As part of our recent Good Work campaign we asked RSA Fellows what good work means to them, and as expected, the hundreds of comments, emails, and tweets we received went far above and beyond that brief. The selection of responses below demonstrate why we so desperately need a robust public conversation about the future of work.
As the tweets came flooding in, many were able to succinctly articulate a clear vision for good work:
“To me, good work is work that aligns with my values and allows me to actively push forwards the conversations and issues I care about. I am really lucky to have found in my work at The House of St Barnabas a cause and a vision that I am passionate about. But even the best job in the world could become unbearable if I was surrounded by people I didn’t like, or who didn’t like and believe in me and my ability.” Alice Sewell (Culture & Communications Manager, House of St Barnabas)
“#goodworkis cooperating and collaborating to co-create a better future by playing to our strengths in ways that make our weaknesses irrelevant.” (Geoff Marlow, Director)
Others found it easier to define good work by defining what it is not:
“The feedback I hear is that the little things in the workplace are often missing: the thanks, the fun, the camaraderie.” (Lydia Hirst, Specialist in Management and Leadership Development)
A common theme that arose was management, and how much of an impact that can have on an individual’s work life.
“Good work depends on good managers and this is the resource most absent in UK businesses…While our business schools teach the theories and techniques of managing business, they fail to teach the management of people.” (Jeffrey Holden, retired)
Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment, added, “Good work demands some kind of sharing of power between employees and employers.”
Other Fellows recognised that poor management can be the result of companies being too tied to their stakeholders and the pressure to maximise profits.
“…We need to change the race to the bottom; cut-throat competition, the cheapest contract, low prices, low wages, sharp employment practice etc. Maybe businesses and organisations who provide 'good work' could be recognised and rewarded.” (Wayne Bennett, freelance researcher)
Part of the problem with applying corporate management style is that it is simply not suitable to for all types of work. Not everyone is pursuing the same goals.
“…One needs to be cognizant of the dangers of a single narrative. For some, 'good work' is simply a job that pays the bills and puts some food on the table.” (Dr Olu Ajayi, specialist in corporate governance)
Writer Roger Cowe added, “…Boring and unpleasant work can still be fulfilling, if only because the income allows the worker to engage in other fulfilling activities (whether that's participation in RSA activities, buying yachts, or pigeon fancying).
Yet some of the elements that have typically made work ‘bad’, such as long commutes and lack of flexibility, may be changing.
“It seems to me that we are (slowly) moving from an "organisational" economy (where big companies require huge amounts of people who commute daily into big offices to work 9-5) to a "network" economy (where many tasks can be completed at home - or anywhere - using various devices….I think this is what we need to prepare for.” (William Westgate, Business and Economics Teacher)
With changes to how we work becoming increasingly visible, it was hard to avoid the question of automation.
“There is talk that £250k of 5.4m jobs in the public sector may become automated. This will include jobs where human contact is making a direct (but perhaps uncalculated) positive impact on mental and therefore physical health to both client and worker…” (Stephen Horscroft, Economic Planning and Strategy Officer)
“What kinds of work will prove most resistant to automation, and what are most vulnerable? We already see the problem of "left behind" communities which have lost their raison d'etre. Historically work has provided meaning and structure to life and when it is no longer available people become sick and/or angry.” (Stephen Mcnair, Fellow of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling)
Other concerns were raised about those who are self-employed or running very small businesses.
“Micro-entities form the bulk of the UK’s private sector business, and with less than 10 employees, may not have the ability to absorb the extra work to do if employees are off with long-term sickness, family emergencies etc. It isn’t that they don’t want to be good employers, merely that they are already over-stretched,” said Susan Burgoo, an accountant.
However, no matter where you are or what type of work you are doing, work/life balance was seen to be critical.
“To be effective in work, I need a semblance of work/life balance, with sufficient sleep, exercise, time to spend with friends and family, space for volunteering, and ideally a supportive personal relationship.” (Sarah Gee, fundraising/marketing professional).
So how do we get there?
IT consultant Michael Hastings suggested that “… there is also an aspect to this which is "pre-work" assessment and guidance: that is, investing in stronger career guidance before choosing a work or academic path.”
“As conventional jobs are replaced, whether by imports or automation, surely we have to revalue work as purposeful activity, whether it is paid or not?....There is a host of jobs that need doing, especially in the fields of care and maintenance, where human beings have a comparative advantage over machines.” (Nicholas Falk, economist and urbanist)
“This issue of wealth and income distribution is inseparable from, and more important than, a discussion of how to make 'work' more fulfilling. Is the concept of a Universal Basic Income a starting point for this?” (Peter Fuller Thompson, Consultant)
“I have always been fascinated when, for example, a few truly 'committed to the cause' individuals out-perform larger teams of very often better-resourced competition…..Our world of work is riddled with short-termism. Key to changing all this will be reframing what good leadership is all about…” (Andy Agathangelou, Founding Chair, the Transparency Task Force)
“Above all a job/work should not be 'pointless'. This is why someone tightening bolts on a production line (and producing a tangible product) can get a greater sense of satisfaction than a consultant who produces a £20k report that sits on a shelf.” (Mark Warner, Head of Sustainability, Leeds Beckett University)
This is a mere snapshot of the spectrum of comments. There are many more on Matthew Taylor’s blog and the RSA Twitter feed. If you have not already, please do share your own thoughts. You can also catch up with Matthew’s lecture, ‘Good Work for All’.