There has been a gradual shift over the last many years in how we think about work. We used to simply talk about “working for a living” but that has gradually changed to “following your passion.” But really, how many people are genuinely passionate about marketing, or supply chain management, or processing forms in the Orwellian named “human resources” department?
And those are the better paying lines of work. How passionate was the line cook who wrapped your burrito at lunch, or the driver who delivered that package you ordered yesterday? The truth is that few of us have heroic jobs, but nearly all of us have jobs that require most of our waking hours, most days. The coronavirus pandemic has jolted many people into reconsidering their jobs and the role of paid work in their lives, yet for many adults their job is an important source of human contact, interaction, and if all goes well, connection.
Seth R. Silver, Ed.D., is the principal of Silver Consulting, Inc., and an associate professor of Human Resource Development at St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Timothy M. Franz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and Chair at St. John Fisher College, as well as an organizational consultant through his firm, Franz Consulting, have taken a long look at the role of work in their new book Meaningful Partnership at Work: How the Workplace Covenant Ensures Mutual Accountability and Success between Leaders and Teams.
Silver and Franz examine how the pandemic has altered both how we work and the relationships we have with coworkers. As society becomes more polarized and isolating, they sense a powerful craving among both leaders and their teams for deeper connection and more authentic relationships. They consider how organizations can deliver those more meaningful relationships through a reset of how leaders and teams interact they call the “workplace covenant.”
We emailed Silver and Franz a few questions about the role of work in our lives, the importance of workplace relationships, if we are asking too much from employment, and how to increase engagement among gig workers.
In your new book you advocate for a “workplace covenant.” What does the term mean and how would a covenant be arrived at?
Our book examines, in detail a mindset, a model, and a medium. The mindset is one of Meaningful Partnership at Work. We believe Meaningful Partnership is an elevated state of Connection, Cohesion, Coordination and Collaboration (the 4 Cs). The model is ERTAP – to get to meaningful partnership at work, people need Empathy, Respect, Trust, Alignment, and that leads to Partnership. The Workplace Covenant is the medium or process to get to meaningful partnership – a practical tool that helps to create and continuously improve ERTAP.
The word “covenant” here has no religious connotation. We use that term to show the obligatory weight of an honor-bound commitment that is based on personal and professional integrity. It’s much more than a simple team charter or set of ground rules because these are usually one-time events that focus on behavior but ignore the quality of the relationship and the ongoing exchange between a leader and team. By contrast, the Workplace Covenant process starts with an initial group session where the leader outlines obligations and expectations relative to their team, and the team does the same for the leader. These obligations and expectations are compared and contrasted. Then, they are combined and refined into a set of obligations from the leader to the team, and a corresponding set of obligations from the team to the leader. The obligations are designed to support one another in a professional relationship so that both sides can be successful.
This, however, is only just the beginning. Over time, both sides use these covenants in various formal and informal ways to continuously improve ERTAP and the partnership. During periodic formal reviews, the leader and team assess adherence to the covenants and use two-way constructive feedback and appreciation to continue to improve their success. In sum, the Workplace Covenant process is a powerful and pragmatic relationship building process that enables important dialogue and interaction.
You emphasize the importance of “shared purpose and commitment.” That is a given for first responders and the people working at the ER, but few of us have jobs with such a clear and uplifting purpose. How can managers create authentic engagement and passion, as opposed to simply insisting people do their jobs competently and honestly, when the organization is a prosaic, profit driven company?
This is an excellent point. So many people leave a job voluntarily because of poor interactions and a bad relationship with an immediate supervisor. This one relationship is perhaps the single biggest factor for why people report dissatisfaction, disengagement, despair, and departure (what we call The Dreaded 4-Ds). And, employees at all levels, in fact, finish work feeling unsupported, unappreciated, and frustrated. For leaders and team members, it’s often a two-way street of frustration. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t focus on making sure that leader-team relationship starts and stays satisfying and successful. The relationships at work – those with a leader and with peers – significantly impact everything essential to being a high success organization. It profoundly affects the levels of employee morale, engagement, and turnover. It affects sales, customer service, and customer loyalty. The workplace covenant process improves this relationship, and people become more engaged, have better attitudes, and serve customers better. This is because they have more empathy for those with whom they work, respect their work contributions, trust that others will have their backs, and are aligned around company strategy, even in what you call prosaic, profit-driven companies.
You say both leaders and their teams crave deeper connection and more authentic relationships, but are people looking for more from their employment than they can reasonably expect? Are we looking for connection in the workplace that people once found at church, or through volunteering and community work?
Absolutely not. People should definitely be looking to feel supported at work so that they can be successful. Here’s why: There are, more or less, 48 years of a person’s work life from 18 years old until retirement at, let’s say, 65. Fortyeight year is about 420,000 hours. About 1/3 of that is sleep, leaving about 280,000 hours.
People generally work about 250 days a year, and at 8 hours per day, that means 96,000 hours. That means about 35% of our waking time is spent at work, probably more than we will spend doing any other activity.
Why all of this math? We spend a lot of our life at work. If that time is spent in miserable relationships with peers and leaders, it will bleed over into everything else that we do. This doesn’t mean that people should not find meaning elsewhere and that every job should be the most important thing that people do. But, it shouldn’t be a third of our waking time spent doing something awful. Instead, we would argue that people should spend time finding meaning elsewhere as well. For example, both of us spend time with our families. Both of us volunteer. Both of us even teach in our volunteer area of expertise. We both find meaning through outside connections. But, we also find meaning in our day-to-day jobs as well as in our important work relationships.
In recent years many companies, such as Uber or DoorDash, have grown huge by using 1099 workers instead of traditional employees who receive the usual benefits and job protections. Is that trend at odds with your vision for a workplace covenant?
Certainly some workers don’t fit this model. You’re correct – there is a small percentage of the workforce that is truly independent. However, most employees still have important relationships, and many of those working in the gig economy work another job as well where they are not so independent.
We also can add that some of these companies are also struggling with serious frustration within their contract workforces. Unions like the Teamsters and SEIU have taken advantage of this frustration to try to initiate organizing efforts – we think about Lyft and Uber specifically because some of their employees are struggling with issues around feeling supported, whether it’s the low pay due to the competition between them, a flat tire that lowers their ratings, or the fact that the driver’s app failed and someone else got the gig. Maybe if these companies started creating and continuously improving workplace covenants with their drivers and the leaders who loosely supervise the drivers, maybe this would be different and the two-way street of frustration would be reduced. We’ll only know whether it works if they try it within a set of drivers!