What is Work?
Since starting The Work Project, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out just what it is that I do, or more specifically what I really want to do. I’m fascinated by work, workplace, organisations and their impact on our lives, but there’s a creative side to me that wants to get out too. I spent the first few weeks of 2015, trying to reconcile how this can manifest as a way to exist outside the usual structures of work and still make a living — the purpose of The Work Project.
It made me start to wonder a few things, but mainly I started to think about the most fundamental question related to the project… what is work?
Really — what is it? How does it affect us, do we all perceive it in the same way?
I had a hunch that opinions may vary.
In anecdotal conversations over the last few months, views on work and the reasons some people stay in jobs they hate, or never stop to consider what they’re doing, have emerged. Often, they’re related to the obvious — money, but sometimes we spoke about duty, purpose, or something more abstract.
A couple of weeks ago, this all contrived to make me realise that if I don’t understand work, personally or more widely, how will I ever be able to break apart the concept and restructure it? I needed insight, so I started a little project.
For just over a week, wherever I went, I took my phone (a Nokia Lumia 930) and attempted to ask people one very simple, yet fundamental question and film their immediate response. What is work?
Initially I intended to ask 100 people in a Family Fortunes style, but then a couple of things happened. Firstly, it was unexpectedly hard to convince random people in the street to let me film them on my phone — there was a lot of suspicion. People at work or in uniforms were worried that they would get in trouble and, particularly in London, almost everyone has been told by their employer they’re not allowed to be filmed or interviewed.
From Time Out magazine distributors to Jehova’s Witnesses, McDonald’s servers to market traders, no one wanted to be filmed… we didn’t even get as far as the question. Even where the will was there, circumstances became overly-difficult for such a small task…
A very helpful member of London Underground staff at Piccadilly Circus asked his supervisor for permission, then gave me details of who I needed to contact in the Press Office to request a temporary filming permit. He told me he’d be around and happy to do it once I’d spoken to them — they are usually fast to reply and rarely refuse permission.
‘They’ never responded to my request.
I persevered, asking an increasing range of different people, outside of work. On reflection, not identifying people by uniform makes their opinion more individual and less prone to judgement by the viewer. By the time I’d gathered just over twenty responses, I reviewed the footage on my phone. The image quality was ok, but the sound was atrocious — background noise rendered some of the clips completely unusable.
There was a lot of footage too. Even trimmed right down, the collection of clips was nearing three minutes. It was enough — I wanted to create a video that people will watch right through and think about, hopefully inspiring them to join in and answer the question on Twitter via #WorkThink.
So I left it there.
This video should be the start of a conversation, not its entirety.
I know the sound quality is patchy at best and the camera shakes, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not a professional video, it’s me and my phone (and a cheap old camera for the intro as I couldn’t get my phone on a tripod), asking real people a question.
It’s a question I’d like you answer too — and to share with others.
What is work, for you?
By answering that, we can not only build a picture of the different ways we see work, we can start to explore it further and understand how we approach it, how it affects us and eventually, how it might be different. It’s the essence of The Work Project — and probably the first thing I should have done when I started out on this adventure.
As for me… what is work?
It’s this — an open-ended journey of discovery.