A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a series of interviews here on Mediumtitled “America at Work.” The photographer, Josh S. Rose, started the series during a period of sudden unemployment — after having worked non-stop for 37 years. In the introduction to the series, Rose explains that he had become fascinated by how the concept of “work” had changed. So, he was taking a month-long road trip to photograph and interview Americans at work.
The series is beautifully photographed, and the interviews are inspiring, heart-warming, and enlightening. Rose’s inspiration for the series came from his fond memories of the book Working, by Studs Terkel, which was published in 1973. In Working, Terkel interviewed Americans about their work, as well as their attitudes about that work. Given my own recent fascination with the evolving world of work, I requested Terkel’s book from my library.
You only have to read the introduction to realize that while job titles and tasks have changed in the 50 years since Terkel conducted the interviews, Americans’ attitudes about their work have not.
Today, just spend a bit of time on LinkedIn, inc.com, or forbes.com and you’ll learn that scant few people are engaged at work. There are countless articles that offer tips on how business owners and managers can engage their workforce. Further, consulting firms devote themselves to surveying a company’s workforce to determine the level of employee engagement. Then, these same firms will offer to fix the problems — for a fat fee, of course.
So, compare that with Terkel’s introduction, from 1973, in which he says that both blue and white collar workers described feeling like robots; that many didn’t like the nature of their jobs, or the lack of recognition for their work; or reported being “spied on” by management. And, the “escape hatch” for their misery? Retirement — “thirty and out.”
The question then becomes — if this attitude, or disengagement from work, has existed for a half-century or more, can any amount of surveying and consultancy fix the problem?
At one point, just a few months back, I believed that the engagement issue could be fixed by consultants. To me, it seemed reasonable that an increase in transparency and honesty with employees could increase engagement. But, that belief was likely fueled more by my recent encounter with a toxic workplace, one in which the toxicity was bred and fed with secrecy and dishonesty. At that time, it seemed reasonable that cleaning up the culture would increase engagement.
But, now, with more time removed from that existence, and a lot of research later, I am beginning to believe that it’s not so much the employer that disengages the worker, it’s the job itself. And, when large numbers of workers are disengaged, it stands to reason that they fill their time with other stuff. And, in some cases, that stuff leads to toxic workplaces. (Which is a whole other topic that generates countless articles and consultancy engagements.)
I would like to think that if you’re busy saving lives, or teaching young minds, or solving complex problems (like how to get the plastic out of the ocean), you’re less likely to have the inclination or time to stir up drama at work.
One of the best quotes in Terkel’s introduction is from a staff writer for a health care institution: “‘I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.’”
Perhaps we’re slowly killing the human spirit by asking people to sit at a desk and push buttons on a computer to create “content” that sells the latest iteration of laundry detergent. Perhaps it’s not healthy, for the human body or mind, to move products from a shelf to a container, several hundred times a day.
Perhaps a great step forward for humankind is to design robots and develop AI that take the most mundane and routine jobs and leave humans the work. The work with meaning and purpose. The work that solves the world’s greatest problems. The work that not only feels important and urgent, but isimportant and urgent.
Maybe we’re using the wrong approach for increasing engagement at work. Rather than desperately trying to engage employees through perks and promises, maybe it is time to automate with robots and AI. Maybe the greatest step towards engagement an employer can take is to automate the rote, meaningless jobs and give the humans work that has real meaning and purpose.
That’s not to say that all work has to be about cleaning up the ocean or saving lives, but there has to be a better way. If we’re smart enough to lengthen our own lifespan, and to share real-time images of ourselves with relatives half-way around the world, then certainly were smart enough to solve the problem of engaging humans with meaningful work.
To some degree, it does seem that many have solved the engagement problem for themselves. They’ve found or created work that is meaningful. And, Josh Rose has interviewed and photographed workers across America that have found work that is not too small for their spirit. In fact, that’s likely the most compelling part of Rose’s series — people seem happiest and engaged in their work when that work engages their humanity.