There is a fundamental flaw in the way that many employers view labour: as an input cost that, like all other costs, must be minimised in the pursuit of efficiency. This is an attitude advanced by shareholders who are often far removed from the coal-face and those toiling there, and further promoted by financially-oriented consultants.
Apart from the fact that this attitude is disrespectful, it often leads to a predictably antagonistic attitude from employees. The economist EF Schumacher sarcastically puts it as follows in Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered: “Ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.”
Even with rapid advances in AI, this is hardly going to advance from the ridiculous to the sublime anytime soon. In fact, the most positive aspect of AI is that it will replace repetitive, meaningless, boring, stultifying work that undermines human dignity, with more fulfilling work.
Of course, to benefit from mundane work being replaced by more rewarding work, the employee must be capable and this capability will require investment, which means that labour should not be regarded as a cost, but rather as an investment. While this should be self-evident, the antagonistic attitude between management and labour, especially in a country like South Africa where the divide is accentuated by social structures, is proof that the numbers trump humanity.
What should also be self-evident to management is that they themselves are also employees, as is nicely pointed out by Bob Dylan in Gotta Serve Somebody. Google the lyrics, or even better listen to Eric Bibb, Maria Muldaur and Rory Block’s cover version, and while doing so ask yourself just how high up the ladder does AI impact?
Not that efficiency shouldn’t be pursued; it must – there is far too much waste in the world. One way of doing so is by inspiring productivity, with the starting point being recognising that work is an essential part of life, not only because it provides the means to a sustainable lifestyle, but because it is often an essential part of a worthwhile life.
The value of work can be described in three words: competence; autonomy; connection. Self-esteem requires one to feel competent, to feel that one is using and developing one’s faculties, that one is producing that which is required by others, and for which they will in return be respectful. This recognition provides autonomy: that one is valued as an individual, not degraded to the level of a number. And work is a social activity, providing gregarious integration and connection, a natural human condition.
The natural human condition is a desire to work and that makes it unnatural to treat people as a cost rather than investing in their natural inclination.
There is this myth called work-life balance, with life defined by leisure and comfort (equating work with discomfort!) – a myth because it is impossible to divide the two: one cannot leave work behind when you go home or leave the joys and travails of home behind when you go to work. Imagine someone working at home, as more and more people are doing: does the one step from the study to the lounge mean an instantaneous change from, say, an architect to a dad playing LEGO?
Invest in competence by training, celebrate autonomy through recognition and create connectivity by promoting a shared purpose. The result will be quality, efficiently produced instead of the shoddy workmanship that results from a misdirected obsession with numbers.
A good place to start is to recognise that you are all employees, one team with fantastic potential to achieve an owned purpose.
Johnny Johnson is a brand and communications strategist at TowerStone Leadership Centre, whose vision focuses on empowering leaders to build a values-driven culture for sustainable success. His role is to define their clients’ brand promise and find ways of helping leaders engage with employees in such a way that they are committed brand ambassadors.