What Would it Take to Convince You to Stop Working?
In a recent MBA class discussion on why we work, I asked a student if she would give up her current job if someone offered her four times her current compensation for the rest of her life. “Of Course”, she said, before I could even finish my question. I clarified that there is a condition attached to the offer. The condition being that she was not to take on any meaningful work of any kind whatsoever; whether for money or for charity. Putting aside the proverbial retire-to-a-beach scenario, she interjected just as quickly, “No Way”.
At issue is possibly the core existential question of modern society. Is work a means or an end?
The de-personalization of work in the industrial age, as well as its inherent incompatibility with the human soul was so famously articulated by Henry Ford: “Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?” Back then, work was clearly a means to earn a living. Today, we spend most of our waking hours working. Technology, while increasing productivity, has also extended our workday. The line between work and life appears to be blurring. Work seems to be an increasing influence in how we define our identity, our sense of belonging, our relationships, and our self-worth. No wonder, the younger generation, expects a re-defined workplace that serves as a crucible for personal growth and self-expression. Our quest for meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives has most certainly entered the workplace. This must have been on his mind when James Hillman said many years ago, “One has to have a fantasy so that work can go on”.
Going back to the scenario described earlier, the fantasy of retiring on the beach forever was not meaningful enough for the student to accept the offer. The question is obviously hypothetical. Yet, what if it was not. What would you do? Would you accept the offer? What would cause you to decline it? What would the offer have to be for you to accept it?
Simply put, if economic survival was not at issue, why do you work? Or, more provocatively; Is there life without meaningful work?
The implications for businesses are enormous. Employers are challenged to offer meaning and sense of purpose at work to attract and retain the newer generation of employees. Examples of highly successful companies achieving such status through meaning and purpose are around us. Consider, for instance, Whole Foods Market, Davita, Medtronics, and others. Davita is particularly noteworthy since its business of providing dialysis services is so consistently routine.
There are more questions. Have life and work become so inter-twined that, as Umair Haque of Harvard says, to create a meaningful life, one must pursue meaningful work. What is meaningful work? Whose responsibility is it to create a work environment where employees feel they are part of something bigger than they are? Is it even possible to find inherent meaning and sense of purpose in every kind of work? What does the workplace need to do to meet the expectations of the younger generation?
It would be fair to ask how we are performing in providing such an environment.
Employee Engagement is considered a key metric for a meaningful employee work experience. Two recent such studies by Dale Carnegie Training and Blessing White Research tell a concerning story, especially, if you are one of the senior stewards of a company charged with shaping its future. Both studies point to roughly the same conclusion. Overall Employee Engagement is in the 20-40% range with India and North America at the top end of the range and China at the bottom. More concerning, however, is that while 45% of manager and supervisor level workers were engaged, only 23% of workers at all other levels – those directly involved in doing the work – were engaged.
Given the extraordinary emphasis on Employee Engagement over the last decade, nearly half the supervisory and 80% of non-supervisory employees still do not feel engaged. Is Employee Engagement the right metric for a meaningful work experience? If not, what is? If so, what must we do differently?
What do you think?