The battle over the future of work is about autonomy


Future of work updates

Bullshit jobs, wrote the late anthropologist David Graeber, are a “form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”. Corporate lawyers, public relations consultants and administrators are among his examples. Whereas bin collectors and health workers have socially useful jobs. Without them, the world would fall into disarray.

The pandemic exposed the divide between bullshit and useful jobs by elevating “essential workers”. Despite the gloom of early lockdown, there was some solace in seeing mergers and acquisition lawyers put in their place (many rungs below supermarket shelf-stackers). 

A study published this summer unpicked bullshit jobs and suggested workers’ sense of uselessness may not be “a direct indication of the social value of that work”. Rather, it is “a symptom of bad management and toxic workplace cultures”. In the wrong environment, essential workers may see themselves as being in bullshit jobs, too.

Workers are more likely to think their job is useless if they have “a manager who is micromanaging . . . especially if they are doing it incompetently”, says Brendan Burchell, professor of social sciences at Cambridge university and an author of the study. Autonomy can reduce the likelihood that you see your job as bullshit.

The pandemic highlighted autonomy — or lack of it. Many of our freedoms — to meet friends and family, travel and even to hug — were curtailed. Yet for many white-collar workers it proved liberating to work more flexibly. 

As offices reopen, the debate around white-collar work has tended to pit the workplace against the home. But I would wager that for many employees it is actually a battle for autonomy. “If you strip away why people want flexibility, you find they want control over how much, where and when they work,” says Emma Stewart, development director at Timewise, a flexible work consultancy.

Many white-collar workers describe their experience of working from home as “more adult”, according to Skye Robertson, chief operating officer at Escape the City, which helps people find alternatives to corporate jobs. “People will be more averse to going back to a hierarchical dynamic.”

I am not a Pollyanna. Remote working was hardly liberating for those micromanaged at a distance, including by keystroke technology. And frontline workers had little flexibility.

But there are good reasons to give people more control over their working lives. Research suggests it can reduce stress, the risk of heart disease and improve performance. It may even curb the appetites of the power-hungry. A study showed that “people desire power, not to be a master over others, but to be master of their own domain, to control their own fate”.

There is a tendency for those at the top of organisations to forget what it was like at the bottom, an almost wilful blindness about the autonomy advantage. A senior lawyer might decide to set an example by coming into the office every day. But they can disappear to deal with a personal matter without repercussions — a right often not extended to junior colleagues.

This autonomy gap was highlighted by a survey conducted by Gartner, a global research company, on attitudes to flexibility. “Seventy-two per cent of executives agree they can work out their own flexible work arrangement with their manager, whereas only half of employees feel they have that same privilege.”

Even shift workers can experience greater control over their time. Offering preferences on times and advance notice of schedules allows employees greater ability to plan. “One of the paradoxes across the labour market [is that] people say they want autonomy, it is one of the keys in getting people to work hard,” Burchell says. “It is not like we are telling employers they need to pay more, it should be straightforward.” Yet there is stubborn resistance, he adds.

The pandemic has shown the value of autonomy. Let’s hope it extends to work.

emma.jacobs@ft.com

Pilita Clark returns next week



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