Why Does it Take a Catastrophe to Change the Way we Work and Live?

By Dr. Laura Hambley Lovett with Philip Vanhoutte

November 2, 2020

Our work and lives have been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Through this catastrophe there is opportunity for positive changes in both our work and home lives. Now being almost 9 months in, organizations are examining longer-term strategies beyond the immediate shift of their people working from home to stop the spread.

I chose to interview Philip Vanhoutte, as he is a global thought leader when it comes to the concepts of smarter work and the realization of human potential. Not only has he written The Smarter Working Manifesto (available in five languages), he has just co-founded the European Smart Work Network changing best practices around smarter working across many countries. Philip is passionate about spreading the word on a holistic approach to working that is more than just home or office, but rather a blend of these and other locations, such as coworking spaces, customer offices, and working in nature. Having the privilege of Philip as our Board Chair for Work EvOHlution, I knew that this interview would shed some important learning and insights for many globally, and am summing up some key takeaways for you.

What has been unhealthy about the way we work, and why does this need to change?

The sudden shift to remote work was bumpy indeed, with no time to prepare, train, or strategize in advance. Yet, now that we can look back on what workplaces were like pre-COVID-19, we have the opportunity to examine more objectively the good and the bad, and determine where changes can be made moving forward. Philip reminds us that workplaces as we know them have, in many cases, been unhealthy for human beings.

According to Philip Vanhoutte, commuting every day (which is expensive, draining, and dangerous), only to sit at the same desk all day, is distinctly unhealthy. Further to this, office buildings often suffer from poor air quality and lighting, disruptive acoustics, constant interruptions, and a lack of nature indoors.  In addition, many people suffer from bosses who haven’t had training nor experience in the psychological aspects of leading and motivating people. Lack of good leadership further deteriorates people’s experience of work, and can certainly contribute to mental, emotional, and physical health challenges. Philip referenced the book Dying for a Paycheck as an example of the alarming impacts work can have on our health, with workaholism running rampant.

How has the pandemic been an opportunity to evolve our work lives?

Shifting from the doom and gloom of the unhealthy landscape of work and workplaces, we discussed the opportunities that abound through and beyond this pandemic. Philip explains how COVID-19 has “dropped a big bomb on nine-to-five, Monday to Friday work”. Those who believed that working from home could never work have had to take their foot of the brake, and many have seen the potential of remote work being a viable alternative.

With a hybrid or blended mix of remote and office work in many organizations’ futures, Philip emphasizes how a well-designed workspace is needed now more than ever before. Yet, this will take a careful and educated examination of the potholes that exist in our technologies and office design (including acoustics), as well as ensuring that there are focused/private spaces both at home and at the office.

How and where we work is a complex series of decisions, and has finally become a “board room matter”. Executives need to understand the landscape of smarter working, and openly examine leadership deficits that exist, so that we can re-humanize work and workplaces. The good news is that there are excellent experts on these topics, and much research has been conducted to provide evidence on what works. Organizations need, more than ever, energetic, positive, servant leadership.  HR should not be responsible for only Human Resources, but champions of Human Realization. 

Your work into nature@work is fascinating, can you share a few tips about how nature at work helps us thrive?

Philip Vanhoutte passionately explains how many people have been suffering from “nature deficit disorder”.  He co-founded Ozadi to improve the health and productivity of individuals, teams and organizations through advocacy, education, and guidance. Nature, whether indoors or outdoors, has many scientifically proven benefits to our health and wellness. It boosts our creativity and productivity, leads us to be healthier, kinder, and more generous, and reduces our stress.

Philip describes the importance of setting new habits to bring more nature into our work lives. His tips include the following for you to consider:

  • Every mid-morning and mid-afternoon, take at least 15-minutes to enjoy nature. Take a longer break at lunch. Ideally get yourself outdoors for a walk.
  • Try “walking meetings”, as “being in nature can be like a creative shower”. I have personally found these to be some of my best discussions with my team members or colleagues.
  • If you cannot make it outside due to the weather (as we are experiencing here in my city of Calgary, Canada due to heavy snowfall), at least:
    • Look out the window to see the sky and trees.
    • Bring in art and screensavers that depict nature.
    • Ensure you have plants inside. If you are like me and have trouble keeping them alive, consider hardier varieties that need less care.

I also mentioned in the interview how one year ago my family got budgie birds, which bring the sounds and sites of nature inside and bring us joy. Philip confirms that the key sounds of nature are water, wind, and birds!

  • Philip mentions how he believes in many places, 80% of what we do can be done outdoors. He recommends NotaDesk – a portable desk that can attach to a tree, a window etc. Here is a photo of Philip working at his NotaDesk.

If you could have one wish for a better world when it comes to work/life, what would it be?

Philip wishes that organizations would focus much more on the human dimensions. More training on leadership and culture is needed, and starting to implement that focus in post-secondary institutions, such as business schools. Philip comments on how alarming it is to him that we can just suddenly make anyone into a leader of people. He vehemently noted that there should be a “leadership driving license”; and that we should stop allowing people to be managed by those who do not pass the test.

Having dedicated my career as an Organizational Psychologist specializing in leadership, I am absolutely in agreement that we need to stop leaving leadership to trial and error. To lead people well is a gift, and it requires fit, training, motivation, and readiness. It can do great

damage to other peoples’ mental and emotional health, as well as confidence levels, when done poorly. Philip even mentions how the number one cause of burnout is having a “bad boss”. Being a servant leader is important, and another of Philip’s recommend books is Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.

If you have not yet watched this podcast, there are several more nuggets of learning about risk of burnout, and how Philip has stayed a step ahead of workaholism, which he and many of us are prone to.

 

Thank you, Philip, for your insights, inspiration, and enthusiasm you have brought to so many people and organizations in our challenged, yet hopeful, world.

 

 

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