The purpose of work
Over the years I’ve read and heard a lot about meaning in work. Finding purpose in what you do and how happiness can be found in almost anything that we want.
I’ve never completely been convinced about these arguments. In the same way employee engagement wants to make me poke out my own eyes with a rusty nail, the whole premise seems contrived. Because not all work can have meaning and not everyone wants to find meaning in their work. What worries me more about these things is that the argument feels patronising and explores work through a middle class, middle-income, professional lens.
If you’re holding down four temporary, part-time jobs, the last thing on your mind is finding meaning in the organisational vision and strategy. You just don’t want to get shafted by your employer, see your hours reduced, get charged for your uniform or have any losses deducted from your wage. You want to have some level of guarantee that you know how much you’re going to be taking home so that you can pay the bills.
But this isn’t just an economic argument. Even in the seemingly more stable office environment, some people want to come in, be treated like an adult, be allowed to do the job that they are paid for and get that pay and go home. In the same way that for many organisations, employees are faceless and interchangeable, for many employees organisations are similarly homogeneous.
This doesn’t mean that the world of work has to be grey and boring and impersonal. Far from it. By recognising that some people don’t give a flying fig about your company purpose or meaning, you’re recognise that they are individuals in their own right. If they want to get pay from work and meaning from their stamp collection, or saving small baby seals from being clubbed to death, that’s their choice. And choice is individual, and recognising individuality is the first step to creating a healthy organisation.
Instead of trying to deploy some sort of weird, HR Jedi mind control tricks, we should focus instead on making sure that there is a fair deal for all employees within our organisations, allowing them to prosper and enjoy life in whatever (legal) ways they chose to do. To use a favourite phrase of mine, we are there to create the theatre that allows our employees to make the performances of their lives. But we need to recognise that for some of them, that performance will be nothing more than a job.
Because our role is not to help people find purpose in work, our job is to make work better. Finding meaning and happiness is personal choice.