In 2021, as the world was exiting the most restrictive phase of the COVID pandemic and the great resignation was in full swing, I spoke on a panel about the future of work. The moderator closed the session by asking each panelist what we thought employees wanted most going into the next year.
I answered that flexibility of workplace and schedule would continue to be a top priority. But another panelist took that much further; they stated that employees, “want to work on what they want, where they want and when they want.”
I simply couldn’t let that comment be and shared that if employees really felt that way, they probably should start their own business or join the gig economy. Such an approach to work is not a perspective you can have if you want to be part of a team. A team is not about self-optimization—often, it is about some short-term sacrifice in exchange for a better long term collective outcome for everyone.
Two years later, these parting remarks from that panel are as relevant as ever. Workplace disaffection and employee burnout continue to grow as the double whammy of a pandemic and economic headwinds take their toll.
Burnout is an issue that leaders must take seriously. But one thing I notice whenever I read about employee dissatisfaction is that there often appears to be a large disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually need. Just because we believe something will make us happy doesn’t mean it will, as I shared in my popular article on Gen Z.
Henry Ford once said it best: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
There’s a substantial paradox in our work lives today. So many employees who’ve experienced the independence of remote work don’t want to return to the office in any capacity. However, yet many of those same employees report heightened feelings of loneliness and disconnection. This clearly suggests a profound mismatch between our declared wants and our actual needs—while people want more flexibility and remote options, those things may be exactly what’s making them lonely and isolated. This is especially likely if employees are not using this flexibility to find other ways to replace the lost socialization of the workplace
Having autonomy over your workspace and schedule is important and valuable, but so too are meaningful connections and a sense of belonging. Employees and leaders alike need to understand and balance these contrasting desires.
The truth is, while many people work to live, the life they live at work still matters. Work is, in some part, a social activity that contributes significantly to our sense of identity, self-worth and sense of community. Many of us crave the camaraderie and belonging we experience through being part of a team. This extends beyond enjoying lunch or a coffee break with a colleague; it’s about shared goals, mutual support, and being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
One Gallup survey found that people who have a “best friend” at work are seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Similarly, a LinkedIn study revealed that 46 percent of professionals worldwide believe that work friends are important to their overall happiness.
Ironically, though we may think having absolute professional freedom matters most, we often derive greater satisfaction from professional roles that offer structured opportunities for collaboration, recognition, and personal growth. Most people who were part of a high performing, collaborative team professionally or in other areas such as athletics, will reflect back on that experience as a highlight in their lives. Being part of a team is the opposite of self-optimization, but it has lasting and real benefits.
We are in an era of great change in the way we work, and a moment of some genuine confusion about what we really want from our professional lives. As we continue to discuss and shape the future of work, we need to consider the underlying human aspects and look carefully at what the data is telling us about the outcomes of our current environment. We need to find a middle ground between autonomy and community, or between independence and collaboration.
We also need to challenge our own assumptions and understand that being part of any high-performing team means not always doing what we want, when we want and where we want. Instead, being a part of a team means often doing what the team needs most, meaning that the collective goals will require a give-and-take, but lead to a better result for everyone in the end.
Quote of The Week
“Often, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”