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How to make work more humane: leaders take note

You never know what’s next but if you design work consciously, navigating the unknown becomes easier, more inspired and full of opportunity.

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Lynda Gratton, at the age of 16, stands in front of a fast-moving conveyor belt laden with empty chocolate boxes in a busy factory in York. Her task is to place two pairs of chocolates of a particular flavour in a box. As the belt whizzes past in front of her, she must pick up the orange creams in her gloved hands and place them precisely, as nimbly as possible.

It’s a back-breaking job, standing for eight-hour shifts, with little room for error. Women on either side of the girl take part in exactly the same task, albeit with more experience and dexterity. They chat as they work, sometimes laugh, and never miss their allocated chocolate slots. But for Lynda, who is studying for her O-levels at Cockermouth Grammar School in the Lake District, a moment’s lapse of concentration could mean disaster and affect everyone else on the line.

“I was completely stressed,” Professor Gratton says today – five decades later – recalling the formative experience. “The conveyor belt was going so fast, the lady next to me used to help and put mine in the box if I missed one,” she laughs. That summer job in the chocolate factory shaped Professor Gratton’s future: it might have only been “five or six weeks at a time, over two years”, but it was then that Professor Gratton “became interested in the psychology of work”.

“Everybody in the world needs to understand what it is to do these repetitive jobs,” she says today. Of course, most jobs on assembly lines don’t exist anymore, she admits. But these kinds of “outstandingly tough” jobs offer a great deal of insight into human behaviour. “Since then, I haven’t done anything as exhausting. That job taught me about the humanity of work. People go out every day and do difficult jobs. That’s what it’s like.”

An honest work ethic

In the years since that enlightening experience, Professor Gratton has trained as a psychologist. She is now an award winning thought leader in organisational change, author of several books that re-evaluate our relationships to the workplace – the latest of which, Redesigning Work, is out now – and an admired professor of management practice at London Business School.

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“It’s that inquisitiveness, that willingness to ask questions, that has propelled Professor Gratton over the course of her career. “I’ve always been driven by the curiosity of the moment,” she says.”

It was not only the camaraderie of the women who worked in the factory, but the acts of micro-defiance against the system, perhaps, that captured Professor Gratton’s imagination, and led to a career in psychology. What was it that the women there experienced? Boredom, as well as exhaustion, frustration, she explains. “At times, they’d become so cross at being on that line that they’d deliberately break the chocolates before putting them in the box.” She shakes her head in amused disbelief. “And who could blame them?”

It’s that inquisitiveness, that willingness to ask questions, that has propelled Professor Gratton over the course of her career. “I’ve always been driven by the curiosity of the moment,” she says. “I worked from a really early age,” Professor Gratton explains, thinking back to her first job. She recalls that she had a paper round from the age of eight, which, she admits, seems perilously young for the world of work. She can confidently confirm that she was working in a cafe by 12. These experiences of paid labour do much to explain her work ethic, which shows no signs of slowing down. In The 100-Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, which I co-authored with Andrew Scott, I advocated that people should work until they’re 70,” she says. “I’m 67 now, so I know how that feels. I have to work to 70 now that I’ve told everyone else to,” she laughs.

The possibilities of a work refresh

Professor Gratton’s latest book, Redesigning Work: How to Transform Your Organisation and Make Hybrid Work for Everyone, explores the concept of changing how we work in light of the pandemic, with a view to improving it from the top down. “Unless we change every day of work, we’re aren’t going to be able to work until we’re 70 years old,” she says.

Redesigning Work really summarises the whole lifetime for me of looking at work and asking, can we do it better? I think we can,” she continues. “The books I have written have consistently been about how we make work better, how to find ways of making it a place where humans can be more productive, creative and flourish.” And now, she says, is the time to do it.

“We find ourselves in a very exciting moment.” We’ve been wanting to redesign the way that we work forever, Professor Gratton explains. And the pandemic, alongside advancements in technology, has opened a door to make it possible. The initial question of her new book is ‘Couldn’t work be more humane?’ “I’ve been asking that for ages,” she adds. “The pandemic is a break with the past. We’ve formed new habits as a result of it, and began to see that there are other ways of working.” Now these new ways need to be integrated effectively.

A rich tapestry of experience

Professor Gratton’s own experience of work has informed her learning. After studying Psychology at Liverpool University, she finished her PhD (exploring Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the work setting) and secured her first real job with British Airways. “I’d never worked in an office before,” Professor Gratton recalls. She laughs at how she came in on the first day wearing a fringed knitted skirt, which she’d bought in Peru, and a leather jacket. “I just hadn’t a clue. I didn’t know about offices, had no idea what you were supposed to do there all day. I could do the job, but the actual politics, I didn’t know where to begin.” As a result, Professor Gratton says she has always been sympathetic to people in their first year of work. “It’s tough to work everything out, and it takes time to learn.”

After British Airways, Professor Gratton went to the consulting practice, PA, working in their Knightsbridge office. It was the days before mobile phones, but she could begin to see the impact that technology was having on people’s work life. At 31, she became the company’s youngest director. She describes the years that followed as incredibly interesting and exciting – but she hankered after more autonomy – she wanted to keep her options open. So in her mid-thirties she decided to go back to academia and, having kept her options open – which is a tip she recommends in her book, The 100-Year Life – she was able to do so.

“I had an academic CV which was strong enough to get me back in. I desperately wanted to go into a business school, and LBS is one of the best.” She quickly took a role as an assistant professor, but went in on a tenth of her salary. “I lost the BMW 7 Series, and took a big salary hit. But I wanted to make the move. It was a great opportunity.”

Professor Gratton’s role now, as a professor, author, public speaker and board advisor, is to narrate possibilities. “I help people imagine what their lives could be. I help them dream and provide new ways of thinking about their futures. I do that because I know, as a psychologist, that being positive is a very good way of changing. The brain responds well to positive ideas.” She explains that people who are more positive tend to live longer and lead more productive lives. “It’s very easy to say how bad everything is. It’s more difficult to be optimistic. My job is to be the optimist in the room.”

Making lasting waves

Professor Gratton launched the Future of Work elective at London Business School back in 2015 – it’s now one of the most popular electives. She explains that she gets as much from the sessions as her MBA and Executive MBA students do. “I listen to my students a lot. They’re a fascinating bunch, highly educated, very opinionated and because they come from all over the world they bring all sorts of dynamic ideas.” She sees the relationship in the classroom as symbiotic, a “place of co-creation”, as she does her Future of Work Consortium, part of the HSM Advisory group, which Professor Gratton founded in 2008.

One of the things we hear a lot after two years of the pandemic, is what it has taught us. But those lessons are far from over, Professor Gratton says. We’re still learning. “We’re still evolving, and there’s a huge amount of potential,” she adds. But what haven’t we fully grasped? “We haven’t yet understood how to be productive when time and place are flexible. That requires different ways of thinking. The power structures have changed. The architecture of organisations have changed, skills have changed. The pandemic alone didn’t do that, but it certainly accelerated that process. We’re not in the same place as we were in March 2020. So we can’t just hope that everything is going to go back to how it was. We must adapt.”

Redesigning how we work

So what will business leaders learn from reading her latest book, Redesigning Work? “Leaders right now are stuck between saying: ‘I know there’s this amazing opportunity, but I feel worried about what’s going to happen to my organisation.’ I wrote the book as reassurance. To say, ‘It is possible to find new ways of working that will really help your organisation be more productive.’” The challenge, she says, is that the normal ways of working are easy: “You don’t have to design work when everyone is in the same place at the same time.” That’s the easiest leadership position to have, she explains. As soon as it gets more complicated, it requires more thought. “I say to leaders, you now have a responsibility to consciously design work, and this book shows you how to do it.”

None of the opportunities created by the pandemic are going to stick, she explains, unless we can work in ways that make us more productive, more innovative, more creative. “If CEOs aren’t asked, or aren’t asking, the right questions now, everything that has changed because of the pandemic so far will have been for nothing. If those in power think working from home will make us less productive, then within a year we’ll be back to offices full time. That would be a missed opportunity,” Professor Gratton says. She helps harness such opportunities.

“I help people imagine what their lives could be. I help them dream and provide new ways of thinking about their futures. The brain responds well to positive ideas.”

In other words, if people want to see lasting change, now is the moment to make that happen. “Yes, and they have to go through a process. Just coming out and saying, everybody has to be in the office, or everybody has to be at home, that isn’t going to work. They have to engage people in understanding, in reimagining, in testing and then in creating. They have to do each of those stages, and if they haven’t, you’ll notice, as they’ll have to go back and do it all over again. But to get lasting change, now is the time to redesign work.”

A big question is who is embracing all the lessons of the pandemic and redesigning work effectively? “A finance company in Canada has said, you can work anywhere you want for three months a year. If I was in that industry, I’d be saying, why aren’t we doing that?” That’s how change happens, she says. “It isn’t a top-down process, it happens because individuals say, I want to do things differently. And if they’re highly talented and you want to keep them, the company says, ‘We really need to address this.’”

Finding success on future’s path

What next for Professor Gratton, who has half a century of experience and expertise behind her, tracing all the way back to those days on the assembly line in the chocolate factory? What has she learned over the years? “I’ve had amazing times and tough times. Together they make up the unfolding of life. The interesting thing about being a human is , you know your past, you know your present very well, but you don’t know your future. It’s unknowable – with so many possibilities..”

Looking forward, there e are so many possible selves, she explains. “You can change yourself any time you want. Setbacks are important, and of course, I’ve had them. Things haven’t worked out the way I want them to, but I think that I tend to look forward, and in a really positive way. You can construct your own life really, and that is always what I’ve tried to do.”

And it’s what we all must try our best to do now, she agrees, as we emerge from the darkest days of the pandemic. She is adamant that nobody in the workforce should feel the need to crush a chocolate as an act of defiance. If they do that, like those women on the assembly line all those years ago, we’ve failed. And work should be a place for everyone to succeed.

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