We are, I’m getting the impression, having a human moment. At least, some of the online commentariat seem to be. Umair Haque – whose Betterness: Economics for Humans was an intriguing read – is pondering the socio-economic reboot most people seem to be muttering about us needing, and directing our thoughts to starting with the purpose. Or, as he put it his Next Big Thing blog post at Harvard Business Review:

I’d bet the farm, the house, and the Apple shares on the following proposition: Our institutions are failing not merely because they’re bankrupting us financially, but because they’re bankrupting us in human terms — that, having become something like Alcatrazes for the human soul, they fail to ignite within us the searing potential for the towering accomplishments necessary to answer today’s titanic challenges.”

This is heady stuff, ripe with the whiff of heavy lifting undertaken in the search for meaning, or ways of creating and unearthing it. Umair is adamant that the first great concern is with what makes us “searingly, painfully, achingly, enduringly, joyously human” – not with enhancing productivity or efficiency. As he argues, we’ve been pretty inventive at those over the centuries – even over the last few years (imagine how bewildering today would look if you stepped directly through a door from, say, 1987) – but it’s a lot less clear-cut as to what we’ve ‘solved’ has been what most needed fixing.

Of course, you could dismiss as philosophical baloney. And you might get a populist cheer for doing so: philosophy is not our most thriving discipline. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency seem to show a slight decline or slowest growth in applications for most of what I’ve always thought of as somewhere between ‘the classics’ and ‘the professions’ – law, education, medicine, architecture. Delving deeper into their websites downloadable files, my amateur statistical skills suggest that, while philosophy might have been the founding discipline of the cradle of civilisation, less than 1% of our undergraduates are pursuing it now. There’s an interest parable about Greek as a metaphor for the trajectory of the modern man there for someone wanting to write a more profound blog post than this.

But perhaps Umair isn’t just a voice in the wilderness. (Although he might need to tone down the swearing on the Twitter feed and ask less clever-dick questions to get some of those he’s talking about to listen. “First three songs on your mixtape for the end of the world?” might be a bit arch for some people’s tastes. Although I can think of a couple of Elvis Costello songs if Umair’s reading …) Over at HR Fishbowl, the same human-centric urge also seems to be breaking the surface, as they attempt to mould The Future of Work: A Manifesto.

In the spirit of social media, and in response to their comment that:

[…] it’s only in its infancy and we’ve purposely kept the clay wet so we could further mold it as we gathered feedback from people like you […]”

my equally infant, similarly roughly-shaped-from-wet-clay thoughts ran something like the following.

Value: under a heading that boldly asserts that  “Human beings are the most important asset we have”, each of the 14 points maintain that each of 14 abstract nouns ‘has value for the organisation’. I don’t doubt that they do, but I wondered if that was the point. If we want work to ‘suck less’, is it the organisation that we need these things to have value for, or is it the individual? If we want work to create ‘something for the purpose of human flourishing’, I think it has to be the latter.

Identity: a follow-on point. The fledgling manifesto bears a few traces of Richard Sennett’s arguments about work being a means of creating identity and personal meaning. Unless our identities are to be shaped around creating value for not just something abstract but something other, work has to create value for us if the identities it shapes for us are to have value to us.

Boundaries: seeking to dissolve boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’, and between ‘I’ and ‘we’, is admirably optimistic, bordering possibly on the Utopian. And yes, we probably do all – at least at some stage – aspire to love what we do, but we will need to change more than HR practices to create nations of workplaces where everyone gets that opportunity. I’m not sure there are enough love-inspiring economically-viable opportunities to share between us to give everyone a crack at total satisfaction. As long as there are (metaphorical) toilets, they will need cleaners.

If “new human workplace has a respo­nsibility for the susta­inability of all the resources it uses, including human beings”, that has to include all the human beings who will still struggle to have opportunities to find value beyond remaining economically viable. Judging by the quantities that our species has written about the human condition since we invented writing systems, the transition period may be lengthy.

Markets: “If markets are conve­rsations, then the people who are doing the talking and the listening and the sharing are the most important asset we have.” Fine talk, but customers and investors matter too. Yes, we need to be market-friendly, but the market needs to be friendly to us too. If we fancifully describe human organisational history as a vast, tangled vine, it’s littered with crops that withered before they found a buyer. You can’t sell pipe-dreams to non-smokers.

Language: I’d encourage the draft’s authors to go back and try re-wording it in plain English. Ban words like ‘monetarize’ or ‘social capital’ or ‘connectedness’. I tried re-wording this:

The role of manag­ement is to release the flow of infor­mation and data and to get it to the right people at the right time. The new workplace is data-­driven; but infor­mation is not wisdom. It’s the human analysis of the data that drives value.”

I wound up with: “The role of management is to ensure wisdom is applied in the right place at the right time.” Perhaps, but is wisdom the chicken or the egg?

“We need to bring our whole true selves to work”:  I hear echoes of Will Hutton and The Work Foundation here – the phrase is as familiar as the sentiment (see this earlier post as well as this one). Again, I don’t necessarily disagree, but I can easily see why many might. Surely we bring to work what we think is appropriate or acceptable there, what will be recognised and rewarded. Our whole true selves are messier, more complex and contradictory, and we may not be thanked for following through on this ideal.

Work is a context, and we edit ourselves for it just as we edit ourselves for weddings, parties, first dates and so on. And some of us value the vestiges of separation we have left between ‘work’ and ‘life’. Ownership might be up for debate with the former, but most of us would – I suspect – rather the latter was less negotiable.

There isn’t anything explicit in the Manifesto about two aspects of ‘design’ that will be very much in play if we do bring our whole true selves to work – job design or organisational design. If work and organisations are vessels and containers, bringing more inside them might make them less rather than more comfortable unless they change their shapes to accommodate us.

What gives: carrying on from the previous point, I’m much less clear how organisations will change than individuals. To me, there’s a non-sequitor in the following sentence, masquerading as a full-stop:

We will feel a sense of belonging and purpose if we’re involved in the direction and purpose of the system. Ownership has value for the organ­ization.”

Ownership and belonging are not the same thing, and conflating them in the unspoken name of engagement doesn’t strike me as helpful. Yes, the manifesto is a draft but I reach the end of it still living in a framework where leaders and managers have responsibilities (and status) within organisations that determine the role and inputs of employees. ‘Value’ is mentioned, but not defined: in places it could be fiscal, in others social. I can see what’s in it for organisations, but not for the individuals for whom things are intended to suck less in the future.

The text bears the tyre marks of several contemporary bandwagons – virtual communication, networks, agility – but it doesn’t provide them with a sat-nav. There’s more wool than knitting-pattern, and there are gaps in the thinking that the bridges don’t cross. “Let’s empower ourselves and each other to make our lives better, and thereby make our societies better” is a lovely sentiment, but until I’ve got a route map from a happier job to a better society I’m not much clearer on how I get from A to B. Like many a blue sky, it contains a fair bit of warm air.

So, a constructive suggestion. Take the draft manifesto and rework it in plain English. Aim to produce something a twelve-year old can not only read but can explain to someone in their twenties who’s performing satisfactorily if not dazzlingly in a job that is keeping them afloat, and who will feel more optimistic for hearing it. Then work out how to achieve it.

There will always be boxes, and many of us will spend a lot of our lives in them. The boxes make things more manageable for those who manage. Re-decorating the inside of the box is not the solution. Human beings – our starting point – don’t necessarily want to be defined solely by their work. If you don’t start by asking how life, society and the human experience of them could be and then redesign work accordingly, you might be lighting the wrong end of the firework.

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