Numerous studies have discussed a growing concern in the United States. Americans are not happy at work, and burnout is on the rise. In a recent survey done by Gallup, 50% of Americans are not satisfied with their work and are actively seeking new employment opportunities. Modern-day workers feel disinterested in their work, are not engaged with it, struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in their work. What is not talked about enough is just how chaotic work has become and the effects on worker's overall happiness at work.
Burnout is a global problem that the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated. A recent article published by Jennifer Moss in the Harvard Business Review discusses the rise of the burnout crisis. In a survey conducted for the piece, 89% of respondents said their work-life was getting worse, and 85% said their well-being had declined. Millennials had the highest levels of burnout, with many feeling increasingly lonely at work. It is safe to say that we are seeing an increasing number of unhappy people at work.
What do Knowledge Workers and Companies do to Respond?
Companies spend a lot of time, money, and effort making sure their employees are satisfied with their work. Employers focus on company perks, altering their incentive structure, and spend time making sure they have a dynamic and "young" work culture. Companies consistently try new approaches to make their workers happy at work.
Companies also propose that self-care is the answer to their worker's burnout problems experienced by their workers. As Jennifer Moss puts it in her article:
"While these are all organizational issues, we still prescribe self-care as the cure for burnout. We've put the burden of solving the problem squarely on the shoulders of individual employees. "Let's just recommend more yoga, wellness tech, meditation apps, and subsidized gym memberships — that'll fix it," we say. But those are tools for improving well-being. When it comes to preventing burnout specifically, they won't be effective. We desperately need upstream interventions, not downstream tactics."
To combat burnout, knowledge workers will focus on productivity systems to help themselves feel more in control of their work. Personal productivity systems like Getting Things Done or the Bullet Journal Method have risen in popularity with knowledge workers. These systems are a way for knowledge workers to combat the chaotic nature of work. I follow many of the tactics laid out in the getting things done method and find them helpful.
Georgetown professor Cal Newport, who writes and researches the chaotic nature of work, is a big advocate of time blocking and giving every minute of your day a job. His work has helped individuals tame their workloads, reduce stress, and get more done in less time. However, having an excellent system to "capture, configure, and control" your time at work, as Cal puts it, doesn't seem to be helping knowledge workers feel less burned out. Cal Newport talks about this in his article for the New Yorker, "The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done."
The Real Problem
Regardless of a person's level of productivity and organization, it doesn't change how knowledge workers are overwhelmed with the amount of work on their plate and its general chaotic nature. Are what companies are doing an effective way to address employee satisfaction at work? I would argue they are not based on the continued rise of employees not satisfied with their work and the increase in burnout.
Cal Newport tries to address this in his new book, A World Without Email. In the book, Cal addresses just how chaotic knowledge work has become with the rise of email and instant communications like Slack. He begins the book by discussing what he calls the "Hyperactive Hive Mind":
"The Hyperactive Hive Mind is a workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services."
Companies and organizations fail to address the true causes of knowledge workers' burnout and unhappiness at work. To take care of their workers and ultimately have a well-functioning organization, they need to create workflows that reduce distraction and increase productivity. As Cal Newport puts it:
"They don't directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that works unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects."
Personal productivity systems may help knowledge workers tame the tasks that have arrived in their daily emails, but they do not reduce the number of requests knowledge workers receive.
What do Workers Want and Need?
The approach knowledge workers could take to rebuild their workflows so it is easier to get into a flow state. It is important to have collaborative work that relies less on back-and-forth unscheduled messaging and gives knowledge workers more time to work on tasks assigned to them without distraction. Doing so will allow them to produce better work, which ultimately is the only thing that matters, and make them more productive.
While it is crucial for workers to feel connected at work and feel like they are a part of a good culture, they still will spend most of their time working. If this time is spent working in a way that makes them unhappy, it does not matter what kind of relationships people have at work; it will still lead to unhappiness and burnout. Responsibility needs to be put on the organization to work with their employees to create workflows that help them do their best work. This needs to be a top-down approach, and there needs to be a systematic shift in the way work is conducted within an organization.
A natural question or response would be that shouldn't we give workers the antimony to conduct work in a way that works for them? Naturally, people don't like being told what to do and how to do it, but once they realize this approach to things will lead to them have more time, less stress, and less unscheduled back and forth communication, they would get on board with the way work will be conducted. What knowledge workers want is engagement. Engaging them in creating workflows that will make their lives and the lives of their colleagues easier will go a long way in making sure that people are happier at work.
We don't need a new productivity system or a new piece of technology. What we need is a top-down approach to build our workflows in a way that reduces distractions and reduces stress. Knowledge workers overwhelmed by email need to rebuild their workflows, relying less on constant communications amongst their colleagues.
Workflow is how work gets assigned, managed, and completed. Cal Newport would attest that email is the primary way work gets assigned, managed, and completed, which leads to unhappiness from knowledge workers. Cal advocates for a more systemic approach to knowledge work:
"Consider instead a system that externalizes work. Following the lead of software developers, we might use virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time. With this setup, optimization becomes possible."
Workflows built on systems and processes that require less back and forth communication between knowledge workers will free up the time and attention they need to focus on the work that matters and drives results. Scott Adams, in his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big, says this on systems:
"Systems people win every day just by sticking to their systems. The systems focused people tend to perform better and be happier."
How much more productive would knowledge workers be if they had comprehensive systems, they were executing on? Reworking how they manage their work will help them get into better states of flow and give them more time for deep work. This will lead to less stress and an overall increase in worker happiness. They will feel they have more time to accomplish things. Constant distraction is making us miserable and not how our brain was designed to work.
Getting into the Flow State
Once you have your workflows determined and a system in place, it's time to go out and execute them and to do that in a way that feels effortless. This effortless feeling where you are not thinking is referred to as the flow state. What is flow? According to Steve Kotler in his book The Rise of Superman, "Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best." Steve has studied some of the earliest origins of flow, and he wrote about Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the first researchers to define and analyze flow. Mihaly described the state as "being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away—time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
After analyzing Csikszentmihalyi research, Steve Kotler concluded that:
"Flow is more than an optimal state of consciousness—one where we feel our best and perform our best—it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life? Flow is what makes life worth living."
Workers are more productive when in the flow state. Flow leads to an increase in happiness at work. Flow will allow people to focus on the things that matter, leaving them with a sense of accomplishment and increase their engagement with work overall. It can be tough to get into flow when we are constantly distracted. We could be distracted by emails, instant messages, pointless meetings, and trying to multitask that all take us out of a flow state. How can you get into a flow state or find the time to do deep work if you are constantly distracted? I don't think you can. What different approaches can we take to get into flow?
Approaches to Get into Flow
We can help knowledge workers get into a flow state by focusing on the modality of work and one-on-one coaching. Asynchronous work is a way to help knowledge workers get into a flow state and increase their overall happiness at work. Synchronous conversations sometimes do more harm than good. An asynchronous approach can give workers time to write out their thoughts, leading to less back and forth communication. It allows you to establish a baseline to build off and make synchronous conversations more productive. A hybrid approach to work, where we spend part of our time in the office and working from home, could also help. When knowledge workers work from home, they could spend more time doing deep work, spend less time in meetings, and have more time to focus on their core work responsibilities.
In the future, I see workplace productivity coaches becoming an integral part of the office. These coaches will work with businesses and knowledge workers one-on-one and help them structure workflows to improve productivity and get into the flow state. Cal Newport has thrown around the idea of a "Chief Productivity Officer,” who will look at ways businesses and organizations can maximize their worker's productivity.
Focusing on coaching and work modality would help. However, the most effective way would be to still focus on creating workflows that help knowledge workers develop systems that rely less on unstructured back and forth communication.
The Creator Economy
A case study to look at is the rise of the creator economy, which combines all of the above elements. The creator economy has given professionals more control over their time and the flexibility they need to produce great work. What has the creator economy become so popular? There are many attractive features about the creator economy, and one of the most appealing to me is that you have the freedom to create schedules and workflows that work for you. Although, based on everything happening in the knowledge work industry, I would argue that businesses do not create schedules and workflows that work best for the company. If organizations don't address how work gets conducted in their business, the creator economy will continue to rise in popularity.
If we want to ensure knowledge workers are happy in their roles and produce their best work, which is ultimately what matters, companies and organizations should be laser-focused on creating workflows that will allow their workers to get into a flow state. The future of work and successful organizations will be shaped by building workflows that empower their workers to use their time at work in a way that leads to their happiness. Life is too short to be stuck doing things that make you miserable. The quicker we start addressing the real problems that cause worker unhappiness, the faster we can create a process that leads to less burnout. We will never replace the value of hard work, but we can still give more opportunities for knowledge workers to focus on the things that will produce the most value for society. We collectively will benefit from a world that is filled with happier and more productive knowledge workers.