Laszlo Bock, the former SVP of Google’s People Operations this week told Bloomberg that most companies don’t know how to hold on to their best people and ultimately, there are only 2 reasons why an employee stays with their employer:
1.The quality of people they work with
2.The feeling that the work they do is meaningful
This is such a simple message. So simple in fact that that only the SVP of People Operations in an organisation like Google could deliver it- everyone else lower down the proverbial food chain would be too busy creating elaborate analytics and statistics to justify their position delivering what would essentially be the same message.
However, is it entirely true? Certainly, the first point is. The quality of an organisation’s people is so important, and good working relationships have so much value inside and outside of work. But that is a discussion for another day. The second point, however is worth exploring further. What constitutes ‘meaningful work’? Bock says that people want to do more than just make money and want to ‘do something that means something’. This sense of purpose has benefits beyond retention, and it makes people more productive. However, in our 21st century capitalised society, how many of us are really doing meaningful work and not just doing jobs that keep everyone else doing other jobs?
I am reminded of David Graebar who explored the phenomenon of ‘bullshit jobs’ in 2013. Graebar argued that the technology that the Economist John Maynard Keynes predicted would reduce our work, has actually served to make us busier, creating work for us that didn’t heretofore exist, and we probably don’t need to do. This is for moral and social reasons as much for economic ones; a society with time on its hands can cause all sorts of problems for the ruling classes.
So what is a bullshit job? Well, all you teachers, nurses, and rubbish collectors do important work so can smugly pat yourselves on the back. But us HR types, PR people, Telemarketers, Actuaries, and Corporate Lawyers need to re-evaluate our sense of purpose, sign up for a mechanics apprenticeship, and direct our anguish and vitriol to David Graebar c/o London School of Economics.
In terms of what is meaningful, as a HR professional, coaching a person through a challenging career situation or recruiting a great hire can be meaningful, while preparing a HR analytics report for a Senior Management team to gloss over, ranks pretty low on my meaningful-o-meter. And it is the same in every profession; some stuff we do is more meaningful than others.
That sense of meaning, or lack thereof, to a certain extent, comes with the profession rather than an organisation and so the influence that the organisation has on it is somewhat limited. A Project Manager seeking meaningful work is not likely to find it by moving to a competitor organisation to do the same role. Ultimately, the perception of what is meaningful is in the eye of the worker: there is no objective way to measure the social value of what we do. However, if ever you are wondering about the meaningfulness of your job, Graebar reckons a reliable test is to have a few drinks and see how long it takes before you launch into a tirade about how stupid and pointless your job really is.