satisfaction

In Search of Imperfection

written for InsideHR

People leaders need to get the balance between technology, environments and human irrationality right in an increasingly digital world, writes Rob Scott, who explains that there are a number of considerations in optimising employee performance in the process

I recently attended a presentation by Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer at Danish company Woohoo Inc. He makes the point that we very often, but incorrectly assume employees are happy at work when they have job satisfaction. According to Kjerulf, job satisfaction is what we “think” about our jobs, while happiness is what we “feel” about our jobs and work environment.

The employee performance conundrum
This was timely as I have been engaging with several leading-edge clients who are struggling to find appropriate ways of improving their employee performance and engagement levels. These companies have all the great benefits and perks such as free food, zone-out pods, wellness programs and gym membership which attract talent, they have tier-1 HR technology and collaboration tools, use and explore automation, robotics and AI to augment employee capability and remove humans from work which is done better by machines. Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not.

Josh Bersin, a leading global HR technology analyst cites challenges with engagement, productivity and employee experience as one of four forces disrupting organisations today. In his presentation A Wild New World of HR Technology, he alludes to the lack of employee performance and productivity improvement, overwhelmed employees and marginal improvements in employee engagement despite all the great technology we continually introduce into our lives and workplaces.

“Wow, everyone should be happy, satisfied and engaged. But they’re not”

Why leaders need to empower people to improve employee performance
For several years, I’ve been driving the point that effective digital work environments are not about throwing more technology at people and problems. Unless you empower people to do more with the technology in a modified human behavioural way, you are likely to create the challenges Josh Bersin highlights.

Furthermore, as people leaders, it’s important that we figuratively step back to see the broader technical environments we are busy creating – not just from a software and apps perspective, but inclusive of the steel, concrete, glass, noise, space and technical gadgetry we combine to form our “happy” work environments.

Often these environments are created to serve rationality and optimisation but can unintentionally become “technology concentration camps” – an environment which is perfectly rational, but dreadfully unliveable.

In my view, we have become singularly focused on building environments and supporting processes using modern and emerging technical assets in order to attract, retain, engage and develop people. But we have overlooked the potential mismatch between these creations and the fact that people are not perfectly rational and don’t operate well in sterile, passionless environments.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m a technology fan – it underpins our human desire to constantly progress and improve. However, we should realise as human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith.

Allowing employees to be human
It was the French writer Ellul who said “The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made an enormous error in misunderstanding this aspect of human nature and presumed to exorcise all that was not rational.”

“As human beings, we are at our happiest when we can be irrational, make mistakes, share emotions, be spontaneous, indulge in passions, seek out the mysterious and have faith”

As we evolve our digital work environments, shifting tasks to robotics and AI away from human jobs which we are not good at, are less accurate at, or are slow to do in comparison to technology, we will be left with a ‘perfectly optimised’ human worker, but perhaps not a happy or engaged one. The ‘perfect’ technology environment may be producing the opposite effects of employee performance, happiness, engagement and productivity.

Our challenge as people leaders is to get the balance between technology, our environments and human irrationality right – building the perfect ‘imperfect’ environment is the goal. Those that succeed will be the attractive organisations of the future, sought out by talented people.

3 key insights: employee performance in the digital world

  • Our digital work environments are increasingly becoming optimised and rational, driven by technology. But when we put humans, who are not perfectly rational, into these environments, we are impacting engagement and happiness.
  • We have an abundance of technology in our personal and work lives, yet evidence suggests that employee performance, human productivity and engagement has only marginally improved.
  • Our desire to remain competitive organisations has necessitated leveraging modern technologies and shifting human tasks to machines and AI. Organisations who understand how to optimise, but at the same time not dehumanise will be the successful companies of the future.