What Does “Work” Mean Today?

The Harvard Business Review article, “How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management,” hit a chord when I was reading it. I realized that I’m not alone in my yearning for working on actual, tangible projects that you are proud to own at the end of the day. This includes developing an idea, validating its feasibility in the marketplace, and laboring over the details, presenting the final product. These have always been the components of work I’ve come to know.

The article stated that Google engineers wanted to work on actual projects instead of being in a role where you are responsible in managing people, things and situations. Engineers were born and trained for the types of roles that involves building things. My dad is one of them. And they work on it independently, discussing with the team, iterating, reviewing some more, then launching the product. (By “product,” I don’t necessarily mean something you manufacture out of a plant and produce something you can hold. Product can mean a project like Gmail, or something that is packaged as a service). Google engineers didn’t want to “manage” because managing isn’t about building a product. It’s about communicating with the group, supervising others, and making sure the right resources are available for the team. All of these are important qualities, but these also have the potential to be barriers to actually producing something. Many managers have calendars that are always booked of meetings. Meetings that usually doesn’t lead to getting anything done. This is unfortunate.

I see a lot of times that “work” in today’s business world is actually just paper pushing or making calls to ask for information or confirm details. You might read this and say, “Duh, that is what business is.” But does it have to be this way? I think it leads to mind-numbing work: skills in analysis, critical thinking or problem solving aren’t developed. People think they are developing these in the pointless meetings they sit on, but they are not. Most of the time, the “problem” they are trying to solve is centered around group conflicts– making sure they have their defense up against another team, and strategizing when to strike their offense. I’m not sure how this is called “work.”

I don’t see a lot of people doing different things everyday– although they think “everyday is always different”– it’s really about the things I mentioned above and doing them over and over again. Putting together some slides to propose a campaign, working with vendors to execute it, then reporting the results. This seems simple, but my guess would be 75% of the time is about “figuring out” which teams are doing what and who to “delegate” things to. Wash, rinse, repeat.  Delegating has come to be perceived as a prized skill. It is only useful when you’re actually doing work, and you need to hand off things to others to help you and for them to learn, but I see a lot of people delegating all the projects they themselves need to be doing.

The Google founders wanted to replicate the college environment. I thought I was alone in my constant wish that the “real world” were more like school: you’re among smart people, there’s a lot of friendliness and support, less politics, you’re productive and challenged. The business world as we know it is just the opposite: a lot of people who are promoted because they get along with a manager who likes to gossip, office politics rule, people are in meetings that don’t let them get anything done, lots of playing around and loitering, and mental atrophy. Human resources do need to be more data driven  in order to determine if any of these realities of business life are actually producing outcomes. Metrics also need to be revisited in order for employees to be measured by the work they produce that actually bring satisfaction to the client/customers or revenue to the company.

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