The Quick Summary
If work were more like our hobbies, we would all put in more effort and be happier about it. For most, a job is just a means to an end and we hope we have enough energy left over to do what we enjoy at the end of the day. A better way forward is to mix these concepts. You can give employees time to work on what they want to work on while also ensuring the necessary functions of the business are still met.
For the full story, keep reading.
Work Versus Hobbies
Think about the last time you did something solely because you wanted to. No expectations, no requirements, no deadlines, just a personal desire to do something of your own volition. Maybe you did it for fun or because it was relaxing. Perhaps it fulfilled you and made you feel proud and accomplished. Did you try to rush that activity or did you gladly put hours in and wished you could have continued doing it even longer?
When we are engaged in something we enjoy, we work harder, longer. We require almost nothing to convince us to do it and we are grateful for the opportunity. That's the great thing about hobbies. Even the hobbies that involve exhausting work are tasks that we enjoy because it's what we enjoy.
Now, compare that level of joy, dedication, and effort with the last time your job required you to work on a project you didn't actually want to work on. Workplaces spend countless resources trying to make people work harder, while boosting morale, while keeping turnover low. One easy solution? Let people choose what they work on.
The Necessary Work
The first opposition to this idea is always the argument that certain work needs to be done. You can't give people the option to simply not do it. That is completely true. At the end of the day, businesses still need to run and certain tasks are mandatory to ensure the company can keep doing what it does. However, it isn't so cut and dry that you can't pursue this concept at all for fear of certain tasks not being completed. There are numerous ways to give workers more autonomy while also ensuring the necessary work is accomplished.
First This, Then That
One option is something most people are familiar with from growing up. The notion of being able to go play but only after you finished your homework or cleaned your room. I cannot stress enough how much you should never treat your coworkers like children. Rather, give context about what work is important, necessary, and urgent. Then, reward their ability and willingness to do that vital work by giving them complete freedom as to where they spend their time and energy after that.
At most workplaces, completing boring Task A just means I have to now complete boring Task B. The faster I do one thing, the more responsibility I have to take on in other areas. It can unintentionally incentivize dragging work out because there's no benefit to finishing earlier. But what if there was? What if finishing Task A meant I could work on a passion project, learn a new skill, or help a colleague with something they are working on? You'd see employees who are both more productive and more engaged.
Let Someone Else Do It
Time and time again, I've been in situations where a manager will tell me there is a certain task that everyone hates so they have to make someone (or everyone) do it so that it's fair. They say that if it were left up to choice, nobody would do that certain task. Time and time again, I prove that manager wrong. Yes, the vast majority of employees do hate that task, but there has always been at least one person who actually preferred that task.
In these situations, it's in everyone's best interest to let the few people who want to do the work do it. It means everyone else no longer has to do the work they don't want to do so that they can spend their time elsewhere. It might also mean the people allowed to perform the commonly undesirable task may be learning a new skill they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to do.
Incentivize The Important Stuff
Again, if you recognize that certain tasks are vital to the organization, compensate those doing that work accordingly. For example, you could increase the pay or vacation hours for those working on the most important jobs within the organization. Even if workers still don't get as much time as desired to do their own thing, it will still equate to them having more resources to dedicate toward their own passions when not working.
It's Already Happening
While the freedom to choose what you work on is quite rare in the workplaces of today, it isn't unheard of. A handful of companies allow this unique benefit. Some do so explicitly by baking that expectation directly into their employee handbook, like Valve, while others implicitly leave room for it by allowing workers to autonomously self-manage, such as Morning Star.
To a lesser degree, many companies have started setting aside hours and money to let employees pursue individualized learning every so often. This might mean giving every employee two hours of paid time to learn a new skill, shadow a different department, or teach a class on a subject they are passionate about sharing.
In either case, it's about recognizing that all workers are people first and foremost. People work best when they are doing something they enjoy and accomplishing something that matters to them. This is true whether they are learning a new skill, relaxing with a much needed break, or doing something fun. Everyone has different needs and everyone works best when those needs are met.
Keep looking for other ways to recognize and provide what your people need in a way that doesn't hinder your business. Our first recommendation is always to ask your employees directly. You'll be surprised at the ideas anyone can come up with if it means more freedom and joy at work. You can also check out our blog for additional insight into making your workplace more individualized and human-focused.