Do we Need More Meaning in our Work?

work colleagues in conversation

by Peter Cosgrove, MD of Futurewise Ltd.

Adam Smith was a Scottish economist and philosopher from the eighteenth century who invented the specialisation theory (better known as division of labour) with respect to work, recognised in his book “Wealth of Nations”. He posited that to improve prosperity, we needed specialisation, and he used the famous example of pins. He said to make a pin takes multiple steps, and if one person does all the steps, production is very low. But if you get one person to do step one, and one person to do step two and step three and so on, production can increase tremendously. This was revolutionary at the time and led to the division of labour and huge productivity increases.

We are now in the knowledge economy and not the industrial age and while many of these ideas hold true, we do see unintended consequences. Think for a second of the person who stares at an excel sheet all day being one part of a large warehouse and logistics operation. Their job may be vital for on time shipping and delivery but that is very hard for this employee to see. Karl Marx came up with the term, alienation of labour. He said that if everything is split into small tasks then a person never sees the progression of the work that they do or even get to glimpse the final product. Therefore, we lose out on employee motivation, meaning or caring about the final product or service.

How companies were able to navigate this issue in the past was partly accidental. When everyone was in the office five days a week, you had many fortuitous interactions. You might meet people from other departments working on the same project, you might see colleagues regularly at the coffee shop, the gym or on the commute into work. This has changed massively with very little face to face interaction in the office every week.

I am certainly not advocating for us to return to the office five days a week, but it is important for organisations to understand how changes to remote and flexible working also need a change of mindset by employers in how they motivate and engage their employees. We will never talk or interact with others online as much as we do in person. We also cannot manufacture all the accidental meetings we may have, especially with those from completely different departments, consider for example, who someone may have met every day when they went to the office canteen.

Employers need to stop worrying about whether their employees are working when they cannot see them and begin to consider how to improve their motivation and meaning in the work that they do. When tasks are broken down into constituent parts for productivity gains we may lose some of the humanity and meaning of the job, especially when we work apart.

There is an old parable about two men carrying rocks from one place to another, one with a smile, and the other with a frown. A man passing by asks the frowning man, what he is doing, and he answers, “I’m moving rocks”. He then out of curiosity asked the man smiling the same question, to which he got the reply “I’m building a cathedral”. Few workers however, will have that level of perspicacity. Huge work is needed by employers considering how to help their employees with this. Ultimately this will help their retention and happiness of employees and therefore the organisation’s productivity

About the author

Peter Cosgrove leads Futurewise and is an expert on future trends and a much sought-after speaker on talks related to the future of work. He has over 25 years business experience on executive teams as well as on not for profit boards as board member and Chairman. He has been Chair of Junior Achievement Ireland, the National Recruitment Federation and currently serves on the 30% Club Steering Committee tackling gender balance and is Vice Chairman of Aware, a leading mental health charity. Peter has served as a Board adviser for a number of Staffing organisations and has been a contributor to the Expert Group on Future Skills.