Slow Work

On February 17, 2011, in From The Vault, HRExaminer, John Sumser, More2Know, by John Sumser


After all of the fluff about passion and employee engagement, this emerging trend focuses on the value to be found in a good day’s work.

There’s an emerging movement. It’s something like the slow food movement as it applies to work. Slow food is an antidote to fast food. It’s a part of the Slow Movement which features websites like Slow Planet. Slow is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace; it’s about working, playing and living better by doing everything at the right speed.

There is a subset of the Slow Movement called Slow Work. It’s like that but not quite.

This thing I’m seeing is about finding dignity in work. It’s about working for the sake of work itself. It’s not about fast bucks and fancy positions. It’s about normal jobs and the fact that they are our new assets. For many, a job is the only remaining asset. Some of us aren’t even that lucky.

After all of the fluff about passion and employee engagement, this emerging trend focuses on the value to be found in a good day’s work. Somehow, in our quest for wealth and status, we lost sight of the fact that even a menial job can be a great job. It’s not really in the hands of the employer, it’s in the hands of the person working.

How you feel about your job and what you get out of it are completely up to you.

As I write, I’m cringing. This sort of idea is so easy to co-opt that I imagine salivating politicos. On one side, the anti-union anti-EFCA forces will hear the word dignity and immediately think soft and “pro-union”. At the other extreme, the PC police and the “cult of nice” will hearthe sweet overtones of dogs sleeping under the desk .

This is not something to be organized by HR. This is not a proposal for a new program. Nor is it a second part of calisthenics while chanting the company slogan. It’s a recognition of a growing mood in the country, maybe the world.

Our problems are not going to be fixed by the things that caused them. Better banking is not how you solve a crisis of confidence in the banks. More credit won’t help a system paralyzed by having used too much credit. Bailing out the perpetrators won’t help us learn the lesson.

Things are so convoluted that nobody knows what anything is worth. Good friend Hank Stringer suggests that we should simply eradicate all debt one day in April. That way, we could start by figuring out which things are important, which have value and which can be jettisoned.

I call it “Just Work”. As in, it’s not just work, it’s just work. (Lifted from Thanksgiving Coffee’s slogan, “It’s not just a cup of coffee, it’s a just cup of coffee.”). Can you hear the overtones of justice, of righteousness without the indignation?

Work is one of those almost sacred (well, maybe it is all the way sacred) things. Doing work for the sake of doing work, not for passion, prestige or performance bonuses is how we built our country the first time. I’m seeing a return to those simpler values. Here are four data points :

  1. Mike Rowe is the host of an interesting show called “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel. (I don’t have a TV so this is pure speculation). This talk, given at the TED conference, features Rowe talking about a particular job: herding sheep. The video traverses content that might make you uncomfortable if you’re squeamish. But, it’s worth the story to get to the message. The moral is that the worst imaginable jobs are often the source of pride. They are places where real wisdom is created. This was my first taste of “Just Work”
  2. Peter Weddle, our industry’s own Matterhorn expedition leader, continues to add to his website for his book, “Work Strong“. Full of the obvious Lance Armstrong overtones, “Work Strong helps you tap both sides of your brain in learning how to build a healthy career.” In Weddle’s view, a career is not a fantasy of celebrity and enormous wealth. It’s a way to have balance throughout your life.
  3. The Jobing Foundation, in partnership with the various elements of SHRM and about area employers is giving Phoenix eighth graders a chance to experience work in a hands-on way. Experience Your Future attempts to give young people the opportunity to actually see what people do for a living. The idea is to make planning and dreaming a little more tangible.
  4. Time Magazine (remember magazines?) says that Jobs Are the New Assets. “All the while, we blissfully ignored a little concept economists like to call human capital. The cognition you’ve got up there in your head — your education and training — it’s worth something. We can extract value not just from our homes and our portfolios but from ourselves as well. The mechanism for extracting that value? A job. “The income you earn from working is like the stream of interest income you might get from owning a bond,” says Johns Hopkins University economist Christopher Carroll. “Think of it as a dividend on your human wealth.”

And there you have it. Just Jobs, the movement to celebrate the power of having a regular job is taking shape. My bet is that when we look back, the renewal won’t really come from big expensive programs. It will come from people going to work and working hard each day.

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