When did you last look forward to going to work?
I’m guessing it was probably a time in the first few weeks of a job starting, when you still had your shine and so did your new employer. But fairly quickly the daily grind will have set in. The cultural obstacles will have been encountered. And your own shortfalls may have suffered an airing, too. Work quickly becomes a chore: something to be tolerated and endured until the blissful embrace of the weekend. No wonder so many people dream of throwing it all in to pursue self-employment, write that bestseller, travel the world or go back to university.
And yet, very few of us ever do – and most of those who do, don’t throw away a “good thing”. They wait until they’re made redundant, laid off or kicked to the kerb.
As an HR operator, I’ve no desire to see my workforce suddenly seized by the desire and initiative to abandon their careers for new lives as beachcombers, rock stars or entrepreneurs. On the one hand, if they don’t really have what it takes I care enough not to want to see them fail. On the other, if they do have what it takes, I’d far rather harness that passion, drive, imagination and skill for the benefit of my organization.
I know. I’m diabolical, aren’t I?
You know who else has to drag themselves somewhere they don’t want to go, to do things they don’t want to do, who is expected to be grateful for the opportunity and yet doesn’t even have the benefit of being paid for it? Schoolchildren. But although my children have plenty of days when they’d rather stay in bed and sit through another French lesson or numeracy test, they also have quite a few days when they positively bounce out of bed, enthusiastic for the day ahead.
At some point, we lose this willingness or capacity to be excited by the mundane. I think it’s a cultural part of the act of growing up that, at some point, we decide that the time to do the things we enjoy is at the weekend. That’s when we hang out with our friends, go to activities we enjoy and let our minds free. The rest of the week gets stuffed full of lessons and homework and we begin the process of conditioning ourselves to the idea that work is dull and monotonous, and that the week is an obstacle course we must endure to earn the reward of a weekend.
So what is it that kids have that makes them look forward to school? What is that they lose – that we give up – on our way to the workforce? And why are we so often happier and more motivated in the first few weeks of a job that once we’ve settled into it?
You’ll not be surprised that I have some thoughts.
The first is friends. For some people, their work life and their social life are essentially indistinguishable, and I tend to think that this is a bad idea, because it can be hard when your decisions within a hierarchy are going to impact on people you think of as friends. Emotional distance at work is good for sound decision-making. But children don’t try to be friends with everyone. They are choosy. They are also fickle: today’s best friend is tomorrow’s nodding acquaintance. And most friendships will essentially stop at the school gate.
The second is novelty. Ask a child what they did at school and, assuming the answer isn’t a grunt or a dismissive “nothing”, it will probably focus on something that happened that was new or different. And if a child is excited about school, again, it’s most likely because of doing something new or different. A trip out, or a visit from someone interesting, will make a day special. The chance to learn differently, in a new environment, with different tools or from someone different – i.e. not a teacher, as all teachers are parts of a single meta-teacher, which is why it’s so surprising to see one of them at the supermarket – will provide a child with a hook that makes the coming day attractive, rather than fearful.
The third is creativity. Children like to be inventive, whether it’s building lego robots, moulding clay, mastering the forward roll or inventing a dance routine. Not all children like the same sort of creativity, but they respond to the right sort of creative opportunity, and key part of the sorts of creativity to which children respond is the closely-connected fourth thing: physicality. Sitting at a desk is dull. When you let them out at break time, what do they do? They run around.
In the last blog, I listed the things I thought we could do with more of as adults trying to find fulfilment and meaning in a grown-up world. One of those was a sense of wonder. But finding wonder at work, in the stark reality of spreadsheets, filing cabinets and fire safety briefings, is hard work. At school, there’s a whole category of people whose job it is to confer moments of wonder on our children. They’re called primary school teachers. At secondary, it becomes an optional extra. At university, the job is delegated to the students. Then at work it seems like there are people (and the HR Manager is often among them) whose job it is to carefully extract all wonder and replace it with cold, hard productivity. Well, I’d like to see it turned back at least one step.
Being physical is a first step, because the more you move, the more you see, and the more you see, the more likely you are to be surprised. People in more physical roles tend to earn less than those with traditionally sedentary roles, but report consistently higher job satisfaction despite that. If you job isn’t physical, finding ways to make it more so will take it closer to wonder.
Likewise, not every job is creative. Many are tedious or repetitive. But creativity is something we can pursue as an individual, and encourage as an organization. Combining creativity and physicality multiplies the overall effect. And if you’re really creative, maybe you can come up with something novel.
As a rule, people fear change. But they also love novelty. The difference between the two comes down to: novelty is ephemeral. It happens and then we moves on. Change is permanent. Novelty can be as simple as working at a different desk, or as complicated as moving your whole operation to Hawaii for a week.
Friends… Ah, I suspect there’s a whole other blog on office friendships and how to make them work in every sense. But it’s like laughter. If you’re on your own and find something funny, you’ll smile or chuckle. When you’re with a friend, though, you’ll have a full-on, teary-eyed chortle-fest. And wonder is the same. If you have a moment of wonder, being able to share it with someone turns it from a moment into a memory, and the role of memory in job satisfaction and engagement is a subject that has barely been touched upon by academics, but in which I suspect there is a deep well of untapped potential.
To finish, I’ll take us back to where we started: the first few weeks in a new job are when you spend the most time walking around, when you experience novelty every day and where the opportunities to be creative are most available because your inbox hasn’t filled to capacity, yet. But without established relationships with which to share that sense of wonder, we quickly fall into routine.
Next time, we’ll look at the passion for play, and how play strategies can help build the tools you need to foster a sense of wonderful work.