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To coast or not to coast?

We all recognise the concept of ‘coasting’ at work.

In the Why BWell report from Barnett Waddingham, 32% of respondents claim this is their current experience.

At 4and20million - a business designed to improve working practices for the benefit of people and businesses - we talk with many companies who express similar sentiments on the topic of ‘coasting’.

During many of our conversations, a sense of disenchantment is widespread and stubbornly rooted. It’s a repetitive story peppered with compelling statistics, disquieting anecdotes and little disagreement.

Disengagement is high. Productivity is low. Stress is soaring. Fulfilment is waning.

There is a common consensus around the need for intervention.

Let’s tackle the notion of ‘coasting’

Rarely is coasting an intentional choice. Few people turn up intent on doing a mediocre job.

In Dan Cable’s book Alive at Work, he explains that workplace disengagement is not a motivational problem. It’s a biological one. He observes that humans aren’t built for routine and repetition. We’re designed to crave exploration and learning.

It’s in our nature to pursue tough, purposeful and rewarding challenges. These are the moments that resonate most deeply. Yet the way we structure our companies prevents us from following our innate, productive impulses. The result is predictable. We shut down.

We believe that the conversation needs to shift away from the lazy view of ‘coasting individuals’ as the architects of their own problems. Rather, we should be addressing the discomfiting notion that it’s our working environments, structures and cultures that are responsible for the spread of the ‘coasting’ virus.

We’ve always done it this way...

Our structures and processes are often inherited, yet this doesn't make them effective. In fact, it’s a root cause of the UK’s productivity problem. We deploy industrial age working practices in a modern, digital economy.

So why do we collectively shrug our shoulders when it comes to tackling unproductive working structures? Is it simply that it’s too daunting to change? It’s certainly easier to blame individuals for their behaviour than to tackle an entrenched culture.

Often, the scope and scale of the challenge seems overwhelming. However, if you can isolate the chief issues that leave us feeling disengaged, unproductive and stressed then we can start to tackle them.

At 4and20million, we observe three key themes that nurture unproductive working cultures.

1: 'Continuous Partial Attention'

Open-plan offices, constant email notifications, phone pings, people hovering – we work in a world of infinite distractions. We struggle to focus on a specific task and when we do, it’s not long until our next interruption.

This continuous partial attention takes a toll on the depth and quality of our work. It’s also inefficient, extending the time it takes to finish any given task.

Simply put - multitasking is a myth. We do better, higher quality work when we do things one at a time. And we complete things faster.

2: 'Blurred lines'

Blurred lines are a problem for the increasing proportion of us who work in the information economy where our jobs rely on knowledge sharing.

Tasks are rarely finished. They blur from one unfinished project into another in a stream of proposals, revisions, briefs and meetings. We rarely get the satisfaction of a job being finished.

Compounding this issue is the erosion of a clear finishing line to the working day. The lines that separate work, social and family lives are blurred, due to the omnipresence of email on our mobiles and the ability to take our laptop home for the evening. Work encroaches into every facet of your life and leaves you feeling like you never fully switch off.

Work anxiety follows us everywhere. As a result, people can view ‘coasting’ as a preferable, healthier choice.

3: 'Immediate response'

Ubiquitous email access - and the accompanying culture of immediate response - has become so ingrained in our professional habits that we have lost any sense that we have control over it. We start the day with a clear idea of our priorities. This sense of clarity is then obliterated by the mere action of habitually opening our inbox.

This desire to respond immediately is more about demonstrating that we are busy, rather than performing the role we are employed to do. Status management usurps productivity.

It’s not a lost cause!

There will always be emails to read, mundane work to be done and distractions.

However, too many of us have accepted that stress, exhaustion and disengagement are part of the modern work deal. When success appears to come with these costs, it’s not surprising that many feel demotivated and disconnected. We accept this because the problems described appear insurmountable. They aren’t.

It took us a decade into the industrial revolution to get smart about the opportunities that presented themselves.

We now face a similar dilemma. Do we work the way we have always worked? Or do we turn technological tools to our advantage, improving the quality of our output and engagement?

Sometimes we need to remember that it’s not in our nature to simply accept what the world has on offer. To borrow again from Dan Cable;

“The world did not foist smartphones and AI onto us. The world is not doing this to us; we are doing this to ourselves.”

As a species, we have overcome far greater challenges than reducing coasting at work. We just need to know where to start.

So we can agree that there is lots we can do to make work more purposeful, productive and rewarding.

We can agree that it will take time, effort and focus to make these changes.

And we can recognise three themes that directly sabotage company performance, team productivity and staff motivation.

Now that we’ve identified them, let’s make it the unavoidable, critical responsibility of our company leaders to take steps to actively combat these issues.

We have the knowledge and capabilities to change the way we work for the better.

For our people. For our businesses. For ourselves.

So let’s get started.


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