Who’d Be Sysiphus?

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Ever read a blogpost and, blinking back tears of frustration, think – I wish I’d written that?
Well, that’s just happened to me. The culprit? Jamie Notter. The blogpost? You can read it here.

As regular readers of this blog will know, my social media network is made up of professionals from what I will loosely refer to as Workplace Management. That definition includes HR, L&D, FM, OD, Innovation and Change specialists, behavioural psychologists, workplace design and build and a smattering of academics. I follow and get pointed toward many blogs on the subject of the world of work and whilst I greatly respect the writers for their insight, opinion and perspective, I’ve had a nagging feeling for a while that there is something missing. Jamie’s blog has, I think, lifted that veil a little. Most of the blogs and social media feeds I tune into are concerned to a greater or lesser degree with a desire to make the experience of work and of going to work a better one. Like many others I am guilty of getting bogged down with trying to re-shape what lies around us, the machinery of the post-Taylorist working world. Jamie doesn’t think that HR can cut the mustard in effecting sustaining change for the future because it is too focussed in that direction – a re-upholstering of the deckchairs on the Titanic. I hope he’s called it wrong because there are some formidable and talented thinkers out there.

However, the scale of the challenge that Jamie touches on is immense. And not just because it means re-imagining what work means. Work and workplaces are the way they are because they are made in our image and they’ve been that way for hundreds of years. So it’s a lot to turn on its head. In my opinion, as muddled as I might be about to make that appear, the immensity is because the changes that are needed are global, societal, systemic and structural. They are of such a scale that they are difficult to get our arms around. But, you know, I‘ll go ahead and give it a stab anyway. As is customary, I’m going to do so with the bare minimum of recourse to data, statistics and the numbers. That stuff is incredibly useful but is open to interpretation to suit the argument you wish to make. So here goes as I try to map out what we need to change. I’m not going to start proposing solutions. I’d like you, dear reader, to consider what those might be. And as you read down this list, keep reminding yourself of the kind of sacrifice, commitment and consequence of what might be involved in getting this lot in order and keeping it just so.

Religion
Blimey! That’s a biggie all on its own. Told you this would be difficult. We are going to have to deal with religious extremism from whatever belief system it stems if it seeks to do harm to others or proscribe anyone else’s thinking. Much unrest and inequality in the world stems from conflict that has a difference of religious conviction at its core. Of course we’re all doves not hawks but we need to help lift this yoke if those who labour under its weight have a chance to live a better, more fulfilling life and find meaningful, satisfying work. Just to check back with you again – this is what we all want right? Good. Stick with me. There’s a lot more to get through.

Poverty
Hang on. That’s huge too. Yeah. And we’ve only just scratched the surface. Wars, famine, greed, disease, industry, climate change – all of these result in impoverished populations of all sizes the world over. Poor people don’t have meaningful, fulfilling, interesting jobs. If we want to extend the franchise to everyone we’re going to need to lift people out of poverty. I know you guys. You all give unstintingly and unflinchingly to charity whenever you can. Right? Super. Thought so. So we need to rebalance things more equitably across all 7 billion of us. Smaller house, no foreign holiday, maybe no holiday at all, give up the pub and that nice little bistro down the road that does the best garlic bread ever. The cinema will need to go too, and the iPod, iPad and HD TV. The kids don’t even like that stuff from A&F though. Surely they’ll be OK with George from Asda? Still, you can always go to the library…if we can afford them. We’ll see.

Food
Wars, famine, industry, climate change, population growth, migration and so on all contribute to pressure on our ability to feed the world’s people healthily. What’s this got to do with better working lives I hear you ask? Well people who die from malnutrition are never going to get a job, let alone a nice number as a knowledge worker in a top consultancy firm. So put that donut down and go and talk to the CFO about why it’s important to divert shareholder dividends to helping alleviate food poverty. He’ll give you a fair hearing, right? He’s as signed on to the company’s CSR agenda as the next suit. We’ll need to start making our own produce here at home too so we can use industrial farming infrastructure overseas to feed indigenous populations. The big supermarket chains will have to go. So it looks like the kids won’t even be getting their clothes from George at Asda now. Perhaps you can learn how to knit.

Migration
People up sticks and move because of wars, famine, climate change and a host of other factors. They want a better life and fulfilling work to earn a fair, living wage so they can feed their families and other dependents. As you’ve now given up all that “stuff” to help alleviate poverty, as discussed earlier, you don’t need so much space. And that means the nice family from abroad can come and build a home at the end of your garden. You’re no nimby. Far too nice for that. Great. Don’t forget a housewarming present.

Credit
Well, we all know how that panned out. We didn’t like the after effects one little bit and we all seemed agreed on the need to live within our means. So, you’ll be handing back the plastic, downsizing to pay off the mortgage, selling the car and growing your own veg. Balancing the books will take a bit of doing but we’re not going back to boom and bust. How does work factor in to this? Businesses often need to borrow to manage cashflow and pay wages. They’ll defer paying creditors. They employ a fair number of people to do just that. Those people will need employing elsewhere. Fortunately, all the sacrifices people have been making mean they don’t have much need for disposable income for leisure pursuits and gadgets. So we can start to equalize salaries downwards. After all, we’re talking about better working lives for everyone. Not just us. Hmm?

Economy
If we’re doing away with credit to alleviate debt burdens we have to find a structural alternative. Or perhaps we can work on a barter system. In order for that to work we’re going to have to start producing something. Your role as a knowledge worker results in a tangible product that you could exchange for a bottle of homebrew right? Oh. But you’re not undaunted by the new world order we’re creating so you’ll jack in your job, turn your garden into an allotment and start trading goods with your neighbours from overseas. Surely that must seem like fulfilling, meaningful and productive work now. You’re also getting a lot more fresh air and natural light and your five-a-day.

Environment
The climate of the planet will change. I’m not going to speculate on the whys and wherefores here. It might get hotter, it might get colder. We’re going to have to deal with it one way or the other. Otherwise working conditions are going to get tough and threaten the better working lives we’re making for us all. Fortunately, much of what we do to solve the earlier points we’ve covered will reduce emissions considerably. Especially now that nobody has a car. Oh, and here’s one we can start doing right now. Does your company have taps that produce clean drinking water? If so, lobby the management to cancel all their bottled water and water cooler contracts. And don’t buy bottled water yourself.

Education
Here in the UK we worry whether exams are getting easier. In Pakistan, 12-year old schoolgirls, agitating for universal basic standards of education, get shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt while returning home on a school bus. If everyone is going to have fulfilling, meaningful work, we might start by helping get the estimated 61 million kids around the world who are denied it an education. You could do worse than take a look at the Vital Voices website and have a read about the Malala Fund. As we’re absolutely committed to better working lives for all we must be equally concerned about ensuring that everyone is as prepared for work as they can be. It’s going to create one hell of a lot of competition for jobs but that must be healthy.

Employment
Minimum wage, the living wage or whatever you choose to call it is surely going to have to become the norm for us all as we rebalance earnings to account for lower outgoings (no luxuries and so on, as we’ve covered earlier in this post) and universal employment. We’ll be physically making more stuff too so we won’t have to have the same old debates about productivity. If you are growing food for your own family and dependents, you’re bound to be better engaged too. Otherwise the kids go hungry.

OK. My brain hurts. I need a sit down. You probably do too.

Here’s what I think. The way we work today is inextricably linked with the way our societies are structured and the way that wealth is distributed across the world’s population. However you view attempts to improve the experience of work and being at work, unless you want to take on the Sysiphean task involved in breaking down the culmination of over 10,000 years of human civilisation that has resulted in this chaotic, warring, polluted, unequal and utterly beautiful world of ours, you’re going to be dealing with issues that have relevance to only a very small sliver of the 7 billion souls on this blue marble. We need to have a sense of proportion about the task we are setting ourselves and we need to craft solutions that make our organisations more socially useful, sustainable and accountable.

And I recognise my own hypocrisy in not making more sacrifices to help overcome some of the challenges I’ve written about here.

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4 comments

  1. Wow – a meaty post here Simon, thanks. I’ve had a scan and will come back for more later. What struck me immediately about it was that ‘I wish I’d written that’ moment you mentioned. Jamie Notter has had that effect on me twice now. This post was one of them, and the other was when I read Humanize, a book about how people centric organisations succeed in a social world, that he co-authored with Maddie Grant. Based on the reaction you had to the blog post, you may want to check the book out too.

    Cheers – Doug

  2. Simon, wow, what a post! Really deep and yet so meaningful of making that bit of a difference in our own little worlds and societies. Thank you!

  3. Yes, yes, and yes. When we wrote Humanize, Maddie and I finished by hinting that the principles we had identified (that we borrowed from social media, of all things), could have an impact beyond the workplace. Like any good book conclusion, it was a “this is just the beginning” message. I think you’ve got a great list of the bigger picture issues we need to tackle. Right now I’m reading So Far From Home, by Margaret Wheatley, and I haven’t finished it, but I think she’s talking about the same things you are. And there was one part of my post that was inspired by what she wrote. It’s the idea that we shouldn’t fix what we’ve got now, because it simply emerged from a complex system. We simply need to create new things and learn along the way. That applies to religion, poverty, education, etc. as well, I think.

  4. This is a blog that requires reflection.
    Two immediate comments. Yes I know what it is like to wish you’d written a blog: I’d been planning on one on Sysiphus. Darn it!

    About the blog that inspired you. As a HR type then there are things that of course I disagree with. One thing that does resonate however is the suggestion that maybe HR should be called something else. I personally loathe the term. I am not a resource! Hmmm, maybe that is a blog!

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