I remember waking up with great excitement on my first ever day of work.
After scrambling through university, I’d landed a terrific job at IBM in Sydney. This was the mid-late 1990s when Big Blue still dominated the global tech scene and was ready to save the world from ‘the Y2K bug’. I was joining as an Associate Brand Manager - whatever that was - and couldn’t believe the amount of money they were paying me ($35,600 p.a).
I marched into the lobby of IBM’s vaguely retro/futuristic headquarters outfitted in my first suit, empty briefcase in hand, ready to revolutionise the professional world. I had dreams of crafting masterful, cutting-edge brand campaigns. Of working with unpredictable geniuses who were pioneers in their field. Of open offices and buzzing cafeterias where people jotted notes and sketches about how to turn tech into a force for social change.
OK, so I was young and naive. Indeed my first day of work also happened to be my 21st birthday.
My hopes and expectations were pretty much shattered before the end of that first day. Mid-afternoon an assortment of 20 strangers meekly emerged from the maze of adjacent cubicles to sing me happy birthday. It was a ‘little surprise’ from HR. Yes, there was cake. And while I know it was intended to be a warm welcome, it was just creepy.
The gulf between what I had imagined and the reality of work was - to put it mildly - vast. No wonder because I had absolutely no visibility about what my work might be like.
Even though I knew by the end of my first day that I wasn’t exactly a fit for the culture, I ended up having a great experience at IBM - let it be said the people were always keen, switched on and extremely professional.
In the 15 years since then a similar story has played out in varying degrees. From joining a mid-stage startup that went belly up, to working with a telco, to becoming a gonzo journalist, to a stint as a social entrepreneur, to heading off to a tropical island to write a novel (true story), and to working for pioneering companies in London’s creative and tech scene.
Like many, many others, my search to find somewhere I fitted was a difficult and enduring one.
This fact gave me pause to consider a little while back.
Why, in this age of extraordinary open-ness, shareable media and humans-as-mega-publishers, is there still such little visibility into the work people do? Into how they work, what they believe and aspire to, who they work with, even where they work.
And if there’s no meaningful visibility of these things, how is anyone expected to find their place?
It’s an important problem to solve. Studs Terkel said it best;
Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
Work is a crucial and determinant part of a well lived and purposeful life, even if that can feel like a luxury in some parts of the world right now.
So I find it strange that such work opacity persists. Obviously it isn’t as bad as it was before the rise of the social web, but apart from irregular glimpses via company blogs, the zany Twitter stream of the office dog, peeks into employee’s Pinterest boards or office galleries on EyeEm, the working lives of professionals around the world are still mostly hidden from view.
This lack of visibility might actually be a huge factor explaining why 71% of people are disengaged with their work. It’s not that they’re incapable of doing great work. It’s that they don’t fit with what’s important; the environment, the people, the atmosphere, the style, in short, the culture.
In my experience, when you do get meaningful glimpses into how people work and what companies are truly about - beyond the perks and free lunches - something tremendously powerful happens.
With visibility and greater insight comes the opportunity for inspiration, learning and genuine connections. Terrific services like Behance, Dribble, Quora, Angel List and others are proof of this. They stand in refreshing contrast to the tired, traditional and ineffectual tools like CVs, job ads, (de)motivational letters, and yes I’ll have to throw the 12 year old LinkedIn into this lot.
So how do you give people a fighting chance of discovering their place, finding the others, and pursuing their passions?
There’s no easy solution to this. But if I’ve learned anything since co-founding my own company Somewhere - tackling this very problem - there is a simple place to start.
Show the world what you really do.
Be open, visual and honest. There’s enormous beauty and opportunity in the extraordinary world of 21st century work. Share it.
Certainly, burn or delete your CVs. And companies, take a hard look at your ‘employer branding’ (i.e. marketing spin).
Show the world your work and you just might find that it liberates your search for the right place, attracts like-minded souls, and at the least, helps dispel the naiveté of 21-year olds who believe in unicorn-filled, double-rainbow-illuminated workplaces.