The Comfort Delusion

Your comfort delusion may be getting in the way of creating a healthier, happier, and more productive workplace.

Comfort is a powerful draw. We long for it. We go to great lengths to arrange our lives for it. For some, achieving it is the primary focus of life.

But here’s the catch: Comfort is rarely more than a temporary state. As soon as we reach it, our minds push us to want more. (Thanks, hedonic treadmill!) Consider the notion of “comfort creep” described in Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis: “When a new comfort is introduced, we adapt to it and our old comforts become unacceptable.”

So what does this have to do with work — something few of us ever associate with comfort? There has been a recent drive in C-Suites to return our offices to life as it was “before.” There is an alluring comfort in our nostalgic memories of collaborative, supportive teams working harmoniously together in well-equipped offices, all under the benign gaze of a distant manager. But a moment of honest reflection will prove that memory to be false.

Nonetheless, some managers chase this illusion, likely in the hope that it will restore a measure of familiarity and comfort to work lives that have been seriously disrupted by the pandemic. Unfortunately for them, however, we can never go back to exactly the way it was before because life is different now and we are different now. Further, forcing our way back will cause the very thing those managers hope to avoid: discomfort.

False Equilibrium

But, some managers insist, we were all doing just fine before lockdown, weren’t we? Actually, no. Most knowledge workers were fully absorbed in spinning a lot of plates and hoping they could keep everything in motion. It was a fragile and ultimately false equilibrium. Once all the plates fell down in March 2020, we suddenly were freed from the tyranny of perpetual motion and had a moment to think.

That thinking led to some challenging questions:

  • Were we working with the right plates?
  • How sustainable was our constant spinning?
  • Should we be spinning plates at all?

Use the Gift of Clarity

For the lucky ones, the answers to those questions clarified their understanding of work. In addition, the lockdown enhanced our work life itself: no commuting, increased flexibility, more empathy, greater discernment.

Take those gifts and use them now to craft a new, more effective workplace. This means a workplace that respects and supports the creative work of knowledge workers. It is a workplace in which knowledge workers have the autonomy they require to work and the support they need to experiment and grow. Above all, they need more space and time to actually think about what they are doing and how they are doing it. This thinking usually is the first casualty when people are forced to spin too many plates at once. But a failure to do this thinking inevitably leads to those plates crashing down, sooner or later.

These changes may seem challenging and downright uncomfortable. But it is time to acknowledge that we cannot reap the benefits of development and growth without some time spent in discomfort. Just ask any child in the midst of a painful growth spurt.

Remember: no matter how much you long for the “good old days,” permanent comfort is an unsustainable delusion.

[Photo Credit: Nick Fewings]

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