The language of modern employment
I’m sitting in the foyer of a WeWork space in central London waiting for colleagues to arrive ahead of a meeting. It’s 9:30am and I’ve been invited to the co-working office to talk to a potential client. I’m enjoying a cup of coffee and thumbing through a magazine on the table in front of me, feeling slightly guilty about not using the dead time for last minute meeting preparations. The atmosphere is busy and exciting. Almost all of the seats are occupied and the gentle burble of conversation provides the backdrop. On the side of one of the walls in the foyer, in letters 5 foot high are the words ‘love what you do’.
Earlier that morning: I woke up to the crashing of the recycling lorry collecting the bottles put out by the restaurant next door. The first thing I did was reach for my phone, checking the time and reading the messages my ex-girlfriend has sent me whilst I was sleeping. She looks after our son for much of the week and often sends me a short message about how they both slept. The messages are often accompanied by an early-morning photo of our son, breakfast smushed into his hair, grinning, tummy peeking out between his pyjama top and bottoms; he’s beautiful and happy.
In my professional life, clients have sometimes asked me to improve the experience of their employees or to help change the culture within their organisation. Increasingly, I’m starting to see emotive objectives outlined in the briefs. Clients want to create a sense of ‘purpose’ for employees or to make the organisation feel like a ‘family’. Unsurprisingly, a positive employee experience for the business will be underpinned by a strong business case, often focusing on increasing ‘productivity’ by encouraging ‘agile working practices’ and ‘innovative mindsets’ - i.e. working harder and more efficiently.
One of the first activities I strive to undertake on any project is to go and speak to the people I’m designing for. I want to understand the challenge from their perspective. For an employee experience or culture project, this means trying to understand their job - the activities they undertake, the environment they work within, the process and tools they use etc. More than this, I try and understand why they work - how they view their relationship with their job and their employer. These conversations are often emotive and can get personal quite quickly. Again, unsurprisingly, the reason most people go to work are for reasons we can probably all relate to: financial security and, to a certain degree, the feeling that we’re creating something. To this end, a positive employee experience from an employees’ perspective is one that gives us more money, autonomy, freedom, meaning, time to spend with family and friends, and social contact.
The difference between the two interpretations of a positive experience of employment reveals the age-old tension between the motivations of business and employee: businesses want their employees to work harder and more productively, employees want to be given more autonomy and to be better compensated. This is a generalisation but for the most part I think it still rings true.
What I find interesting is the way in which modern businesses try and address this tension. Modern employee experience is full of language that encourages us to find ‘employment with purpose’, ‘love what you do’, ‘change the world’ and ‘join a family’. But something jars here. Take the word ‘love’. Love is something I feel towards my son, my family, my friends. Love isn’t something I would use to describe my relationship towards creating value for shareholders. I might work fulfilling or satisfying, I occasionally enjoy the feeling that I might, in a very small way, have been able to do some good in the world; but to say I have the same relationship with my employer as I do with my son has some upsetting implications.
This is language designed to blur the lines between our professional and private lives. We’re being presented with the needs of business in a way that encourages us to confuse them with our own needs. We’re being told that we should experience the same emotional bond to our jobs as we might have with our children; to find the same purpose we find in, for example, hobbies, sport or art in the creation of shareholder value; that by working harder we will be making an impact on the world in the way we might do if we were to channel that energy into protesting, writing or campaigning; or that we should seek to invest in relationships with our co-workers and employers in the same way we would with our families.
In the best instances, this can be motivating but as the veneer wears off, disillusioning and upsetting. Previously it might have been easier to contextualise problems at work as just that - something to do with work and our professional lives, separate from the things that really mattered to us. Now, when faced with an unpleasant or unfulfilling employment experience we start to analyse our situation using the same language our employer has been using. Have we fallen out of ‘love’; is our life lacking in ‘purpose’; are we experiencing alienation from our ‘family’? In the worst instances, this approach is also exploitative - it encourages us to stay later, skip lunch breaks, compete with colleagues and sacrifice more.
Businesses and the press are starting to pick-up on high-levels of workplace dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression. The unnerving thing is that the response from employers seems to be a combination of doubling-down on attempts to position employment as an answer to our personal needs, and sticking-plaster level activities aimed at improving the symptoms of poor mental health. I don’t believe this is sustainable and a backlash is almost inevitable.
Things are about to get more complicated as forces in the economy start to put further pressure on the businesses that employ us. The pace of digitisation, the adoption of AI and so forth is going to increase in the next 30 years or so. Accompanying this transformation will be disruption to employment as new jobs being created and old jobs rendered obsolete. A familiar response to this amongst the management fraternity is to embed a ‘life-long culture of learning’ amongst the workforce. The aim here is to create, by providing education and training, a workforce that is capable of keeping abreast of current technical innovations in their field, adapting and employing it to create value without the business going through the cost process of restructuring and recruiting. Again, here I believe we find an uncomfortable truth hidden behind friendly language. An ever accelerating cycle of training, work and redundancy (both of skills and of individuals) has the potential to be tremendously disenfranchising and demotivating for the individuals experiencing it.
After I finished my meetings at the WeWork office, I cycled home early and picked up my son from nursery. The weather was good and we played for a while in the park before heading home. I had enjoyed an interesting day at work: I had explored a challenging topic for a few hours with colleagues, spent some time on some of the more uninteresting bureaucratic tasks, made a couple of mistakes in a document I was helping to prepare and looked forward to my paycheck coming through at the end of the month.
We need to have a more open and honest relationship with work. We need to be comfortable in acknowledging the differences between an employer and employee and seeking to find an arrangement that works well for both parties. This needs to be reflected in the language we use to describe employment and the attitudes and expectations of employers: Whilst we might not love our jobs, I don’t believe it’s unreasonable to expect to be fulfilled; we might not consider the company we work for a ‘family’ but a community of people we have a respectful and human relationship with; there should be no shame in the purpose of employment being honest participation in creating value vs. setting out on a grand quest to completely reshape the world.
Simon Woods is a designer and strategist based in London. He's mostly interested in public service design, society, organisations and Scottish rugby. More on Simon is at his website.