The Great Disconnect At Work

There is a nearly ubiquitous labor shortage in western economies. Most economists think this shortage is much related to the increasing loss of ‘feeling’ that people feel at work. This loss has come to the forefront of society with the Corona lockdown, which forced people to re-examine their lives and habits. Even beforehand, most people felt one thing most about work: apathy. For decades, the number of disconnected, disengaged people in modern workplaces has held steady at a dismal 85%. So, the majority of people see themselves as particularly disengaged at work. Let’s stop a minute and review the implications of this number:

  • Working takes up about 50% of our lifetime (if you subtract sleep and daily chores)
  • Therefore, work makes us who we are — yet work keeps us in a state of apathy
  • More than that, work affects us further: we become apathetic, disconnected people, not just at work

It’s a bit like a scene from the Netflix original “Don’t Look Up” with Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio — there’s an asteroid out there that will destroy the world, but everyone is too busy to listen. In the real word, Corona has made us listen.

Credit: Joana Breidenbach

But no, we don’t think this level of apathy comes with the nature of work itself. We see three reasons why work can be better. We had the pleasure of exploring these reasons last year in an interview with a true expert on this subject, Joana Breidenbach, co-author of a great book named “New Work Meets Inner Work”. Joana has just followed up her success with a new, more autobiographic, inward-looking book called “Innenansicht. Eine Dekade Inner Work und New Work”.

Reason one: Work is what you make it

Work is connection. Many forms of connection: To purposes, to activity, to a sense of being in control of the world around you, to other people, to values you hold dear. All these connections are made in our minds. In fact, according to the American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the way connections are made is the very definition of what a mind is — a device to interpret the world.

Joana has described ways to change how the mind connects to the world. She calls it ‘Inner work’ and defines it so:

Inner Work is the ability to shape encounters with other people based on three emotions: I feel me, I feel you, and I feel that you feel me.

She puts a particular focus on the connections we make to other people. That seems to be the sweet spot of human psychology. Research has proven that no other factor drives happiness as powerfully as the depth of our connections to other people. There must be a reason why even films with a single actor, like ‘Cast Away’ with Tom Hanks, are ultimately about social connections — and the lack thereof.

Happiness has a close relation to engagement. The only other reasons why we engage are threat and fear. Joana writes that ‘Inner Work’ helps to reconnect us to work by allowing us to:

1. increase the bandwidth to our environment

2. understand other people’s goals, motivation, and limits better

3. see new perspectives

4. value different views

5. withhold judgment

6. have the patience to listen

7. accept ambiguity

8. think in experiments, probabilities, and causal relations

9. create a more nuanced view of the world

10. abandon old habits and build new ones

Ok, you might say that’s all well and good, but isn’t this just viewing the world through rose-colored glasses?

Reason two: Work is what makes you

You’d be right, of course, but ultimately change has to come from somewhere. If you change your perception of and connection to the world, you might change some other circumstances, too — just by acting differently. But, you will achieve nothing with altered external circumstances if you or your colleagues cannot perceive them as being positive.

You’ve got to do both; change the way you interpret the world and change external circumstances. It’s a package deal. ‘Agile’, ‘New Work’, ‘Scrum’, and many more entertaining strategies are ways to do both. On the outside, they are just new processes, new ways of collaboration. But on the inside, they change the way we collaborate and connect.

Of course, no agile project or ‘New Work’ tidbit will ever change the power dynamics behind corporate structures. We think that’s why there is such a tension between new ways of doing things and old, hierarchical ways to divide up accountability and power. Agile is a starting point, not more.

Reason three: We focus on the wrong kind of progress

We should move on. Move on from thinking that progress is solely something that happens on the output side of companies, measured in financial teams. Progress is also an increase on the input side of companies, especially in the rise in the number of actively engaged people, beyond the apparently sticky threshold of just 15%. How different would a workplace be where 30% of the people actively engage for all the right reasons? With deeper connections, more happiness, and ultimately more exciting innovation? The complexity of digital work can hardly be mastered if people are not safe to venture out with other people, try different things, and stay alert. Apathy isn’t doing anyone any favors, and fear does not make people speak up or venture out.

We think digital technology is very much about the quality of work. At least, much more than industrial manufacturing is. Digital technology is not about maximizing the input/output relations of machines — instead, it’s about user stories, experiences, and delightful interactions. This quality is closely related to financial success in digital businesses, too. There are many reasons why we think we should stop focusing on quantity so much, and focus on maximizing quality instead.

That’s why, work should be about ‘Inner Work’ and shaping our organizations to make it ever easier. It should be about creating flow in the workplace to increase the uniqueness of the self and the deep integration to others.

If we can pull this off, we could open the floodgates and let quality into our all too numb workplaces.

Further Reading

  • Joana Breidenbach and Bettina Rollow 2019 „New Work meets Inner Work — Ein Handbuch für Unternehmen auf dem Weg zur Selbstorganisation“
  • Joana Breidenbach 2021 „Innenansicht. Eine Dekade Inner Work und New Work“ — about Joana’s personal journey to Inner Work
  • Gallup Work Engagement Survey https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.aspx
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990 “Flow — The Psychology of Optimal Experience”
  • Martin Seligman 2002 “Authentic Happiness“ — an excursion into Positive Psychology
  • Carol Sanford 2018 “The Regenerative Business-Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes” — to better understand the importance of providing both personal autonomy and social integration to people in business
  • Frank Thun 2019 “Liberated Companies” — for an introduction into the dynamics between work routines, structures, and belief systems.

How To Build A Tech Company

An industry in transition: I would like to discuss with you, but also with international experts, what kind of organisation and processes are needed to create modern, innovative products that combine high-quality hardware with agile, smart software solutions. I would like to find out how we can jointly transfer German engineering skills into the digital or even autonomous age — which is why, in the coming months, I will be asking myself more than ever before: “How to build a tech company? Follow our Medium blog for this.

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Anja Hendel

Anja Hendel

Managing Director @ diconium | #Innovation #DigitalTransformation #Mobility | How do we transfer the successful German art of engineering into the digital age?