- Arvind Malhotra, a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, studies the future of work.
- He says people want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on.
- The challenge for companies is to create jobs that reflect workers’ desire for autonomy.
- This article is part of a series called “Future of Work,” which examines how business leaders are rethinking the workplace.
What makes a job meaningful? Does the five-day workweek make sense? And is work-life balance even possible? These questions have consumed Arvind Malhotra for nearly two decades – long before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.
Malhotra, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said the pandemic has sharpened his focus. The coronavirus has upended so many people’s work lives, and there is no returning to the old ways of doing things.
“I just don’t think you can go back to what was called ‘normal,’ in terms of how work is designed, how work is conducted, or how employees feel about what they do,” he said.
The desire for autonomy is quickly becoming a dominant force in the workplace – a trend that has big implications for both employers and workers themselves. “People want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on,” he said. “And the challenge for organizations will be to create jobs that not only reflect workers’ desire for autonomy but also match up with their interests.”
Insider recently spoke with Malhotra about how these trends may shape the employment landscape.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
You say that worker autonomy will become an organizing principle of the workforce of the future. Explain.
I see three trends related to [people wanting more] autonomy. The first is work autonomy. Do you get to do things that are interesting to you? And can you choose what you pursue and what you work on? The second is locational autonomy. Where are you going to do your work? You could want to be in Boston because that’s where your family is, or you could choose to be in Colorado because of a personal interest in hiking and mountain climbing.
And third, which is related to that, is what I call time autonomy. This is about choosing your hours of work and getting away from that old notion of the 9-to-5, five-day workweek. To me, that is a vestige of the old age of work.
What does the next generation of workers want from their jobs? And how are people thinking about how their jobs and organizations complement their skills, interests, and intrinsic motivations?
Individuals are really looking for interesting work that capitalizes on their skill sets. The reason they lose organizational identification is that the work just stops being interesting to them. It’s just boring. So then it becomes purely transactional: They’re paid an annual salary, and they do the work – that’s it.
Organizations in the past were only focused on what work they need to get accomplished. And they said: “Hey, we hired you. Do the job, whether it matches your interests or not.”
Now, there is a greater need to match individuals with the right work rather than make them do work that might not interest them. People are increasingly saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually gave me work that interests me. Or at the very least, let me choose from a menu of options of work that I could do, rather than rigidly forcing me to do the same work all the time.”
Research suggests that younger workers increasingly want their jobs to reflect their values and serve a purpose beyond just a paycheck. What are you seeing?
The next generation is looking for meaning in their work. It could be work that’s meaningful to them personally – where they can use their skills or get to learn new ones. Or it could be that their work is socially meaningful and has an impact on society. If they can’t get it in their corporate identities, they are looking for freedom and capacity to do it elsewhere.
In my own industry, for instance, I see a lot of people working pro bono with organizations to do socially relevant things. This could mean going to a high school and teaching a weekend course, or it could be going to places that are economically depressed and working with entrepreneurs there. I see people demanding flextime to go do these very things.
This has been a hard year for workers in so many industries and occupations, and many people feel burned out. Are you hopeful that things will get better?
I’m super hopeful. I’m hopeful that leaders make a considered effort to reflect on the capacity they’ve built over this year. They’ve built a huge resiliency in their organizations, which is an asset that’s worth mining. They’ve learned what it means to work remotely. They’ve seen what they did wrong and what they did right. And then they can continue working in this mode, whether the pandemic is still raging or not. Moving forward, hopefully, they will give people more autonomy in terms of their work.
But I also think there’s got to be a more systematic introspection toward better work-life balance. Organizations need to prioritize the health and mental health of their employees. They need human-resources people who are very diligent and proactive in thinking through these issues. There has to be more balance.