Work has changed. Not just for workers on factory floors and warehouses finding their new colleague may be a robot, but also for those working in downtown glass high rises.
Ethan, a senior partner in his firm, shakes his head in disbelief. He says, “When I graduated nearly 40 years ago and began interviewing for positions I wanted to know two things, how much, and how fast can I move up? The talented young people I am interviewing today want the money but rarely show any interest in being partner. Instead, they talk about their personal priorities and ask how many days they can work from home or from wherever. I don’t get it!”
Technology is often spotlighted as the defining factor in the future of work. Perhaps. However, in the near-term it is likely that it is the pandemic experience and latent values, articulated primarily by Millennials long before COVID, that will shape the future of where and how work fits into our lives.
Many people left onsite work March 2020 and adapted to a new work-from-home life. While some have returned, many others have yet to be called back into the workplace. Behavioral science research suggests that behavioral change, adopting a new routine, takes a month or two, making that routine an automatic habit takes only a few months more.
Let’s do some pandemic math.
Since mid-March 2020 it has been about one year and six months, or about 18 months, or 79 weeks, or, put another way, about 550+ days since the pandemic spurred work-from-home.
FYI, military boot camp socializes, educates, trains, and transforms fresh recruits into the hardened professionals that make up the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force — in only 8 to 13 weeks depending upon the military service. If it takes 10 weeks to produce a Marine, what might nearly two years of pandemic ‘training’ do to how we think about work?
In those 550+ days new ways of working were discovered and adopted. Zoom-like communication is now part of everyday work, life, and idiom. Fighting morning traffic congestion has been exchanged for morning workouts. Okay, realistically, workouts for a few, perhaps sleeping through former travel times for the rest of us. The phrase, “heading out,” in response to a phone call from a loved one at the end of the day, was replaced with a short walk down the hall from a makeshift home office corner to the family kitchen counter. The norms of work were not just suspended over 550+ days, they changed.
Another insight from behavioral science tells us that the habits hardest to break are those that give a dopamine kick. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that tells the brain, “hey, this feels good, let’s do it again.” Dopamine is the chemical messenger that motivates us to seek activities that give us pleasure, providing a chemical-induced reward, motivation, reinforcement cycle that is behind that good feeling that washes over us in anticipation of a good meal, sex, retail therapy, or anything else you may really enjoy. Recent research suggests that Dopamine may also influence our behavior in avoiding what may be perceived as a negative experience.
My guess is few of us get a dopamine rush in anticipation of Monday morning traffic, water cooler chit chat, or the midweek all hands. A 2021 study of workers conducted by Gallup reports a trend that has been ongoing for many years — that only 35% of United States workers are engaged in their work, leaving a whopping 65% somewhere between just ‘present’ and let’s just say — not finding work to be dopamine inducing.
In sharp contrast, anticipation of new found activities such as walking the dog to break up video conferences, spending more time with family and friends and less time in traffic, or being at home seconds after the last online meeting and making a good dinner, offer far more opportunities for a dopamine cycle of reward, motivation, and reinforcement. That cycle of reward has been ongoing for 550+ days. Going back to the office under the old rules of work pre-pandemic is now the novel behavior that employers will have a significant challenge convincing employees that they should give up the work life they discovered during the pandemic.
Despite the work-from-home hype, COVID did not introduce new work values. The pandemic served as a propellant accelerating once nascent values about quality of life and where work fit into our lives to the forefront of employee decision-making. In a 2019 survey, a year before the pandemic, 82% of American Millennials said flexible hours and work from anywhere flexibility was key to their career planning.
Many Boomers and Gen X’ers have made a sport out of describing younger Millennials as undisciplined and lazy because this cohort of younger workers has the temerity to say they want to work to live, not live to work. The truth may actually be that the Millennials were the first generation with the courage to demand what others always wanted but dared not ask from their employers.
The pandemic provided a live experiment that demonstrated that significant tweaks, if not wholesale changes in how we work, when, and where work fits into our lives, could be done — with minimal or no cost to productivity. In fact, Gallup reported an increase in employee engagement in 2020 and early 2021 even while many were working from home — something that onsite gyms, smoothy bars, and nap pods have not been able to achieve.
Some argue that the jury is still out and we need more time to assess the true impacts. Maybe…but the nearly two years and counting of flexible work is a lot of data to simply ignore. For many workers employment that offers flexibility is no longer a nicety, it is a necessity. A New York Times
Young high rise office workers are certainly looking for compensation, but also seeking flexible hours and work locations, a work life that does not necessarily lead to the corner office. Many young attorneys, bankers, and consultants, like those being interviewed by Ethan, are choosing to have a life, rather than to climb a ladder. To many Millennials, promotion, position, and being the boss does not offer adequate compensation for what it costs in quality of life and is viewed by some as simply a lot of “fluff.”
Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers nearing retirement are also hearing the siren song of younger workers and are increasingly keen to enjoy new found workplace flexibility. During the pandemic’s work-from-home many discovered that by altering their hours the daily grind became less of a grind. Suddenly working a few more years, might actually be okay. Switching to part-time work is offering some a gentle glide path from decades of 9 to 5 to retirement.
Without a recruiting campaign, a rousing meeting hall event, or a single membership card issued, the largest multigenerational union of office knowledge workers may have been forged, not around their individual professions, but how they think about work and where work fits into their lives. While it may be expedient for employers to believe that they will simply hire those that maintain a traditional pre-pandemic mindset of how the world of work, works, current employment numbers and behaviors developed over the last 550+ days suggest they may be looking for quite sometime.