“La rentrée” – back to school it is. Re-entering the world of daily duties & delights. Reconnecting after the summer bears its own excitement: looking back to picking up the thread where we had left off and looking forward to seeding the seeds for new beginnings in 2024.
Before we left for summer, I was reflecting “on the importance of building something together” because sustainable business strategy is built on partnerships. “Reinfusing a soul” into our doings will reduce existing alienation of professionals and impact the outcomes of (new) work. In the future, it will be less about skills (and AI may replace or support those that are missing) and even more about attitude. This requires that the “heart” in our doings is re-emphasized (it will become the main distinguishing element that only humans can contribute) and the importance of practice (re-)gains in importance.
Why will this be crucial particularly for white collar workers, high-potentials, and creative industries? Because they are the most exposed to advances in AI language modeling and image generation capabilities as a study by Felten, Raj, and Seamans found. In comparison to the 19th century industrial revolution that impacted mostly blue-collar workers, the generative AI revolution will affect professions such as journalists, architects, lawyers, university professors etc. The least concerned (by both types of generative AI) professions will be for example dancers, massage therapists, truck drivers, but also many original artisans that still pursue the pre-modern/pre-industrialized way of producing one-of-a-kind after one-of-a-kind. Time for a career change?
Before throwing hard-earned credentials overboard let us dive more deeply and consider the actual work by taking medicine as an example: a study in the JAMA found that not only were AI powered chatbot responses to patient questions of higher quality than physician responses but also perceived as being more “empathetic”. Time-pressure, distorted and complex incentives, physicians’ fatigue, and increased information needs and savviness on the side of patients might have contributed to this result. But also, an increasing reliance on technology since the medical revolution of the last century and extensive specialization that entailed “siloism” and a certain detachment from patients on the side of doctors. Medicine seems to have become “just a job” and less so a calling.
Looking back to Sir William Osler, a Canadian physician and one of the founding fathers of Johns Hopkins Hospital, he always postulated that “Medicine is learned by the bedside and not in the classroom. Let not your conceptions of disease come from the words heard in the lecture room or read from a book. See and then reason and compare and control. But see first.” He is more well-known for his saying: “The practice of medicine is an art, not a trade; a calling, not a business; a calling in which your heart will be exercised equally with your head.” Both statements together underline the importance of practice and a heartfelt approach to our work. Now how does this relate to the big “RE”?
The redesign, reengineering, recycle wave took off decades ago but mostly affected products & processes and less so people and their individual understanding of work & meaning. Change was implemented and organizational structures were adjusted which involved hires & fires of existing roles & responsibilities. These adjustment processes did cause frictions, but as long as the big “RE” was about products & processes people were only indirectly affected and adapted according to their ability and willingness. As Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in the Leopard: “We’re not blind, we’re just human. We live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of water.“
In a classic modern world “form followed function” for objects like chairs and other products in (re)design. The microchip changed this rationale and introduced the intangible functionality. While the formal logic implied that “form begets form,” symbolism, rituals and culture increasingly influenced perception and redesign. Culture is the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. This contextual sense – supported by technology – then created the human-object-relationship.
Similarly, technological developments have changed human-work relationships – their understandings and tangibility – for decades. However, the pandemic triggered a radical redefinition of roles & responsibilities and facilitated the embedding of non-tangible, ubiquitous aspects into (work) life. What entered the workplace as a necessity to continue operations turned out to “stay” and change the main non-tangible element of work: the psychological contract. A psychological contract (introduced by Chris Argyris in 1960) represents the mutual beliefs, perceptions, and informal obligations between an employer and an employee. It sets the dynamics for the relationship and defines the detailed practicality of the work to be done.
Very early on in the pandemic I had conversations with physician leaders such as Dr. Damanjeet Chaubey in New York who were trying to juggle human resources at the frontline – we talked about healthcare redesign and “flexing” your staff. Retraining, reskilling, and repurposing of the healthcare workforce had become necessary, and teamwork was being reengineered. We had to reinvent care and synchronize telehealth combined with face-to-face visits for accurate diagnostics. Supply chains were rethought, inventories and capacities realigned and the “lost” knowledge was reimported. Lean management had failed spectacularly, and it was time to refocus and repurpose.
With this came significant changes in roles & responsibilities “on paper” such as remote work, less travel, and flexible staffing for some professions but more importantly these role changes profoundly impacted status and power dynamics “informally”. In most cases this was not proactively addressed in organizations. And unsurprisingly, people became uncomfortable as this was/ is not what they “signed up for” in their psychological contract with their employer.
Flexibility (i.e., flexible staffing) is a key component of staffing today but if not communicated correctly it can be perceived as a weakness by people. If you’re higher up in the food chain you’re supposed to be always busy, not available, and less flexible. Lower status was supposed to be associated with more flexibility. “Don’t be too accommodating -otherwise you’re not promoted,” you are told in business school. This lack of consideration of underlying constructs such as the psychological contract has enticed people to overly refocus on actual contracted “work” and enter into a default mode of performing strictly according to the laid down deliverables (“Dienst nach Vorschrift”) as it is said in the German civil servant bureaucracy.
When criticizing work performance recently, I’ve heard as a response a couple of times “I’m not paid for thinking”. I thought this was a joke, but responders were quite serious. So, I asked: what are people actually paid for if not for thinking? Even if people are not well-trained, many tasks and challenges can be resolved if you start to think and do what you feel is the right thing to do. It is the attitude that counts – whether people care and would like to help and whether they would like to take on responsibility which gets also increasingly rare.
The big “RE” underway – redesigning roles & responsibilities – needs, thus, to better understand what people believe they are being paid for. What is their understanding of their agreement – in particular their underlying psychological contract – and why did they take on their job? A head-hunter friend recently mentioned to me that never before have there been as many people approaching him because they just wish to “leave their current jobs” as quickly as possible. It seems like many organizations did not make the effort to address people’s perceptions before they made up their minds.
The most prevalent concern is “we cannot find enough people to hire” and/ or “there are not enough well-trained professionals on the market.” But have organizations increased pay proportionally to prices to attract professionals that have to make a living (or did they consider the increased profit margin as an entitlement)? Did we ask why somebody became a physician in the first place and what makes a “great place to work”? Many years ago, I studied professional culture and motivation. The essential contributing factors to work engagement and motivation have not changed: a meaningful, complex and holistic scope of work (ranked 1st) and the relationship to colleagues (ranked 2nd). The latter has been emphasized because of the pandemic: the workplace as a social place of interaction has gained in importance. One of our recent market studies underlined that an interdisciplinary work environment is key to committing.
Last, it is not only on the side of organizations to redesign the work environment and acknowledge that roles & responsibilities have changed. It is also on our and everybody’s tab to reconsider for whom and why we are actually doing what we do. My loyal readers know that I like to pick examples from Japan and here is another one: performing highly in your job or delivering a service beyond the ordinary does not entail the expectation for an extra reward – it is rather seen as “normal” and a service to society. To the contrary, an article on “tipflation” in the US described how service personnel is assessing incoming customers according to their potential to get more than 20% in tips. If the assessment turns out negative or neutral, they will not even make an effort to provide a friendly and decent service anymore.
To conclude, as always it takes two to tango – also in times of the big “RE”. When redesigning workflows, roles & responsibilities we have to keep in mind that the non-written psychological contract might change as well. It is important to openly address concerns and consider needs and expectations. This might involve rethinking roles, qualifications, and accreditations for the sake of a default attitude that is fuelled by a heartfelt and genuine approach, having both feet grounded on the shopfloor where life & work is happening.
I am curious to know what you think in the comments or directly by email. As my audience you are the most important people that make a difference.
Take care, be safe, and enjoy what you can. Stay tuned for any updates https://www.linkedin.com/in/prof-dr-katharina-janus-b391321/