Smart working and meaning of life: what we talk about when we talk about work


Servicemind the economy

Lockdown is an opportunity to rethink spaces and times of our working days, as long as the question about the meaning of what we do is not neglected

by Vittorio Pelligra

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A demonstration of workers in company canteens who see their jobs threatened by the advent of smart working (Ansa)

Lockdown is an opportunity to rethink spaces and times of our working days, as long as the question about the meaning of what we do is not neglected

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The debate that has opened in Italy, in these pandemic months, on the meaning of work, on its essential economic and social characteristics, on the possibility of making it smarter, without losing effectiveness and productivity, but making it more easily reconciled with family, environmental and, mainly, in this period, health needs, is producing greater attention not only on the theme of job design, on the so-called “job design”, but also on the profound meaning of what work is for us today .

Smart working as an opportunity

Smart working is the trend towards which we are driven, first of all by ever more stringent external constraints – from reducing the concentration of people to their unsustainable mobility – but also by virtue of the opportunities it offers in terms of lower costs for organizations and greater satisfaction workers. But if smart working cannot be understood only as a bad copy to be done at home of what was done before in the workplace, then there is the problem, and the great chance, to rethink the work itself, so that this really becomes smart. Of course not all jobs can be easily transformed, but many certainly do. The time seems right to start planning this transformation. An Egm-Agorà survey, this week, for example, shows that only 40% of Italians would like to go back to work as before the pandemic. And it is clear that those who ask that you do not go back to work as before, are not only asking to continue working remotely, but, rather, a deeper transformation of the work, a rethinking capable of imagining activities, tasks and roles with a different sense, with more meaning, where everyone feels not only half, but also, a little, end.

Graeber’s question

Perhaps the time has come, therefore, to stop and ask yourself “why?” “What can you imagine more demoralizing than having to wake up every morning five days a week during your adult life to complete a task that in your heart we believe it should not be done because it is only a waste of time or resources, or because it even makes the world worse? ». This was asked a few years ago in an extremely successful essay by anthropologist David Graeber. And he continued, “Wouldn’t it represent a terrible psychic wound for our society? Probably yes, but it is one of those problems that no one seems willing to talk about “(Bullshit Jobs, 2018). Perhaps the pandemic and the collective experience that we have lived together over the past few months has changed something in this regard. Let’s start talking about it. This “scar that marks our collective soul” – as Graeber still defines it – brings with it serious consequences. Meaningless jobs, useless or even harmful, represent a huge waste of human resources, first of all, but also natural and economic. We also know that workers’ perception of the usefulness and sense of their work significantly influences their motivation and therefore productivity.

When work seems meaningless to us

Finally, regardless of its actual usefulness, a job that is perceived as meaningless, will result in a loss of subjective well-being for those who would rather work for a worthy purpose and feel useful to others. While it is decidedly difficult to objectively evaluate the usefulness or uselessness of a certain job, we now have solid data both on what workers think of their jobs, and on the effect that such perceptions exert on their well-being. A survey carried out in 2015 on a representative sample of British workers reports that 37% of them, with peaks of 41% in the London area, consider their work meaningless. Despite this, only 35% believe that he would be able to change jobs. Multitudes trapped in meaningless jobs. Millions of wounded souls. Another study, published last year, looked at 27,000 workers from 36 different countries. 17% of them have serious doubts that what they are called to do every day is of some social utility (Dur, R., Van Lent, M., 2019. Socially useless jobs. Industrial Relations, 58, 3–16). The percentages are higher in countries like Poland, Japan or Israel and reach lower values ​​in Norway and Switzerland. In the public sector, the perception of the usefulness of one’s employment seems to be generally greater than in the private sector (a significant difference of 6% on average). This is particularly true, for example, for firefighters, law enforcement, social workers, health professions and teachers. For those who work in these areas, the percentage of dissatisfied people with respect to the meaning and purpose of their occupation is practically zero.

The gender and age variables

From this point of view there seems to be no difference between men and women, while those with a higher qualification tend to be slightly less satisfied, perhaps because of the greater risk of misalignment between the course of study and actual employment. A highly significant effect, then, is that linked to age. Young people tend, on average, to find their work less satisfactory in terms of social sense and utility. These data immediately lead us to a second aspect of the question: what is the impact of “wrong” work on our happiness? 77% of workers believe that having a socially useful occupation is an important or very important element for their life and that, therefore, useless or insignificant jobs negatively affect their subjective well-being. This is particularly true precisely for those who believe they are doing socially useless work: 96% of these, in fact, believe that a job that allows them to be useful to others and to society as a whole, is an essential element in order to be satisfied of one’s life. In this regard, someone went so far as to hypothesize that the lack of sense of their work can be compensated through higher monetary remuneration, as a sort of bonus to uselessness. Dur and Van Lent’s data, however, show that there is no significant wage gap between satisfied and unsatisfied workers. Other analyzes, using a composite measure of “sense”, which refers to the intrinsic interest in the work itself and the possibility, through it, of being useful to others, find that workers with a greater perception of the sense of their are less likely to accept alternative job offers, even if these offer even higher remunerations than their current one (Hu, J., Hirsh, J., 2017. Accepting Lower Salaries for Meaningful Work, Frontiers in Psychology 8: 1649). Meaning and purpose determine greater worker satisfaction and, therefore, greater attachment to work. If the job satisfies my need for meaning, then I am willing to do it even for a relatively lower salary.

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