So much of work can seem unpleasant: unnecessary meetings, unreasonable bosses, a nemesis colleague. But there are other aspects that can prove fulfilling to employees: a sense of being part of a larger mission, or the ability to work with friends.
The challenge for businesses trying to keep their best performers happy and thriving is how to limit the unpleasant aspects while teasing out more of the fulfilling ones. With studies showing how time-consuming and difficult it is for businesses to find talent, figuring out what candidates look for in a job now is the first step in retaining the best ones.
Having a life helps at work
It has become far too easy to check your inbox on your phone right before bed, do little tasks like replying to emails or filing expenses on your day off, and take calls while in transit. A culture of overwork often creates a sense that this behavior is expected of employees to get ahead, lest they be judged as lazy or insufficiently committed. The idea is damaging and counterproductive, both for employees and their managers—and has understandably spurred a backlash and a loud call for moderation.
Of course, employees want to be well compensated for the work they do. But with work taking up ever more space in our lives, money is no longer the top aspect many people value in a job. A recent survey by WeWork and The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative shows that the characteristic that employees value most in the workplace is work-life balance. Forty percent of the 30,000 global workers surveyed for The Future of Work and Cities said work-life balance is most important to them in a job, trumping those who cited pay (33 percent) and benefits (28 percent). These aspects were cited more frequently than opportunity for advancement, business outlook, and quality of leadership.
While work-life balance can seem like an ill-defined buzz phrase, it’s best summed up as having the time and emotional space to separate work from one’s personal life—to be able to, as much as possible, have a satisfying equilibrium between the time you work and the time you don’t. For some, that might mean getting home in time to have dinner with family; for others, it’s watching a movie without being interrupted by a boss asking questions about the next deadline.
Arianna Huffington believed the issue of work-life balance was so overlooked and deprioritized by our culture that she launched a company dedicated to touting its benefits. Thrive Global, a media company with a headquarters by WeWork, is focused on ending the epidemic of overwork. The media executive founded the business in 2007, after she collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion after working too much. She now advocates for maintaining clear boundaries between work and life, and practices what she preaches: She deliberately ignores her phone first thing in the morning in favor of meditation and exercise, and does focused work at home before heading into the office for meetings.
“I’m a big believer in the benefit of ruthless prioritization and structuring your day so you can take care of what absolutely has to be done, and then declare an end to it and be OK with incompletions for what can wait,” she has said.
Take that time off
As companies become aware of the dangers of burnout, they’re implementing policies to help their employees ward it off. A good way to start is by offering paid time off so people can take vacations, setting up the expectation that employees need not answer emails during hours outside of working ones, and—if you’re a manager—modeling these behaviors.
Another way companies can protect their employees’ well-being is to help cut down on what is often the most dreaded part of the day: commuting during rush hour. It’s a huge chunk of wasted time—and the reason so many employees move closer to work.
Changing company policy to allow employees to work remotely effectively reduces commute time for those who need it. It empowers employees who aren’t required to get face time in the office to structure their hours in a way that makes sense for them. Night owls can get started working later in the morning, parents could be there for school pickup—and both can avoid sitting in rush-hour traffic. As an added benefit, offering that flexibility signals that management trusts workers and values their contributions, whether that’s in person or through videoconferencing.
Another way to encourage work-life balance and reduce commute time is to establish office space in convenient locations. Microsoft did this when they gave all of its New York-based sales teams access to every WeWork location in the city. Employees were able to work from whatever location was closest to their homes, giving them back the time they would have otherwise spent in transit.
A sense of belonging
And it’s not just a clear delineation between work and nonwork time that employees want. During working hours (whatever and wherever they might be), employees want to collaborate with others and be part of something greater than themselves. Work, after all, is the place where most of us spend the vast majority of our lives.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they value a “sense of community,” according to the Future of Cities and Work survey, which tied “benefits” for third place in the list of employee desires. This preference is slightly more pronounced for older workers: 30 percent of workers over 45 years old identified community as an important characteristic, versus 26 percent of those workers under 45.
Feeling that you belong to part of a larger group or mission can give meaning to the emails sent, paperwork filed, and all the other administrative tasks that comprise a workday. Being part of a healthy and supportive team makes it more likely an employee will stay and thrive at a job. Particularly among people who don’t see eye to eye, collaboration helps a team as a whole identify blind spots that each individual might not otherwise have seen.
Nearly 70 percent of employees who are satisfied at work say they collaborate with others at least once a week, according to one survey by WeWork and Ipsos, the market research firm. Among unsatisfied employees, less than 50 percent say they have this level of collaboration. Besides retaining employees, there are other ways that collaboration can impact the bottom line. According to research from MIT, companies that scored in the top quartile for employee experience—those that made it easy for employees to work together and execute ideas—saw 25 percent higher profits than those that ranked in the bottom quartile.
Creating community in the office
As employees continue to prioritize collaboration and connection, the physical workspace has evolved to cater to their desires (think of the rise of coworking).
“Belonging is a huge part of doing your best work,” says Molly O’Rourke, research and design leader at IBM. When IBM’s CIO Office was looking for a new workspace, they wanted one that could accommodate their diverse group of employees and create a sense of community. The CIO Office began an initiative called Our Space, where people on the floor can give feedback on how they want to use the space.
The vibe of an office is comprised of the people who inhabit it, but architectural details can help. Internal staircases and hallways make it more possible for spontaneous run-ins to happen during the workday. Large, open kitchens and communal areas encourage employees to meet formally and informally. Innovative rooms that include not just a whiteboard but art, plants, and a variety of seating inject an element of playfulness into a meeting space and can help generate ideas.
“When I look at the most meaningful and impactful workplaces, I think there’s a deep alignment between tools, culture, and spaces,” says Deano Roberts, Slack’s vice president of global workplace and real estate.
Figuring out what keeps employees enthusiastic, happy, and fulfilled is one of the toughest—if not the toughest—nut to crack for businesses. Thirty-eight percent of business decision-makers surveyed in The Future of Cities and Work study say they’re having a hard time attracting and retaining talent. It’s difficult but essential to a business’s success. When employees are engaged, happy, and comfortable, it’s reflected in their work—they’re more productive and likely to innovate. According to McKinsey, high-performing workers are about 800 percent more productive than average workers in high-complexity jobs.
“I think the future of work is going back to what makes us human and remembering that people are not just resources. They have lives, and work is a portion of that life,” says IBM’s O’Rourke.
Anjie Zheng is the editor of Ideas by WeWork. Previously, she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Her work has also appeared in Fast Company, Quartz, and LitHub.