Why do we hate work?

by Crystal on May 8, 2009

iStock_000000843236Large An interesting question came up on twitter the other day, asking

What’s the #1 thing you think is wrong or broken with the traditional workplace? How would you like to see work transformed? – @jonathanmead

My first thought was about inflexibility and the reward-for-time instead of reward-for-results mentality, but some of the other answers got me thinking. A lot of people thought that lack of respect was a big problem.  I agree, but I wonder if it doesn’t go deeper.

In a traditional workplace, the expectation from most employers is that you will give them not just your time, but your efforts (and make them the best you can possibly do, 100% of the time), your loyalty, dedication and commitment as well.  Your employment is meant to make you buy into the company mission, whatever that is, and regardless of whether anyone’s actually communicated it to you or not.  You’re expected to perform like a robot, with the emotional buy in of a person – but don’t bring any of those human frailties into work, they’re not tolerated! You (the employees) are their greatest asset during boom times, but let things get leaner and all of a sudden you become their greatest liability.

In return, you get… a regular paycheck.

  • There’s little or no effort on the company’s part.  If you need or want something, you’re supposed to argue for it and convince them it’s in their best interests.  Aside from setting up a workspace, which they have to do to get any work out of you, there’s nothing they’ve particularly done for you.
  • You don’t get loyalty back.  If the company needs to cut costs, in most cases you’re gone.
  • You don’t get dedication back.  Nobody higher up the food chain gives a damn about you, usually.  Even if they do, you know that it’s them, not the company, that cares.
  • As for commitment, the standard one is a paltry fortnight’s notice.  That’s all you’re guaranteed of getting.

Could this one-sided relationship have something to do with why we hate work so much?  Maintaining it on an ongoing basis proves that our emotions, our loyalty and our commitment are up for sale – and we’re the ones being sold.  What’s worse is that we’re also the ones doing the selling.  It’s a form of prostitution none of us would like to believe of ourselves.

What are the alternatives?  How would I like to see it transformed?

Well, for starters I’d like to see a shift from time-based evaluation (the last one out of the office is obviously the highest performer, regardless of whether they spent most of the day playing solitaire, and a single mum with other commitments rushed out the door having completed 3x as much) to performance based evaluation.  If I find a way to get through my work faster, that extra time I’ve freed is mine, unless the company re-negotiates to buy it from me as well.  This won’t work in all cases – like switchboard attendants who have to be there for certain hours – but in that case there should be recognition that their time is being purchased for answering incoming calls, and a bit of latitude given as to how they use the time that ISN’T occupied with performing that duty because there are no calls to answer.

100% performance, 100% of the time, is not realistic.  We need breaks, and even when we reach that peak level of performance, it can’t be sustained for long before we need recovery time.  Some of that recovery time should be included in the work day, in acknowledgement that we need to perform in other areas of our lives as well. (like family etc).

For those that still want the stability of the traditional work structure, that commitment level needs to come up.  If someone’s worked for a company 20 years, they deserve better than 2 weeks to shift themselves out of a culture they’ve immersed themselves in so well.  Make it optional, but let people sign up for longer notice periods.  Maybe after 5 years (a long time these days) you can opt in to a 4 week notice period.  After 10 years you can jump to 6.  In all cases the company should provide help to transition, because after such a long relationship, separation is going to be traumatic.

Finally, if we’re expected to dedicate ourselves to a mission, it’s the management’s job to not only tell us what it is, but make it something worthwhile for us to commit to, and demonstrate the same level of commitment – if not more.

I know there are non-traditional workplaces out there that have made a start on redefining the relationship, but most of us don’t work for them – and their ideas don’t seem to be catching on very quickly.  So here’s your chance to vent – how can we redefine things so that it’s not so one-sided, and what else would you like to see changed?

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