Can we make work suck less?

I am having an unexpectedly slow start to work in 2022—unexpected because I thought I had projects lined up and now they’re either stalled or assuming different shapes than what I originally envisioned. This has left me with a lot of time (perhaps too much?) to binge TV series to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am now, and where I’d like to go, with respect to work.

Even during light-to-nonexistent work phases, I think about work a lot. For almost three decades, work was an ENORMOUS part of my identity, my daily life, etc. I’ve been utterly fascinated by all of the stories in the past year and a half about the Great Resignation, and I’ve always been an avid consumer of stories and content about organizational development, organizational culture, and organizational design. In every outside-the-home job I’ve ever had, I’ve gotten very invested in trying to make organizations better—better places to work, better at what they do, because in those days, I was spending so much time at work, it almost functioned as a second home. And who wants their home to be a shitshow?

In the consulting and freelance world I’m in now, the nature of one’s investment in a specific organization is different, of course. Even though I have far more flexibility with my time, and more control over the quality of my own output, I don’t have any influence or control over the work output once it gets into the hands of clients. Sometimes I have no influence or control over the work from the get-go! I have written many a piece that’s survived the development and editorial process almost intact with respect to the original intent and purpose. I’ve also written many a piece that people have ruthlessly ripped apart—which I think is part of the deal, actually, of being a writer, but I will confess that it stings more when the people who eviscerate your writing aren’t that well-equipped to generate a decent and compelling sentence on their own.

Anyway, amidst all of the work upheaval that’s going on, plus my own personal ups and downs, I keep on coming back to this question: does work itself inherently suck? And if work itself does suck, what circumstances make work suck less?

To the first question: I loved Looney Tunes cartoons when I was a kid, and I especially loved the ones directed by Chuck Jones, who I thought was a genius at animation and at finding particularly funny beats in the storyline. I remember watching him accept an award and during his acceptance speech, he was very humble about his success. He said, “I am just very lucky that I’ve always gotten paid to do what I love doing.”

That goal—to find something I love, and to get paid for doing it—seemed so straightforward when I was younger, and so much more complicated now, with hindsight and experience. I think it’s tough to distinguish between the actual work that I love doing, versus the experience of working on something I love. One is about the work itself, see? (The actual tasks and strategies you’re responsible for.) And one is about the thing you’re working for (the product you’re selling, the social change you’re seeking to effect, etc.).

An example of this dichotomy: my very first job post-college was in children’s book publishing. I loved children’s books (still do), and the publishing imprint I worked for had authors on their list who I considered to be near-deities. But the work itself was just awful. My job consisted of answering phones, sending copies of books to different places, and filing, so much filing. I wasn’t allowed any exposure to the editorial side of publishing. That’s how the model in publishing worked, at least back then: I was one of a bunch of overprivileged kids who could afford to work at these incredibly underpaid jobs. We were all desperate for an assistant editor slot to open up so we could escape the never-ending drudgery of our entry-level jobs.

When I moved on to the social sector, working for nonprofits and then foundations, the work itself got better, meaning, the work I was doing felt more directly connected to the actual things we were trying to achieve. In part, this is because I was moving up through the ranks and had less responsibility for the so-called grunt work. Don’t get me wrong—tedious work is a part of any job, even when you’re the Big Dog—but the more senior you get, the less likely it is that you are going to be asked to schedule a meeting for 30 people, or plan a goodbye party for someone you barely know. (After becoming a senior something or other, I remember showing up to a planning committee meeting for the annual holiday party—mostly because I love party planning—and the group of volunteers, mostly admin assistants, were horrified by my presence. It somehow violated the accepted social order of things.)

One thing I did learn: working for nonprofits and foundations, I loved the subject matter of my work. I came to develop lifelong passions for trying to make things better—for helping more people understand that our systems of healthcare and criminal justice and education and environmental regulation were kind of effed up, and that skilled communications and advocacy could make a whole lotta difference. But doing the work itself—that varied. Some days, work was horrible. Some days, exhilarating. Most days, it was just neutral.

So my conclusion on the first question—whether work inherently sucks—is that yes, some parts of work DO inevitably stink. I don’t know of a single person who finds every single part of their job to be wonderful. There are always going to be tedious, mind-numbing bits, and there will always be processes and interactions that make you facepalm in disbelief and frustration. But if there are parts of work that are inherently bad, I also believe that there are some things that inevitably make work better, and that individuals and organizations could potentially think about how to proactively create conditions for these things to exist in their work lives.

Here are the things that might improve work—for everyone:  

PROPORTIONALITY: I know many people who absolutely hate to write, and who were not at all prepared for the amount of writing they’d be required to do as part of their jobs. It is funny to me, how job descriptions consistently undersell the amount and variety of writing one has to do. For example, many management jobs will communicate that the job is about setting strategy, managing teams, reviewing budgets, etc. But it will not specify any job responsibility that has to do with writing. Newsflash: Writing performance reviews requires a HELLUVA lot of writing. So if you hate writing, you might want to look for the hidden writing tasks buried in any job description. Will you, for example, be writing the performance reviews of two employees? Or ten? See what I mean? You can see how proportionality makes a difference, when it comes to the quality of your work experience.

COLLEAGUE CONNECTION: I hesitated to put this on the list, mostly because this is the thing that’s suffered the most under remote working conditions. But without a doubt, the thing that has proven to make work so much better, for me and for others who I’ve discussed these topics with, is a team of close, caring, and highly respected colleagues.

Let’s unpack this a bit. I am definitely not the first person to claim that cohesive, well-functioning teams are important. Some years back, Google undertook a massive research project called Project Aristotle to learn about what made some teams more productive than others. I enjoy occasionally re-visiting the project and its outcomes because a) I take petty satisfaction in how the subject matter proved difficult for the mighty Google, known for its analytic capabilities, to crack; and b) I like how they essentially arrived at two common-sense conclusions, which is that teams were the most productive when everyone had equal opportunity to speak or contribute, and when everyone was closely attuned to each other’s social signals.

For the purposes of this piece, I am not so much interested in what makes teams more productive. I am, instead, interested in what can make work into happier experiences for people. And I think that teams of people that are set up for equitable contributions, where people can learn about and act upon their connections to each other, CAN HELP MAKE WORK SO MUCH BETTER.

Even in my consulting existence, when I am much less attached to an organization or to a consistent group of people, I have discovered how much this colleague connection really matters to my work satisfaction. For the past couple of years, I’ve worked with a team of independent consultants on a project that could occasionally be exhausting and stressful. But the team of people I worked with were all wonderful. We all respected each other’s intellect and abilities. We all put in a tremendous amount of effort into the work. When I was honestly stymied by something I had to do, I didn’t hesitate to ask the team for problem-solving support, which has always, BTW, been one of my failings, not asking for help. But more than that, I felt supported by them at levels that went well beyond the work itself. If I felt my resolve and productivity flagging during a particularly challenging phase of the project, I could always count on my colleagues’ sympathy, understanding, and constructive suggestions and that made the experience itself so much more rewarding.

If you don’t have this colleague connection already in your work life, how does one get it? On the organizational level, I think that senior leaders can do far more to create the conditions for close and connected teams. I do think the pandemic has had a terrible dampening effect on these endeavors, but senior leaders can encourage staff to find creative ways to connect and get together, like setting aside the first 15 minutes of a meeting for everyone to check in on personal and professional dimensions. With this team I liked so much, I sometimes used the few minutes of a Zoom meeting with those present to have quick chats about pop culture stuff I was following, like Bad Art Friend, the woman who found an abandoned apartment behind her bathroom mirror, or the latest season of the Great British Baking Show. And the resultant conversations were hilarious and wonderful. It lightened my mood considerably, even when we had knotty subjects to tackle on our meeting agenda.

For individuals, if you’re in job-seeking mode, I’d see if you could either meet the people you’d be working the most closely with ahead of time, or find out as much as you can about them, and what their roles are respective to yours. Factor it into the criteria of whether you truly want this job, or not. And if you are already in a job where you weren’t able to do advance reconnaissance on your colleagues, then I’d see if there was any way to open up space to get to know them better—align on things like your roles and responsibilities, yes, but also see if you can exchange tidbits of personal knowledge about each other that help you understand each other more deeply. Maybe make it part of the work itself to align on group norms, and how to be aware of people’s personal preferences when it comes to sharing and privacy.

RECOGNITION: There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about insane pay disparities, and terrible managers who ask employees to work themselves to death without reprieve or reward. The truth of the matter is, recognition has to come in many forms for employees to feel as if the work is worth it. Adequate compensation helps, certainly—generous and more equitably distributed compensation is even better. But equally important, I think, is the feeling that one’s efforts are seen, understood, and appreciated. When someone sees my work, and appreciates my work, I feel absurdly happy. I inherently mistrust someone who gives me lavish praise without knowing me at all, and my favorite mentors and bosses were particularly gifted at communicating that they recognized the value of what I did and how much effort I put into it.

On an individual level, I think that many people could probably put more effort into recognizing the work of their colleagues (if they appreciate it, that is). They can put more effort into contributing to their colleagues’ performance reviews; they can take the time to share something they appreciated about their colleague directly with that person. Of course, it’s terribly easy to get overwhelmed by one’s own life and forget to do this sort of thing, but it really makes a difference when you can find a way to do it with specificity and sincerity. And I am sure it not only makes their work experience happier, but it might make yours happier, too.

I’ll end it there—but I want to say, deriving satisfaction and happiness from the work experience is an elusive goal, at times, and for those of you who feel you’ve never experienced a single iota of work satisfaction, I am very, very sad for you. I want you to please keep trying. It is possible, if: you know yourself well enough to know what switches your work engine on, and if you can figure out how to either find or help to create those conditions for yourself and others.