So What Do You Do?

Tired frustrated female office worker at desk looking at camera.

“What do you do?” It’s a question we’ve all been asked plenty of times, one that seemingly could be answered in all sorts of ways. But we know what it means: the inquirer wants to know what job we hold—how we make money.

In the 16th century, your livelihood (or lyvelod, as it was spelled back then) meant more than your job. It was the course of your life, including your conduct and behavior. The new meaning of livelihood is no accident—in the modern world, what you do “for a living” is a major component, perhaps the defining component, of your life. As the role of the village, tribe, or extended family diminishes, significant chapters in the story of your life now center around your job. Large parts of what gives your life a sense of worth, community, and satisfaction derive from your job. But how many of us are satisfied with our jobs? Not the pay or perks, but the actual responsibilities we hold and things we do every day? How many around us seem truly fulfilled with their work?

Work Sucks

Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who is happy at the office. Statistically speaking, you’d be in the minority. Study after study validates this depressing truth. Gallup reports only 13% of workers worldwide feel emotionally invested in their work. 70% of Americans describe themselves as disengaged at work. According to Harris Interactive, only 20% of people are enthusiastic about their organization’s goals. Conference Board reports 52.3% of American workers are actively unhappy with their livelihood, and that number has gotten worse over time.

People are so consistently dissatisfied with work that a sense of acceptance and inevitability seeps in, and we think: “work just sucks.” The movies and television shows our culture produces say work sucks. The books our authors write say work sucks. The aphorisms our guides and mentors quote (“work to live, don’t live to work”) say that work sucks. And yet we don’t rebel against the idea that we have to do something we are deeply unsatisfied with for so much of our waking lives. Psychologists have a term for this: learned helplessness. Learned helplessness leads people to treat work as an unpleasant reality that must be tolerated so that we can do the things we truly love once we have the means to retire.

What all these dissatisfied, disinterested employees create is an enormous waste of both human and economic potential that we at Talentism find intolerable. Reducing it is our fundamental purpose and reason to exist.

Analysts, pundits, and politicians each have their own diagnoses for our growing dissatisfaction with our jobs: generational attitudes, education and skills gaps, pay inequities, inadequate regulation, technology removing personal interactions, even video games. But a basic application of Occam’s razor suggests differently. There is a widespread problem in people’s engagement with their jobs that persists across industries, functions, and cultures. The simplest diagnosis with the fewest assumptions is that there is a fundamental problem with the jobs themselves. Somehow, we find ourselves in a world which simultaneously makes our workplace a centerpiece of our identity while creating jobs that almost everyone dislikes. You need to be happy at work in order to lead a fulfilling a life. But everybody knows that work won’t make you happy. It’s the Catch-22 of our times.

A Deal with the Devil

So how did we get here? Remember that for most of human history all the way up to the present day, much of humanity has existed at levels of bare subsistence. Under those circumstances, “job satisfaction” means little more than doing work that will allow you to survive another year. But the scientific, industrial, and political revolutions across the world have created a growing surplus and distribution of wealth, capable of lifting a growing proportion of the population out of pure subsistence mode. With questions of safety and security satisfied in our modern society, questions of satisfaction, engagement, and fit with one’s work begin to be relevant.

As safety and security began to be more of a given, people wanted more. They wanted to find meaning by distinguishing themselves through a profession, a craft, or a merchant business, and opportunities for doing so proliferated as progress created the need for increased division of labor. The common path was through apprenticeship—years of tutelage and practice under an established master or guild. In return for many years of hard work at cheap wages, people could have the promise of being a master themselves.

At its core, lifting people out of subsistence came from knowledge—specifically, how knowledge was being created (science), disseminated (printing press and apprenticeship), and regulated (democracy). Creation and distribution of new knowledge happened so rapidly that for the first time in human history, your life could look noticeably different from your parents’.

Then, towards the end of the 19th century, something else happened. While new knowledge was still an important contributor to economic progress, people figured out how to amplify the impact of knowledge through economies of scale. We’ve touched on the mass production/assembly line revolution in a previous article. The idea is that if you know how to make one widget, you can make a million widgets with way more profit per widget. Over time, you can produce widgets of the same quality for increasingly lower cost.

But in order to do that, you have to live and breathe the mass production mindset. Your raw materials have to be supplied with steady quality in increasing quantities at ever decreasing costs. That means standardizing raw materials into interchangeable parts. And your people must in increasing numbers do increasing amounts of work at stable quality. That too requires standardizing jobs so that they produce predictable outcomes from different people. No longer was apprenticeship a viable model—the factories hungered for a much more predictable and consistent workforce, and schools and colleges standardized a curriculum of education to keep feeding them.

Think about that for a minute. You take all these human beings, each with their own passions, talents, goals, and needs, and you look for a framework to reduce the output of their labor to a predictable and interchangeable set of outcomes. Mass production and economies of scale had given more people non-subsistence jobs than ever before, and made non-subsistence goods more accessible than ever before, but it had unleashed a whole new wave of dehumanization!

And we’ve never looked back. Economies of scale have put microwaves in our kitchen and smartphones in our pockets. And the jobs that produce them—not just in the factories but also in offices—continue to dehumanize us. But unlike the situation pre-scientific revolution, this dehumanization stings a lot more precisely because we are not just barely struggling to survive. It’s been a deal with the Devil indeed.

A New Hope

So the Old Business Playbook (OBP) created jobs that were standardized to enable scale, because scale resulted in advantage. But the days of squeezing advantage from economies of scale are, thankfully, drawing to a close. As we have discussed previously, interchangeable rules-based work is being taken over by computers and robots. Mass production technologies and the capital to implement them are cheap and ubiquitous. Global supply chains have been optimally scaled in almost every area. Companies that design jobs for people with this mass production mentality can no longer find competitive advantage.

As we have discussed many times in the past, the New Business Playbook (NBP) creates advantage from individualization, not standardization. It’s based on the understanding that in a world in which information and technology are commodities, the companies that win will be those that use people in ways that take optimal advantage of their unique passions and talents to uniquely serve customers in ways that others can’t.

The way to turn jobs from perpetual misery machines into fulfilling vehicles of competitive advantage is to configure an employee’s responsibilities around their passions and talents. People who are emotionally invested in what they do don’t think work sucks. People whose jobs are built around their strengths and individuality consistently produce excellence in surprising ways, and find new and inventive ways to delight customers. Companies that create these kinds of jobs for a thousand people have created a thousand points of differentiation from the competition.

We are entering a thrilling period in human history. It finally makes sense to create a humanized workforce on a mass scale as the primary means to drive competitive advantage. As far as we are concerned, the heydays of this era cannot come fast enough, and we are committed to accelerating the change that is required to make it happen.

The Gaping Maw of the Call Center

Let’s look at an example. Getting customer service from large call centers is a reality that many of us have to face every once in a while. Though you may have gotten lucky enough to talk to a cheerful, helpful representative a few times, the reality of being randomly assigned to one of 10,000 people is that usually the experience is unpleasant. And you consistently see this approach end up on worst customer service lists.

The 10,000 person call center is a vestige of OBP thinking. Every employee has the same responsibilities and standards, with tasks measured in increments of minutes and seconds. If call volume doubles, you hire 10,000 more people. (People may hate their jobs here, but at least there’s a lot of them.) This produces the results seen in customer service surveys, with callers complaining about rude and disinterested operators who talk from a script and aren’t invested in solutions.

The call center is built this way despite the fact that every one of them knows customer service is linked to employee satisfaction. Connectivity, as we’ve discussed before, has increased customer expectations. An ocean of automatons bedecked with headsets does not beget customer loyalty. But even this dystopian nightmare can be turned into a competitive advantage through the application of the New Business Playbook.

Customers need help. Maybe the product is defective, maybe they’re just confused – it doesn’t matter. And though it might seem strange to think about, needing help from a customer service representative is a moment of vulnerability. And when people are vulnerable, their memories of the experience (especially negative ones) will be elevated. From a business perspective, screwing up here is maybe the worst place to screw up.

The OBP method of approaching this interaction is to think of it as a cost to be mitigated while maintaining a baseline of quality, measured with some variation of, “have I answered your questions and provided good customer service?” But the NBP says this interaction is an opportunity. With great customer service, customer satisfaction will increase, and word of mouth will spread. Because of that, you want your call center employees to have the responsibility of great customer interaction, even when the customers themselves aren’t helping matters.

Some employees will do this by quickly establishing a rapport with the customer and asking the right questions. Others will have quick insight into technical issues and solve problems with efficiency. Though both ways operate with the same set of responsibilities, the jobs are configured based on their strengths and their love of helping customers solve problems. The overall system can be designed so that simple and common questions can be quickly evaluated and pushed to automated systems, and the complicated questions immediately get to a human being whose job enables them to be excellent.

When we Design for People we unleash economic and human potential. These aren’t mutually exclusive categories—they are highly connected. In fact, in the new world of work, where anything that is routine can be automated, economic and human potential are the same thing. The economic failures we see today arose from old thinking that was designed for a world that no longer exists. Through Talentism’s work and research, we seek to demonstrate a new way of thinking that will unleash economic and human potential. Changing from mass production jobs to jobs that achieve better individual and corporate returns is a critical step along this path.

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