Switch on to work

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| The European | 13 August 2018

Above: Daniel Cable

If you feel guilty for feeling bored in the office, then don’t – you are not alone. In a 2016 survey for Udemy for Business, an e-learning platform, 43% of employees at US companies said that they found their job boring; the survey also found that millennials were nearly twice as likely to find their jobs dull than their parents.

The picture is similar in Europe. Statistics collected last year by CV-Library, a UK job board, showed that 45% of UK workers had the same feeling, while more than half looked for a new job to escape boredom.

But if work can sometimes be an exercise on whiling away time, our brain can find a way out of this vicious cycle, if given the opportunity. At least that’s what Daniel Cable, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, suggests in his new book Alive at Work.

The importance of “why” we work

As other academics before him, Professor Cable claims that focusing on “why” rather than “how” we work makes us happier, more fulfilled and productive, or as the title of the book puts it, “alive at work”. What makes the book stand out from the many self-help guides on wellbeing in the office is the explanation, and hence solutions, the American academic offers.

Building on growing research on the role of neuroscience in the workplace, Professor Cable asserts that the lack of motivation can be seen as a biological problem. Engagement depends on the part of our brain – the “seeking system” as he calls it – that triggers our curiosity or excitement about a topic by producing dopamine. For centuries employers tried to make workers more productive by shutting their seeking system down, rewarding them for excelling at repetition and offering incentives – money or promotion – that were either irrelevant or uninspiring. But humans, writes Professor Cable, are natural innovators, relishing in new experiences and experimentation. Learning produces dopamine; routine switches us off.

The best version of you

The author suggests several ways we can re-activate our seeking system. One is an exercise called “The Best Self Activity”, developed by Georgetown University academic Laura Roberts, according to which workers narrate a story about an instance that brought out the best of them during work. Similarly, workers can identify what their strengths are and then come up with a new way of using them at work. They can also create their own job title, changing the way they feel about their contribution to the company. Research suggests that, as ridiculous as job titles such as “Communication Duchess” may sound, they help us take pride in our work and thus be more motivated.

If our brains are hardwired to seek something new and exciting in everything we encounter, machines are ideal for repetition. Will the current wave of automation in the workplace make it easier to focus on the purpose of our efforts, since machines will make the boring parts easier? Professor Cable is optimistic that the answer is positive, provided that we see the role of work through a different lens: “Part of my hope for a golden age in human emotions is that we will be able to ‘set aside’ to automation a lot of the routine, repetitive, prescribed activities and focus more on what is creative, interactive and innovative (not just products, of course, but how we work). This means that we will all need a strong story of the “why” of the work, because it is difficult to create and innovate new solutions without knowing who is affected by them – who our work is for becomes a primary issue.” 

Leaders can show the way

For business leaders, the greatest challenge is to find a role in this new era. Technology experts such as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee claim that automation will force leaders to become storytellers who provide workers and even customers with meaning and purpose. One way to do that, says Professor Cable, is by bringing these two groups together: “Leaders can help via storytelling, but I think it is even more important for them to get employees in direct contact with the customers of their work. Each person should know who they are affecting, and what those people need from the work.”

In his book, Professor Cable uses an example of an experiment conducted by the famous psychologist Adam Grant. The Wharton School academic asked workers at a US call centre to meet the recipient of a scholarship funded by money they had raised. A month later, they had more than doubled the time spent on the phone soliciting donations, raising over 70% more scholarship funds. 

Leaders also need to encourage learning in the workplace. Striving to deliver results can be stressful and even counterproductive when done under pressure. Perceiving work, or at least part of it, as a learning opportunity, makes us feel safer, more engaged and eventually more efficient at what we do, explains Professor Cable. Companies that reserve work-time for experimentation exercises such as “hackathons” rarely fail to see the benefits, he suggests.

And yet, for the vast majority of workers everyday routine still involves repetitive tasks. In the private sector, business is driven by profit and promotion is based on criteria such as performance and goals rather than happiness and wellbeing. So, how can managers strike a balance between experimentation and results? Creativity comes in all stripes and colours, says Professor Cable: “I call this the freedom in the frame. The frame is what needs to be delivered. It is what is promised and also what is regulated (both externally by government and internally by policy). The freedom is creativity in how the work is performed, it is playing to strengths in accomplishing the outcomes.”

Creativity benefits everyone

Despite his optimism, Professor Cable stops short of proclaiming unfulfilling work a thing of the past. He certainly has no time for those claiming that we can treat our job as a hobby: “I don’t think that work can always be 100% creative and thrilling. I think most people would accept a little bit of creativity and self expression every day.” But being “alive at work” is not just about the employees – it also helps companies achieve their goals. “So many times I have seen both organisations and employees win when there is a strong sense of purpose, and a freedom to accomplish goals the way employees want to try and do it.”

Many experts point to the rise of mindfulness in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry, as a sign that the times are changing. Often dismissed as a fad, yoga classes in between meetings and calls with customers are on the rise. For Professor Cable, this could be a step in the right direction: “There is clear research that meditation helps people be better negotiators, sales people, and decision makers. This seems to be neuroscience, not a fad. One idea is that we need to perceive ourselves as reacting to stress and anxiety, because it allows us to remove that immediate response and instead free up our creativity, problem solving, etc. We can think of this as a neuroscience hack.”

If more dopamine is the solution, can too much of it be a problem? Former Facebook President and Napster founder Sean Parker has publicly acknowledged that Facebook has been designed to exploit our brain’s hunger for dopamine. Is there a risk that in a tech-driven society, straight out of the Netflix series Black Mirror, employers could adopt similar methods to make their employees workaholics? For the moment, Professor Cable thinks that we face the opposite problem: “I am not worried that employers are creating ‘too much freedom and creativity and meaning’ so that there is a risk of work addiction right now, as we know that 70% of employees worldwide are disengaged from work. They feel they have to ‘shut off’ to get through it. Too much dopamine at work is actually a problem that I would like to see. When we have that problem, I will be happy to help solve it!”

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