Modern work is about people
Taking a global pulse
To understand the true state of work, we believe you have to understand the people doing the work (yes, this from a software company).
The Slack State of Work study draws upon the attitudes and experiences of 17,000 knowledge workers, from CEOs to frontline workers, ages 16 to 64. They live in 10 countries, span more than 40 industries, and work for companies of all stages and sizes. To contextualize the data, we conducted in-depth interviews with economists, workplace psychologists and frontline workers.
Here’s what we found:
People crave connection to their organization’s strategic vision. Understanding the big picture is no longer solely the domain of the C-suite. We found a direct correlation between monthly communication of company strategy (the most frequent option available) and people rating companies as “excellent” against a long list of attributes: career progression; collaboration; communication; effective use of technology; productivity; morale; training; work-life balance; culture; and openness to feedback.
Without insight into the organizational vision, people struggle in the workplace. While most people want to feel more engaged, there is a subset of employees who are disconnected from their company’s strategy, vision and set of operating principles. These “unaligned workers” are more likely than their “aligned” counterparts to have never heard their company discuss strategic goals. They focus less on innovation. And they are less likely to collaborate outside of their immediate teams. They are also significantly more likely to report low morale.
Given that connection and communication can shape each knowledge worker’s experience, we were eager to view the data through the lens of aligned vs. unaligned.
Aligned workers feel connected to their companies and inspired to do their best work.
The results speak to two very different experiences and outcomes: Aligned workers feel connected to their companies and inspired to do their best work. Unaligned workers feel disconnected, unempowered and pessimistic about their company’s future.
To thrive and compete in today’s complex world of work, organizations need workers who are eager to collaborate with others and who think strategically, according to World Economic Forum economist Saadia Zahidi. In a phrase, they need aligned workers.
Companies stand to gain a competitive edge by understanding these two categories of workers and the conditions that give rise to them.
Who are aligned workers?
Aligned workers have a clear understanding of their company’s strategy, their own personal goals and how those two things connect. Ninety percent of them know what they need to do in their roles to be successful.
They approach their company’s future with optimistic purpose and are nearly two times as likely as unaligned workers to believe that teams at their company are working toward a shared vision.
What’s more, they’re willing to act on that optimism. Three-quarters of aligned workers feel empowered to make strategic business decisions or to pursue new business opportunities.
Who are unaligned workers?
Unaligned workers, on the other hand, are 12 times as likely to rate morale and employee satisfaction at their companies as “very poor.” They are also far more likely than aligned workers to predict “significant decline” in their company’s financial future. What’s more, the majority of unaligned workers do not feel empowered to make strategic business decisions or pursue new business opportunities.
Understanding alignment in the modern workplace
Successful alignment takes different forms across organizations, industries and geographies. But one thing is clear: Consistent communication, a well-defined mission and vision, and an empowering and supportive culture are critical.
At Cityblock Health, a Brooklyn, New York–based, technology-driven health-care company, the benefits of aligning around a common set of goals and priorities are readily apparent. The company is reimagining health care for underserved communities by focusing on a singular mission: to put its members at the center of everything.
For Theresa Soriano, Cityblock’s northeast regional chief health officer, setting that North Star to guide all decisions and actions was essential. It empowers everyone from Cityblock’s Community Health Partners in the field to software developers in the office to recommend improvements and make real-time decisions. “If we don’t have that same mindset—of the members being at the center of everything we do—and if all of our activities don’t have that same purpose and why,” she says, “then all of the work that we’re doing runs the risk of being disjointed or fragmented.”
That clarity of mission has enabled Cityblock to redefine health care for thousands of members across the communities it serves.
To achieve alignment, start with the individual
There is no simple solution to achieving alignment, but there are strategies that can enable an aligned workforce. Top among them: focusing on the individual.
Harvard psychologist Susan David says that companies looking to build organizational alignment should start with individual alignment, which is when employees feel a sense of clarity and connection between their values and day-to-day work.
That clarity of purpose can ladder up to organization-wide benefits. “When people are allowed to bring their emotional truth to work,” David says, “that is when innovation, creativity, engagement and culture thrive in the organization.”
“When people are allowed to bring their emotional truth to work, that is when innovation, creativity, engagement and culture thrive in the organization.”
Organizations can also keep employees aligned and engaged by investing in the development of soft skills. World Economic Forum economist Zahidi, says uniquely human skills, such as collaboration, creativity and innovation, will become more important than ever before over the next few years.
“For a lot of knowledge workers, it is about being able to relate to your client in a different way. It is about being able to make a sale in a more humanized way. It is about being able to work and relate with your teams in a different way.”
The alignment paradox
Alignment also requires clear direction and limits. The average working person in a developed country deals with an extraordinary amount of information each day—the equivalent of reading 174 newspapers, according to Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar.
While all workers must deal with an unprecedented amount of information, aligned workers are the most susceptible to information overload. This creates an alignment paradox, where the highest-performing, most engaged employees can be overwhelmed by the very information and inputs that set them apart.
Aligned workers are the most likely to have 10+ meetings a day and receive the highest number of app messages, emails and phone calls. What’s more, 64% of aligned workers report spending 30 minutes or more each day simply switching between apps. That half hour of lost productivity adds up to more than 130 hours annually.
Beyond wasting time, too much information can impair knowledge workers’ ability to perform at their best. “The cost of choice and information overload is that people get distracted. People are making more errors because they’re multitasking,” Iyengar says. “And if you’re not giving yourself the time to focus, you are less good at engaging in creative problem-solving.”
However, there are steps both organizations and individuals can take to prevent information overload, according to Iyengar:
Be choosy about choosing: figure out which decisions you can delegate to others or algorithms and technology
At both an organizational and individual level, focus on three to five top priorities at a time
Consciously set guidelines around which technology tools to use and how to use them
Adapting to the age of automation
While the influx of information and technology has undoubtedly complicated some facets of work life, it has unlocked new potential in others.
Wickstrom Dairy in Hilmar, California, is a prime example. Aaron Wickstrom’s great-grandfather founded the dairy farm in 1940 with a single cow. Then, it was a manual labor-intensive, family-run affair. Today, Wickstrom Dairy is a sophisticated operation that uses robot arms for milking, apps for herd management and Slack for collaboration.
A self-described technophile, Wickstrom has positioned his dairy at the forefront of farm tech. Rather than preventing him from getting work done, technology has enabled him to invest in his most critical resource: people. It’s also allowed him to transition his farm to a sustainability-focused enterprise.
To make sense of the reams of data captured from all corners of his 1,000-acre farm, Wickstrom keeps his focus on—and his staff aligned around—the same goal: building a sustainable farming operation for the dairy farm’s people, animals and resources.
Alignment is not a finite resource. It’s a competitive advantage available to every worker and every company.
The data shows us that knowledge workers across the board want more transparency, more frequent communication, and more clarity around individual responsibilities, team goals and corporate strategies.
While there are forces at work on a global scale, the real story is human and still quite nascent. Companies acting now and with people in mind can reshape their trajectories toward more aligned workers who innovate, collaborate and feel empowered to make strategic business decisions.