From jobs to meaningful work

The Company Men is a movie that “centers on a year in the life of three men trying to survive a round of corporate downsizing at a major company — and how that affects them, their families, and their communities.”  The movie is entertaining but I am most interested in how it showed the real work shift that is happening, not the effects of recession but the new nature of work.

[Spoiler Alert]

Movie synopsis on Wikipedia

Two factors appear to be at the root of the demise of this shipping company. Work is getting outsourced, as is obvious from the rusting shipyards, as well as automated, requiring fewer blue-collar workers. The worship of shareholder value is covered in detail, with the executives doing everything they can to drive up share prices, increasing the value of their stock options while delivering another round of layoffs.

Most of the movie centres on how a few managers/executives deal with losing their jobs. During this time they learn a couple of lessons.

  • Meaningful work is in creating something of value that delights customers.
  • A job is not the same as meaningful work.

When they finally embark on rebuilding a ship-building company, it is quite different from the original industrial era company.

  • All support functions, including sales and HR, are working collaboratively in the same room.
  • Everyone is committed and seems to have a sense of skin-in-the-game.
  • Management and employees are working together.
  • There is real communication among people who understand and respect each other, many having shared some tough experiences together.

The new company seems to have inverted the hierarchical pyramid, putting customers first, then creating an environment to support the front-line workers, understanding that they’re in a much more complex environment than before. This will be a smaller scale manufacturing enterprise, relying more on brains than brawn. Even though this had a bit of a Hollywood ending, it shows that the future of work in North America will be different.
In order to remain flexible, 21st century companies will be smaller. Workers will have to be more agile and will likely have to change companies more often, requiring more of a freelancer’s attitude. Everyone will have to be focused on the customer. Status hierarchies will crumble as everyone can ask, “What have you done for my company lately?”. The workplace will be less comfortable with less job security, but much more work will be meaningful. It’s obviously not that meaningful here and now at the end of the current industrial/information era, with 84% of workers wanting to change their jobs. It’s time for all of us — politicians, workers, managers — to stop thinking about jobs and create meaningful work. It will help us get on with the work of the century.

3 Responses to “From jobs to meaningful work”

  1. Bruce Stewart

    I would follow Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) and put the team first and the customer second. The team, in turn, follows Goldratt and seeks the throughput needed for its own prosperity. This should give it reasonable security and longevity while allowing the organization to flex with opportunities.

    • Harold Jarche

      Hi Bruce. That sounds like the book “Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down” by Vineet Nayar. Makes sense to me, as smart employees would put the customer first.


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