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It’s summer, the brakes are on, and it’s time for a reset in the postmodernist work environment

In 2010, Harvard Business Review ran a feature on The Acceleration Trap. It explored how organizations, faced with intense market pressures, take on more than they can handle, increasing the number and speed of activities, raising performance goals, shortening innovation cycles, and introducing new technologies and organizational systems. Basking in success, the CEO tries to make this the new normal. The original burst of activity morphed into sustained, chronic overload.

HBR showed how the acceleration trap harmed the company on many levels, particularly affecting performance, efficiency, employee productivity, and retention. In 2023, there seems to be no let up to acceleration, with AI now recalibrating jobs, industries, and life itself.

Post covid, we are close to another acceleration trap. As we remember, return from, or prepare for summer, it is time to break the ever-increasing momentum and reflect on life, particularly our working life. In antipathy to the great resignation, it is a reset that we all need before budgeting begins and Q4 targets end.

There is a well-established link between performance and mental well-being, usually achieved by taking the time to disconnect completely. “For me, my recent break in the UK was a time to put work issues aside, embrace parent mode and switch off,” explains Tina Engineer-McRae, Co-Founder and President of M SEARCH. “I was feeling a little mentally burnt out and needed a recharge. After a long period focused heavily on work, taking a proper break meant that I came back refreshed with new ideas and new energy”.

The Covid pandemic revealed to many people the benefits of work/life balance, achieved now through hybrid and flexible working. There are global differences here too. At a recent global mobility event in South Florida, the keynote speaker highlighted different approaches, saying, “Americans live to work, but Europeans work to live,” with those in the UK gravitating more to the West. Following the pandemic, Europeans were more willing to return to the office, confident in a decent lunch break to socialize with a colleague or work peer, returning to the office for a client meeting followed by a little social time together to end the working day.

At business events, meetings, and research, the most common words we hear today are ‘creative thinking,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘agility,’ ‘flexibility,’ and ‘empathy’ – all terms for a ‘postmodernist work environment.’ In the art world, ‘postmodernism’ is associated with skepticism, irony, and philosophical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality. Sound familiar? Skepticism of climate change or an individual’s subjective reality, the irony of bank betrayals and political duplicity, and a questioning of how human beings are treated by the medical, political, and scientific establishment.

Tina continues, “At M SEARCH, we followed a business model change with a rebrand this year, repositioning the business and broadening our client connections. We would not have been able to do this without the ‘mental break’ afforded by Covid. We had time to think and talk about the business in our own context. The acceleration trap had stopped, and we were able to reimagine our future. It was a macro version of what happens day-to-day. The best ideas rarely come at work – they come to us in the shower, on a bicycle, by a pool, or looking at art”.

So, what’s the ‘so what’ for our industry? Executive search is about connection; it’s about people wanting to meet and feel that sense of personal engagement. In high-level discussions and leadership, the engines are running at full power, but without proper breaks, the social battery goes into the red. That affects not only the individual but the team and the business itself.

Gen Z is shining a light on this, forcing us to see work as an enabler for the rest of life, European-style, not an end in itself, America. The challenge is to avoid burnout from another source – hybrid working that drastically reduces social connection and the ability to laugh off the bad times with each other, black mood replaced with black humor.

Only by taking a proper break where we properly switch off, over the summer, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, or Ramadan, can we maintain our freshness, creative thinking, agility, and empathy. The postmodernist work era will continue to evolve, and we must evolve with it.

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