The chart above is from The Conference Board, and here’s the written summary — the “abstract,” you might say — of a report they did. Pay attention to this part:
Nearly 60 percent of companies reported that productivity increased in their organization over the past year. That’s according to a new survey from The Conference Board of more than 230 HR executives. But higher productivity may have taken a toll: 76 percent of respondents said that they had seen an increase in employees identifying as burned out; 72 percent said that more employees had sought mental health support; 60 percent said the number of vacation days used decreased; and 55 percent reported a decrease in work-life balance.
The COVID period, which isn’t really over but we’ve all come to believe and pretend that it’s over, has been very interesting in a work context. You have lots of themes swirling around out there. Some of the big ones:
- This will be the moment work changes forever: I am not sure this one is true. I think the biggest shift to work in the next 50 years will be automation and declining fertility rates / “replacement levels,” not COVID. I think COVID was a 14-month bump in the road that might see us get more remote and hybrid workers, and it might shift the talent market so that companies in Slovenia can hire people in Denver more easily. That was already happening, but COVID might scale it up.
- Productivity was up, but remote work is supposedly the end of productivity and innovation! This is the cornerstone debate of work and COVID, although really it’s an issue about executives wanting control and seat time, not an issue about innovation. Microsoft has been bullish that innovation can’t happen when people are not together, but Microsoft also made billions upon billions of dollars last year, so I’m not sure exactly what they’re bitching about. I think many companies saw a productivity boost, and often even a sales boost, and they’re trying to back-end rationalize something to get people back in an office, because that feels normal or because they’re worried about real estate positions or they want to appease front-line managers or whatever the case may be.
- Engagement actually went back up, but burnout is going up faster: This is a complicated issue. “Employee engagement,” also known as the fluffiest metric of all-time, had been going down for about 19 years on Gallup and other surveys. During the pandemic, it went up, which seems stupid but is totally rational, because even though people were struggling and suffering and seeing friends and family lose jobs (and possibly even pass away), they also had some degree of autonomy over their work lives, which is not common in offices. Plus: there was a sense of “We’re all in this together” conceptually, albeit not on Facebook. (“Fauci is a Nazi.”) So that’s why engagement went up. The problem is: burnout rises faster, and work days got a bit longer, especially for women. We all had more meetings, which is actually the bigger blocker to innovation than being remote. Now, the burnout thing is interesting in and of itself because half the media on it calls it a “crisis.” The thing is, executives see someone burning out and think “John is hustling this quarter, hell yea!” so it’s not a crisis to them at all. If something is not a crisis to executives, it doesn’t get attention, so burnout is a tree falls in the forest issue. We discuss it, sure, but do we change that much of it?
Now there’s supposedly a push towards well-being of late, which usually takes the form of reduced price gym memberships and trial yoga classes. That’s important, but you also need to give people random days off, half-days, and prioritize their workloads better. That’s true “work-life balance” and also true “well-being.” Hell, you could also just respect employees and let them grow, or pay them more. Those are also forms of “well-being.”
The thing to remember is, all these stats in the chart above — all these various elements comprising “well-being” at work — were on the decline for years before COVID. Much like certain digital transformation efforts, automation, chatbots, etc… COVID just moved along trends that were already well underway. Work, especially white-collar work, is not a great place to spend time and it’s usually a priority vacuum dictated by someone who has a 33.7% chance of being a sociopath. Some have equated it to “chimp rape,” and Stanford once called it “shockingly inhumane.” These are just realities. We were headed there anyway. COVID just pushed us along.
Now, as for the “future of work” — a much-discussed topic these days — no one really knows, but this moment isn’t the seismic shift that some are trying to paint. By Q4 2022, most things will feel like 2018. There are big shifts coming at the intersection of better tech stacks, cost containment plays, AI, automation, and demographic population shifts — but those will take a few more decades to play out, in all likelihood.