Written by Archana Venkat

When I started my career 16 years ago, I was asked just one question by the senior people at The Hindu Business Line. “Which team do you want to be a part of?”. I replied, “Reporting.” And that has remained the shortest interview of my life so far. That one-word answer was a result of having spent the previous summer interning with the newspaper for over three months across all departments and understanding which role and team could give me the most meaningful work and some flexibility to do it well.

So when McKinsey came out with their recent report on the Great Attrition, my first response was  – Nothing has changed. Irrespective of whether one seeks a traditional career or a non-traditional one, workplace flexibility and meaningful work remain the key motivators for securing employment. But why is that so challenging for companies to deliver?

In my experience, most small to mid-sized organisations have a myopic view of the job role with the intention of finding a fit for an immediate opening. There is little consideration given to how that role will evolve (or not) in the next two years. Those who seek these roles also tend to look at short-term employment and hope that the organisation will chart a career path for them. As a result, candidates who have spent two years in a role can gain the necessary skills and no longer find the role meaningful. Managers, who aren’t able to grow themselves, aren’t motivated to help their teams to grow. 

Large organisations have spent significant time and effort in enabling career mobility for their employees and it may be challenging to emulate that in small organisations and those with a different business model. But there are ways in which individuals can secure meaningful work and flexibility on their own, even if their employers don’t offer it proactively. Below are three considerations.

1. Define your role in one simple sentence. 

Often, we tend to hold on tightly to keywords that define our tasks at work. Over time, we are unable to see our role, disassociated with those tasks or keywords. So we have Salesforce experts (not customer data insights professionals), auditors (not ethics and integrity professionals), and head hunters (not talent scouts). The longer we hold on to these roles, the more myopic our view becomes and the less propensity we have to objectively look at the tasks associated with that role. 

Stepping back and seeing the big picture can help us visualise where else our skills can be used. Salesforce experts can become strategy professionals if customer data is closely tied to your business. Auditors can work in product development to build ethics and integrity-related products. Head-hunters can make for good salespeople. 

2. Automate, outsource or just stop doing it.

How many of your current work-related tasks can you categorise into these three buckets with no impact on the outcomes? What holds you back from doing it? We think best when our mind is free from the routine of doing mundane tasks. The minute you start automating or outsourcing your tasks, you have elevated your own role and freed up time to learn a new skill. In one of my early stints as a manager, I asked a team member to describe what he did all day. “Copy pasting content from multiple sources into a template”, he replied. Every time there was a request for information, he would reinvent the wheel, taking 4 hours to complete one document. I asked him to think of how he could do this better and come up with a plan, budgets being no constraints. He got back a week later with a plan to hire two resources who could do this. 

He had looked at the issue myopically, assuming his stakeholders did not want direct access to the data he was using to put together information. He was also unable to think of maintaining a master list of all documents, neatly categorised by the scenario in which one had to use them. About a month later, basking in the glow of having mastered Sharepoint operations (upon my insistence), he had shed 50% of his “portfolio” and was exploring what more he could pick up.

3. Define what flexibility means for you. 

Do you want to work irregular hours? Do you want to start and end a couple of hours earlier than the rest of your team? Do you not want to work on select days? For me, flexibility has always meant that I am measured by the outcomes and impact of my work, and not how many hours I spent working or who I apprised about progress. I also don’t perform well when micromanaged. But being able to work my way also comes with a trade-off. I need to be a high performer and consistently demonstrate outcomes so that I can gain the trust of my bosses, peers and team members. 

A decade ago as a young mother, I had trouble finding a babysitter who could accommodate my work timings. As a result, my then arrangement required me to leave the office two hours before the end of the working day. When I brought this up with my manager, her response was “Since you will be working two hours less than other staff, we will prorate your salary accordingly.” I was aghast and suggested that I could get home and log in for the additional two hours. She said there was no HR policy to allow this. Disappointed, I approached my business unit head, who said he would make an exception because he felt I would be able to manage work efficiently by working whatever hours I wanted. For 5 months I worked this way and was able to meet my goals without inconveniencing anyone else. Flexibility comes with trade-offs and it is a good idea to understand what you can trade for the flexibility you want the organisation to give you. 

The modern organisation is still not equipped to proactively offer customised productivity tools and work schedules or ensure that all its employees are mentally and physically doing well. This area remains a work in progress. But that does not mean the organisation is closed to suggestions from employees.  Many productivity-boosting tools that we see in organisations today were once tested by individuals and suggested for widespread implementation. In the area of wellness, many organisations today offer a range of support, from health insurance and paid leaves, to expert-led sessions on yoga, eating well, sleep management and exercise. Smaller organisations have also demonstrated their ability to be employee-centric – Wakefit offers an official naptime to all staff (no questions asked) and Swiggy recently came out with a moonlighting policy. It is possible that none of this is relevant to some employees. In that case, unless these individuals communicate what meaningful work and flexibility they want from their employers, organisations will not be able to meet these expectations.

Archana Venkat is the author of the book Seize Your Career and Happy Hexagon, a career management tool. She is also the CMO of Trilegal, a leading law firm in India. Views expressed are personal.