Q&A: Jonas Altman wants you to work—and live—better

Unhappy with your work? You're not alone. In his new book, Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future, Vancouver-based speaker, writer and entrepreneur Jonas Altman shows how professionals and organizations can bring new meaning, energy and empowerment to what they do for a living. We recently chatted with Altman, founder of design practice Social Fabric, about everything from what makes a great leader to COVID-19's impact on the world of work...

The Vancouver entrepreneur shares insights from his new book, which argues that work needs an upgrade for the innovation economy

Unhappy with your work? You’re not alone. In his new book, Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future, Vancouver-based speaker, writer and entrepreneur Jonas Altman shows how professionals and organizations can bring new meaning, energy and empowerment to what they do for a living.

We recently chatted with Altman, founder of design practice Social Fabric, about everything from what makes a great leader to COVID-19’s impact on the world of work.

For the complete interview, check out the BCBusiness Podcast.

You argue that we’re at a watershed moment, given massive employee disengagement and a system of work that is broken. Can you elaborate?

This was written pre-COVID, and Gallup has been doing a study for the last 12 years…The headline: the majority of the professional working world is not connected to their work and is not engaged in what they do—somewhere between 87 percent to 50, 60 percent. And a portion of those people right now, 13 percent, are actively disengaged, meaning they would do anything they can to sabotage their company—light it on fire, send anthrax in the post—were it not for them losing their job.

That triggered me, I guess, or it pushed my button. Because I’ve worked in nonprofits and for quite a while in universities, and I could see that; it was visible. Disenchantment, dissatisfaction—your spirit is sapped by the end of the day. Studs Terkel, the broadcaster, said people are suffering a Monday-through-Friday sort of dying.

If that is true, and the majority of the working world is disengaged from their work, why is that? One answer is that Adam Smith’s theory that people will work for a carrot and stick and are lazy and stupid is false, and a system of work was created that reinforced the myth, which then became true. And I’m talking to you on Zoom, and we’ve got our phones, and I’ve got my Technics turntables probably as a result of a lot of this. So I don’t want to say it doesn’t have its benefits, but somewhere we lost the human spirit and the ability to feel connected to work, which is probably more important than ever because the religious-industrial complex has collapsed and people are looking for value and meaning in their work, which was not typical.

The system of work needs an update or upgrade for the age we live in now, the innovation economy, and for people who are making a living not in the factories but in the Internet.

What is a shaper?

Anyone can be a shaper. The word is co-opted from surfboard shaping. There’s a craftsmanship element. The protagonist who starts off the book, Manny, was trying to figure out what he would do for his life. He tried film, he tried anthropology, he worked in retail. He ended up bumping into the fact that he could marry both his passion and his skills and make a living [as a surfboard shaper]. And there’s a whole conundrum around whether we should follow our passion and purpose and turn that into a living, or should we follow our natural abilities, and maybe that will become our purpose. So that’s a caveat.

What happens at that moment when he doubles down on being a surfboard shaper is, I think, the first thing is to see work as a journey and no longer a job you have.

Once you see work as a practice, you’re entering into shaperdom. First, you start to get energized rather than feeling depleted by what you do, so you come away from the day more alive. Second, you find regular opportunities to express yourself, so you don’t have to stuff your emotions [down] or leave yourself at home. Metaphorically, you can bring most or all of yourself to work. And then finally, the sense of a shaper shimmer or the sense of doing something bigger than yourself allows you to feel like you’re making an impact on the world. If you get that kind of sensation from what you spend most of your working life doing, I would label you a shaper.

You’re a shaper yourself.

Well, I wasn’t. I was an idiot for most of my first career. I worked in the music industry. I set up a fashion business in England. I worked myself as a hustler to the ground. And at 33, 34, I [suffered what I would call] burnout, which is mental and physical exhaustion that you can no longer ignore, and you’re kind of like, OK, this is not sustainable—this is not how we’re built. And so that’s when I went and searched for a different way to do work that was more balanced.

In the book, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix, says, “Good talent managers think like businesspeople and innovators first, and HR people last.” If conventional HR is broken, what are some qualities of a progressive talent manager?

Patty McCord got fired after [14] years because she created a culture that, whatever you want to say about Netflix, could thrive based on the idiosyncrasies and the pulse of humans, and she was no longer needed. Her job was done. Actually, it was an amicable split. But her mentality—and she’s probably one of those pioneers—[is that] humans are not resources to be managed, they are assets to be set free.

Questions HR could ask: What is the most effective way to harness talent, given that the smartest people in the world will want to work from anywhere? What is a type of psychological contract, whether it’s full-time, part-time, freelancer, et cetera? Stop being so concerned with HR policy and much more with human dignity.

Now [HR managers] have been rebranded. Like at Lululemon, they’re called head of people and culture. And that’s hopefully a mindset shift. I don’t actually know what goes on at Lululemon in terms of that being lived, but my feeling is that the people I’ve spoken to, like at Lego, are really trying to practice what they preach.

Why should we be pursuing what you call dopeness in our work lives?

When I talked to you about burning out, I think the big impulse was to help and make a difference and make money and all these things, without really catering to the self first. Like, what do I need physically, spiritually, emotionally so that I could be sustainable and make a bigger difference?

Everyone has a different way of showing up, and I think pursuing dopeness understands that the impulse to make a difference in the world and to flourish is really enlightened self-interest. It’s starting to understand you as a person so that when you need to go to Whistler and just get two days in the mountains to then show up for your friends, family and colleagues, you do that as opposed to having resentment and being a bit irritable during the week, and almost blaming

Why is it important for companies to become what you call learning organizations?

The darling example is Google X, which apparently rewards failure. And therefore you have balloons floating over Third World countries bringing Internet to the rest of the world because of that culture. I don’t think many companies can adopt that because they’ll go out of business.

So it’s an aspiration. A learning organization in many ways reduces the stigma of learning and is only interested if you learn from failure. So from launching the Amazon Fire Phone, we learned voice recognition, which could become Alexa. Companies have created cultures where it’s OK to innovate in a test kitchen without sacrificing morals, without crazily disrupting revenue and/or customer experience. And so a learning organization starts to move toward the office as a classroom as opposed to place where we know what we’re doing and everyone’s like, Yeah, this is how it is, and there’s no growth mindset.

What does the ideal leader of tomorrow look like?

Learner, teacher, mobilizer, giver, coach are the five modes I came up with, but I don’t think they’re exhaustive at all. I think it’s different hats that people wear at different times, and sometimes a blend.

Coaching as leader sounds a bit dreamy, but a good example would be, “Why did you do that?” …versus, “Nick, tell me your thinking on that one.” That gives you an invitation to express, Well, I knew we only had an hour to talk to the client, so I decided to send the email off and then deal with it, as opposed to wait until after the meeting and [have] them say, Why didn’t you send us that email before? And then I can go, “Uh-huh; good one. Next time, let’s try to do this.” And we’re now a team. There are leaders like that, and they’re rare.

How has COVID changed or influenced your ideas about working and the future of work?

Shall we do the bad first? A CFO who was spending a few million in rent at WeWork in Vancouver goes, Our productivity went up, and we were saving pretty much 25 percent of our revenue in having a physical office if we just get rid of it. And then there’s a caveat or a footnote: at what cost to our emotional well-being, our mental health, is the long-term strategy of not having a place to congregate?

So I think there’s going to be misuse or abuse of remote work, and that will become visible or pronounced, with increased mental health problems and perceived lack of trust. Or real lack of trust, which becomes artificial harmony, where there’s not really a culture of trust, and now basically it’s people trying to be visible but not being in the same proximity as the office. So overcompensating with Slack and email, and not being able to have a healthy boundary between work and life.

On the positive side, it’s accelerated what I thought would take years and be incremental change, which is how people like to change….The change happened fast, it was a Band-Aid that got ripped off—deal with it. And so that is an opportunity for leaders to step up, people who are dissatisfied to turn a corner or finally speak their truth.

There’s a great quote from [psychotherapist] Esther Perel that cracks have become very pronounced in couples or humans, and then the light shines through, and it’s our opportunity now to decide what we want to do. Do we want to reset—look at a new form of capitalism, look at new ways to structure work, new ways to structure the fact that you can only really get about four or five hours of deep, cognitive work a day. And then we don’t have to be commuting to an office. Four-day workweeks are already being piloted.

So I think there’s a huge amount of great things. I’m concerned about implementation.

Where does it leave the office? Do we even need that place anymore?

The clickbait would be, traditional offices are dead, the new office is a state of mind—like, anywhere you want it to be. Kitchen table, Prado coffee shop, coworking space, physical office that has your company name at the receptionist, airplane­—wherever you need to be to do great work, if you work for a company that has a network, i.e., you can log in and do your work.

For all the people who work in the service industry, retail, factories—many people were exploited in work. It’s unfortunately getting very bad for these people. I mean that in a way of access to opportunity, and inequality is going to get so wide. You can already see billionaires are getting wealthier, and people who are in a fortunate position to be able to work with Zoom are leaving [behind] an entire industry that can’t really retrain overnight. As Montreal closes down and baristas or bartenders have to go get some other work, they can’t just become a teacher online or a writer.

What are we doing as a social safety net? What are we doing to create quality work that’s not exploitative? I actually don’t have the answer to that. I’m stumped.