Is the Knowledge Workers’ Revolution Brewing?

As I’m getting deeper into writing for my upcoming book “Tech-led Culture” I find myself, once again, deploring how difficult it is to attempt to emulate hindsight and perspective when in the very middle of the history-making eye of the storm as we are now. I felt this way before when during the pandemic I wrote “People Before Tech” and had to reliably speculate what will transpire after. With the book written in 2020 and published in 2021, I agonised for a long time as to how I had gotten the final chapter entitled “What Happens Next - the Post-Pandemic World of Work” supposedly “wrong” by spending too long analysing the possibility of a serious financial downturn which was a fate that seemed to have evaded us until very recently. In other words, an outcome I was sure will be coming, took longer to arrive than I anticipated and had made me believe it will simply never materialise and that my prediction was wrong. This is a rare instance where I would have loved to have been wrong indeed but sadly, at least when it comes to the UK (and I would further presume the rest of the world will follow), I was right and the recession arrived after all. 

What I hadn’t anticipated - how could anyone?!?- was the massive backtracking and sheer u-turns some have done on remote work or big trends such as the great resignation, disengagement and quiet quitting not to mention this absolutely shambolic Twitter spectacle. I was far more hopeful in that book than I should have been. I even said at one point:

With the exception of the segment that the “Accelerate: State of DevOps” report classifies as “elite performers - those who were digitally native and already nearly fully “remote” and who therefore had a strong foundation of people-first mentality and of a genuinely Agile DNA with cultures so strongly infused with Psychological Safety that they were best poised for this new reality, everyone else will struggle to retain their gains in the ”Wot for WOW” (Ways of Thinking for Ways of Working) arena.” 

And nowadays I don’t know that I’d repeat that and still maintain there was any exception as the likes of Twitter or Meta - who would have been part of that “digitally native elite performers” group- turned out to have had nothing to be proud of eventually. But these are only the more evident examples of issues, the ones we ought to worry about even more are the majority of all other enterprises where there’s an abundance of lip service still but we see it all slipping away - the genuine care for employees, the preoccupation with societal and environmental matters and the permission to be human itself. Unfortunately, that’s the bulk of everyone. Places where the culture is barely survivable leave alone not conducive to thriving; where people only carry on for necessity; where passion and purpose are on every plaque but utterly non-existent; where good principles are slipping and everything from flexibility to agility itself are slowly withering away. 

How do I know that it’s that bad? Because more than 1 in every 3 employees wouldn’t wish their present job on their worst enemy. That’s what a recent study found.  

Nearly half (46%) of employees say they wouldn’t recommend their company or their profession to their children or any young person they care about. An alarming 38% of global workers (46% in the U.S.) say they wouldn’t wish their job on their worst enemy.

“Alarming 38%” they call it. But who’s alarmed? Other than us here, reading this who are genuinely appalled and up in arms, who else hasn’t slept thinking of this? The answer should be “Any exec with a conscience or at least a will to succeed” because the truth is that no matter how in denial they are, this state of sorry state of mind affairs can not continue and can not be ignored ad infinitum. To be doing work one finds this loathsome is an extreme health risk to people and the WHO should perhaps lobby with governments for strong anti-worker-abuse laws in lieu of the optional recommendations and guidelines they made for better mental health in the workplace that they brought about earlier this year. 

And let’s be honest, the extent of the denial regarding the HumanDebt and how miserable our workers are is unimaginable when everywhere we turn managers will instantly tell you how maybe these stats are true for others but *their* particular teams are psychologically safe and genuinely healthy and happy beyond belief. 

This sorry state of affairs doesn’t rest solely on insane dictator types, bad leaders and toxic cultures the organisation pretends to be blind to, but on the employees themselves as well, because they aren’t firmly communicating the level of unhappiness they are experiencing. Through a combination of fear (lack of psychological safety) and a self-flagellating belief that this is all they can hope for, they enable this careless treatment themselves by keeping their heads down and ploughing on.

Everyone does this to a degree. We collectively regard the adversity of being unhappy at work as part and parcel of adulthood so we never really demand better for ourselves. How preposterous and how damaging for ourselves and more importantly, for future generations, is it to not be vocal about our right to be happy? I put it to us that it’s about personal responsibility and accountability and we have to develop a sense of self that powers a healthy work-life so we can make all the noise we need to and stop going to jobs we wouldn’t even wish on our greatest enemy. All of us. All the time.

This accountability, empowerment and sense of self-respect will serve us all well from multiple points of view from clearly and kindly communicating where the big pain points are, to adapting to genuine outcomes-based flexible work and to getting us to develop a human-work practice that amounts to continuous improvement.

So yes, by Jove, "they" (the organisation, the bosses, the powers that be) do need to do better by us, no doubt about it, but we need to do better by ourselves as well and learn to speak up and be searingly honest about the dread, the pain, the suffering, the lack, the needs, the discomfort and so on. 

I don’t know if in my next book the likes of the Twitter moment will feature as having started a further downward spiral in the well-being of employees as we need to wait and see how it plays out but there’s a big chance that could happen, and all we can collectively do about it is, if we can, stand up to the way we are ignored and mistreated and demand better while showing we’ll take care of ourselves and respect ourselves first. 

Related: Supporting Employees Through Tough Times