One way to make work better — sharing information between workers

A few thoughts about work, and a humble request for help

Tl:dr — please go to bit.ly/workproject to take an anonymous survey about the fit between you and your workplace(s) (past or present), to help me with a University of Cambridge Executive MBA project on this subject.

My wife was crying in frustration. Again.

This was her third job in a year that hadn’t worked out. After a very successful eight year stint managing an architecture practice as it had grown from 6 architects to almost 50, she had decided she wanted a change. She wanted to stay in the architecture and broader design industry, got in touch with a well-known specialist recruiter, went to some interviews, and was excited to be taken on by an internationally renowned design practice based in West London in an organisational management role.

Very soon into that role, it became clear that the company was highly dysfunctional, with a domineering founder and a hard, bullying culture that saw staff turnover rates of around 40% a year, in a company of 30 people. The recruitment bills alone must have been astronomical, let alone the lost productivity caused by this revolving door, and even more importantly the personal emotional cost was very tough on the individuals who went through such an oppressive and stressful experience.

Those who stayed were either willing to put up with the problems in exchange for some upside (perhaps financial, perhaps reputational, perhaps the work itself was fun), or did not find the culture in the organisation to be problematic.

My wife struggled her way through four months of stress, frustration and unhappiness until she could take it no more and quit. She soon found another, similar role in a seemingly more well-adjusted company. However, it soon became apparent that many of the same problems (minus the overt bullying) were present in this new place too, but in more subtle ways.

By the time she went through the same process again shortly after, I was beginning to form some ideas about problems and potential solutions in the employment market and the world of work more broadly.

Diagnosing the problem

Prospective employees know almost nothing about what it’s really like to work for an organisation. They do some research online, talk to friends or acquaintances, have the interview, and then they have to decide “OK, this is the organisation I want to spend the majority of my waking hours being a part of.”

Prospective employers instead often have a broad variety of applicants from which to choose. They have much more information on them than the other way round: CVs, covering letters, interviews, references, even psychometric tests.

So what we have here is information asymmetry between market participants. As economic theory (and real-world experience) tells us, information asymmetry results in the party with more information exploiting those on the other side with less information, and the market works less well than it would if both sides of the market had equal information. This is precisely the problem we have here.

Guiding principles

First, not all ‘bad’ workplaces are bad per se. One person may be very happy in a job or an organisation that another person hates, for all sorts of reasons. A calm, quiet, measured and formal workplace might be perfect for an introverted, conservative lawyer, but hell for an extroverted radio DJ.

Second, there are a significant variety of workplace experiences within industries — some law offices are extremely formal, some much less so; some ad agencies are calm and cerebral, some are creative and crazy. This kind of difference is relatively easy to spot by eye.

Third, and much more subtle, in some organisations there is a culture of support and collaboration, while in others in precisely the same industry doing exactly the same kind of work there is an intensely competitive internal culture. Neither of these approaches is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for everyone, but for you as an individual, there is likely to be one which is better than the other.

Fourth, these subtle organisational cultural expressions may differ within organisations as well as between them. The Singaporean office of a US company might have quite a different culture compared to the Chilean office of the very same company.

It seems that the socially accepted minimum time to stay in a job (even a job you hate) is 18 months. This accords with my own instincts about what is deemed acceptable or desirable in terms of CV-level information. There are two ways to address this. The first is to break the social norm of putting up with a job that doesn’t fit, as my courageous wife did. This would take a long time and be almost impossible to directly effect. The other way is to radically improve the quantity and quality of information available to workers before they take this ‘at least 18-month’ commitment, thus reducing the information asymmetry between employers and employees.

Ways to help the employment market function better

  1. Gather data from workers about the real experience of working in organisations. That data needs to be anonymous, quantitative and manipulable. No prose, so no risk of defamation, and no unstructured data to try to understand and code around.
  2. Provide feedback to each individual who provides data about how well-matched they are with their current workplace.
  3. Help individuals find workplaces that would be much better, maybe even the best possible, fit for them.

I have drafted (following testing within my own company) a 10-minute survey here: bit.ly/workproject and as part of a project on the Executive MBA I am doing at the University of Cambridge, I am trying to gather pilot data urgently. This survey is just to test point 1 above — what data should be collected, and what can we start to learn from such data?

Of course, some of us really like where we work. Work does not have to be awful. People who love their work should also share that information — help other people like you find somewhere that they will feel happy working. It’s tough for everyone when there are people on a team who don’t fit with the culture, so by sharing clearly your organisational culture you will hopefully help to attract those that fit and help those that don’t avoid making the mistake in the first place.

It would be fantastic if you (yes, YOU) could go there and fill out the survey. For the completists out there, there’s also a small quick survey about the survey afterwards, to gather ideas for future improvement.

So, after a very difficult period, my wife decided that she would strike out on her own as a freelancer, and is currently business-managing a hyperlocal newspaper, helping to run a London walks company, and helping three of the architects she had worked with in her eight-year job set up and run their own practice. She is effectively part of, and helping to create, a variety of organisational cultures which fit with her.

Imagine a world where we could look up whether we would fit in an organisational culture before we took the plunge of committing 18 months of our lives to it, using the real experiences of people who had lived that culture: workers would make better choices for them and would thus be more productive and more fulfilled; those fulfilled workers would move around the employment market less, meaning that organisations would spend much less on expensive recruitment processes and services, and on lost productivity; organisations would be able to do what they are trying to do more successfully. More on the top line and bottom line of businesses, better outcomes from public sector organisations and a lot of more fulfilled people.

Let’s make it happen. Take the first step with me by filling out the survey at bit.ly/workproject

Thank you.