Can We Finally Say Goodbye to the Work Martyr?

Business leaders, together with HR, have a huge opportunity to set their teams up for success by rewarding for impact, not hours worked.

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By Patti Fletcher

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Even before the pandemic forced many of us into an unexpected work-from-home experiment, the concept of the work martyr — the person who shows up first to the office, is the last to leave and places work above all else — had become utterly antiquated. It harkens back to an era where most households had one income and the division of labor between men and women was more strictly defined.

Earlier this year, it was reported that the share of women on payrolls exceeded the share of men in the U.S. And according to United Nations data, younger workers now make up virtually half the workforce, and that number is expected to jump to 74.7 percent in the next decade. This shift in demographics, combined with the traditional office environment going by the wayside, should finally put to rest the idea that presenteeism is the opposite of absenteeism. You can be absent from your desk, but present in your job. You can also be present in the walls of your office and be absent from your work. And it should cause business leaders to more seriously consider that judging how someone works, as opposed to their output, can have a detrimental impact on diversity, inclusion and belonging efforts.

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After all, the traditional 9-5 office environment — where facetime is more important than output — creates inequity and strongly curbs the career trajectories of those who must work alternative schedules. A greater percentage of the workforce now includes working parents raising young children and the sandwich generation, caring for both older children and aging parents. Leaders who choose to ignore the fact that employees have lives outside of work do so at their own detriment.

Alternatively, HR departments that create programs that are specifically set up to take care of their employees, with a strong focus on purpose, well-being, autonomy and growth, consistently make it onto best place to work lists. And those lists aren't just bragging rights for an employer branding team. Studies show these companies return nearly 5 percent more than the rest of the market. The world's best brands know redefining what success looks like at work benefits both people and profit.

Michael O'Malley, Ph.D., managing director at Pearl Meyer, writes in Harvard Business Review that best places to work provide people with life satisfaction, not just job satisfaction. "The organizations we studied have given themselves the best chance to succeed by recognizing the human as the heart of the workplace, the thing that keeps everything else running."

This type of cultural transformation requires human-centered leaders who lead by example — who focus on outcomes and impact, not whether an employee is clocking in 9-5 every day. No longer can leaders be holed up in corner offices, perpetuating command-and-control hierarchy. Human-centered leaders recognize that by leveraging technology and new ways of working, we can get things done more quickly and bring out the best in our people. At a time when kids are home, parents have become teachers and schedules are in an unpredictable and constant state of flux, this is the only reasonable path forward.

Related: How to Reward Employees in Uncertain Times

It will require HR and people managers to rethink succession planning and how we develop our leaders. Soft skills, such as communication, empathy, dependability and open-mindedness, have become critical as organizations face the dual challenges of navigating economic uncertainty and making sure their workforces continue to be connected and engaged.

Nurturing human-centered leaders, not work martyrs, will carry us through.

Patti Fletcher

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Leadership Futurist and Gender Equity Advocate

Dr. Patti Fletcher is the author of Disrupters: Success Strategies from Women Who Break the Mold (Entrepreneur Press 2018). Dr. Patti is an enterprise tech CMO, gender equity expert, board member and keynote speaker who has spent her career at the intersection of technology, business and people.

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