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What makes good work?

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In the final episode of RSA Radio’s Work Shift series I asked Richard Sennett, Joanna Biggs and Rohan Silva: "what makes for good work?" Why are so many jobs so far away from this ideal? And am I being unrealistic to hope that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development?

We began this RSA radio mini-series by looking at how work is changing and how we should respond.  We’ve explored the impact of automation, the insecurity of the gig-economy and the case for a basic income. These changes are sometimes presented as inevitable but in fact, at every step, we find there are decisions - economic, political, legal and cultural - driving change in particular directions. If the future seems worrying, it may have something to do with our failure to articulate a positive vision of what good work should be.

I asked the sociologist Richard Sennett, Joanna Biggs an editor at The London Review of Books and author of All Day Long: A portrait of Britain at work (2015) and Rohan Silva ( co-founder of Second Home) to help me think about good work and how to have more of it.

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William Morris, drew a distinction between “useful work” and “useless toil”. For him work at its best was “not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life” but at its worst it was nothing but a burden for the worker whilst producing nothing of use to the world. The key difference was the presence or absence of three types of hope: ‘hope of rest, hope of product and hope of pleasure in the work itself’.

“Hope of rest” is the most obvious principle but not without insights for employment practices today. It’s important to know and feel that our work comes to an end, but “always on” working culture expectations and the blurring between work and life make this difficult with negative impacts on mental health and arguably productivity.

“Hope of product” is the hope that our work is not fruitless, that we are producing something useful. In a damning poll in 2015, 37 per cent of British people thought their job was “making no meaningful contribution to the world”. This is a phenomenal level of disillusionment. Not seeing the product of our work may be one cause. As Joanna Biggs described, a key source of dissatisfaction for a call centre worker she interviewed for her book was not knowing whether a customer’s problem had been resolved after passing the query onwards and hanging up the call. The metrics through which work is organised are often not ones that allow us to make sense of the difference we are making.

What about Morris’s hope of “pleasure in the work itself”? The character of the workplace has a fair amount to do with whether or not we dread going to work or take some pleasure in it. Rohan Silva is co-founder of Second Home, a space carefully designed and curated to encourage creativity and spark new collaborations. Start-ups sit alongside teams from some of the biggest companies keen to soak up the benefits of spill-overs and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. As Rohan pointed out, for all the talk of digital technologies facilitating remote working, proximity and face to face interaction matters for business more than ever, perhaps precisely because they matter to workers. Second Home provides a great working environment because workers there are highly valued. The challenge of extending good work to all is, in part, about recognising that we are social creatures whose health, well-being (and quality of work) is dependent on our environment and our relationships. Ultimately this is about treating workers as humans not commodities. Fifteen minute care appointments, timed toilet breaks, penalties for talking to colleagues: the public is understandably concerned at dehumanising workplace practices. Do they belong in a time when (according to what people tell researchers) the values which are most prevalent are about self-expression and autonomy?

As Richard Sennett emphasises, the idea of fulfilment in work is not about a fantasy of work always being fun; fulfilment comes from mastering a skill. This is why, according to him, temporary jobs and those that offer no opportunities for progression are dissatisfying. If work offers no possibilities or rewards for developing skills over time we are unable to make sense of work and place it into “a narrative about our life of skills”.

With an upcoming election, The RSA is attempting to get as many people as possible to show support for a new national aspiration: that all work should be good work in the 21st century. We’re asking people what they think good work is.

After listening to the podcast, share your thoughts #GoodWorkIs

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  • Why are we continuing to work for a 'God given' 40 hours a week (often both guardians) when, as Keynes predicted, productivity improvements would mean that we could be working 15 hours a week in the market economy by now?  Isn't the social care crisis and the narrowing of opportunities for developing what Ivan Illich called "autonomous care", better public health, personal and community wellbeing as well as consuming within planetary limits, as the theft of social and community time to the onward march of life's marketisation? Why did we give another 40 hours to work when both men and women could have moderated their hours and given more time to family, friends and community?


    We need a policy framework that enables less market work and more 'social work', whilst being able to reproduce ourselves and our families and consume within the limits of our planetary ecosystem.  Following Andre Gorz, without a critique of economic reason, a relentless focus on efficiency at the level of the firm, yet gargantuan levels of waste at the level of society and a government too much co-opted by business (witness the poor response to deadly air pollution), its hard to see change on the horizon.  According to Chuka Umuna, France, much vilified for its labour market controls, is far more productive than the UK with a more humane approach to work ta boot and even its critics say that the 35 hour working week should stay.  We could push further. 

    Can we reduce working hours, establish a basic income in return for a commitment to community service, go full throttle to remove drudgery through the automation of mindless labour processes, and ensure a more equitable sharing of the social product?  There are plenty of powerful individuals who would disagree with the final point and perhaps they will threaten to shovel their capital offshore at the merest whiff of it. Jeremy Corbyn has a mountain to climb if we're to find that one out! 

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