What is the Meaning of Work? I guess many of us have been raising this question over time. I have just recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of working, yet the true meaning of work can be sometimes difficult to grasp. For sure, Work is a foundational element in the lives of every individual. For many, it is the defining element of one’s life. In Work, we see the connector between individual passions and ambitions, personal realisation, economic prosperity and sometimes higher aspirations. Yet we also connect the concept of Work to exploitation, fatigue, demotivation, poverty and fight for survival. The search for better working conditions is probably the single most crucial push for Human Migrations in the last century.
What is Work?
Work is also the main connecting point between Individuals and Organisations, which is why the concept of Work itself is attracting my interest in recent time. I have already written a few months ago a long article about the necessity to Reinvent Work as a concept, and I have concentrated there on a few facts that today, affect the perception of Work and its Value.
Flows of Meaning in the Intentional Organisation
Since that post, however, I have continued my investigation around the concept of the Intentional Organisation. I am more and more convinced that real advancement in organisation design and performance can only come from the realisation of the Flows of Meaning of Work and Meaning of Value that each organisation triggers, in most cases unconsciously.
With this research effort, I will concentrate on the right side of the scheme in figure one, trying to explore the exchange of Worth and Significance that the Meaning of Work carries. We will also learn that it is not possible to identify one “best” meaning of Work, as this relates to the specific relationship between organisations and workers. An element that is immediately visible when we think at the ties that non-profit organisations can establish with volunteers: the meaning of Work there is different than the that of a traditional employment setting. I plan to do a similar investigation in the future on the sense of Value.
Why Investigating the Meaning of Work?
Merely accepting the General Accepted Meaning of Work is misleading, especially because, as we will see, we are at a cleavage point between two particular Discourses of Work. Investigating Work is, however, a daunting task. A lot of what has been written on the topic over the last century belongs to a specific discourse. Work is often seen as the currency of social class warfare. Trying to evade from that perspective is not easy, and although a lot has been researched on the topic, still there is not a holistic view of the concept of Work that would satisfy me.
- Why do women and men work?
- What is the Value of Work?
- What are the choices that individuals have around work?
- What is the relationship between the worker and the organisations that “give work”?
- How will Work evolve in the future?
I guess many of you would share some of these questions. I will try to answer at least some of these if you have the patience to read the results of this research.
Definitions of Work
Work can be defined in multiple ways, and browsing through any dictionary will find different angles on the same topic, together with its nearest synonym: Labour. Let’s see a couple of them.
First of all, Work can be seen as an intentional activity people perform to support themselves, others, or the needs and wants of a wider community. This definition is useful, as it looks at the intentionality of this activity, as well as the objective of supporting ones’ lifestyle. Another view comes from the field of classic economics, whereby Labour is seen as the human activity that contributes (along with other factors of production) towards the goods and services within an economy.
Both definitions are, however, restrictive. The word Work, and similar words in all other languages (lavoro in Italian, travail in French, Arbeit in German, trabajo in Spanish and so on), often refer to many different meanings (I am excluding the concept of Work in physics):
- A sustained physical or mental effort to achieve something (it took her a lot of Work to complete the puzzle)
- The place of employment (I’m going to work today).
- The results of someone’s effort or exercise of skills (this book is the Work of a skilled writer).
- Something that results from a particular way of working (it was a great camera work).
- Structures resulting from the application of engineering (usually in plural form), or sometimes the process of construction (mining works).
- The moving part of a mechanism (the works of a clock).
- Performance of moral or religious acts (salvation by works).
- The results of an artist’s activity (The Demoiselles d’Avignon is a work by Picasso)
- The entire collection of publications or production of an artist (James Joyce’s entire Work).
- Subjection to a drastic treatment and possible abuse (gave them the works)
- The set of tools of an artisan (the plumbers’ work).
There are probably few words that are so rich of a differentiated set of meanings. Somehow this richness reflects also the different types of Work, and the various individual and social experiences that Work has exerted over history. I will be dedicating a first consistent part of this investigation on the changing meaning of Work across human’s history, as well as at the different discourses that Work has been associated with.
The General Accepted Meaning of Work
I’m here introducing the concept of Generally Accepted Meaning. The idea is based on the concept of General Accepted Principles, that, for example, is applied for Accounting. These are not scientifically demonstrated principles, or elements that are thoroughly mandated by law, but rather several shared norms that have developed over time through application. Often these standards are enforced in their application by a body like the FASB in the case of accounting principles.
With this expression, I want to underline the fact that rarely this “shared meaning” is challenged. In modern society, for example, we take for granted that Work is, typically, part of a contractual relationship between an employer and an employee. This construct, however, is, historically, pretty recent.
By merely accepting this construct without interrogating on the nature of Work, means that organisations are often losing the potential to establish priority in defining new chains of Worth and Significance. A part of the so-called new economy has tried to challenge some of this structure, for example with the expanding reality of gig workers. But we often try to understand the unknown, by using dimensions of the past.
A Quest for the Meaning of Work: Essay’s Structure
The topic of the Meaning of Work is too complex and multifaceted to fit just one article. I have therefore decided to split this essay over several items, that I will (hopefully) publish on a weekly frequency.
- I will first investigate the History of Work, with a summary of how the concept of Work evolved through the centuries. I will use a mainly western approach to this, as my knowledge of other cultural domains is limited. The idea, however, is to investigate this further, significantly as the world of Work today is profoundly impacted by Asia, for example.
- Then, I will try to summon up the historical context through an analysis of the various Discourses of Work that succeeded around history. Using the concept of discourse, I will try to map out the ways Work has been understood over time. I can already anticipate that a remarkable fact is that all the discourses are still existing in today’s society, noticing how the concept itself is the result of a complex stratification of human aspects.
- I will then try to investigate precisely a critical transition point: When did Work become a Job? One of the most significant limits of today’s General Accepted Meaning of Work is that, in organisational contexts, we tend to equate it to the concept of Job. Work is put in boxes, it becomes fungible, the idea of agency rules the relationship between employer and employees, and tayloristic efficiency is applied to its development. Yet, this model has been in crisis for decades. There isn’t, however, a consolidated alternative, although many contributions are providing the building blocks to a new discourse.
- I will examine the early signs of the creation of a New Discourse of Work being framed today. I will try to “connect the dots” with a lot of elements we have seen in recent months, through the books reviewed and the “rebels” ideas that I have checked and proposed across the current period. With your help, I will try to suggest how this new idea of Work is brewing, and what are the consequences for organisations.
- An article will be dedicated to Work Design, like this, I believe, becomes the next frontier of organisational thinking. I will explain the difference between Job Design and Work Design, and provide a new and different lens to explain the changing relationship between the individual and the organisation in providing Value for the ecosystem.
- Finally, I will review my original article Reinventing Work with the outcomes of this discussion, as I believe some new details will emerge through this research.
As usual, this is very much a work in progress, so I will particularly welcome any idea, suggestion and feedback you might have. Please use the Comments form here or after each article to provide your inputs, or get back in touch with me.