I welcomed Matthew Taylor’s RSA report into the state of work this week as I welcome anything that brings the issue of work – not employment, but work itself – into the spotlight.
It rarely makes it. And, as I’ve said before, it’s not so strange we’re happy to keep it far back in the Chorus; it pulls focus from so much in our lives, we don’t want to be entertained by it.
At the end of a long, hard-working day (or night), we’ve had enough.
So the media, understandably, neglects the issue. It’ll happily feature humble-bragging PR pieces with ‘successful individuals’, and some of these will be dressed up as advice (some might have a smattering of advice in them), but the big picture stuff – workplace culture, purpose, motivation, fulfilment, policy – doesn’t get a look in.
Taylor’s review shows just how much of enough we’ve had.
Work is anxiety, insecurity, obscurity. Poverty. And, if we’re honest, most of those at the top of the tree are heavy-drinking, heavy-living, angsty people (albeit in plusher surroundings with nicer things).
Is it any different to how it’s ever been? Isn’t it better than it’s ever been?
Maybe, in the past, the thinking was a little more pragmatic. Work is the cage we all find ourselves in, one way or another. We have to pay our way in life. If we’re lucky, we find a cage that suits us, subdues us or enlivens us – keeps us pacing. Even those who reach the pinnacles of work success – the great leaders, the great artists – find themselves caged in, by their own mythologies if nothing else.
Only Earth’s Nomads are truly free as they keep moving and travel light.
It’s those darn things that we need, like a roof over our heads or food in our bellies, that force us into our cages. We go in armed with what skills we’ve found within us or been taught, hoping to survive and, reward-incentivised animals that we are, a little hopeful we’ll thrive (I don’t think many people take a job hoping to be bad at it – though that wish, miraculously, is granted for so many).
If we do well, like goldfish, we grow to the size of our bowls (finding we need plenty of stuff to spend our salaries on). This could be our biggest downfall. Whether our salary is keeping us wavering on the poverty line or getting swallowed up in school fees, not many of us could survive for very long without it.
And ‘they’ know it.
If nobody actually needed their job, just did it because they enjoyed it and were good at it, think how differently people would be treated in the workplace (not that this, sadly, applies to volunteers, who do do this and are often treated abysmally). But, in this fantasy land, I imagine there’d be heartfelt gratitude towards the people who showed up and did the work. High fives all-round.
Instead, all too often, ‘they’ begrudge you every penny.
It’s not their fault, in all fairness. They’ve been taught profits before people. And they’re anxious. They want big bowls to protect themselves in.
But the spin is the real sin, hooking people in with promises of self-fulfilment when the structure, the development and the culture isn’t geared up around that at all. It’s sink or swim. Work it out for yourself and, if fortune favours you, a few good guides may appear along the way.
What are sold as springboards bounce you right into another cage.
In my work, I’ve certainly seen the decline over the last decade in the positivity people experience and express about their workplace cultures. The widening gap between the promise and the reality. It’s not all bad news – there are some great employers, departments and jobs out there. There are people finding their ‘joy of work’. But my sense is they’re getting fewer and farther between.
Of course, we crashed the world in the global financial crisis and many are still recovering; many are yet to recover. It changed ‘the deal’ at work for a lot of people. A lot more employers began to begrudge every penny. You couldn’t give enough bang for your buck – and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give you the training, support, inspiration or nurture to fire you up.
Austerity in the workplace – of salary, reward, incentive, of sentiment – has set in. In the grand scheme of things, work has never been better, but the concern is we’re slipping into reverse and are now slow-clapping in a darkened theatre, facing an empty stage (rather than facing, head-on, the potential future of work).
The question is, when it comes to those big picture problems we need to address around the contract, the nature, the future of work, who should provide the direction?
In business, you have to start with the leaders, of course you do, but this is always problematic due to the very nature of how businesses are born. Go back to the genesis of any business and you’ll find it formulated in one brain, either with an idea or a desire to make money.
People start a business with the desire to have a business. They don’t start a business with the desire to run a company.
Or the knowledge. It evolves. As an afterthought rather than a forethought, this knowledge can take an awfully long time to come to fruition, particularly if the leader hasn’t realised, early on, the need to bring in someone to think about people.
Even more problematic, success can make you think you don’t have to. Cultures created that way are hard to shift (and can turn in a rather wooden performance in volatile times).
So we have to turn to the people employed to think about the people, HR – sadly, most likely too late to the table and not given much of a voice when they’re at it.
Lacking visionaries who see their role to nurture and unleash people’s talents, to create environments that bring out the best in them, that make ambassadors of them, instead HR becomes the legislative, data and attraction afterthought – the last to know, responding to fallouts, gaps to fill, requests for drilled-down micro data to justify every micro action or gesture.
All resource. Very little humanity.
Where HR does have a voice, an influence, a plan, it works. Healthy cultures yield better people, and retain them. Better cultures offer better jobs, true progression, real dialogue. Better results, greater productivity – via more productive meetings, well-thought-out plans and joined-up operations – are achieved this way.
Enlightened thinkers bring down the cages. There’s no reason for them not to; the evidence that the old ways are not the way forward is overwhelming.
But old habits die hard. People get used to their cages. They like others in theirs, too – where they know their place, have them pinned down. Have them where they want them. Fantasy land flipped dream-face down, the reality for too many: obligation and hand-wringing gratitude from employee to employer, whatever the pay, whatever the circumstances.
It being the right – if not the wisdom – of the business leader to decide whether or not they listen to their people, we have to look to the state to help shore up a solution. Their primary job, after all, surely, is to protect the rights and dignity of the individual citizen.
It’s also their job to create an environment for business to thrive in order to maintain a healthy economy, so it’s well within their interests that they intervene when it comes to ‘bad work’.
The stage is certainly set. We need to get on with the show.
Firstly, we need to define the cast of players. To bring any of this together will require a lot of intricate choreography between organisational leaders in the private, public and third sectors and each and every government department.
As any impresario knows, any project also needs the oxygen of publicity. We need to involve the media to hook in the audience. Enliven the conversation. Make it entertaining. There are plenty of lively ideas out there. We’re at a moment in time which is truly a new age: the digital age. We need a plan for it for it to work for everybody.
Work is a subject that touches all our lives – that should be able to draw a big audience. We need it to pull focus. We need it centre stage. We need to bring the house down. Break the bad once and for all. Make it work. Find new ways to ensure everyone can thrive.
Without more joined-up thinking, further division, further despair, will be inevitable. And if we don’t find better working solutions for this new world order, don’t wake up to the fact that bad work is bad for the economy, the show might be over sooner than we think.