Smart working: only productivity Ninjas need apply

Next generation professionals are being failed by business leaders who are living by yesterday’s rules

The profile of the next generational professional is quickly shaping up: self-starter, autonomous, conscious of capabilities and personality; a productivity Ninja that thinks and acts as a freelance, whether self-employed or on assignment (payroll or project).

The next gen professional is informed about the importance of brain functioning and is determined to get a proper night’s rest, say eight hours. The next gen professional aims to work no more than eight hours a day, spread equally between deep work (in splendid isolation) and arresting and engaged collaboration with colleagues, customers and partners. Which leaves eight precious hours for family and friends, and for physical and mental re-energizing.

It all sounds so simple, but I’m not sure who teaches this today. A lot depends on engaging with smart working practices, but it can be hit and miss. It’s a pity we were not born with a user manual on how to juggle the essential balls of life.

A lot has been written about smart working, but based on my experience over the past decade, it is a work philosophy where human beings are free to choose where and when to work as long as the work is done well and with the highest productivity, whilst respecting our planet’s resources.

In larger organisations, smart working is a leadership philosophy. For a freelance, it’s all about a smart choice of work methods and tools (space and tech). In the context of leadership, trust is the key ingredient; in fact it’s the rocket fuel. For the self-employed, it’s all about maximum value generation and career satisfaction. In short, it has to do with autonomy and self-determination leading to the joy of work and self-realization.

What enhances performance

The biggest challenge is with business leaders that have not been educated in human centred work design, or freelances that have not discovered the smart working power yet. Little thought is given to what are the best places and moments for human beings to perform at their best in a job or on an assignment, but that is changing fast.

With increasing automation of routine jobs, we now have a better understanding that creative work is enhanced when we are stimulated by external views, certain sounds or kinetic (movement) experiences. The conclusion: most people work in concrete jungles where innovation simply cannot take place … so get out of your old offices or build clever new ones.

People generally learn best about a business when physically located with colleagues and customers, so we need to be careful not to isolate them in offices cubicles or at home. We also need to be suspicious about open plan offices, which brain experts now claim are bad for deep thinking work. The always-connected technologies of email and social media similarly distract employees and leave little chance for productive work.

What is needed inside office environments to support smart working is better acoustic and visual privacy allied to good light and air quality. The trend towards the Well Building with biophilic design and abundant elements of nature is encouraging, and should expand beyond offices into co-working spaces, third spaces and home studios.

Learning to be better

Working anywhere, anytime, however, is not possible without the mobile gear:  digital workflows (eliminating the paperwork), collaboration tools and dependable networks. Each of these are hard to come by, but are becoming easier and cheaper than before. You must be aware of the potential pitfalls, however.

Please realise that dispersed working is hard. Human beings grew up to work best when together. Virtual working means a loss of body language that is far more important than we ever imagined. That’s why few people like conference calls (no matter if audio or video) and struggle to engage … but it can work!

We just have to learn how to be better at working at a distance. That requires plenty training, not just in the lower ranks but nearly all project and people managers and their senior leaders need up-skilling too. Without such training, poor (or pretending) managers will fail quickly with a rise of stress and a drop in morale.

And that’s the dark side of smart working: although most associates love the additional freedom and trust extended to them, they are at risk of increased stress (of wanting to please their managers by being always available).

Introducing smarter working requires courage first and foremost. It’s radical for most current leaders, as they were not raised with this work philosophy. They inherited beliefs from our ancestors, parents, educators and leaders of prior generations inspired by industrial/factory models, military command and control structures, and so on. Many got a technical education where a profound appreciation of human behaviour and dynamics was not part of the curriculum.

So are we surprised that a good part of the leadership community are simply not qualified  to mentor and coach teams? And are we surprised that the discipline of HR has not been given more of a leadership role in supporting and enabling design for brainwork and teamwork?

If we want healthy and well-balanced productivity Ninjas to carry the smart working torch in the future, someone has got to take the lead. We cannot rely on business leaders living by yesterday’s rules.

Philip Vanhoutte is the co-author of The Smarter Working Manifesto with Guy Clapperton

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