The future of work is a return to meaningful work
I loved Lego’s when I was a kid. What 8 year old doesn’t?
Now that I have two young sons, its fun watching them get excited at the prospect of building something out of a random collection of colored blocks. The glee of carefully and meticulously assembling objects that form something more complex and is fun to play with is long gone from the adult version of me, but I get to relive it in a small way each time I bring home a new kit for the boys. Building Lego’s provided something meaningful and purposeful, at the same time it tested an array of cognitive skills that helped me develop my brain into become a trouble-shooting machine. While I’ve moved on to founding and running a technology company, Lego’s provided something inherently meaningful about the process of work. The sophisticated engineering reduced into a toy demonstrates a lot about the journey of humans as toolmakers.
Where is the glee in the work we do as adults?
If you’re an accountant, are you thrilled by the prospect of consistently hunting for ways to save your clients from paying more tax? Is the race to tune your clients’ spreadsheets the high-order bit? Do you work as a cook and dream of being head chef at a Michelin starred restaurant? Or have you reached nirvana because you get the chance to manage Sunday service at your local restaurant. For most of us we work in jobs where we are distracted from the chance of doing meaningful work; the reason for why we signed up in the first place.
I’m a technologist, but I’m not formally trained as one. I’ve learnt the craft from adapting to a world that is consistently becoming more digital, and increasingly a challenge if you choose not to take part. We invest time in uploading, creating and personalizing a lot of content that really doesn’t matter. This distraction has been manufactured in order to fill the gaps in our day where we use to dream about how we would get from A to B in order to be working on the things we really want to be working on. Now like workplace cocaine, we open Facebook and Like our friend’s photos instead of working on our aspirational goals. We’re using technology for infantile purposes, and not for establishing the building blocks to help ourselves in achieving the things we want to do.
Automation provides opportunities for us to remove ourselves from the mundane processing that work has become for most of us; creating documents, assembling reports, attending meetings that aren’t needed, peer reviewing code, finding truisms within obfuscated business speak in order to explain ourselves clearly. You know what I’m talking about. The future of work isn’t a race to work harder and longer in order to have meaning either. This thinking is a relic from the industrial age, where if you stayed longer at the factory to make a few more widgets, you could eventually out do your competition. Work itself is evolving but our work thinking is still stuck in the factory. We often hear that someone is putting in long hours and our immediate thought is they must be inundated with opportunity, when in reality they are most likely attempting to get through all of the mundane work that automation could radically solve.
For the majority of us the opportunity to do meaningful work is largely defined by the leadership of management. Every organization has a cause, and the execution of this is represented by the emotional investment of its people. If they are consumed with mundane process, then the cause will be contributed to a dull exercise that doesn’t inspire or motivate. Some of the most successful companies in the world realize this, with Google being one of the first to offer employees personal time to work on something that is of interest to them. Our factory working mentality immediately recoils at the thought people should spend time pursuing something that isn’t aligned specifically with organizational goals, but we fail to recognize that by supporting people to pursue their work interests at work enables them to have more meaningful experiences that contribute to the underlying culture of the workplace.