Work is the topic of an interesting and recent post on LinkedIn, as it discusses how France is trying to legislate on the appropriateness of after-hours work emails to and from employers and employees. Several perceived threats exist, including psychological stress to staff who for a variety of reasons can never quite ‘disconnect’ and are always on the hamster wheel of constant availability and endless communication, as well as the anticipation of the same.
Work: the trad view
Much discussion has taken place worldwide over the years about work, workers, hours, overtime, pay, rights, and so on. I believe much of this arises from a particular viewpoint, namely working to a schedule or to meet a quota of hours, and in fact being able to get paid so one can put food on the table is based on just such a concept. The discussion centers around how many hours are enough to constitute a ‘work week’, what then counts as overtime, who is eligible, and if and how much they should be compensated for it.
Having been an employee myself for many years, I can attest to the rigidity and utter lack of meaning and benefit of certain schedules, in many instances adhered to by all involved just because ‘it’s always been done like this’ and because putting on a thinking cap to assess alternatives would be almost unseemly. The inertia of entrenched thinking in this regard is truly something to behold. It also flies in the face of the evolution from heavily industrial economies towards more information-based ones, and from ‘widget-making’ jobs (not all in factories, by the way) towards intelligence-based ones. In parallel, the move by AI into the mainstream economy means perhaps half of today’s jobs will disappear in the next twenty years or so and governments may have to experiment with options, including paying an income that is not a function of work performed (ex. Denmark.) It is a changing landscape for all.
One alternative to the traditional view described earlier might be to work to specific goals instead of aiming to be in the office for a set number of hours, which can be quite unproductive, and is often demoralizing. Bogus attendance requirements underestimate the ability and intelligence of the workforce and emphasize ‘metrics’ that prove nothing and require data that are costly to collect, not to mention the gaming of the system that occurs when people are present but not gainfully busy.
What is important is to be able to deliver a desired outcome, preferably well matched to the customer’s needs. More often than not, this is not the case. Too often management ducks the issue of what work is and how far it is from what it should or potentially could be, by taking the much easier route of equating work to hours, arguing unintelligently and ad nauseam about something completely irrelevant, and wasting endless energy on micromanaging absences instead of improving work content. Discussing this would fill a tome or two and this is only a brief post.
Redefining the work process
My thought on this matter is that management (and employees) need to focus on what work is and attempt a (re)definition which is more in line with the times than the traditional one. By this I mean thinking of work not as a filler in terms of ‘stuff to do’ or ‘a place to be’ to meet hour quotas but as an interesting means to an end, the end being what I already stated above, i.e. a customer need met. Work is a process, perhaps the ‘ultimate process.’ In Lean terms, any work that does not add value and helps reach that end is waste. Thinking of work as the process that 1) causes a desirable outcome to be realized, where 2) workers use their intelligence to constantly adapt and improve their approach (which then becomes their work), may be a way to start redefining work as a rewarding endeavor and framing related discussions. After all, we don’t typically fill our car’s gas tank just to drive around aimlessly until it is time to fill it up again. We do it so we can drive somewhere, presumably. Driving is not an end in itself, with precious few exceptions.
In terms of work, the equivalent question that is rarely posed and never quite answered is, what is the destination?