“Companies that can strike a balance between what their employees want and what they as a business can provide ultimately benefit from staff who work more efficiently and identify more strongly with the brand.”
A conversation with Prof. Christian Blümelhuber about well-being and what purpose work will hold in the future.
One issue that’s set to remain part of our working lives is that of well-being.
Are people comfortable in their working environment and, if not, what will make them so? Bright light, dimmer light, more desks, fewer desks… This question has been part of organisational theory for as long as anyone can remember. It’s all about increasing efficiency. Nowadays, though, it’s no longer just a question of being more efficient but also about challenging employees to empower themselves to feel good at work – and be allowed to be so, too.
So where does this trend, this “challenging” of the employee come from? What’s made the feelgood factor a key value to have?
For one, because we don’t keep our professional and personal lives as separate as we used to, either in theory or in practice. These days we have a rather holistic view of ourselves as human beings – be that at home with the family, at work or out and about in our leisure time. Another issue is globalisation, which is giving many people more options than just the traditional nine-to-five job. People are communicating across time zones, often holding meetings late in the evening due to the time difference, and are checking their e-mails at the weekend or while on leave. In other words, the working environment is encroaching on our free time. However, this actually means that we are increasingly demanding a greater sense of freedom from our workplace – a feeling dominated by a desire for happiness and well-being – and that this feeling is also ultimately becoming part of work culture. The reinterpretation of what it means to be healthy is a further factor. It’s now no longer simply a matter of not being ill – we need to feel fit and well. These issues are making new demands on our workplaces as well as on work itself.
Who’s responsible for overseeing this change – the employees or the companies?
What we’re dealing with here is a socio-cultural trend, I think. So everyone bears responsibility. Individuals for themselves, but the company too, of course, for its staff. In industries where it’s harder to find good employees and, especially, keep them, these people also have the power to push for a certain level of comfort and request certain perks.
So does that mean employee well-being is already part of corporate culture?
Well-being and the feelgood factor in a workplace setting are chiefly Western socio-cultural phenomena. In Africa, for instance, where many people have no work at all, they face different issues and problems. In the West, however, it’s primarily a question of efficiency. Companies that can strike a balance between what their employees want and what they as a business can provide ultimately benefit from staff who work more efficiently and identify more strongly with the brand. So the question you need to ask yourself is this: “How can I go about gaining the loyalty of highly qualified staff who could choose to work anywhere?”
Can you also see any developments in terms of what purpose work will hold for people in the future?
For more and more people, especially the younger generation, work no longer serves simply to pay the bills – rather, it’s there to give their lives meaning. So I think that an individual’s personality is also changed significantly by what working means to them. In the future, it might be that your actual profession – the one you once trained or studied for – creates less of this meaning than the contribution that you make to a specific company.
In your opinion, what changes will the use of artificial intelligence, robotics and so on bring to the value that work has?
On the one hand, it’s entirely rational to say that AI is superior to purely human intelligence in a few areas, or even in many areas. On the other hand, this superiority is only utilised – is only worth anything – if its benefits are recognised, culturally accepted and taken on board. Processes like this take time, something that predictions often ignore. Nevertheless, there’s no question that increased digitalisation, increased robotisation, will become the order of the day, not least for reasons of efficiency. One really key issue will therefore be how artificial intelligence and human beings will interact – not just on the factory floor but in the office too.
So what purpose do you see the office fulfilling in the future?
If you think about it, offices are a place for communication. And if the march of technology is changing how we communicate and who we communicate with, then the key question to ask in the office is this: “How can we create a purposeful communication environment that doesn’t leave the people behind?” The new challenge will probably be opening channels of communication – not between people or between a human being and a computer, but if an entirely new player comes onto the scene, maybe.
Prof. Christian Blümelhuber has been Professor for Strategic Organizational Communication at Berlin University of the Arts since 2013. He works and has published in the fields of branding, communications, Euro-marketing, future management and glamour.