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Are jobs getting worse? Are employees less engaged?

August 31, 2010

An interesting article by Aditya Chakrabortty in today's Guardian argues that 'jobs are getting worse' and that now the holiday period is over, people hate being back at work.

His point is that many job holders today have less and less autonomy because they work in organisations (the large supermarket is the example quoted) where every aspect of work is prescribed and directed from Head Office.

The evidence comes from a recent research paper which highlighted the limited amount of discretion which even managers can exercise in such organisations and concluded that as a result of these developments employees become less engaged with their work and cease to enjoy it. All that's left for individuals is to strive to achieve the targets set for them. The manager's job boils down solely to motivating (or cajoling, depending on your perspective) people to hit the numbers.

Work, the argument runs, becomes mindless and alienating - the very opposite of engaging. Which, on the face of it, makes sense. For years management thinkers have placed great emphasis on the need for autonomy and challenge in job design. We've been moving away from Taylorism for decades and yet it's returning by the back door in the form of 'digital Taylorism', another interesting idea coined recently by Phillip Brown of Cardiff University. Soon, he argues, only a very few workers will have 'permission to think' for themselves. All other work will be governed by targets and procedures.

And yet, people DO still enjoy their work. In engagement surveys we conduct we consistently find that 85-90% of respondents enjoy the work they do and around 70% say that they would recommend theirs as a great place to work.  We see many other similarly high scores coming from employees who, if we are to believe the Guardian article, hate their jobs. A large majority of employees are proud to work for their organisations and feel a strong sense of loyalty to them.

So what is the explanation for such wide discrepancies in perspective?

I think what the article, and the researchers, are not taking into account are the multiple factors which shape attitudes to work: like the fun of day to day relationships with colleagues; the sense of loyalty to one's team; the pleasure of achieving difficult targets; the feeling of satisfaction when one's efforts are appreciated and acknowledged by colleagues and managers.

However clear the performance criteria, and however constrained the task, it's almost always possible for individuals to - excuse the cliche -  'make a difference'. Otherwise why would so many employees we meet say they're proud of the standards they and their organisations achieve. An academic may abhor the idea of following a rigid set of procedures, but not everyone is motivated by intellectual curiosity.

Of course, autonomy and individual discretion are important, but tight targets and performance standards aren't always restrictive: for obvious reasons airline pilots follow the strictest procedures and standards when flying their aircraft, as do surgeons in the operating theatre and many other highly skilled professionals in their own arenas. Because those are the way things should and must be done.  

Yet surely equally important is the way those procedures are standards are implemented, and the personal commitment and engagement shown by employees that satisfy and sometimes delight their customers.

In other words it's not just the work, it's the context and the social setting in which it's carried out. That's where the manager comes in - and the organisation - who are there to engage and motivate people.

After all, many people are highly engaged with what may seem to be horrendous jobs and still derive satisfaction and fulfilment.

Enjoying and being engaged with one's job is a more subtle and complex issue than solely level of prescription involved. It depends on the culture and climate in the workplace, whether it's a place people enjoy being and whether the experience of working with others is socially as well as materially rewarding.

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