There’s a saying that “time is the only non-renewable resource,” and its central warning, that life is short, came into sharp relief as the pandemic dragged on last year. Weeks began to blend together. Often, the clock ran out before I could finish everything I had planned for a particular day.
I noticed a paradox: In some ways, time seemed to slog on with punishing monotony. Monday through Friday could feel like forever. Yet, there was never enough time to pursue my interests outside of work. The weekends flew by in a flash.
Two things were true: There was too much time; there was not enough time.
A gnawing feeling of burnout, compounded by an era of myriad converging global crises, prompted me to take a step back. I began to think carefully about what would need to change for me to feel like I was living a full life—a life in which my time was valued as a precious resource. A clear picture emerged. I needed less of my waking hours to be consumed by thoughts of work, work, work.
In a candid end-of-year conversation with my (very empathetic) boss, we arrived at a solution: Instead of a raise, I would transition to a 4-day workweek. Although eschewing monetary reward might seem like an unconventional path toward increased job satisfaction, it made perfect sense to me. Upon reflection, I’d realized that a salary bump would not improve my vitality, but more free time absolutely would. A bonus day for self-development was a gift: It would afford me time to work on passion projects, like my novel and freelance writing, and encourage me to spend more time outdoors (some weekdays—working from home—I wasn’t leaving the house at all). The arrangement was a life-line; I could come up for air.
At its heart, the conversation was a re-frame: I was receiving a pay increase—the same salary for reduced hours—I just wouldn’t see the increase in my paycheck. And while my employer would incur a cost in a modest reduction in my work output, it wasn’t an added financial cost, and they could retain a key member of the team who was on the verge of a catastrophic meltdown. It was a win-win.
I learned there’s a term for this kind of creative arrangement: “idiosyncratic deals,” or “I-deals,” which are customizations in employee-employer agreements that meet the needs of both parties and offer a valued worker something outside standard parameters.
I’m privileged to even be able to consider such an accommodation, let alone ask for it, and am aware this type of flexibility is less available to frontline laborers across the service and health care industries, as well as many others. But if you’re in a situation with potential wiggle room, now’s the time to give “I-deals” some thought.
Today more than ever, organizations need creative solutions for addressing burnout and retaining talent. As many studies will attest, a scourge of disengagement and dissatisfaction is ravaging the workforce.
And although the reasons behind people reimagining their workweeks are varied, they’re linked by a central theme of folks reckoning with how they want to spend their time. With this in mind, there are three connected trends informing why these creative arrangements might be attractive for both workers and employers.
Employees are in crisis.
As director of content at ConantLeadership, a boutique leadership firm, I write a leadership-focused newsletter and help design resources for modern managers. Since I’m immersed in the issues facing businesses, it’s been easy to track a growing trend of discontent.
Over the past 12–16 months, employees from the junior to the most senior levels asked themselves the same question I’d asked myself: “If life is short, how do I want to spend it?” Their resounding answer was similar to my own. Most people found they didn’t want to spend the majority of their time on earth consumed by work stress on top of everything else going on in the world and in their lives.
In 2021, a viral article about “languishing” gave name to this collective ennui and lack of motivation. That summer, millions had left their jobs and continued to jump ship for the remainder of the year, an unprecedented mass exodus that’s been dubbed “The Great Resignation,” and more recently, “The Great Reshuffle.”
Gallup, a global analytics firm, found that 7 out of 10 employees experienced burnout in 2021 and they observed “alarmingly high levels of stress and worry,” all of which contributed to people exiting the job market or seeking new positions.
The crisis created an employee-driven talent marketplace as workers resigned in droves, fleeing inflexible bosses, draconian HR policies or roles they realized no longer interested them. Most were not motivated by pay, but by a desire for better culture and work-life balance. Millions of jobs were vacated, and many open positions remain unfilled to this day.
To attract and retain key talent as an employer, it’s helpful to understand how this crisis has shifted attitudes about what employees value most. And to design a more fulfilling life as an employee, it’s heartening to know it’s possible to find creative solutions.
Grind culture is out and well-being is in.
As a malaise crept into the shared consciousness over the past two years, the tone in the popular conversation about work-life balance has pivoted. There’s less of an expectation to “rise and grind,” and more of a tilt toward affording grace to ourselves and others.
Talking about mental health has become more normalized in the workplace and awareness of the benefits of prioritizing well-being have grown. The space to pursue rest, mental health, exercise and hobbies has been shown to rejuvenate people for their jobs, rather than detract from their focus.
And flexibility in where and when people work—be it in a fully remote or hybrid workplace—has quickly graduated from a perk to a prerequisite. White-collar workers are so allergic to spending every day in an office that one recent Atlantic article predicts the five-day workweek will become extinct altogether.
Acknowledging this culture shift means designing talent acquisition and HR strategies that honor the growing desire for flex-work. And it requires trusting that giving people more room to live full lives will result in enhanced performance and reduced turnover.
Smart leaders have a unique opportunity to win the talent wars.
The crisis of employee dissatisfaction coupled with a tonal shift in what people expect from their workplaces chart the path forward for leaders. To retain your top team members, and compete for the best talent, you must address worker concerns about time, wellbeing and task capacity.
Taking a more humane tack isn’t just a “nice” thing to do; it’s the smart way to win the talent wars. A growing body of research shows that leading with a “people-first” approach is the most effective way to boost performance and quell resignation rates. A recent McKinsey report reveals that what exhausted employees want most—more than increased pay and benefits—is to feel “valued” by their organizations; by leading with empathy, you can draw talent toward you, turning the “great attrition” into the “great attraction.”
Whether you’re convinced or not, the truth is that your competition is already answering the call. Various “I-deals” like mine are rapidly growing in popularity, including the 4-day workweek, sabbaticals, more vacation time, flex-work and a multitude of other compromises. Contracts that honor people’s growing desire for more time to pursue their interests, and that offer a more balanced life, are gaining steam. As an employer, if you want to stay ahead of the talent game, it’s wise to adapt to the new paradigm before you get left behind.
The world has changed. Employees on the verge of burning out or giving up should take solace in the knowledge that they are uniquely positioned to get their needs met in today’s marketplace. And leaders should feel confident that they’re doing the right thing by adopting more enlightened workplace practices.
Granted, I’m lucky. I work for a savvy CEO who has been at the forefront of the talent discussion for decades, and who understands that the more you honor your employees, the more they will honor the enterprise. But if you’re in a less desirable situation, know that you don’t have to settle.
Photo by @Hanni/Twenty20