Workspace 2012 - Stress, Identity, and Ownership
Popular culture is a reflection of how employees view the world of work in the 21st century. “Office Space,” “The Office,” and of course the cartoon strip “Dilbert” offer comedic commentary on the mundane as well as the political aspects of work.
The characters and caricatures in these art forms take on familiar tropes: the I’m-just-a-cog-in-the-machine downtrodden employee; the buffoonish, bumbling boss; the cruel CEO, oblivious to the feelings of others. At the heart of many of these pieces is the stressed-out worker who has little to no control over their situation. We laugh at the plotlines, but often times find a bit of truth within those stories.
Professor Greg Laurence, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan-Flint School of Management has made it his life’s work to understand our workloads, our stress, and our relationship to the major component of our adult lives: our work.
The New Normal Workplace
Let’s face it, to be a worker in the 21st century is to be inherently stressed-out, tied to our iPhones, Droids, and Blackberries, waiting for the next assignment to come in, day, night, weekends, or all three. In this tough economy, everyone knows someone who has lost a job or can’t find work. With pension a novelty and retirement funds losing market share, older workers stay in the workforce longer while new college graduates wait anxiously for a bottom rung on the ladder of success. In this current economy the question is being raised over and over, are we heading to a day when retirement becomes impossible? For those lucky enough to have jobs, will there ever be a way to get away from work?
The workplace is experiencing a new normal, and this new normal is leading to reported higher levels of stress among workers. It is for these reasons that Laurence says workers are facing many uncertainties and some major challenges in their work-life. As stress levels of American workers continue to rise, there is a perception that all employees are working harder than ever. However, according to Laurence, a major factor of this stress is what employees are actually doing while at work. Various studies have shown that people actually only work on their work responsibilities about 50-60% of their total work week. The other time is taken up with conversations with co-workers, surfing the internet, or being distracted by social media and personal mobile devices.
Overload, Stress, and the Value of Personalization
According to Laurence, some people find themselves staring at a computer screen, bored with their job, while the person in the next cubicle with the same job, seems to enjoy work. The person who is struggling to focus could be dealing with stress caused by a work overload. Laurence’s research aims to better understand how work overload could help employees find more job satisfaction.
“A work overload can be something we bring upon ourselves, or it can be company imposed,” noted Laurence. “Deciding to take on more jobs and responsibility can actually be a positive thing and lead to more job satisfaction, but when it’s imposed by the company or organization, it can lead to less satisfaction.” In fact, Laurence says that some stress is even good for work performance.
Laurence, who is a member of the Academy of Management Scholars spent several years both in the U.S and Japan studying the effects of the workplace on job performance. He says many companies, like banks and other financial institutions require employees to keep their workspace free of personal items in an effort to put forth a professional image. Laurence tells the story of a bank employee he interviewed after a major takeover. Prior to the change, employees were allowed to keep personal effects and family photographs at the work stations. After the takeover, the company instituted a policy banning any personal items from work spaces, emphasizing the need for a “professional” work environment. One bank employee explained to Laurence that she was baffled by the corporate edict, saying that it was her job to build relationships with bank customers, and by taking away evidence of her relationships, such as photographs or even letters from clients, it made her job of building relationships much more difficult. Laurence points to studies that indicate that the more a workspace can be “personalized,” the less stress and work-overload an employee will experience.
“Allowing people to personalize their workspace, especially those in a low-privacy, open space environment, will reduce stress and give the employee a feeling of ownership,” noted Laurence. “And besides, having pictures of your family, and other personal items gives you something to talk about.” Laurence goes on to say that personalization has been about identity, but argues that it serves even more functions, such as relationship building and development. In essence, personalization becomes an organizational process.
Laurence states that humans are naturally territorial animals, and that extends to workspaces. How many personal items are too many, or how few are too few, all lead to the question, how many does it take to make you happy and encourage the feeling of ownership? The more the feeling of ownership can be instilled, the greater the job satisfaction, and that leads to less stress. Sometimes all it takes is taking a look at a picture of one’s family, and it helps to remind the employee why they work.
Ownership in the Work Place
The social theorist and German philosopher Karl Marx wrote at length about workers being alienated from their work. Marx’s theory is that in a capitalist society, workers do not own their labor power, and they are exploited by the Capitalist class for the purpose of profit. The concept of ownership is meaningful to employees, and having that sense of ownership, according to Laurence, can help to reduce workplace stress and job overload. “You don’t actually own something unless you’re an entrepreneur,” says Laurence. “Workplace conflict often arises due to issues of ownership.”
Some businesses have begun to introduce the concept of job crafting. Job crafting allows for the employee to keep some aspects of their current job, but to change their responsibilities. Laurence says some employees can figure out ways to take on new responsibilities, things they want to do, and shed unwanted ones. There is one catch, according to Laurence, it’s usually the top performing employees who are most easily able to make changes. “ Top performers get more leeway to change, even when it means they are actually doing less,” says Laurence.
Often, lower performing employees don’t get the chance to craft their own job. The notion of job crafting presents particular challenges for managers according to Laurence. Managers want employees to feel they were participants in decision-making and goal-setting processes, helping the employees to own the responsibility. It is why some companies, such as Google, allow time for employees to work on projects that interest them. This level of ownership fosters self-esteem within employees, and in the long run, benefits the health of the whole organization, not just the individual.
University of Michigan Human Resource Development, a.k.a. HRD, offers a treasure trove of professional development programs, courses, and customized training to all faculty and staff at all three U of M campuses.
If you are reading this from one of the Michigan campuses, HRD’s 2012-13 Organizational Learning Catalog likely arrived in your office via campus mail recently. Do yourself a favor and look through the many practical offerings they have for “leaders & best” at all levels!