The futility of modern work

An illustrated exposition on contemporary corporate life

An existential question…

It is suggested that human beings find meaning through work. But work is different to paid employment, which in our current socio-economic circumstances enchains us from the moment we leave school until the day we retire (if we’re lucky). Our lives are put on hold until some magical time when we imagine that we will be free. This means, of course, that we experience no real liberty whilst in a paid role, just the dull compulsion of the economic. This perhaps explains why many of us pursue creative hobbies.

We find ourselves immersed in practices and routines which – if we took just a moment to reflect upon with a critical eye – we would quickly denounce as absurd. Yet the pay cheque silences us and leaves us perhaps brooding on a day to day existence that crowds out the opportunity for us to truly live.

There is a constant buzz in corporate life made by people in our organisations endlessly reminding us of how valuable we are, how our voices matter, how we need to look after ourselves, and the importance of us to the organisation to whom we pay obeisance in return for money at the end of the month. But all this is mere noise, as well we all know: within a fortnight of leaving a job, we go from “Good old so-and-so!” to “Who?”

The corporate cacophony!

In the Peanuts cartoon strip, Lucy van Pelt always moves the ball as Charlie Brown runs up to kick it. Regardless of her reassurances, she always tricks him, which sees him flying through the air and coming a cropper. The promises that echo through the channels and corridors of the organisations to whom we sell our labour are similarly empty – and, notwithstanding what they say, the ball will always be moved at the last minute. Incidentally, as noted elsewhere, a better way of thinking about ourselves in the workplace is not as people who are paid for their labour – a crude contractual arrangement – but as people who choose to invest their labour in an enterprise.

The narrative of the modern workplace is undergirded by the meritocratic myth. No advantage is acknowledged, no tensions exist, no exploitation is recognised. And yet the deck is stacked against us. Some eager beavers soldier away, trying to progress their careers; occasionally they unfortunately end up leaving boot prints on the heads of those over whom they have clambered in order to move up a level. That reflects badly on a system that is grounded in the ideology of the rugged individual, often fetishized as “self-made”, rather than on the people seeking to develop their careers. But their actions reinforce these structures as opposed to challenge them, it important to remember.

Made worse by modern management…

It was James Burnham in The Managerial Revolution who observed how societies, regardless of their ideological orientation, had grown managerialised. Controversially, for someone coming out of the revolutionary socialist milieu, he argued that in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and across the so-called Liberal Democracies, there was one common theme, namely the development of layer upon layer of managers.

This was partly determined by the growth of large corporate entities and the emergence of the theory and practice of both Taylorism and Fordism that accompanied that expansion of industrial concerns. Importantly, the concentration of the workforce, which saw large numbers of employees thrown together in close quarter, meant that these large companies became more susceptible to the emergence of trade unions and a collective agenda for the workforce.

Hence, maintaining control of growing and alienated populations in both the factory and latterly the office (the latter premised on what Harry Braverman identified as the proletarianization of white collar work, a process that continues today in light of developments in respect to technological systems) necessitated the arrival of a large population of managers. And, with the emergence of industrial relations as a way of mediating between managerial imperatives and worker demands, suddenly there was a need for a Personnel Department, which has now morphed into the oppressively named Human Resources function.

The need for some sort of direction in a space wherein a group of people come together in order to do something effectively and collectively seems apparent. But there is no reason to think that such a responsibility should always fall to someone who carries the title of manager or leader. Instead, we need to think of management and leadership as spaces with porous boundaries into which anyone can step if the circumstances are right and they have the right thing to offer.

As management – a practice – has become the preserve of a defined group of people in a corporate context, those managers have become an oppressive force. And, as has been argued here and elsewhere on many occasions, as those managers drift up into the corporate stratosphere, rising further and further away from the place where the business of the business actually takes place, they become detached from the practicalities of that work and spend their time attending to epiphenomenal aspects of organisational life: the vision, the mission, the values, the strategy, to name the main elements of that rarefied space. At that point, they are viewed as “leaders” rather than “managers” – which begs the question, “What is that they are adding to the overall activity of the company?”

Out of the ruminations about these practices – unanchored by anything solid and practical in the business – comes the only actions open to these people: totalitarian interventions in the space of culture alongside the design and oversight of change and consultation processes. The latter adversely impacts the workforce dramatically, so the phony concern about health and well-being has to be managerially foregrounded.

Corporate life – it’s corporate, but it’s not living

Like any regime founded on power, managerialism is enmeshed in a discourse of power that sustains its predominance. Everything common place and taken for granted in the workplace – from the hour upon hour of tedious meetings through the endless spreadsheets circulated to collect a return in respect to data, from the cheerless communication via email, minutes, and dreary board papers to the uncomfortable staff appraisal (where someone you don’t really respect gives you feedback that you don’t recognise or rate) – arises out of the presence of management. We are not bored by work; we are bored witless by practices that arise out of managerialism.

The one constant that can found below the superficiality of modern managerialism is power; its modality shifts, but power remains unchanged. These days, management – too closely associated with the Taylorism of the past – has evolved to become what is called leadership. The followership implied by this term can be seen to efface the fundamental tension that persists in the workplace between – on one side – the business owners, shareholders, and the managers that serve them, and – on the other – the people who work for them.

Through the prevalence of corporate values and the notional commitment to staff involvement that can be perceived in so many organisations, there is an expectation that we will follow leaders. In the corporate context, we have no say as to who these leaders might be…but, on the basis of that organisational anointment, we are expected to show obeisance to them. If we can’t demonstrate at interview that we can recite their values and internalise them, we will not be appointed. These leaders never turn to their workforce and say, “Talk to me about the values that bring you to work in this organisation and encourage you to do the best you can possibly do in that role”.

Instead, we are required to more or less recite those values in the form of some sort of oath of allegiance, pledging that we will follow the leaders and adjust our behaviour to meet the corporate agenda: we will bring our whole self to work, act as a corporate citizen who is content to offer discretionary effort without reward beyond serving the corporate gods, attend to our resilience to best be able to ride the discomfort of the context in which we work, accept unquestioningly every change process and transformation programme and the idea that it’s for the greater good of the company.

Alongside these, we are expected to unquestioningly accept the ways of doing things that managerialism has built into corporate life because of its presence and its need to reproduce itself. For instance, we endure dreary meetings that squash any potential for candid conversation between people coming together as a group to get things done under the weight of agenda, minutes, mind-numbing reports, and the hidden script that is worked through by everyone in those rooms or on those platforms.

The other area where leaders like to demonstrate their purpose in an organisational setting is through engendering a climate of perma-change. So, as noted above, they constantly engage in reorganisation, knocking things down so as merely to demonstrate their so-called contribution to building things. The HR drones feed off this, of course, as it provides them with change projects to justify their presence (which, in so many instances, they proceed to make a complete pig’s ear of, to everyone’s cost). But the managerialist leaders also chase novelty, ceaselessly seeking out new ways of doing things…but not through engendering a business-wide conversation about innovation with everyone who works in the organisation. Instead, they prompt the IT folk to bring in new technological systems. These are meant to smooth off the work processes…but, most of the time, they simply introduce an intermediation that further dehumanises the workplace.

Management’s little helpers

Managerialism sustains itself in all of the ways that have been outlined above. These are all aspects of the apparatus that supports the discourse around the power that prevails in the workplace, what Michel Foucault referred to as the dispositif, an assemblage of accepted and unquestioned ideas alongside a raft of “common sense” practices (and material elements) that reinforce a particular way of being in a defined context.

But there is another important element of this power apparatus, which is the work undertaken under the general rubric of Organisation Development (OD). Managerialism demands a raft of things from every team and individual in the organisation; New Public Management in places like the NHS wears the label of efficiency but merely exists as a surveillant superstructure in terms of achievements against a range of targets. The jagged edges of these practices are disguised by looking to engage people in OD activity.

Much work in this domain owes more to the primary school classroom than it does to the factory floor or the office block. Many interventions in terms of OD can feel like a jamboree or a grindingly jolly school assembly. But underneath the check-ins and the icebreakers, the exercises and controlled thematic exchanges, the post-its and the flip charts, you can hear the impatient growl of managerialism all the time, like the voice of the troll tormenting the Bill Goats Gruff as they look to cross the bridge to get to what look to be greener pastures.

The term facilitator is a misnomer in most instances; that suggests that improvisation might occur and real conversations might take place. Instead, they are conductors, clear in their own minds well in advance as to what music will be played on the day and merely inviting the instrumentalists in the space to play their agreed parts as and when the score dictates. The picture below shows an interestingly named resource, which seems to suggest how tightly managed these notionally free-flowing places are – and how the conductors use their strategies and tactics to make us do what they need us to do to satisfy the requirements of those who commissioned them to do this work.

These, then, are sinister corporate spaces – so carefully over-designed and tightly constrained by the so-called facilitators – wherein people are tricked into thinking firstly that they have a voice and that secondly it is being heard. But this is merely an illusion. This is not an honest exchange among equals; it is a stage managed exercise designed to create the mere appearance that peoples voices matter. It is a sop to the workforce, an activity that means that management can say that they’re listening but where what is said is not being heard because it’s not being shared in a genuinely conversational context.

Anyone speaking candidly and with passion in these dire contexts is quickly Othered, demonstrating just how such activity is enmeshed in the power that prevails amongst people in the modern workplace. To pursue this argument a little further, normalcy is to turn up to the event; smile one’s way through the icebreaker; eat the junk food that people are plied with in such settings; play with the Lego or undertake some other prescribed practically-oriented activity with limited connection to the jobs we do and how we do them; write disparate passing thoughts on Post-Its and flipcharts, thereby disrupting what little dialogic flow actually exists; and come away with an output, a takeaway, or an action plan.

The Other will resist these absurdities – and find themselves labelled as (at best) a joker, perhaps as a maverick (a liminal position in corporate life), a rebel (never a good place to find yourself in the drab cultures of most organisations), or a troublemaker, who will find themselves often being “performance managed out of the organisation” on the basis of them not being sufficiently “on point” and failing to behave in the ways that the corporate values dictate. And there are myriad practices that fall under the rubric of OD that support this clumsy and inhuman type of categorisation, including numerous personality tests.

Meanwhile, while it is our day to day experiences of the climates and the cultures in which we work that batter our mental health and leave us feeling personally diminished, we then have to endure the corporate initiatives that notionally attend to our health and well being. James Davies (2022), in his powerful analysis as to how our current ways of living are creating a mental health crisis, is particularly incisive when looking at the workplace – how it makes us unwell and how psychology is now firmly part of the managerialist armoury.

Resistance is useful

Much modern managerialism works hard to make the fundamental nature of employment in our society disappear. Layer upon layer of things like corporate belonging, loyalty, connection, creativity, and satisfaction are drafted in to shroud the simple fact that we work for money…and, if we are blessed, we find a way of earning that money that is not too burdensome.

Once the details of pay are agreed, we move into the space of what Hilde Behrend back in 1957 referred to as the effort bargain. This is where the employee and the manager agree, formally but also informally, what work is done in return for that pay. At its most flexible and positive, the effort bargain is seen as an internal calculation by an employee as to what they are willing to do in return for their remuneration and how much of it they are content to undertake. This offers all of us a tiny space of resistance – although managerialism has inveigled (and asserts) itself in the relations that we have with others with whom we work. This is where the fetishized notion of the “team” becomes the omnipresent and fiercest manager of all.

The first thing I learned when I went back to college to study industrial relations after an undistinguished school career was that a strike is always a last resort and speaks volumes about how the workers experience the management and the workplace. It is the ultimate resistance, something that we should bear in mind as the press coverage of the current wave of industrial unrest seeks to demonise those withdrawing their labour.

But resistance to the futility of the current way in which our society equates work with paid employment can appear in all manner of ways. It is sometimes the most difficult thing to do – but every human agent has the innate capacity to say “No!” It is remarkable that so few of us do find our voices in face of corporate expectations and crude managerialism – but it underscores how power pulses through the relationships at work, notwithstanding the leadership blandishments about “empowerment”.

Humanity’s future

A lot of our thinking these days is built around the pre-eminence of the individual. Neo-Liberalism has convinced us that the person is paramount – and that every challenge and question is best dealt with at this most basic of levels. We have been given exclusive responsibility for our development and for our personal resilience; despite the importance of the “team” in terms of amplifying the effects of managerialism, our performance at work is still evaluated on an individual basis. This type of appraisal allows things like hierarchy and culture, context and resource, to conveniently blend into the shadows.

The image of the individual haunts us constantly in current discourse, not just in the workplace. The risible notion of the social media influencer (SMI), so beloved of people engaged in marketing and public relations, apotheosises largely undistinguished individuals who have little other discernible talent than the ability to talk a lot about themselves, push that message out to the widest possible audience, and generate a large number of followers. (The individuality of those in this latter group is never properly resolved, in respect to the social narrative that privileges personhood.)

It is perhaps not insignificant that the influencer-follower relationship mirrors very closely that of the corporate leader who – definitionally – has to transfix and drag along their followers. Years after Max Weber explored such matters so thoroughly and despite the myriad models of notionally “kinder” leadership, the role of the charismatic individual persists…and carries with it the somewhat fetid tang of totalitarian practices. The social media influencer speaks and people follow, contentedly assuming that subaltern role (unless motivated themselves to tap into their own charisma and capacity to forcefully express an opinion to join the SMI fray). Corporate leadership also seeks to elevate the individual to a point where those around are compelled to look up at them and follow them.

The individual, however, is important, as this is where agency resides. Specifically, it’s where the decision is made to combine with others so as to work together to achieve something. The individual’s choice to join a collective – a decision that needs to be thought of not as a single event but as one that is constantly under scrutiny, and which is regularly and mindfully refreshed – is a significant one, because it speaks directly to the deployment of power that the person faces…and actively challenges it.

The issues that we face as a human race face each and every one of us. But the solutions do not lie in the hands of one single person. Challenging the very fabric of the world that we have inadvertently built for ourselves requires a collective intelligence – and a coming together to generate the confidence to pull at the loose threads so as to allow the familiar to unravel before our eyes.

There is an existential element to this, of course: humankind as a global mass of producers and consumers is busily burning the world to a crisp. Gestural acts, such as throwing soup at artworks, are manifestations of the Neo-Liberal privileging of the individual and their creation of “spectacles” that transfix the masses and leave them all the more docile. And events such as COP 27 mirror this simulacrum of activity, which merely assuages the egos of those involved.

Alongside this, we need to find collective ways to disrupt the configurations of power that persist and reproduce themselves in the workplace. We have spent too long distanced from the human aspects of work in the world, dancing to the tune of some corporate leader instead of making our own music. But how do we do this?

We take the first step by connecting with others and encouraging open and honest dialogue with one another. We listen to what others say, give them the space and time to express themselves – and hear what it is they are saying without rushing in to stop them saying their piece – or using their comments as a platform on which to balance our own. We commit to working together, when we’re constantly bombarded by an ideology of individualism that actively disempowers the individual.

In this way, we may find ourselves edging from futility to fulfilment, a fulfilment that doesn’t arrive in a parcel from an out-of-town depot but which arises from the engagement of our minds and our hearts in working with others, critiquing the way things are, and collectively exploring ways of knowing and being differently.

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