meaningless labor, meaningful work

Why are we on this elusive search for meaningful work? Was there ever a time when work used to be meaningful? If yes, then when, and how can we make work meaningful again?

Dr. Hartwig, Professor of Communication, answered these questions in his insightful TEDx talk in 2015 when he discussed the intersection between work and meaningfulness. Dr. Hartwig observed that the current narrative of finding meaningful work is misguided. We do not find meaningful work; we make work meaningful.

Work used to be inherently meaningful before the Industrial Revolution. A town baker did not go outside his town to work. The baker worked where he lived, making his personal life and professional life closely tied together. The baker had full control over the planning of his work and had a strong connection to his community. He knew his customers, and the effect his products had on people.

At the start of the Industrial Revolution, all of that changed, and work turned into labor. Through the use of machines and the introduction of the Scientific Management movement, pioneered by Frederick Taylor, work became standardized. Taylor was one of the first management consultants. He studied various ways companies could maximize efficiency and worker productivity.

Taylor concluded that any given task could be done in one way that was better than any other (the origin of best practices). He suggested that workers should be trained to complete a task in that exact best way. Taylor instructed supervisors to watch and ensure that workers performed the assigned tasks exactly as they were trained. Finally, Taylor believed that a division of labor should be implemented between managers and workers. Managers should plan out the work, and workers should do the work. Workers would be required to do exactly what they were told in the exact way they were told to do it. Workers’ ideas, thoughts, and suggestions would not be solicited or welcomed.

This dehumanizing practice turned meaningful work into meaningless labor. The disconnect between work and meaningfulness led workers to create a barrier between who they were at work and who they were outside the work. The phrase “I am just working for the weekend” entered the lexicon.

Since then, people have been trying to reconnect work with meaningfulness. In his TEDx talk, Dr. Hartwig proposed five strategies to inject meaning into people’s daily work.

  1. Help employees focus on the good that they do every day and help them understand why they are doing what they are doing.
  2. Look beyond the bottom line. Yes, financial goals are important, but encourage employees to think about how they can make things better. How can they improve someone else’s day, whether it is a colleague or a customer?
  3. Stop saying, “Someone is just a ____.” I used to hear that phrase a lot when top leaders would refer to a lower-level employee. “So and so is just an analyst.” One person’s work is not more meaningful than someone else’s. People can sense when their manager does not value their work.
  4. Create space for your employees to allow them to focus on what they are doing so that they can plan their work and think beyond the bottom line.
  5. Above all else, embrace people’s humanity – all of it; embrace who people are and what they bring to every team and organization.

Organizations can utilize these strategies as they reimagine the future of work.

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