The Campaign for Meaningful Work

david graeber pointless jobs tube poster

This week I am thinking about the “why of work” for a few reasons.  Firstly, I am going to the Meaning Conference in Brighton, where I live, a gathering for people who believe business can and must be a force for positive change.  Secondly, the same evening I am seeing one of my favourite  bands, The Fall, who have been going strong since 1977.  As the late John Peel explained, they are “always different, always the same.”  Thirdly, I also have a 20 year reunion with friends I started work with back in 1995. 

If I apply the why of work to each situation, why has the lead singer of The Fall, Mark E Smith, churned out an album nearly every year since 1977?  Why is there still a bond between people who long stopped working or socialising with each other?

Work is clearly more than paying the bills, it fulfils a much bigger human need – to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  Through our work, we seek a sense of purpose and a connection with others.  Yet, there is a crisis in the modern workplace, from YouGov research that shows “37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless” to David Graeber’s article, in STRIKE! magazine,  “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”.  Quotes in David’s article were used by activists to plaster the Tube in London with posters. 

The workplace is a fragile balancing act between employee’s needs and employers’ needs. There is a  relentless pressure on employers to get more out of staff, and increasing employee productivity is the holy grail.

Over the last few years, employee engagement has been pushed as the solution with an assumption that increasing employee engagement increases productivity.

Organisations can spend massive amounts of energy and cost on initiatives to increase employee engagement with the belief that (1) it will raise productivity and (2) it is the right thing to do.

However, there are some glaring flaws with this:

We don’t actually know what employee engagement is.

Definitions typically point to many factors – see here for a good example of employee engagement which shows 9 factors.  This makes it far too complex to analyse, and definitely too difficult to convert into actions that make a positive difference.

We don’t know what actually causes employee engagement.

There are lots of studies which show correlations between engaged and productive staff, but it is very difficult to isolate cause and effect relationships. 

There is a correlation between organisations with high employee engagement and better performance.  However this does not mean employee engagement causes higher performance.  For example, we might also find that high employee engagement is correlated with older workers, taller workers, those that live nearer the place of employment etc.  In other words, it is very difficult to say one factor causes higher performance and this is a classic ‘chicken and egg’ debate.  Read Flip Chart Rick’s take on this  “Employee engagement hyperbole” or Professor Rob Briner, “Don’t believe the hype of employee engagement”

So we might spend time and energy on creating a happy, engaged workforce – but this raises another question:

Who needs ‘engaged workers’ doing the ‘wrong’ work?

You might have happy workers but it won’t necessarily help your organisation achieve its goals unless work is linked to the goals of the organisation.  This is much harder to achieve than ‘raising the engagement survey score by 2% every year’.

I believe employee engagement is a fad for a low wage environment – herbal teas and fresh fruit in the office is cheaper than an across-the-board 4% pay rise.  As wages increase I think businesses will focus on measures that will actually increase productivity.

So why are employee engagement initiatives still so popular?  This needs a fuller answer, but my views are:

  1. They are easier to do than root cause analysis and great job design
  2. An industry has been built up around engagement solutions – a massive sales push! #NuffSaid

 

The Campaign For Meaningful Work

 “He who has a ‘why’ to work can bear with almost any how.”  Nietzsche

Without a strong causal link between engagement and productivity we are simply left with a hunch or intuition.

Well here’s my hunch.

Meaningful work is important for our own personal sanity and well being, and so says Mark E Smith,  Marx, Maslow and my grandmother.  To me, it makes intuitive sense.

So what can we do to increase engagement, work happiness and possibly productivity?

Here are some of my suggestions to help make work more meaningful.

Link the work to something bigger

If you work as a CEO, a carer or a cleaner in a hospital, you are just as important in helping people to recover from illness as the nurses and doctors.

Why do I work? I help make organisations better places to work.  How do I do this? By working with HR teams to improve people management and the workplace.  This purpose gets me out bed in the morning (along with a strong cup of Yorkshire Tea).

By linking every persons’ job to the main goal of your organisation – whether that is to heal the sick, make people feel good, make organisations better etc you help create meaning.

Empower people to organise their own work

Some of our organisations are creaking under industrial age structures that haven’t changed since the 1950s.  The tools we use to collaborate at work are being revolutionised.  We now have an opportunity to reinvent how we work, and to empower teams to have a major say in the design.  I am not suggesting that we can all design our organisations like a start-up, or Zappos or Google – but we can start using some of the principles.  If you have had a say in designing your teams’ work then it should become more meaningful.

Show your organisation’s impact on customers

Medtronic are a specialist in medical devices, and make amongst other things prosthetic limbs.  Many of their employees do not have direct contact with their end customers.  Medtronic shares stories of patients who have benefited from the company’s products with its employees and meet customers at its regular ‘town-hall meetings’.   In the words of a senior executive,

Our people end up feeling personally involved in our company’s mission to restore people to full life.  They can see the end result of their work. Many are profoundly moved by the patients’ stories.

This has a much greater impact on morale than going through the quarterly earnings report.

Keep learning about what motivates us at work

Despite the glib books and 100 page academic reports, this is a complex area.

There are lots of misconceptions about what motivates people at work from financial bonuses, bowls of fruit, Christmas hampers or a pat on the back – take your pick?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn't just about the money, but it's not exactly about the joy either.  It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.

Here are two videos worth watching on what motivates us at work.

Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist gives a TED talk – “What makes us feel good about our work?”

But, why have one Dan when you can have two?  Dan Pink, the author, illustrates  “The surprising truth about what motives us” with the help of an RSA Animation.  This has had over 14 million people view this on YouTube, make sure your Reward Manager is one of them!

“Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose” REPEAT “Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose”

Finally, ditch that annual engagement survey!  Unless in your heart you know that improving aggregated self-reported survey responses will really help you design and maintain a great place to work.

Put some of these things in place and watch the results – maybe in the emotional commitment employees have for your organisation, maybe the spring in their step as they travel to work, or just possibly in their productivity.  I will be listening and learning at the Meaning Conference, rocking to “Dead Bead Descendant” by The Fall, and as always irrepressibly tweeting @AndySpence.  It would be great to hear your views on the ‘why of work’ and how you make more work more meaningful.  

See also, What Makes Work Meaningful? and The Seven Deadly Sins Preventing Meaningful Work

 

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