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The (Impossible) Work Dream

Date: May 9, 2023

Amy Born

Chief Research and Innovation Officer, Leading Edge

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There is a persistent itch in the working world right now, a growing sense of deep and widely shared dissatisfaction.

As part of my work with Leading Edge, an organization working to improve culture and leadership in the Jewish nonprofit field, I get to speak with CEOs, talent professionals, managers, and employees, and review survey data about the work experience of thousands of nonprofit workers. And what I’ve been learning recently is unsettling.

Here’s the challenge: Many people want work to be both a bigger and smaller part of their lives, at the same time — and no one knows what to do about it.

Bigger: Work is an essential part of our identity, especially for those of us who have chosen to work in the nonprofit or philanthropic sectors. We want our jobs to give us a sense of meaning and purpose and we want to make a difference; we want to see the direct connection between the tasks we do every day and how that makes the world better. We want work to provide us with deep and meaningful social connections. We want to feel a sense of belonging on our team and feel trust and camaraderie toward our colleagues. We want our coworkers to be our team, our tribe, our friends.

Smaller: We want work-life balance and boundaries. We want to work to live, not live to work. We don’t want our work to define us. We want flexibility of time and place in our work, so that we can be fully present for our other passions and responsibilities, like family, caregiving, friendship, volunteerism, activism, and citizenship.

Each of these desires — to grow the role of work within our lives, and to shrink it — is a beautiful vision. But they are inescapably contradictory. We cannot achieve them both at the same time. A job that is deeply meaningful will not stay neatly contained during business hours. Developing close, meaningful connections and friendships is difficult without challenging, deep work, physical proximity, tight deadlines, and occasional long hours that teams so often bond over.

This contradiction plays out in many ways, including the types of jobs people choose to pursue and their tenure with their organization, but perhaps one of the most tangible is the question of where the work gets done: Should an organization work all in-person, all remotely, or some of both (i.e., hybrid)?  This is one of the most common questions I hear, and my answer is almost always a dissatisfying “It depends.” There is no right answer! Only tradeoffs:

  • Remote work offers complete flexibility. There’s no commute, you live where you choose, you integrate caregiving and household upkeep into your day, and you don’t have to wear shoes. But it’s harder to have friends at work. Staring at a screen all day is draining and unnatural. It creates different kinds of strains than in-person work, like cognitive challenges with focusing due to constant opportunities to multitask, and no built-in breaks between meetings because transitions are screen-to-screen rather than room-to-room. You miss opportunities for collaboration and innovation because everything literally fits within a box (the computer screen). It’s hard to gauge how colleagues are doing. And that missing interaction is important; in Leading Edge’s Employee Experience Survey, the most common write-in responses to “What are the best aspects of working at your organization?” are responses about the people.
  • In-person work is great for providing social bonding, along with the general energy boost of working together. Some organizations experience greater collaboration between and among departments when people are co-located. You get chance encounters and unexpected mini-meetings. And you get a cleaner separation between work and other parts of life. But working in-person full-time can feel hard because of the seeming retraction of trust and lack of flexibility. If you’re a knowledge worker, chances are you know you can get your work done remotely, because you did it during the pandemic — so feeling tied to an office again feels like a step backward, as if you’re re-enrolled in school (with constant supervision from the teachers) after you already graduated.
  • Problem solved: hybrid work? In theory, it’s the best of both worlds! Some days you have no commute, do laundry during the day (people talk about this all the time!), and unlock the door for the plumber. Other days you get energy and connection by being together with your team in real life. Hybrid done right can be great. But hybrid done wrong is the worst of both worlds. You still have to live near the office or your commute will be miserable, and you have to have enough space to be able to work from home. When you finally get to the office, your day is still mostly staring at a screen for a string of Zoom meetings. Some people are in the room with you, but others are not, like co-workers on a different office schedule than you, a team in another city, or someone from outside the organization. For many organizations, hybrid has the potential to meet many needs, but only when it is thoughtfully constructed to account for the different types of work that are best done from home and best done together in person.

So what can we do about the new work-life paradox? There is no easy fix. But the first step is recognizing that new possibilities have created new expectations, which require a new conversation.

New possibilities. So much of what used to be stable about work is now a question, negotiation, and possibility — where we work, when we work, how our jobs fit into our lives, and how our lives fit into our jobs. New possibilities are good! But these possibilities also give us more “cognitive load” to carry. We have more choices to make, whether as a worker or as an employer. And every time we have to make a new choice about workspace arrangement, time flexibility, or other aspects of how work fits into life, it takes energy. Meanwhile, these new possibilities also give us new — and higher — expectations.

New expectations. When so much more suddenly seems possible, it becomes easy to believe that we can take advantage of all the possibilities at once. It seems to us that we should be able to create an optimal situation that meets all of our needs. But in many cases, those expectations have not yet been fully thought out or articulated. And when our contradictory expectations meet reality, we get the widespread sense of dissatisfaction we see in the workforce today.

A new conversation. These unrealistic expectations are not being caused by some supposed flaw in Generation Z, or any particular person or generation. These challenges are happening simply because technology and circumstances have changed, and the conversation hasn’t caught up. We’re not yet discussing the new reality in terms of tradeoffs. And that’s the missing conversation we need to have. There is no right or wrong answer to how much of your life is work or what kind of workplace experience an organization should offer its employees. Different people, and different organizations, can make different choices about this. But we have to recognize that our new possibilities don’t mean giving us everything we want at once — they only mean giving us more choices.

So make choices — and communicate them clearly.

Employers: Stop trying to give everyone everything they want. That’s impossible. In the Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey, 71% of workers responded that their organizations demonstrate care and concern for their employees, and 95% of CEOs felt that they did. That disconnect is exhausting for leaders who try to go above and beyond in their efforts to care for employees without their employees experiencing it that way. Of course, listen to your employees — and then combine their desires with the actual needs of the work — what will help the organization meet its mission. Make the choices that are best for your organization, communicate those choices clearly, and explicitly acknowledge that this tradeoff will not work for everyone.

Employees: Stop hoping for a job that can be perfectly flexible but perfectly immersive, perfectly social but perfectly convenient, the purpose and center of your life but also not intrusive on your life in any way. We cannot have all of this — not at the same time, anyway. Careers ebb and flow based on what employees need at that place and time in their lives. Sometimes work takes center stage and other times it’s more of a sideshow.

And, everyone: Whatever choices we make about how to show up at work and how to create workplaces and expectations for employees, let’s remember to revisit those choices from time to time. Instead of trying to do everything at once, let’s choose, reflect, choose again, repeat, and, all the while, respect and honor the people who are making different choices.

Amy Born is chief research and innovation officer at Leading Edge. Find her on LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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