How do you keep your workforce happy and ensure an employee feels their job has meaning?
Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference is a premier thought leadership event for senior HR professionals and Heads of HR. The 2014 Changeboard conference took place on July 9 and featured ten keynote speeches, one of which came from author and philosopher Alain de Botton. His speech focussed on how happiness can increase productivity.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference also acts as a showcase for some of the leading initiatives in helping develop and guide future talent, supporting projects such as plotr, an online career-inspiration platform for young people.
De Botton said, "Future Talent is important for the most obvious but deepest of reasons: because the collective flourishing and success of the nation depends on properly mining the talents and interests of the next generation."
De Botton wrote most extensively on the workplace in his 2009 book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. In it, De Botton guided us through 10 self-contained studies which observed workplaces across the globe. These workplaces were diverse, ranging from harbours by the Thames to industrial biscuit bakeries in Belgium.
Yet wherever De Botton went, he found that many workers struggled to find satisfying work; more specifically, work that they considered meaningful to their lives.
That De Botton should be a guest speaker at Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference some five years after the publication of The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work should not come as a surprise. The chapter on career counselling appeared to suggest very few of us ever find work that truly lives up to our psychological expectations and this is what De Botton chose to focus on in his speech for Changeboard’s.
De Botton’s speech at Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference heavily revolved around finding meaning in the workplace. He spoke of how the word “meaning” is likely to crop up when asking someone why they left their job or what they are looking for in a job.
But what is a meaningful job exactly?
De Botton stated that “a job becomes meaningful whenever people feel that through their work they are helping someone to suffer less or that through their work they are helping someone to enjoy life more.”
Of course, many, as De Botton observed in “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”, do not feel their job has much meaning. Why is this? As De Botton asked, why can an enterprise be doing something that’s meaningful but the person within that enterprise might not feel that it is particularly meaningful?
'Unemployment' may be coming down, but what about the rate of 'misemployment'?: http://t.co/JdA6UwuxXY
— Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) May 10, 2014
Tiny Piece of a Giant Machine
According to De Botton, meaning can get lost over time and becomes harder to remember when working in specialized positions for huge companies.
“I think we have two problems. One is time and the other is scale. The number one generalisation you can make about the world of work nowadays is that it takes place in gigantic systems. We are a world of specialisation. Adam Smith, the great economist, first deduced the connection between productivity and specialisation. The more specialised your workforce, the more productive and fruitful the economy will be.
The problem is meaning. If you are a tiny, tiny piece of this giant machine then you are losing sight of the meaning of your organisation. And this leads to a terrific loss of energy and purpose in an organisation.
Most of us are in organisations of 15,000 employees that span four different continents and are working on a project that will be ready in 2018. That’s really frightening for the level of meaning as we will simply forget what the whole thing is for. There are people who know what the whole thing is for and they sit at the top of the organisation.
But your foot soldiers have forgotten what it’s about.” De Botton suggested that employers need to keep reminding employees of the bigger picture to prevent them from feeling as though their job has little meaning.
“A key responsibility of employers is to tell them what it’s about, to tell a story back to their employees, to reflect back to them the wider purpose of what they are doing which is constantly leeching from their brains.”
De Botton discussed the failings of the media and education system when preparing people for the world of work and what effects this has on recruitment.
De Botton said, “There are no major corporations geared to the immense task of matching people with jobs they can enjoy and flourish in. There is a fundamentally stalled nature of career counselling.”
When looking at the future of recruitment, De Botton imagined that many areas of life people currently deem as being outside of business would eventually end up being commercialized. He envisioned that this would lead to an employee’s more spiritual needs being met, resulting in a happier and more productive worker.
Most of us still caged within careers chosen for us by our not entirely worldly 18-22 year old selves. — Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) April 9, 2014
“When we look at the famous pyramid of needs by Maslowe, there are many businesses at the bottom that are servicing basic needs—transport, shelter, basic communication etc. Is there anyone out there operating in the higher needs? Relationships, trying to make relationships go better, trying to make our working lives go better at the level that we’re talking about.
Where are these businesses? They are not there. They will be. Five minutes ago there were no businesses around friendship, now one of the largest companies on earth, Facebook, is basically a company that has monetized the area previously known as friendship which we thought was outside of business. There are many, many new areas of life waiting to be commercialized.
We need new kinds of organisations because we haven’t yet cracked the problem of human happiness. Are we all happy? No. Every time in every area that we are not happy there is an area for capitalism to colonize.”