Everything from who they collaborate with, to their particular workflows, to some of the more existential questions tied up in what they do. Questions like — what energizes us in our work? What depletes our energy and why? And what is a better way of working that we long and aspire toward? These conversations open up many more questions for us as practitioners —

How do we design with and within complex systems that include people? How can we collaborate with others in humane and ethical ways? And how do we personally navigate the transitions happening within our work? In this post I’m going to share a few of the insights I’ve had while working in the domain of work.

My intention for sharing is two-fold —

  1. To invite you to reflect on and consider your own unique relationship to your work, how ever you define or describe it.
  2. To offer you a new lens through which you can seek to understand the people who use, interact with, and rely on the things that you build, make, and design.

This lens is defined by three interrelated qualities I call — tensions, strategies, and stake.

And in the same way I might, as a researcher, look for unique patterns and insights through interviewing, I want to invite you into a conversation with each other for the sake of discovering and feeling out these qualities for yourselves.

How we think about work

Last summer, I took on a global, strategic research project to better understand how people think about and relate to their work. I was trying to understand — what does a better way of working mean for people around the world who, like us in the room, do various kinds of collaborative work and creative labor? What’s hard or challenging about what they do and how do they envision or define their “future work ideal”?

What I found through listening to and making sense of these stories was that every single person was navigating a set of tensions in their work and life. One of the individuals we spent time with last summer, let’s call her Ana, is a 30-year old designer from Brazil who works as a public servant inside a government agency. One of the tensions Ana is navigating is this tension we’re calling making a living and making a life.

Ana loves her work. And she wants to start a family. But because of the nature of her work, she’s regulated to be a “butt in the seat” from 8a to 5p. She doesn’t have access to the kind of strategies like flexible or remote work — along with the adjacent processes, practices, conditions, and tools — that would facilitate her ability to navigate this tension.

A tension exists when two or more things are in competition for a single, finite resource like our time, money, energy, or attention. The two aspects of a tension can both hold importance, relevance, or necessity in our life where we’re likely navigating numerous tensions simultaneously — a tension is not a ‘good/bad’ dichotomy. Tensions can exist by our own choice and by structural or situational factors beyond our control.

Here are a few other tensions we found —

Autonomy and interdependence

  • How do we navigate the need for personal thinking and working time and the need for a group to define, align, and move work forward collectively?

What’s emergent and what’s established

  • How do we navigate and integrate the emergence of new values, mindsets, processes, and tools with and alongside the existence of established ones?
  • How do we build and cultivate humane systems while operating within our existing entrenched (and sometimes inhumane) ones?

My hope is that some of this sounds familiar. That you can see and hear in these stories some of your own conflicts and challenges. So why, when our work is rife with all of these tensions, would we do more than just show up? Stick with it? Put in our time?

There’s something else we discovered last summer that helps us answer this questions.

What's at stake?

There’s so much at stake for us when we show up to our work. And there are real things at stake for the people who use, interact with, and rely on the things that you build, make, and design — do you know what they are?

We can think about and consider stake at different levels

  • What’s at stake for us as individuals?
  • As teams or groups of people trying to get something done?
  • As organizations or societies fulfilling a mission or purpose in the world?

There are some stakes we encountered that may be relevant to you, not just as designers and shapers of technologies, but as workers yourselves.

Our mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing

  • Mental health is foundational to our ability to participate — how do we remain healthy and rehabilitate what isn’t well?
  • How do we acknowledge, protect, and heal ourselves from the emotional and mental hazards of modern work?

Fulfilling our unique life’s purpose

  • How do we find and fulfill our unique purpose?
  • How do we create space for ourselves and others to bring conversations about purpose and personal callings into our everyday life and work?

A sustainable, hopeful future for ourselves and our planet

  • How do we act responsibly as individuals and leaders within a context of a numerous global, economic, social, and environmental crises?
  • How do our businesses and organizations contribute to efforts to shape a more sustainable and resilient future for people and the planet?
There are real things at stake for the people who use, interact with, and rely on the things that you build, make, and design — do you know what they are?

What's your strategy?

A few years ago, I led a different research project with the aim of understanding more about what energizes people, and what drains them, at work. What we discovered then, was echoed and reinforced in this research we did last summer. We navigate the tensions in our work and life using strategies — and the most generative and energizing strategies are the ones that are purpose-driven and joy-seeking at their core. In both studies we heard about things such as:

Ways to generate more joy:

  • Seek clarity of direction and achievable goals
  • Make time for focused work
  • Create space for self-care
  • Find supportive daily rituals and personal rhythms
  • Have an inspiring conversation
  • Visit a museum or explore a new place
  • Listen to music
  • Take a walk

Ways to generate more purpose:

  • Learn something new
  • Look for opportunities to make unique contributions
  • See and appreciate the fruits of your own labor
  • Give support and appreciation to others
  • Seek ways to contribute to a bigger mission

The next generation creative skills

Our skills as design practitioners support us to make and create beautiful powerful strategies that people try, use, adapt, and adopt for themselves. Things like tools that can facilitate collaboration. Platforms where we can share something we’ve created. Products that support us to make and create incredible things.

Being able to shift our perspective about people through cultivating a compassionate and conscientious mindset is one of those skills. And because it’s a skill, we can learn and develop it through practice.

Through research and inquiry we can seek to understand what is at stake for the people our work serves. Become aware of their unique tensions. Propose and design strategies after we’ve cultivated this understanding.

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