For the avid followers of mwah., you’ll remember a few weeks ago we did our first ‘Collab’ article on Everyday Empathy. This had a resoundingly strong readership – in part given my colleague Sonja Ankucic is an outstanding writer; in part, because the application of empathy in an increasingly digital world hits the press every day, one way or another.

Flattery and clickbait aside, when Sonja and I sat down on the mwah. couch to think about the importance of Everyday Empathy, we came out with a detailed (yet undoubtedly, still incomplete) map of the big topics in empathy – see below for just a few that made our list:

  • Why do some people display empathy where others simply don’t (or can’t?)?
  • Can empathy be taught (and if so how?!)?
  • Do advancements in technology strengthen or dilute our need for empathy?
  • What will that mean for jobs – will jobs need more or less empathy in the future?
  • Are we creating a society that values empathy more yet rapidly decreases our ability to get it, and then use it?

All are important concepts but the last one feels pretty big.

When we really honed-in on that question, it came out as:

“Does the focus on ‘me’ diminish our ability in the workplace of ‘we’?”

That question resonated, we connected, we feared, we thought to our own individual experiences, to our interactions with each other. It really poses a range of societal and workplace themes that should be considered.

Let’s start with ‘me’.

On the surface, this could be about generation ‘me’.

Me for Millennials.

Generation Y can’t I have everything today.

Me, Me, Me.

Understandably a favourite topic of fodder amongst writers from other generations – but it would be naïve to not consider the impact of ‘me’ for Millennials, where it came from (first-hand observations from actual Gen Y natives here…) and why, in my view at least, we simply ARE NOT setting up modern workplaces for success.

Here’s a quick stream-of-consciousness snapshot of a Gen Y’s path to the world of work.

  1. From birth

The apple of their parents’ eye, admired, lots of photos taken, every moment recorded – photographed, filmed, plastered around the home, on every screen saver– and digitally stored – idolised (don’t get me wrong, all parents love their kids but keep reading!). The benefit of eldest sibling, but for sibling two and beyond, refresh and repeat! 

  1. Through schooling

 Which class are you in, how did YOU go in that test, here is a prize for being the best goal defence in your netball team or the best singles player in the tennis team (of 1).  Given marks as relative scores i.e. me versus you. Maybe a part-time job, hard to find a role, now working together is important but…

  1. At University or in other studies

At Uni you’re on your own, you have your friends, individual assignments (all about you) and even in group work, largely focused on you. Sometimes given different scores, sometimes not. Graduate programs, or other roles at the conclusion, all about numero uno. But also a bit about we.

  1. The World of Work…

 Enter what’s likely to be first full-time role.

Let’s innovate, be agile, collaborate freely, be virtual, flexible, collective, partnerships, shared economies, shared KPIs, performance reviews reshaped (okay, maybe still with me vs. you.) …. but ultimately, lots of emphasis on the ‘we’.

In the last 209 words, the observation to take is that we simply are not setting up people for the workplace of the now, let alone the oft-discussed workplace of the Future.

We are built upon ‘me’, which means we are simply less primed for the workplace of ‘we’.

We design workplaces, and interactions, that allow for collaboration, which breeds creativity, right? It breaks silos. It’s agile. Nimble. It’s not distracting, it’s empowering for teams to be self-directed and make decisions. Or at least raise them in scrums.

Wait, why are they playing football at work? (Bad agile joke).

We are not giving people enough room to create individual headspace and sit with their thoughts. And there is power in that.

But more importantly, we are not allowing them the appropriate transition from individual to collective. And despite that, we judge people that don’t make the switch seamlessly.

“Why is X colleague grumpy today?”. Because we’ve thrown them straight into the ‘workplace of we’ without transition!

Yes, I’ve used Gen Y to make a point, and yes, generational trends are simply collective observations – and the assumptions and assertions made are often too simplistic (and sure, we think that because we are about ‘me’).

Gen Y isn’t the only group in the workplace that owns or displays these individualistic tendencies. It’s bigger than that, and it’s on display even on our way to work.

Today I caught the bus to work, the bright yellow B-line bus and saw the individualistic patterns in full swing.

Bus arrives in the Suburbs.

People in the bus queue…. Blah blah

People scurrying for seats by themselves. Check.

Wireless headphones – Check! Laptops – Check! Phones of various sizes and operating systems – Check! Other cool unknown (to the author) tech Cool Check!

The annoying little tap, tap, tapping sounds of opal cards deducting fares. (Or telling you your balance is too low). Check.

The awkward bogey seat where 2 seats face each other. Hope my knees don’t knock theirs. Check. 

The person carrying gym gear. A suitcase. A stroller, toddler in tow. A tray of cupcakes for workplace function X, Y or Z. All check.

Bus arrives in CBD (eventually). Check.

Tapping off sounds. Check.

Disembarkment pattern mirroring an aircraft, awkward politeness slowing the flow. Check.

Quick social poll to gauge appropriateness of thanking the driver loudly as you get off back door. Person in front did, very loud, awkward now if you do or if you don’t. Stuck, better do a wave. Check.

Phones grasped to aid ‘app-based’ coffee orders (avoid chat with cute Barista). Check. Or to dial in to conference call or return call from boss. Check.

Headphones still on.  Blaring an old favourite song, or a new exploration, or your friends’ playlist. Check.

Coffee collected, arrive to the office lift. Stare at exposed brick, beams or ‘wires’. Maybe polished tiles. Check.

Headphones still on. Coffee being sipped. Head nod to colleague. Do I need to remove headphones yet, because I love this song

As you read this on your Friday (perhaps during your own rather similar commuting pattern), I simply ask you to be empathetic, and ask “Does the daily focus on “me” diminish our ability to do the ‘workplace of we’”?

I hope you ponder that.

Individually. With your partner. With Family. With Friends. With Colleagues.

And I hope that you come armed with ideas to nail the transition from “me” to “we” on Monday. Good luck.