‘Fractured Workplace’ Chapter 5: Working for life

Chapter Five

Working for life

What are people looking for in their work? A natural response is ‘money’ and clearly that’s true. But given that work occupies such a significant part of one’s life, both during the working years and over the course of a lifetime, money doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s not uncommon, in the more boring and trivial jobs of workplaces, to come across a culture of ‘working for the weekend’; as though whatever makes up life is relegated to two days a week, paid for by the other five days. Most people, however, are looking for more from their work. Even those who work for the weekend are likely to wish their work offered more satisfactions.

Here are some of the leading reasons people have for choosing or staying in a job–or for moving, if these aspirations aren’t being met. These are drawn largely from my own experience, although they are supported by the research. There may be debates about their ranking, and there would be other candidates for the list. But I think most people will recognise these in their own experience.

Variety and challenge

Boredom is the most common complaint of workers at every level, far more than workplace bullying [i]. That this should be so is interesting in itself: it demonstrates that people interpret their work experience personally. It further implies, firstly, that there seems to be an inbuilt need in most people to grow in knowledge, capability and skills; secondly, that this kind of development can come about through engaging with problems that need solutions; and thirdly, that engagement in a number of different areas, requiring different kinds of capabilities, different ways of thinking and doing, is seen as valuable to the process of growth, and attractive and important as life pursuits.

Note that this demand squarely opposes the Taylorist model, not just in its narrow industrial application but in the wider sense we have been looking at. It is precisely the delimitation of work in narrowly defined processes and jobs that is at the heart of Taylorist efficiencies; and it is precisely that delimitation which the demand for variety and challenge at work resists. We discuss these implications further below.

Working with others

Most people enjoy working together, if they have the opportunity. That’s not to rule out working on one’s own, and collaborations aren’t always happy affairs. But where collaboration is available, and works, it is highly valued.

At its best collaboration is an exchange between peers, bringing together ideas and approaches that enrich each other and create something new; an emergent process that is as creative as it is task focused. Note the word ‘peers’: even if there are different roles in collaborations, including leadership roles, it is only where there is mutual respect for each others’ ideas and contributions–the essence of the peer relation–that real collaboration, with all its benefits, emerges. Obviously, too, there is the social dimension: other things being equal social interactions are valued in their own right.

As we’ve noted in Chapter 4, working together harmoniously and productively is not necessarily an innate capability. It’s a complex skill which is learned over time: you get better at it. Unquestionably it can throw up frustrations and disagreements; but acquiring the skill of collaboration consists precisely of learning to negotiate and use barriers of this kind in a dynamic of advancement. That requires a steady foundation of trust and respect–the two qualities (really two sides of the same coin) of healthy workplaces that we find ourselves coming back to. That foundation too is not a given: it is put in place and cemented over time, through negotiating successive challenges in carrying out the work itself. At all events, with all its demands and pitfalls we enjoy working together, and unambiguously prefer it to being isolated in an office somewhere for long stretches of time.

Again, creative collaboration of this kind runs directly counter to the Taylorist model. All work, even cooperative work, is in that model tightly constrained: it is anathema to the model–indeed, a serious threat to it–to allow for the unpredictabilities of creative collaboration. Such collaboration may be useful to the planners of the work, who are separated from it, but it is strongly discouraged at the level of work implementation. Healthy workplaces thrive on collaboration, at every level: toxic workplaces systematically suppress it.


This ranks about third in the list, which is itself interesting: given the discussion of the preceding chapter one might have expected it to rank higher, perhaps even at the top. After all, where the natural connection between the worker and her work–its conception, implementation and results–is largely removed the worker herself, would things like variety, challenge and collaboration matter at all?  The answer seems to be that even where the work is alienated from its works, the actual work processes can still deliver some satisfactions in their own right. But ownership, as we have discussed at length in chapter 4, is still fundamental to work aspirations. Its absence seems seriously to damage work satisfaction and make an exit more likely.

Making a difference

Having negotiated a few decades in which neo-liberal market economics has dominated notions of work, both academic and popular, we seem to be returning slowly to more responsible and humane ideas. The ‘greed is good’ ethos, originating in the 1980s and culminating in the 2008 GFC, is being replaced by the idea of ‘making a difference’. Other things being equal, people prefer to work where they can feel that the results of their work in products or services contribute to society; or at least don’t work against or dismantle it. That’s not always the case, of course; I am always tempted to ask (but don’t because if you talk to them they only call you again) the fake call centre which tries to convince me to release personal computing details, “How do you feel about working for a criminal organisation?  What do you tell your children, or your parents, that you do when you go off to work in the morning?”

In the post-GFC work environment (to the extent that it is ‘post’) I see a slow increase in acceptance of the view that work should do something good, or at least something reasonably defensible. I wouldn’t want to make too much of this–the converse is probably still dominant–but evident in those just coming into the workplace is a greater degree of discrimination and an intolerance of the impacts of organisations that are damaging; surely a hope for the future.

The point is made on the negative side in companies whose products are unambiguously harmful; the tobacco companies come inevitably to mind. Here is an interesting fact about the executives of tobacco companies, who for reasons of psychological viability have to persuade themselves during their working lives of the positive value of their products (there are such arguments, believe it or not–stress relief, cultural custom, freedom of choice, and so on). The life expectancy of such executives on retirement tends to be shorter relative to those from other kinds of companies. Whether this is due to tobacco consumption or to belated attacks of conscience isn’t clear; the latter is suspected. Who wants to face the fact that they have spent their life’s work harming people?  To paraphrase Lincoln, you can fool yourself some of the time, even much of the time, but not, in the end, all the time.

The fact is that people want to be able to take pride in their work, not only in the intrinsic qualities of products (“we will make good ships here”) but in their contribution to the welfare of society. Even if that contribution is small, it’s something–‘a difference’. By some margin things are better than they would have been had you not done in your work what you have done. Is this an observable trend the onset of a new civic engagement?  I doubt it; it’s been around for a long time. But increasingly it’s part of what people expect from their work and from the organisations they work for.


Although the idea of a career is rapidly disappearing, it is being replaced by a trajectory of growth in capability and experience. Increasingly it is being realised that work experience is far more than simply time spent on the job: it is education and development of the most valuable kind. Modern employers interviewing candidates are likely to ask “what have you done?” and “what do you know” before they ask “what qualifications do you have?”

There is an important story here. The question is, how do you become qualified for business? There was a time, perhaps 40 or 50 years ago, when education for business meant, at most, an undergraduate degree in business and then starting work. Then came the MBA, invented, it has been claimed, by Harvard University. Business emerged as an academic discipline. At Harvard it was built around the case-study method, designed to give it a real-world context (‘to lend’, wrote W.S. Gilbert, ‘verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative’). It was only in the late 1990s that anyone thought to look at how well it was doing, in practice. A simple study was undertaken, which looked at how well students did coming through the Harvard MBA and how well they were doing in their employment five years after graduating. The results were startling: there was a very good correlation, but it was inverse. That is, the better you did in the MBA course, the worse you did in the real world of business; and, importantly, vice versa–the worse you did in the academic work the better you did in business.

No doubt, for the Dean of the Harvard Business School, this was an unwelcome finding; but it was one that was replicated around the world. It forced a re-evaluation of business education; the conclusion of which was that business expertise is built not only on technical knowledge, but also on knowledge developed in the workplace. The workplace is itself a key environment of learning and development. Hence the proliferation of internships and other so-called ‘placement’ activities.

In support of this finding, I have had CEOs say to me that they won’t hire MBAs on principle. When I ask why, they say, “Because they think they know everything, they won’t learn.”  When I ask what they do want in an employee, they tell me, “I want them to have the core disciplines–accounting, finance, marketing, operations–but above that I want them to be smart, quick, positive, problem-solvers, able to collaborate, able to take initiative. Give me those people and I’ll teach them business!”  It’s well understood that learning and development goes on–indeed, in an effective and healthy organisation (the two things to together) it must go on–throughout the working life of every employee, and that the organisation has a crucial role in allowing for it and promoting it.

So for modern employees the opportunity to grow and develop is now central. That may mean, for example, opportunities to move around in the organisation, to take on different projects; to take on different roles, including management or supervisory roles; to plan their growth of knowledge and experience, in collaboration with the organisation and through its work; to participate in organised learning, through workshops or conferences or courses. It means seeing each employee as an individual person, not as a unit of work, and attending to each person, underpinning the potential they see for themselves.

Included is also the opportunity to move on, if a relevant opening presents itself. Organisations must now accept that development is a responsibility that is part of the total package for people who work for them now, regardless of whether they stay or not. Lifetime commitments to particular firms, even lifetime careers, are in the past. This is not an investment in the future but in the present.

In fact it’s not actually an investment at all: it is part of what you make available to your people because they are entitled to it, as a matter of ethical behaviour. You help people grow and develop with you because it’s their right as people. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds education to be a basic right that all people have, and defines it as “the full development of the human personality.”[ii]  Organisations and firms have their part to play in it.

Respect and trust

These have been discussed a number of times in previous chapters, and I have mentioned these above in a number of the elements which people want from their work; but I also want to treat them separately, in their own right in the context of what people want from their work. There is a great deal to be said about them, and I make no apology for speaking about them again: by the end of the book we may have some sort of coverage of them. In a sense all of these elements–variety and challenge, collaboration, ownership, making a difference, and development–come within the arc of respect and trust; or, if I were to choose just one of these, then respect, as trust is generated in large part by respect. I don’t mean here respect for particular skills or capabilities, although that’s important and practical: I mean the respect that is due to people as people. The entry point in working with people should be that respect is their due: that other things being equal they are entitled to be seen and treated as mature, intelligent, creative individuals, whose opinions should be listened to, who should be treated with courtesy and politeness, who should be trusted with important tasks in the business, and whose contributions should be explicitly acknowledged. In other words people deserve to be treated as individual persons, with all their innate dignities and rights, no less in the workplace than outside it.

I’ve heard it said, “they treat me like a person”, as the highest mark of appreciation and as an incentive for fully committed work, for work beyond the position description, the discretionary work that holds organisations together and takes them forward. Conversely, not being treated “as a person” is seen as the lowest of the low. In the workplace, this is explicitly a statement against being treated as an object, as a factor of production, of profitability, as a means to an end. This is the real exploitation that most people rise up against: not so much economic exploitation (although that can certainly be a part of it) but being used as an instrument. It denies dignity and worth, and nothing is more offensive. Yet, under the Taylorist conceptions which dominate the modern workplace, that denial is standard. You hear it in such management phrases as ‘taking the costs out’, which means sacking a lot of people (people are costs) or, as I’ve said, in ‘human resources’ (people are significant only in terms of the firm’s purposes). It exists in the assumptions behind workplace bullying and the aggressive, demeaning behaviour of managers that is so common, and so widely accepted, in our workplaces. That is a disgrace, a shame to the civilised standards of our modern society. Denial of respect is denial of humanity. In my mind nothing that can excuse it. And yet you would think that treating a worker ‘as a person’ would be as natural in the workplace as it is held to be outside it. Certainly nothing is more highly valued in working life, if it is real and sustained.

Some comments

One of the striking things about these elements is that they are, in my experience, all but universal. If you ask the question of groups of workers, at all levels–on the factory floor, in offices, in research laboratories, in executive groups–what they want from their work, they will almost to a person say these things. In fact these elements are largely held to be so obvious they hardly need to be said;  of course everyone knows, everyone wants, everyone values them. So you have to ask the question: why isn’t work structured so as to provide for them?

In fact, as we’ve seen, work isn’t at all seen that way in modern management, either in theory or in practice. Taylorist assumptions explicitly oppose it: to organise work according to these demands, even to include them in it, is from that perspective the height of managerial irresponsibility, in allowing for deviation away from defined work processes and products, and for resources to be allocated to areas other than the productive process. Management theory touches on them in passing, but doesn’t see them as central; even human resources theory hardly deals with them, developed as it is largely from the standpoint of the firm’s requirements. More depressingly, although nearly everybody readily identifies them, just as readily they are seen as unlikely ever to be central to modern workplaces. It is as though there is an alternate reality, ‘the business’, which will always take precedent, in which these things will never be allowed or embraced. Yet these aspirations and hopes stubbornly remain, and people continue, outside monetary rewards, to value their workplaces primarily by them.

The result of this misalignment is an absurd and shameful waste of human potential. Here is a very significant part of most people’s lives, in which, with a little thought, workers could grow and develop as people, even as they produce the goods and services which society needs. After all, what is unreasonable, complicated or unknown about these things?  Hugh Stretton, one of our most distinguished social theorists and commentators, expressed some of these aspirations with characteristic simplicity and humanity[iii]:

  • Interesting, challenging or otherwise pleasing tasks.
  • Tasks with some wholeness or independence, so that workers can enjoy some pride of craft.
  • Sociable roles in small working groups or teams; or in congenial relations with customers.
  • A real concern to develop latent talent. . .
  • A shared concern for excellence, both as a means . . .and as an end; as one of the joys of life.

‘One of the joys of life’: now there’s a concept you won’t find in many management theory books, or, in my experience, around the boardroom table. Yet everyone knows what it means. The legitimacy of business as a human enterprise rests on its ability to provide for just such purposes. Evidently we have a way to go.



[i] Here is a recent study on the psychology and health impact of boredom:  Eastwood, J, Frischen, A, Feuske, M & Smilek, D, 2012, ‘The unengaged mind: defining boredom in terms of attention’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482-495. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/oct/14/boredom-is-bad-for-health

[ii] Available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml

[iii] Stretton, H (2000), Economics: a new introduction, Pluto Press, London, p.282.

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The Fractured Workplace And Its Remedies by Geoffrey Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.