Why we Work – Reflections on the Future of Work

What is ‘work’, and why do we do it? The contemporary conversation about ‘the workplace’, in terms of the geography of work, and the social dynamics of collaboration, and the impacts of technology, against a backdrop of 18 months of enforced separation, risks simplifying a more complex question.

‘Work’ can be viewed through a number of lenses.

One lens is ‘by omission’ – on the scale of ‘work and play’, ‘work’ is anything i do that is not fun. In that sense, i do a lot of ‘work’ that is unpaid (like changing my bedsheets), and some things that are fun (like writing, usually) that are not work.

A more simple lens is that ‘work’ is what i am paid for, and anything i do for free is not ‘work’, but most of us would recognise that work is not simply 9-5. For example, does writing a birthday card to a colleague on an evening, reinforcing social connection and providing access to tacit, tribal knowledge and network count as work?

Neither can we easily use the lens of location, because we are long past the time, for most of us anyway, when ‘work’ just took place in an office. There are exceptions: once i had a job picking daffodils over a summer: that work was bound by time and place, indeed, the more i cut in that field, the more i earned.

Potentially a more useful definition would be around productivity or effect and effectiveness. So anything i do that leads to a shared view of productivity counts as work.

Imagine that we are building a house together, stood in a frosted field, staring at a pile of timber. One of us needs to dig foundations, one of us must cut the wood, somebody must go and buy a hammer, and someone must ensure the lunch is made. All of these things count as work. The person who looks after the children whilst we raise the rafters? Well their efforts directly contribute to our collective productivity, so they are ‘working’ too.

This ‘useful’ definition of course does not match our reality: we tend to pay for some, but not all, of those roles. Perhaps we value some more than others?

This leads to a more moral exploration of work: what ‘work’ do we value and how, do we ‘have’ to work, do we have a ‘need’ to? There are a range of religious, philosophical, and psychological views on this: essentially variants of the connection between ‘work’ and ‘purpose’, or that if we are not productive, (if we do not have busy hands), we may lack purpose, or fall into lethargy/sin/Netflix.

Whilst we may live in a more secular, less moralistic society than the Victorians say, we still subscribe to aspects of this moral imperative, captured today in conversations about ‘purpose’ and ‘why we work’. Indeed, for many of us, this sense of the purpose or value of our work is important – we want our work to count for something. For some, this equates to an imperative that work must have purpose, whilst for others this is a statement of the idly privileged. For some, the need to work is to put food on the table alone.

Possibly even within one Organisation a range of views are true: a cleaner may work to put food on the table or fund college, a Chief Exec earns more than they can spend, and works for purpose? Or pride? Or perhaps we just persist because the system tells us to?

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ i spent a chapter exploring a more prosaic view of work, in an Industrial Age construct: that we have built our Organisations to work, according to a legacy model of collectivism, control, and scale.

This says that we pull together people with diverse skills, around a common purpose, we bind them in structure (infrastructure and hierarchy), as well as stories (culture and purpose), and we use systems and process to give us replicability and scale (ensuring that i make a bucket exactly the same way that you make it, and that neither of us steals the bucket at the end).

I call this model the Domain based one, a legacy model, because the resultant Organisation is vertically stratified, into discrete functions, each of which, over time, has bled out to inform and shape structures of education, settlement, even finance and law, that surround it.

The importance of this view of work is that it accounts for our obsession with place: ‘work’ was founded and grounded in places that were connected by railways (or rather, railways were built to connect potential places of work!), and we dug things from the ground, heated them up, smelted them, made things, wove things, invented things, and shipped them around the world.

Visionary socially minded leaders even built model towns to house the workers. Location in place.

This legacy traps us: we locate work in place and purpose, and are bound up in power and pride that holds us to this model.

But how much of our effectiveness, our productivity, really comes from the machines alone, from the offices, from the infrastructure, from the hierarchy? How much of our effectiveness is held in contract and office?

Any view of the Future of Work must address these multiple dimensions: what is the moral imperative, the financial one, what is the point of work and do our mechanisms of work enable, or dictate, the work that is done?

Hence the starting point to envisage the future Organisation may begin with enquiry: what do we want from work? To make money for shareholders, to serve social purpose, to feel proud and fulfilled, to be rich, to be happy, to do good, to break things or make them with our hands?

And from there, it may lead to the design of work. To be together together, or together apart, to be global or local, to be serious or fun, to be a collective or a pyramid, and so on.

Some things compliment each other, and others oppose.

We may well be able to invent a future work that is partly grounded in place, partly founded upon purpose, partly pays the bills and partly fulfils us, but only if we have the open conversation. Or we may, alternatively, decide that only a subset of people are in that conversation: the business owners, the shareholders, the stakeholders, the consumers or customers, the workers, the community, and so on.

Probably not everyone will get a voice, and hence probably even our future work place will include both invested, and contracted, labour. Even if we all come to work with shared purpose, someone is still guarding the gates and cleaning the cafe.

I believe that the desire to re-work work – to reimagine – to rebuild – is sincere, but we can only be successful if we are clear on our financial, moral, and social perspectives.

There is nothing wrong with any answer, but our answers must be transparent. There is no particular need for consensus, so long as we understand our areas of divergence.

There is no ‘one’ answer to the future of work, except to say that it will not simply be a conversation about the ‘space’ of work.

The work of place is the work to discover why, where, and how we work. And whether that is a truly collective and effective activity.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Future, Leadership, Social Leadership and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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