When Work’s Invisible, So are its Satisfactions

March 6, 2008 at 9:51 am | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work | Leave a comment

An article by Jared Sandberg in the Wall St. Journal (2/19/08 p. B1, Cubicle Culture, “A Modern Conundrum: When Work’s Invisible, So Are Its Satisfactions”) described how people have lost the feeling of accomplishment they get from finishing concrete tasks (picture the old crafts like woodworking) and instead hop from spreadsheet to PowerPoint with vague results. 

I found this interesting and connected to my enterprise attention management research, so I followed this article to the accompanying forum to read what people were commenting about this.  The initial burst of responses piled the scorn upon information work with comments such as “Ah yes, there’s nothing quite like surveying one’s cubicle littered with crumpled styrofoam coffee cups and partially emptied cans of Mountain Dew, and reflecting upon the joys of a really well put-together spreadsheet” and “a large silent majority will continue to grind the day away going through the motions of getting something done.”

Then the responses started changing to acknowledge the other side of the coin, that the old days weren’t as golden as they might seem today (back breaking labor, smoke-belching conditions, etc.), there is joy to team accomplishments, some fault lies with management for constantly changing tasks and not describing why a task is important, and some fault lies with ourselves for not looking for completion where it does exist.  Also, one has to look further down the line to see the results of one’s work (i.e., “I do take some satisfaction that every time anyone uses a credit card or gets cash out of an ATM they run a tiny bit of my code”).

Of course, I couldn’t help but throw my $.02 in as well.  My own comments were as follows:

I agree entirely that the nature of information work and collaboration has diminished the pure sense of accomplishment that one used to get from concrete, individually-owned tasks.  A McKinsey study from 2006 demonstrated how modern business is moving to a majority of work being tacit in nature (undefined; no pre-defined process) as opposed to transformational (creating goods out of raw materials) or transactional (following strict processes).

The point about “surrogate measures” is especially key as a coping mechanism.  I believe email is a common surrogate measure.  In https://knowledgeforward.wordpress.com/2007/09/20/email-interruptions-as-avoidance-mechanism-for-cognitive-dissonance/  I wrote that “I have noticed that I often feel the urge to check email when I feel stuck or bogged down in a long-running project I’m doing or complex piece of work.  I think that our need to accomplish tasks – to get things done – is challenged by the increase in information work with undefined goals and processes and that email is being used like a drug to get a hit of accomplishment when one feels he is spinning his wheels. ”

Still, I would not make the leap (as some commenters here do) of saying that because my individual contribution is difficult to measure and the tasks are tacit that the work is therefore meaningless.  There are some meaningless jobs, but it’s not automatic given this criteria.  If eliminating one’s job or company would result in a better situation for all involved, then I’d say it falls into the “better off without it” category.

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