Meaningful work

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) presents an opportunity to change how we see the world of work – and make it work for us

The fundamental changes brought about by the pandemic require a deep meditation on all aspects of work, including remote work, unemployment and the place of work in our lives and society. 

Since the pandemic hit, we have seen reappraisals of the kind of work we consider “essential” and the dire implications of no-perks gig employment during times of a major public health and economic crisis, against an ominous backdrop of rising unemployment

As we try to build a stronger and more resilient economy emerging from this crisis, we must consider not just the availability of work, but also the quality. Ensuring meaningful work – considered a fundamental need and by some a human right – is a fundamentally important matter for the wellbeing of society.

This meaning can be found in creative control and autonomy over our work and is shaped by the context in which it is carried out. This is what we should be striving for as part of the post-pandemic recovery.

A cautionary tale 

For insight into what can happen to the quality and meaning of work under remote working conditions, we can look to the gig economy and the lives of digital freelancers within it. Many of these freelance workers want to work remotely, as well as enjoy more choice and autonomy to do what they love doing. Sadly, this is often not their experience.

In reality, their work is often fragmented and rigid with little real autonomy; they have little power in relation to their clients or the platforms they work on and they are often unable to forge connections with anyone aside from those commissioning jobs. Their work is sometimes strictly monitored and controlled by surveillance technologies implemented by digital work platforms, as well as review and rating systems tilted in favour of clients.

Feeling a sense of connection with our work contributes significantly to our wellbeing

Those in possession of high levels of cultural and social capital (i.e. a respected background and connections, more often than not the markers of privilege) are able to thrive on these platforms, able to do the work they like, as they like. However, this group tends to constitute a small minority and for most, the result of pressures and control is alienation from their work. This is not just detrimental to workers, but also ultimately to clients and employers.

Feeling a sense of connection with our work contributes significantly to our wellbeing. Research shows clearly that employee wellbeing feeds directly into staff retention, productivity, and performance. We must be mindful of these issues as more traditional employees come to work under the same remote conditions as their gig economy counterparts. 

Crossing a new red line

Unfortunately, the extreme control practices of digital crowd employment platforms are already making their way into some workplaces. For instance, a growing number of employers are installing software that captures screengrabs of workers’ monitors at set intervals

This seems to hark back to the outmoded trope of “shirking from home”, so often leveraged as an argument against flexible work. Contrary to such claims, we know that productivity has remained high through the pandemic, with many workers logging huge numbers of hours

The fundamental changes brought about by the pandemic require a deep meditation on all aspects of work

We also know that job insecurity and general anxiety concerning this once-in-a-century pandemic have had a detrimental effect on mental health (another area in which we’ve seen stratification) and surveillance can only serve to compound these issues. Such monitoring also crosses a clear new red line. Not only is it dehumanising and humiliating but it also takes place in what should be the sanctity of workers’ own homes. 

Once again, not all workers suffer equally from such conditions. Employees with degrees from recognised institutions and high-profile professional contacts are likely to resist such pressures and find alternatives while others will be left with little choice but to endure this way of living and working. 

An opportunity for better

There are, of course, many employers working closely with their employees to support them and their families. Some have provided flexibility to take care of loved ones during the lockdown, provided additional annual leave and enhanced online training opportunities to upskill their workforce. 

Increasing state spending counter-cyclically (i.e. during economic downturns) is a well-known strategy to move out of economic crises but even the International Monetary Fund, which has played a central role in crafting austerity policies around the world as a way to recover from financial crises, is currently advising governments to spend in order to get through the pandemic.

This crisis has presented a real opportunity to enhance the meaning employees derive from their work

Governments should be investing into skills (re)training to enable us to deliberately shape the future of the economy and society, and companies need to pursue a similar strategy by investing in their people during difficult periods. 

This crisis has presented a real opportunity to enhance the meaning employees derive from their work, improve their wellbeing and invest in their skills and productivity. This would pay off in terms of improved innovation and the retention of a healthier, more productive workforce. It would also help us to move towards a world in which for many, work is a source of satisfaction and joy, instead of a cause of distress.

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About Pelin Demirel

Senior Lecturer in Innovation and Enterprise, Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College
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