get done at work (and in my life), and how, when and where do we do it best?” as part of the regular, day-to-day planning and execution process. That decision-making framework is consistent for all, but the answer will depend upon the unique realities of a particular business, job or person.
  • Result: When that culture shift occurs, most of the time people accomplish small, meaningful work and personal priorities, or “tweaks,” in a way that aligns with their jobs without the need for a cumbersome formal arrangement.

Roadblock: Only white-collar, professional workers have the power and ability to demand work flexibility, which in many cases is a one-off accommodation.

  • Next Step: Follow a common framework of principles, process, skills and tools to guide everyone at all levels to regularly plan and coordinate how, when and where work is done best. This includes non-exempt level employees. For example, with the right guardrails and support, I’ve seen the hourly administrative staff in a variety of professions come up with creative, coordinated, and cost-effective ways to work flexibly.
  • Result: This framework of implementation is consistent enough to keep everyone moving in the same direction but broad enough to adapt to the unique, ever-changing realities of each business, team or individual.

Yes, younger employees are inherently flexible in how, when and where they believe they can do their jobs. This default sensibility is forcing leaders to rethink traditional work models and move past historic roadblocks to position their organizations to compete in the flexible future of work. In doing so, ultimately the business and employees of all ages will benefit. The good news is there’s a roadmap to help leaders chart that culture shift. The question is are they ready to follow it?

What are you seeing in your workplace? How have you already reimagined work to attract, retain and motivate younger workers? How has that change benefited everyone and the business?