Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
13 Jan 2012

Are we allowing ourselves to be defined by our daily work?

13 Jan 2012 • by Changeboard Team

And...what do you do?

We are increasingly defined not by who we are, but by what we do. A combination of flexible working patterns, job insecurity and mobile technology are just three factors that have contributed to our professional lives bleeding into our family and private lives.

Perhaps we do it to impersonate royalty? Everyone needs an opening gambit in social conversation, but it’s striking how many of us in modern life follow HRH The Queen’s line, starting our putative relationships with strangers with an enquiry: “And what do you do?” While the world might be a brighter place if ‘surprise old ladies with unexpected answers’ was one of the more significant categories of response, etiquette probably isn’t why so many of us use the same question. 

A growing number of us might be ‘currently resting’ (thereby potentially making it an awkward loaded question), but it’s not just the safeness of the question that draws us to it. It’s because we mostly define ourselves by what we do, not what we are. “My name is Jason, and I’m an HR director.” One wonders if Her Majesty would smile and move on, or follow through with, “Oh, so one works in HR. How nice.”

Survivor syndrome - self-preservation

Like any (self-)definition, ‘what we do’ is partly about describing our boundaries, our points of interaction with the wider world. While some commentators saw the onset of ‘the crisis’ in 2008 as an opportunity to fundamentally redraw many aspects of contemporary life, not least the socio-economic, events have not evolved as they hoped.

There’s talk of squandered opportunities, although opportunities need people willing to grasp them. The recently published 28th British Social Attitudes survey attracted widespread media coverage, not least as it suggested that, faced with a dramatic present (in which on-going financial and economic crisis, rioting, public spending cuts and rising unemployment are just the headline issues), our response is not a case of ‘we’re all in this together’. Or at least not in the sense of working together. On the contrary, our faith in external or collective solutions is declining: the shift is towards individual responsibility.

Ever keen on a populist by-line, some journalists couldn’t resist an eye-catching, if over-simplifying, headline: recalling an archetypal British film, they went for: “We are the Self-Preservation Society”. I couldn’t wonder why The Italian Job’s ending didn’t get a mention. A bus full of Brits rowdily celebrating an ill-earned fortune, the weight of which leaves them perilously stranded on a dangerous road, seems too appropriate to overlook. The film’s last line: "Hang on a minute, lads, I've got a great idea! Err..." – was, however, a scriptwriter’s way of setting up options for a sequel. Most of us are only too aware that there isn’t actually a film director on high, planning our glorious return to the silver screen. Little wonder we’re looking more to our own resources to survive whatever comes next.

Social impact and performance related output

National and global economic news aren’t the only things impacting on us, of course. We are now in an era where flexible working patterns and technology (especially mobile technology) mean our working experience is more episodic and bleeds further into our lives outside the workplace: it is also, for many people, more insecure. This insecurity isn’t just economic: flexible working, project-based work and distributed teams also mean the social bonds between workers are looser, more fleeting and fragmented.

Friendships in the context of work aren’t just about social comfort; they can have a direct and positive impact of performance. A Gallup Management Journal survey in 2011 found that the highly engaged were three times as likely as the disengaged to say that they have a friend at work they can share new ideas with.

Echoing writers on innovation such as Stephen Johnson and Tim Berners-Lee, CIPD blogger Alistair Fliaster observed: “The real engine of creativity and organisational success is to be found in internal networks of friendship and collaboration.

This crossfire of drivers generates many challenges, for both organisations as a whole and for HR functions in particular, but one seems particularly germane: making sure that the organisation’s workforce has a sense of purpose at an individual as well as a corporate level, and a sense of ‘why?’

Keeping bills paid and roofs over heads is a pragmatic (if sadly limited) response at an individual level, but not necessarily healthy at an organisational one. An entire corporation full of people coldly looking after Number One isn’t just a chilly prospect, it’s one where critical interactions can be driven by inappropriate agendas.

Values and priorities - sense of purpose

As indicators of the times we live in go, Time magazine’s Person of the Year is usually iconic. For 2011, the choice was symbolic in a very literal sense: The Protestor. While uprisings across the Arab World can be explained in terms of tyranny, human rights and poverty, the Occupy movement has been different: it’s been about values and priorities. Its central ideas are not new: even in the arena of management theory, the importance of a sense of purpose beyond sheer profitability is something that Charles Handy covered in the 1990s. It can be traced back at least as far as William Morris, whose utopian novel News from Nowhere (dating from 1890) proposed a society in which work should be a source of pleasure or personal value.

In the modern vernacular, Morris’ argument wasn’t really about work-life balance: his fictional workers toil arduously. The argument was rather more about job design: people having work that was meaningful and appreciated, and that was just part of their lives rather than something separate from it.

Google suggests that the ASK blog is the only place to outline the parallel, but William Morris’ argument isn’t really so different from those of Dave Ulrich (particularly in his recent The Why of Work) or The Work Foundation.

Pillars of organisational performance

For a contemporary utopian, we probably need to turn to American writer Doug Rushkoff, whose 2011 CNN article, Are jobs obsolete?, caused Stateside ripples that have not really troubled British shores. Following on from his 2009 book, Life Inc., which charted the history of corporations, he makes the argument that work may always have been with us, but ‘jobs’ are a more recent invention that may deserve reviewing. To condense his closing statements: “We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do -- the value we create -- is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful. This sort of work isn't so much employment as it is creative activity. […] For the time being, as we contend with what appears to be a global economic slowdown by destroying food and demolishing homes, we might want to stop thinking about jobs as the main aspect of our lives that we want to save. They may be a means, but they are not the ends.”

This degree of radicalism is, of course, beyond the scope of even the most determined HR director. But there are emerging dots that they can join to create a more optimistic picture. Employee engagement – one of HR’s topics of 2011, but also something whose contribution to organisational performance is increasingly recognised – rests on some of the very pillars that Handy, Ulrich and Morris all identified.

A sense of purpose and meaning, a sense of making a personal contribution that is recognised, and a sense of having a voice within the organisation.

Realism also suggests that the condition of the economy will be the main driver of the short-term future of the organisation and, by extension, the workplace as we experience it. None of us can see the future: right now, some of us might be forgiven for averting their gaze.

Technology and social media will continue to be important factors too, not least as both offer cost savings over physical labour or traditional media. With debt being the four-letter word of our times, when it comes to cutting their cloth most organisations will have the future that they can afford.

Psychological contract - what am I staying for?

The HR challenge is, again, not so much a new theme as an old one with new relevance. With a large percentage of the working population facing a squeeze on living standards as well as job insecurity, the non-financial aspects of reward and recognition may take on greater relevance.

With the legal contract subject to termination and the pay packet falling behind the cost of living, the 'psychological contract' will need renewed attention. In a labour market where the reward for some of us for battening down the hatches through 2008-11 could be battening them down again until 2015, the question: “What am I staying for?” will be harder to suppress. A move may not give a pay rise, but it might give more satisfaction. HR functions that can recognise this conundrum will need to prepare their arguments well.

There’s a philosophical counter-argument that Alain de Botton put forward in Management Today a couple of years ago: our expectation that work should be pleasurable is a recent trend, partly explained the rise of the knowledge worker (who wants a grumpy brain surgeon or a resentful welfare officer) but also partly by the same very modern sense of entitlement that contributed to the boom in borrowing that helped to deliver us to our current predicament.

Foreseeing a return to the acceptance of work as something painful to be endured as (in his words) “the gloves come off”, he sees a paradoxical benefit. By lowering our expectations of work, we lower the likelihood of being disappointed or angry with it. It’s an interesting argument, but it avoids squaring the employee’s reduced expectation of work with the employer’s increasing expectation of the employee. If the employer is seeking greater engagement and motivation, presenting a lose-lose scenario doesn’t sound like a winner.

Meaningful employee value propositions

There have been long-running debates as to how HR can win strategic influence in organisations, most of which conclude that they must learn the right language – a cost-centred business vocabulary. But that argument is surely incomplete: it’s not just the vocabulary, it’s the meaning of what it’s used to say.

In working on meaningful 'employee value propositions', making clear the asset as well as cost nature of those ‘human resources’, and championing talent development and employee engagement initiatives, HR professionals need to assemble the arguments that show there is financial sense in doing so.

Our increasingly technology-driven world is often described as transaction rather than relationship based, but one explanation should be self-evident: transactions are easier to measure and quantify. That hoary cliché about not being able to manage without measuring shouldn’t be a confession of defeat to HR and talent functions but a challenge. If talent and human resource value matter, the first task is to focus on finding ways of measuring them. Those measurements are the content that the business vocabulary is waiting to express.

And there’s a leaf to be taken from the cost management accountant’s books too. A careful eye on costs rests on a familiar concept – that if you look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves.

It’s not too much of a sideways leap to argue that if you look after the people, the organisation will benefit. The task is to design the ledger that proves it.