Plato and His Gang

New Meaning and Modalities of Work

School of Athens via Wikimedia
The port of Athens was the perfect backdrop to wax lyrical on the best way to live. Plato and his fictional gang (Socrates, Glaucon & Co.) would cruise the buzzy streets of Piraeus intoxicated by the colorful walks of life. It was the scene that would goad Plato into shaping the world’s most important philosophical work.

In The Republic, Plato’s ideal state is divided into three distinct classes: the Producers, who provide material and functional needs; the Auxiliaries, who defend the state; and the Guardians, who rule it. Justice is maintained when each person, within their respective class, performs his or her proper function.

Platonic idealism (alongside the ancient Greek philosophies) was monumental — giving rise to democracy and the foundations of modern Western civilisation. But today, who’s to determine what proper societal function each person should fulfil? With technological progress, our daily tasks and jobs have changed. And what’s alluring is how our attitude towards work has evolved — and why.

The ancient Greeks, as well as the Hebrews and medieval Christians, viewed work as a curse. Ponos is the Greek word for work, which originated from the Latin poena, meaning sorrow. At it’s core, work was associated with pain and drudgery. It was the divine punishment for man’s original sin and viewed as a necessary evil.

Today, there is plenty of room for personal growth in work. We have endless opportunities to express ourselves, whether as a coffee connoisseur, street mime, or YouTube sensation. Choice, for many, becomes paradoxical.

Image via American Secularist

In the 16th Century, the Protestant work ethic came to fore and was still all about work as a sacrifice — indicating that you were morally worthy. Work gratification is so very different today — ideally, we find work as good and rewarding in and of itself, as touted by life hackers and career advice columnists.

But do we find work interesting and engaging? What really happens when these expectations aren’t met?

The Employee Engagement Epidemic

I heard a story about an employee who scripted his own piece of software that made it appear on his computer as though he was working, when in fact he was busy exchanging hot tamale recipes (or something equally absurd). He’s certainly not alone — many of us would rather do something other than our jobs. Small wonder that productivity (measured as global GDP per capita) has been in decline for several decades. The majority of the world’s 1 billion full-time employees — about 87% — are not engaged in their work. That’s nearly 9 out of every 10 workers.

Engagement and the Global Workplace Report

The demand for knowledge work is rising faster than ever before. Nearly half of America works in a non-routine, cognitive job, which permits more room for self-expression. We would hope that, as a result, more people are finding fulfillment in their work. Although some do find that higher purpose, especially in cultures or industries that foster it, the numbers show worker disengagement is still a global epidemic.

The Effects Beyond the Office

At last count, of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, 5.3 billion were classified by Pew Research Centre as poor or low income. How does poverty correlate with the engagement epidemic? Engaged workers are more productive, thereby improving their country’s economic health. To put it into context: 45 million Americans live below the poverty line. Employee disengagement and the resulting loss in productivity costs the American economy $350 billion per year. This works out to $1,000 for every U.S citizen —and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Image via TLNT

The repercussions of disengagement don’t stop at the company level. Not only do engaged employees enjoy what they do more than disengaged ones — they’re also less prone to burnout and workplace accidents. Disengaged workers are more likely to take sick days, suffer from depression or anxiety, and even display negative behavior with friends and family.

Despite our increasing ability to pursue meaningful work, this epidemic unearths a deep-rooted issue in our professional work ethic and one we have yet to fully address. What worldwide economic prosperity would result if we decreased disengagement by just 10%? The potential is mind blowing. The required shift in thinking is this: finding meaning in work is no longer a luxury — it’s now a duty. Our ancestors saw work as a sacrifice that made them morally worthy. The coming generations must view work as a moral good that is worthy in and of itself.

Changing Times, Changing Mindsets

For some reason, we’re still operating on the assumption that people are only willing to work in exchange for pay. O.K, it probably has a lot to do with the economics of free market capitalism, but it’s no longer true.

When tied to religion, the spirit of hard work and progress were present in even the most mundane professions. After all, it was blessed by God. There was a deep meaning and value associated with work, irrespective of the extrinsic reward. When industrialisation came, that meaning in work focussed on the returns — what having a job would provide in terms of position and pay.

Industrial Workers via Pinterest

Over time these beliefs and attitudes toward work have been baked into our organisations. Set even more by Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” our division of labor meant breaking work down into the smallest, most mundane activities so as to produce more, faster. In the heyday of the industrial boom, this logic admittedly held some value. But that revolution has long since ended, and we’re still trying to update our collective mindset. Work has broken down, because for so many it doesn’t hold significant meaning —work no longer works. Our organizations suffer as a result, as does society as a whole.

Poised for Growth

Psychologist Barry Schwartz aptly sums it up: “We want work that is challenging and engaging, that enables us to exercise some discretion and control over what we do, and that provides us opportunities to learn and grow. We want to work with colleagues we respect and with supervisors who respect us. Most of all, we want work that is meaningful — that makes a difference to other people and thus ennobles us in at least some small way.”

Your perception of your own work rests upon what drives you. Schwartz, together with Yale School of Management Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, report that internal motivations for why we do what we do trump instrumental ones. While status and a pay check are extrinsic motives, approaching mastery and being challenged in your work are internal ones. You actually stunt your professional progress when you allow yourself to be motivated by both internal and external motives.

Image writer’s own

Time and again, research has shown that being governed by internal motivations leads to finding meaning in work as well as long-term professional success. In the early 20th century, Robert Woodworth, a student of renowned philosopher and psychologist William James, proposed that we take part in activities that provide their own drive.

Later, Abraham Maslow designed his hierarchy, mapping our basic deficiency and growth needs. As a self-actualising endeavour, deriving meaning from work would form the top, not the base. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan built upon this, developing the self-determination theory. Their approach to motivation rests on three innate psychological needs: 1) competence, 2) relatedness, and 3) autonomy. When these three criteria are met, we are poised to optimally grow — to find meaning.

Finding — or Creating — Meaning

For some, a lack of engagement must be addressed by changing jobs or even careers. For others, it can involve something much more subtle to transform their existing job into one they love. Wrzesniewski, together with University of Michigan professor Jane E. Dutton and Wharton doctoral student Justin M. Berg, say that job crafting may just do the trick. Simply put, you take the various building blocks within your job and recombine them to better align with your talent and interests.

The results of job crafting have led to many finding more meaning in their work. As an example, in their study, a hospital cleaner took it upon herself to perform many activities outside of her job specifications. She might regularly dust the ceilings so patients don’t have to stare at them or bring water to thirsty patients between nursing shift changes. She saw herself not just as a cleaner but as a caretaker. Expanding her job, within reason, allowed her to derive more meaning in her work.

The concept is marked by a three-tiered framework:

1. Task crafting: rearranging your activities and day-to-day tasks
2. Relational crafting: reformulating social interactions
3. Cognitive crafting: fine-tuning the perception of the purpose of your work
Image via Torontoist

Job crafting, done well, entails learning how to retrofit your job so as to make it more compatible with your distinct passions, strengths and values. Individuals who are persistent job crafters, bring their whole selves to work. In so doing, their customers, colleagues, and the organisation as a whole, reap the benefits.

The Destroyers of Meaningfulness

Sound all too easy? And what about those with positional authority — the bosses? Take Japan, where it’s sacrilegious to go home before the big boss does, even if you have no work to do. In today’s economy, theory Y-styled managers are winning over theory X ones. If you’re an enabling leader then you won’t hinder your team’s effective job crafting.

Image via NYMAG.com

Research from MIT has shown that quality of leadership is rarely mentioned when people talk about meaningful moments at work. Rather, bad management is “The destroyer of meaningfulness.” Good leaders sometimes go unnoticed, but the poor ones actually sap the sense of meaning from their team. In these instances, there is often a values clash between the critical manager and the diminished employee. This kind of hyper-critical leadership can also result in unmotivated employees, office in-fighting, serious health issues, and even premature death.

Workplace Strategy

In today’s workplace, intrinsic motivations are influenced by technology, culture and space. A newish discipline known as workplace strategy that caters to these three areas is quickly gaining popularity. The goal of the workplace strategist is no small feat: align leadership, exploit technology, design spaces and ultimately, change behavior. The key here is that in so doing, the worker’s satisfaction may be boosted. And workplace satisfaction has a direct correlation with increased engagement levels.

Apple Park via WSJ

A healthy interplay between technology, culture and space can provide fertile ground for a nourishing work environment. Complimented by the three principles below, a company can identify where it needs to change in order to improve engagement. The principles are gleaned from Steelcase’s Engagement and the Global Workplace Report, spanning 17 countries and nearly 13,000 participants.

1. Choice

Pretty simple, really — engaged employees have more control over their experiences at work. We’ve seen the power of autonomy at work — choosing when, where and how one works are things we value. Shockingly, the use of fixed technology (a desk phone and a desktop tied to a work station) exceeds mobile technology (a cell phone and a laptop) by 2 to 1. The desk in most offices around the world is not only restricting mobility, it’s also doubling as handcuffs.

2. Collaboration

Paradoxically, traditional work styles that emphasize individual work still reign supreme. They are based on the premise of a manufacturing age operating model — one that champions reliability — and haven’t matured to meet the new demands of the Information Age: thriving in ambiguity and conflicting opinions. Collaborative working is the new norm for the aptly named collaborative economy.

3. Context

What works in Barcelona doesn’t necessarily fly in Bengaluru. The most engaged employees in the world are actually in emerging economies. Developed nations are more polarized (either very engaged or not at all) and a few notables like Spain, Belgium and France suffer from the highest rates of dissatisfaction. When a company expands to a new city, and “exports” its office, it must remain sensitive to cultural context. All too often, companies fail to accommodate for the norms of a new city and meet the expectations of their future employees. This principle also extends to large office settings that span several floors. When someone, say in Customer Success (2nd floor), heads up to Management (22nd floor), the cultural disparity, more than the physical distance, can be symbolic of organizational dysfunction.

Image via SecondHome

‘Catering to these principles — choice, collaboration and context — is not a surefire way to ensure engagement. They are guiding principles. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but together, workplace strategists and the leaders they consult must apply these concepts in order to help crush disengagement in the workplace.

My Crystal Ball

The Jetsons via The Guardian

“For a lot of people it’s hard to imagine having a fulfilling life without work” says Robert Bolton, head of the foresight studio at innovation firm Idea Couture. The Foresight Studio? Yes, it’s precisely what it sounds like — Bolton and his team function much like antennas. They mark the tone of the times and convert them into cultural artefacts. As a natural multidisciplinarian, operating between the worlds of art and commerce comes easily to Bolton. Within minutes of chatting to him, it’s evident he is acutely aware of how the human condition plays with, and reacts to, technological progress.

Even more intriguing is how Bolton’s day job informs his own artistic practice and vice versa. He describes one future scenario that’s akin to a “Post-work, AI-enabled hyper abundant society” — a world where automation has been so successful that luxury communism runs amok. Countless years of full-time drudgery finally sees its end.

This next iteration of work resembles a “lonely arcade.’” In this abundant world, the arcaders would face the predicament of finding, “Meaning without having anything to contribute. People would struggle to define unique identities. With no apparent reason to develop a talent, practice creativity, engage their intellectual curiosity, or achieve much of anything, many people are left feeling purposeless, unmotivated, unfulfilled and alone” says Bolton.

In many ways this is already a reality — and one others will certainly experience in the future. Bolton is quick to remark that a lot of work that people do today is not very important to them, nor to anyone for that matter. In the future, it may be easier for people to find meaning regardless of the outward utility of their pursuits. The intrinsic motivation and labor of love is what will bear significance. Work may not hold the same meaning nor be associated with the same cultural values as it is today.

Right now you’re scratching your head thinking: could that really be? It’s hard for a generation to identify, less sympathize, with a future generation. It’s part and parcel of the same reason we can’t collectively address the global warming crisis. We won’t be here when the world goes to hell, “So I’ll just drive the two blocks to grab some milk in my Hummer.” Or so the twisted thinking goes. Bolton cautions that whichever way it rolls, it will take time to reframe work, “Throughout human history we’ve always had to work, whether it be hunting and gathering…the importance of doing work is in our culture, it’s in our DNA, it’s in our religion, it’s in everything.”

Quality Control

Image via ISO

We’re informed by the world we see around us, through social cues, by professional standards, a tireless media — but ultimately by how we feel about our work. And feeling a sense of identification with what you do in work enables you to approach a deeper meaning. With over 175 cognitive biases at play — your own construct of your place in the world is inherently skewed by how you want to see things.

In order to stay motivated in work you need a certain degree of freedom, relatedness to others and connection to your work. But crucially you also want to be skilled and stretched. The key difference being that in the former you have a specific level of competency to get the job done, while in the latter you are perpetually challenged — always striving towards mastery.

In the end, what makes up our realities are just the stories we tell ourselves. You floss not because you really want to but because it prevents gum disease. A work bonus is just that: a bonus. Ask yourself if you work for the intrinsic value it brings even over the instrumental ones. Feeling a connection to a deeper sense of meaning is a quality that only you control.

A New Necessity

The strongest indicator of your engagement is whether you believe you’re making progress towards meaningful work, a concept known as the progress principle. Of course, redesigning your job to become fully engaged doesn’t happen overnight. It happens via small wins and baby steps towards finding meaning.

Image writer’s own

As more and more companies hire hunger over talent, the job crafting strategy will prove extremely powerful from an organisational standpoint. After all, businesses cannot innovate if everyone within them is uninspired. And it’s evident when someone is engaged in their work. Instead of saying, “I have to go to work,” they say, “I get to go to work.” Our family, friends, and colleagues all take notice of the way we feel about what we do. When we operate from a place of purpose, genuineness, and with a giving spirit, it has a positive cascading effect.


We need to stretch our boundaries, both as individuals and as organizations, and reimagine the value work holds. It’s no longer a luxury to contemplate meaning in work — it’s a necessity.


Jonas Altman is a writer and entrepreneur. Join thousands and receive his monthly digest on the Future of Work by clicking here


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