Six things that suck in the world of work (and what we can do to fix them).

The world of work is a dreadful environment,” said a thirty-something man to his companion. I was sitting in a coffee shop near London Bridge yesterday when I overheard two friends exchange workplace war stories. They were sharing experiences working for big tech companies and of trying to find new jobs.

So it got me thinking, is it really that bad? I thought back to my own experiences working inside and outside organisations. And on the train home last night, I scribbled six things that I think are wrong in the world of work, and what I’d do to fix them.

  1. No time or space to think. In some organisational cultures it’s a badge of honour for your calendar to show back-to-back meetings every day. But the really important stuff doesn’t happen in meetings, it occurs in the spaces in between. It’s in my ‘in-between time’ that I do some of my best work, during walks along the river, on train journeys and in coffee shops. Wherever you work, it’s time to reassess how we use our 9 to 5. And put some punctuation marks in the day. Let’s not demonise lunch breaks — take time out. Turn meetings into walk n’talks, go for a lunchtime run, put some white space in your day to think and reflect.
  2. Stuck in a bubble. Some organisations behave like diners in a restaurant who spend the whole meal looking down at their plate, rather than around the restaurant. People get too comfortable in their own little worlds when they are surrounded by familiarity. It’s as if they have become organisational lifers, ignorant about the world outside their office door. The tech sector, the ad industry, professional service firms, any industry. Each world has its own language, culture and jargon. The trouble is, if you need a breath of fresh air, you aren’t going to find it within your own ecosystem. You need to get outside the bubble and work with outsiders, to get people from other worlds to shine the light for you, to challenge you, to rethink how things are done. To look at the business from another angle. That’s how organisations benefit when they hire someone like me.
  3. Shackled employees. Some organisations tend to suck the You out of You. They expect the individual to bend and fit into the organisation’s structure. That’s missing a trick. How about encouraging people to bring the ‘real them’ to their work? If you can inject your passions and personality into what you do and how you do it, you’ll be fired-up and the organisation will benefit. If you have to check-in your personality at the door, you’ll be miserable, living a work life where you feel like a fraud. I once worked with a radio producer who was asked to come up with ideas for a show. He told his boss he wanted to work by a lake that day. His boss laughed at him and told him to get back to the office. He left soon after and became an award-winning producer someplace else, where he could work unshackled.
  4. Putting people in boxes. Most organisations give people closely-defined job titles and job specs, forcing them into hierarchical organisational structures where they inhabit one department or another. They work in silos, sticking to the labels they’ve been given. Let’s stop restricting people by pigeon-holing them; lots of us don’t fit into neat boxes, we weren’t made that way. Let people instead shape roles that reflect their multi-dimensional talents and desires. The best organisational experiences I had were when I carved out unique Ian-shaped roles that included three or four different disciplines. I was MD of one division, project manager at another division and editor of the company newsletter all at the same time. So what if I couldn’t easily describe what I did? I just did me.
  5. Awful office environments. Bloody hell, I’ve been in some awful offices. How do employers think people are going to be fired-up in a soul-less office of grey floors and grey walls? But you can’t just stick a motivational manifesto on the wall, install an espresso machine and ping pong table and expect everyone to become energised overnight. Rather let people work in the spaces that fuel them. Encourage them to get out of the office, to go for walk n’talks, to inhabit the spaces that inspire them. Earlier this year I spent some time working out of Second Home, a space designed by the Spanish architects José Selgas and Lucía Cano. There’s plenty of natural light, every internal partition wall is transparent and there are plants and trees everywhere. Areas are zoned for different tasks. It really fueled me, even on a cloudy February day. Places like that are the offices of the future.
  6. Bullshit. There’s so much bullshit at work. Long meetings. Jargon. Presentations. Networking. Egos. Forecasting. I am tired of it. People pretending they know more than they really do. Let’s be more human at work, let’s be honest about what we do and don’t know. I worked in a culture where we had to re-forecast our revenues every quarter. We spent days poring over spreadsheets making up numbers. It was business guessing not business planning. What a waste of time. Drop having meetings for the sake of it. Swap the boardroom for the coffee shop. Strike out the acronyms and jargon. Bring all of you to work. Let’s not fake it anymore. Let’s be honest about our real stories, about who we really are, warts and all.

So that’s my take.

Let’s make the world of work human. Show up — whoever we are, as we are — and do our best work. Take off the mask or the ill-fitting suit. Stop speaking a different language, selling-out on our values and what we stand for. Replace the false smile with a real one. Instead of seeing if we can fake it five days a week, 46 weeks a year, just be yourself. Do your best work, and do it your way.

I’m a creative consultant, coach and storyteller on a mission to fire up your work life iansanders.com