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Design Together: A Future Work Life You Want to Lead

I’ve been thinking about work design for a while. And by “a while” I mean, since I was in high school. You might not be surprised to learn that my 17-year-old self went to the local Chapters store to buy and read Do What You Are : Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type. I wanted to know where and what I should be aiming for based on who I was. My curiosity around careers really involves the alignment of the person with their job and the organization who employs them. I know it goes way beyond personality now, so I’m starting to think more about how our interests, experiences, and skills help us lead at work in the right place. Some of that is finding work fit, but it might also be related to the design of the environment and the role description itself. Specifically to answer these questions: How do you work? And, what does that actually look like for the work you do?

Floating ideas swirling for your own future work design?

This past year, I think more folks are thinking deeper about work. There might be a few ideas swirling in your own head (as they are in mine). How do I want to work? What impact does my work have on others? Am I in right career path? Is there more than one way I could work? What if I found a new way to work, and I like it? Before the pandemic hit and these questions floated around my mind, I joined a book club conversation for Burnett and Evans (2020) new book Designing Your Work Life. It’s very similar to their original book (Designing Your Life) and it involves the design thinking to solve a personal life “problem” through curiosity, brainstorming, testing, and iterating on this process. The version extended of this book digs into more of this root prototyping cycle related to our work lives. These principles are shared as great work design resources as both reflection questions (or a book club discussion) and worksheets to complete the exercises/activities. The key idea is to record your ideas to help create a career path forward:

“Designers don’t think their way forward. Designers build their way forward”

Designing Your Working Life(Burnett & Evans, 2020, p. xxv)

Now that we are seeing efforts to transition back to the workplace and I want these swirling questions to land, I thought it might be helpful to ask some targeted questions around work design for myself — and maybe even you and your team. Let’s ideate together to reinvent the workplace we want to be a part of — and let’s work on these redesign efforts together — this should not be a solo project. Most design teams are just that — a group of people to offer insights, test out ideas, and collaborate on the iterations of this process. By asking yourself and your team these questions you have the ability to offer agency and empower others. Coming from a year of unknowns, this might be a refreshing activity. So, whether you’re heading back into a physical office space OR you are considering how do better design how you work, consider these questions a way to envision all the spaces, practices, and interactions you want to see in your best design of your working life:

Explore and Learn: Be Curious About What’s Possible

Consider bringing exploration and play into what could be at work. Find ways to make space to see and learn about new opportunities by asking:

  • How do you want to work?
  • What did you learn this past year about how you work?
  • What’s the most interesting part of your job and what your team does?
  • What is your superpower? And how does this strength compliment/contribute to your team?
  • How do you learn about what your teammates are working on?
  • What skills, abilities, or talents do you want to work on?
  • What ideas or topics are percolating for you right now?

Try Stuff: Move Beyond Theory to Application

You need to test things out. Make plans to make and do the things you are thinking about. Consider how you giving permission to try and fail at new ideas, practices, policies, and ways of working. To make the change, you may need a trial period to experiment with the “what if?” and possibilities. Ask yourself and your team these questions:

  • What is one thing you are going to explore more about your own work habits?
  • What habits do you want to ADD and SUBTRACT from your work life?
  • How can you try out and test new ways of working?
  • What ways can adjust or modify either your meeting structure or cadence?
  • What would you like to change about you and/or your team’s communication style?
  • If you’re going to say YES to a new way of working, what will you say NO to?
  • What is one easy thing you can change about your work life right now?

Reframe Problem: Get Unstuck to Figure It Out

It’s time to step back and look at the problem from another perspective. Reframing will help you and your team to examine your biases, open up to new solutions, and make sure you’re focused on the actual root problem. In thinking about how to get unstuck, ask yourself and your team:

  • What perspective do you usually take?
  • How are you looking at your work life now?
  • What other ways of work design might be more interesting for you and your team?
  • What ways are you reviewing your calendar schedule? Monthly? Weekly? Daily?
  • What time will you need to gain this perspective?
  • What road blocks are in the way? And, what might be easy barriers to remove right now?

Just A Little Patience: Make Messy Mistakes in the Middle

As we make new plans and form new ideas + test these out — be aware that it gets messy in the middle of this cycle. There will be mistakes, a need to let go of things, and a greater awareness that it’s a journey and not a destination. Letting go of goals or desired results will help you to learn what good work design is — and you will want to ask you and your team these questions as you go to understand this process:

  • What is germinating in your mind about your work life?
  • What is not working right now?
  • What have we learned from this experiment?
  • What are the next steps you and your own team might take?
  • What’s the worst thing that can happen if you tried something?
  • What would happen if something didn’t work out as you redesign?
  • What’s the best thing that might happen if you rethink your work design?

Ask For Help: Find Radical Collaborators for Support

You do not have to dive into this design work alone. Great things originate when more people coming together. Figure out who will be part of your collaborative process and what ways you will start to ask for help for your design journey. Get ready for some real feedback, and be prepared to ask the right questions to offer critical advice and strategies for the new work design efforts:

  • How did you start your last team meeting?
  • What resources are available to support effective collaboration?
  • How could you build better connections on your team?
  • What ideas do you have for making room for care and support at work?
  • How could you integrate your team’s work with another at your organization or on your campus?
  • How can you get the support and/or training to improve you and your team’s work?
  • What members of your professional network and/or organization can you call for help?

Reference: Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2020). Designing your work life: How to thrive and change and find happiness at work. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

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