Close

Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

We spend an average of 90,000 hours of our lives at work. But according to psychologist, bestselling author and host of the WorkLife podcast Adam Grant, too many of those hours are unhappy ones. From managers who don't provide feedback in a productive way to the growing fears around robots taking our jobs, there are many reasons why we find ourselves feeling frustrated at work.

But it doesn't have to be this way. On his hit podcast WorkLife, Grant shares how we can take the reigns of our lives at work and improve our experiences during the 9-5 (or some version of that), offering advice on everything from accepting harsh criticism to working for an organization with no boss.

We caught up with Grant to get his take on the trends shaping the future of work, including the growing need for continuous learning and the evolution of the traditional career ladder.

You began the first season of your podcast with an episode on the importance of honest, critical feedback. Why start there? Why is critical feedback such a vital component of work and development?

There's a paradox that we all face in our work lives, which is we want to get better and we know we need constructive criticism in order to do that, yet criticism makes us feel worse about ourselves. To me, it's problematic that the very thing that we need to become more effective, more productive, more creative, is also what sometimes stands in the way of those goals.

If I think about all the experiences people have at work that just ruin the quality of work life, getting criticized is definitely one of those crushing experiences, and yet if it's done in a way that inspires improvement rather than just critiques, then it becomes a developmental experience and it's valuable.

You highlight the importance of career development in that type of feedback, but there's speculation (and some reality) to the idea that a career ladder is a thing of the past. In fact some people suggest a career lattice is more accurate. How do we continue to grow if we're not moving "up"?

Sheryl Sandberg often points out that she felt a lot of pressure to have a career plan. But realistically, when she graduated from college, Mark Zuckerberg was in diapers, meaning that a career plan would not have led her where she landed.

There are lot of people in the world of talent management who would argue that the career as we know it is dead. I don't know what the right metaphor is yet—maybe it's a jungle gym—but careers are less linear than they used to be. For employees trying to manage their own careers, it's up to them to figure out how they can invest in learning. That means if they're in a job where they're not growing significantly day by day, it's time to think about how to either reconfigure who they're interacting with or maybe moving on.

How can organizations meet employees expectations for continuous learning and growth?

Learning is probably the most underutilized reward across organizations. If I were running a company, the first thing I would do is instead of giving people gift certificates as a bonus, is give them the opportunity to learn from anyone in the organization or take a class. Then, over time, I would look at what people are signing up for and what skills they want to gain in an effort to build some internal capabilities around where those interests lie.

With the onset of AI technology many tasks and jobs will be increasingly automated. Can learning help workers keep up and compete?

We should be careful not to overreact. Bill Gates put it well when he said 'We tend to overestimate the amount of change that will be in the next year or two, but underestimate the amount that will be in the next decade or two.' I don't think we're going to see a major change in what jobs exist in the next year or two, but in the next decade or two, yes, there are some pretty substantial changes coming.

Data suggests that the jobs that are hardest to automate are the ones that involve care and compassion as well as communication skills, critical thinking and creativity. This set of skills is worth investing in— we need to spend a lot more time thinking about how to develop those skills for ourselves, and how to help people develop those skills.

Ok, so now that we're clear the robots aren't coming for our jobs, is work-life balance something we can achieve as we continue to add new technologies to our working toolbox?

Balance is a relative term. I don't know a lot of accomplished people who feel like they're in perfect balance. The successful people that I know mostly tend to be strategically imbalanced, meaning they have work days that are super productive where they don't necessarily do a lot else, and then they have days that are set aside for family, or leisure. Their lives are segmented. That's a more realistic goal.

You're probably not going to get balance in a typical day, but over the course of a week, and certainly over the course of a month, you can spread out your schedule such that you end up feeling like you get to pursue all of your priorities. There's no such thing as a perfect work-life balance, but there are ways to be happy both at work, and at home.

Photo: TED