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The Next Workplace Revolution Isn’t Technological, It’s Cultural

The Next Workplace Revolution Isn’t Technological, It’s Cultural

by Disrupts MagazineAugust 23, 2016

In 2014 management consultancy Hay Group reported that only 15% of workers in the United Kingdom consider themselves to be ‘highly motivated’ at work, and estimated that reduced productivity as a result of workplace disengagement costs the UK economy £340 billion every year.

There are 4 million employee jobs in London alone, and 85% of people doing them wish they weren’t. They’re calling it a ‘crisis of motivation’. Consultancies, banks, law firms and accountancies, once the pinnacle of professionalism, are all suffering from increasing rates of employee turnover and decreasing levels of employee engagement. 

Escape The City, an organisation that runs career transition programmes for dissatisfied professionals, believes that at the root of workplace disengagement is a fundamental crisis of meaning. In a study of 1000 people, 71% chose ‘a clear sense of purpose’ as the number one thing they wanted from a job, and 55% stated an overall lack of purpose as the motivation behind wanting to leave their current employer. 

As part of the study, Escape measured the top 10 companies that professionals are leaving. Top of the ‘escape’ list? Corporate behemoth Accenture, all of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms (Ernst & Young, PWC, Deloitte and KPMG), financial giants Deutsche Bank, Citi, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs and technology company IBM. 

What are these companies doing to disillusion so many of their employees? The answers are best understood in the context of how these companies became so successful, and grew to such monstrous size in the first place. 

Companies grow large because they become incredibly adept at executing a repeatable business model at scale. Managers design their organisations following 20th century industrial labour principles: authority is distributed and order maintained through a hierarchical structure, concentrating decision making power to the top. Daily operations are as far as possible reduced to specialised and repetitive tasks, with explicit instructions that can be learned and followed by anyone with a basic level of competence. As a company gets larger, and the distance between the decision makers and the workers grows, operations are continuously refined and the role of the employee becomes increasingly diluted until it becomes almost entirely interchangeable.

We call this ‘a job’. Human satisfaction was never a goal of industrial organisational design, and as a result relatively little, if any, emphasis is put into the actual experience of the work itself. A job is to be done, not necessarily to be enjoyed. 

But opinions are starting to change. 

A growing body of research on positive organisational psychology is gathering data that suggests that employee happiness is directly correlated to productivity and a healthier bottom line. Investing in happy people is fast becoming a business case. Studies by Gallup and the Queen’s School of Business in Ontario, Canada, show that disengaged employees have 37% more absenteeism, 49% more accidents and make 60% more errors. Organisations that score low in employee engagement experienced 18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability and 65% lower share price in the long term.

Contrary to popular belief, free gym memberships, stocked fridges and ping pong tables – the poster boy of ‘progressive’ workplaces – just plaster over the cracks. The real determinant of an engaged workforce runs much deeper: culture. In short, culture is the umbrella term given to the ideas, beliefs and behaviours of a given group of people. Where some companies have developed cultures characterised by a lack of trust, a shunning of responsibility and finger-pointing, others deliberately cultivate cultures of empathy, self-direction, integrity and respect. Whereas the former inevitably results in high stress and disengagement, the latter fosters trust and camaraderie between colleagues and, significantly, high performance. 

So where do these corporate ‘escapees’ want to go? Top of the list is AirBnB, founded in 2008. AirBnB employees are known for saying things like “We don’t have our values up on the walls, so much as we do in our hearts and minds” and “We treat our employees like founders”, both courtesy of Global Head of Employee Experience – yes, it’s a thing – Mark Levy.

The “future of work” is a term that’s thrown about a lot these days, usually in reference to technological advance, but it extends far beyond Slack and Upwork. The real driving force behind the future of work is cultural advance, as the ideas of 20th century industry disappear into a world of startups, co-working and, perish the thought, companies that put employee happiness high on their list of priorities.

Will Reynolds

This article first appeared at

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Disrupts Magazine
Disrupts Magazine
Disrupts is a start-up-focused with an edge. Based in London, the team get behind the scenes of the start-up scene.