A Future Informed by the Past
Growing up, I watched my dad wake up early and put on a shirt and tie (the younger I was, the wider the tie). He would take NJ Transit to Port Authority and walk to his office on 49th and 8th, stopping along the way to grab a street cart coffee. Monday to Friday, Dad would be at his office until about 6 pm, and then walk back to the bus terminal for his trip home to the suburbs. I didn’t see him much during the week, but I know he really enjoyed his work, and I was proud of him.
The other week, my friend’s niece, who graduated from an elite university and recently started her first job, said to me, “I’m psyched to go to the office and meet some of my colleagues for the first time, but if they make me go in more than a couple days a week, I’m gonna find a new job.”
Both of these approaches seem wrong to me. The monotony tied to my dad’s routine and the apathy embedded in the other’s routine are both flawed. I’m not passing judgment on my departed dad or my friend’s niece—it’s not their fault. In my opinion, companies of the recent past ground workers down and took advantage; companies today are wrestling with how to impart a greater sense of meaning and make a deeper connection with employees.
So, if past models are outdated and present modes are untenable, how should we think about a new routine and relationship with work?
I think the first step is appreciating the magnitude of the changes to our attitudes, choices, and experiences that impact how our work-life routines are shaped. Generation-shifting moments like these don’t happen often, and they don’t happen overnight.
The breakdown of society’s trust in and relationship with institutions is a big one. When my dad entered the workforce in the early 1960s, 77% of people in the US said they “trust the government always or most of the time.” At the beginning of 2020, that number was at 17%. And while business is trusted more than government, in the most recent survey of Americans, less than half said they “trust business to do what is right.”
Access to technology and capital that was formerly reserved to bigger institutions is another reality shaping our individual expectations, ambitions, and experiences around work-life. From Etsy to Shopify, Tik Tok to Twitch, AngelList to Patreon, the means to monetize one’s ideas and talents is ever-expanding. As a result, the psychic gap between what’s possible and what’s plausible continues to close. This has to be at least part of the explanation for The Great Resignation, and the record-setting 5.4 million new business applications filed in 2021 (up 23% from the previous record, set in 2020).
Similarly, and quite obviously, our access to media and information has had a profound influence on our daily routines and experiences. It’s quaint to think that my dad and his colleagues started their careers with three TV stations and the first commercial fax machine as their window into the future of connectivity. Today, the pace of communication change remains at a near-exponential rate: In 2010, non-voice time spent on mobile phones (text, web, apps) was roughly 23 minutes a day; as of 2021, it was 4 hours and 23 minutes.
The last shift I’ll mention is how we view ourselves and our relationships with one another. “Scratch an altruist and watch a hypocrite bleed” is a quote associated with a long-held and now largely disproven theory that humans evolved from “selfish genes.” I think most of us would agree that nice people can finish first, and that progress towards greater kindness, inclusivity, and fairness has been made. We’ve got a long way to go, but our collective investment in humanity means life in corporate America looks better in 2022 than it did in 1962.
All of this is to say that our routines don’t just exist in a vacuum. As we try to imagine the future of work, it’s helpful to think about where we’ve been, and where we are right now. Our routines are echoes of forces and systems of the past, and direct outgrowths of the values and possibilities of the present.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve been blessed to talk and ideate with a number of chief people officers and like-minded leaders who are trying to support and reimagine their team’s routines. Here are some of the highlights and insights from those conversations.
Companies or managers who insist on overly rigid policies that don’t stand the test of logic will simply lose the battle for the best talent. Career advancement tied to needless ‘facetime with the boss’ when our phones come preloaded with FaceTime is illogical and mean. The routines companies set need to make sense and be more magnanimous.
Our future work routines can in part be special versions of things we already do a lot of – such as being on our phones and snacking. Corporate content and engagement needs to be a great consumer-oriented mobile-first experience. Regarding snacks and space, I can share some inspiration from my previous company, Mother, where my cofounder, Paul, combined our reception area and office kitchen. Entering every day through the kitchen made for a fun, functional, and familiar routine.
Be Realistic and Holistic
First, as we look to set new routines, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. That needs to be ‘priced into’ our thinking. Second, we need to develop unified strategies across everything, from snacks to software, from perks to policies. Key to success will be implementing an approach and set of solutions that lets us rapidly learn and iterate.
My dad was a pretty strict adherent to the Golden Rule (though he often phrased it a little differently—“don’t be an a–hole”). I think treating people as you want to be treated is a great starting point for routines because it grounds us in our humanity: a need for safety and security, a need to laugh and learn new things, and an instinct to be both competitive and collaborative.
I know for me it’s time to put the past behind in relation to work and routines. But it’s helpful to look backward and embrace the basics as we charge ahead.