we don’t need no stinking jobs

Last month I wrote that if you are wondering why work is not getting done as desired, then focus on the system. As we see people returning to offices and workplaces (hopefully post-pandemic) we should reflect on what this past year of remote working has really accomplished. Remote, or distributed, work has even been empowering, as stated by some Apple employees in an open letter to the CEO.

“For many of us at Apple, we have succeeded not despite working from home, but in large part because of being able to work outside the office. The last year has felt like we have truly been able to do the best work of our lives for the first time, unconstrained by the challenges that daily commutes to offices and in-person co-located offices themselves inevitably impose; all while still being able to take better care of ourselves and the people around us.” —The Verge 2021-06-04

human performance system

Based on: Rummler & Brache (1995) Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart

If the work to be done is clear, and performed in a transparent fashion, then there is little need for detailed direction or face-to-face supervision. In an organization, every worker performs within a Support system. This system includes some Direction and the worker creates some type of output — usually a product or a service. There is typically some internal Feedback on how well the job is done, from a supervisor or co-worker.

Outside of the company, the product or service is seen as Valued Performance by external customers. In an optimal system, the external clients’ level of satisfaction is fed back into the company, through Motivational Consequences, to the worker. One type of consequence could be a performance bonus.

But beware when the measurement becomes a target, as expressed in Goodhart’s Law“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”. This was later popularized by Marilyn Strathern as, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

The global remote work  phenomenon has given us an opportunity to challenge some common assumptions about jobs and work. The construct of the job, with its defined skills, effort, responsibilities, and working conditions, is a key limiting organizational factor for a creative economy. The core assumption of the job that can be ‘filled’ needs to change. This is a major constraining concept. It presumes common skills and the mechanistic view that people can be replaced without disruption. Structured jobs suck individual creativity and create an organizational framework that discourages entrepreneurial zeal.

If the human performance system is clear to everyone — with Outputs, Feedback, Support, & Consequences for the work being done — then many of the systemic constraints created by the nature of the job can be removed.

As many people return to their ‘day jobs’, perhaps the most important question we should ask is whether we need jobs at all.

“Without a new social compact through which to distribute the potential bounty of the digital age, competition with our machines is a losing proposition. Most jobs as we currently understand them are repetitive enough to be approached computationally. Even brain surgery is, in most respects, a mechanical task with a limited number of novel scenarios.

While we humans can eventually shift, en masse, to ‘high-touch’ occupations like nursing, teaching, psychology, or the arts, the readiness of machines to replace human labor should force us to reevaluate the whole premise of having jobs in the first place.” —Douglas Rushkoff 2020

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