Evolving Expectations of the Human at Work

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My perspective of work I must say is a little different from most given I jumbled up the typical trajectory of primary, secondary, university education and then first job, second job, etc. With this back drop and in my interaction with working adults, I am always curious how many people like their jobs and find real purpose and meaning in what they are doing.

There are lots of articles, books and talks exploring this idea of the meaning of work, purpose in work, the future of work and how all this relates to worker productivity, engagement, employability, etc especially in this new age of work. I found this Tedx Talk by Daniel Kraft really interesting, looking at the evolution of work from Industrial Age to knowledge and beyond. I also found the idea of concept work in  A whole new mind as well as the exploration of autonomy, purpose and master in Drive by Daniel Pink resonating quite well with me. I remember coming actors this blog post about the book, A whole new mind, focused on this idea of the concept worker. In addition, I recently read this HBR article on how company culture shapes employee engagement where the author lists 6 reasons why people work, 3 reasons are good ones and 3 are bad ones in relation to their impact on performance  and motivation. One of the good ones is purpose and one of the bad ones is economic reasons.

I notice interest in purpose and meaning of work has continued to grow and personally I believe it becomes even more pertinent as an  organisation gets bigger. I believe it is of particular importance when the organisation becomes a publicly listed company.

There are three trends that are of particular interest to me

  1. The evolution of work from physical to knowledge and then from knowledge to creative or concept which the tedx talk mentioned above kind of talks about as well
  2. The increasing reliance on technology at work. Looking historically, the impact of technology on physical work raised the visibility of knowledge work. In recent times,  the impact of technology on knowledge work is equally raising the visibility of another type of work which has been called various things like concept work, creative work, interaction work, etc. (I read this McKinsey paper)
  3. Work done by individuals becoming increasingly less meaningful as the organisation gets bigger

What I would like to do is take these 3 trends and place them within the corporate world looking at how the nature of work changes from small startups to large public listed multinational corporations. As organisations grow, work invariably gets broken up and distributed to different people, then different teams and then different units. While this breaking up of work is necessary to support the increasing  scale and complexity of operations, it brings with it fragmentation, and in most cases, loss of purpose and meaning. The distance between the purpose of the work and the bottom-line value the organisation wants to deliver increases to a point where significant effort is required to maintain a linkage.

In addition, as the scale of operations forces a level of generalisation similar to what happens in the school system where individual uniqueness is sacrificed for generalisable patterns, eventually, purpose becomes an abstract concept with the majority of workers focusing only on the economic reason for working, the pay check or protection of lifestyle. This happens right across the hierarchy of the organisation and is particularly dangerous when the leaders of the organisation also operate on this basis.

For most, the only way to survive is to leave emotions at home, put your game face on, and at any cost avoid being yourself. It also fuels this idea that being professional means being everything but yourself.

This wasn’t much of an issue with industrial work due to the nature of work. Even with knowledge work, I would say it need not be much of an issue. However it is becoming a real issue now with work slowly shifting to creative and conceptual, relying heavily on emotions, connections that only humans can make with other humans and phenomenal levels of agility and adaptability that only a fully present human being can bring to any situation. It also creates the need to understand the new affordances of ‘man+technology’ for knowledge work and post-knowledge work in the same way the possibilities afforded by man+technology in industrial work created new levels of human capability and possibilities.

While I acknowledge the problem is obviously more complicated than what I have described here, I simply wanted to provide a particular perspective that frames why organisations really need to start thinking carefully about these 3 things

  1. How we design jobs – asking the question what part of this work will be done by technology, what part will be done by a human being, how does the human have to work with the technology to maximize productivity and why would I want a human being to do this job at all?
  2. How we develop new workers for the new types of work – what skills do we need to focus on? There are so many articles about 21st century skills, future work skills, etc. All these point to the realisation that the expectations of humans at work is yet again changing drastically
  3. How we help existing workers transition into this new reality to remain employable. Especially the ageing workforce with their wealth of knowledge and perspective. There is an increase interest in lifelong learning, skills upgrade, leadership development, etc. These all indicate the evolution of work impacting business models, strategy and goals of organisations, putting a real strain on talent requirements.

While a lot of schools and independent centres are looking into these and making moves to respond to these trends, large organisations themselves are slow to react. The learning and development practices in most large organisations don’t yet reflect these realities. The strategies and practices in place tend to still focus on preparing people for industrial age type of work or for knowledge work. We need to make fast progress in signficantly shifting our learning and development practices in large and growing companies if we want these organisations to survive and develop employees who will be able to continue to add signficant value to the organisation and to the community at large.

So, the question is what would things look like if learning and development in organisations really started making this shift? What will things look like if organisations were truly responding to the needs of the new type of work and the future of work?

I see a convergence that is forcing a return to humanity and an examination of what it means to be human. I see this everywhere but particularly at work where most adults spend 70% or more of their time and in some cases 90% or more of their energy. In our large corporations and civil service where we employ the largest % of the working adults, We need to bring humans back to work, now more than ever.

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