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Let's talk about work ...

minn Camille POIRAUD
Lingwa: EN
Document available also in: FR

- I suggest we talk about work today.

- Why not? But what is there to say?

- OK, how would you define work?

- Well, work is having a job.

- Just that?

- No, it's also a profession ...

- Yes, and what else?

- Aha!  So you want to look clever by getting into the meaning of things?  Hard work?

- Not at all! To be honest, hard work doesn't bother me ...

- All the same, that's what we mean by work.

- Yes, I know, but you're forgetting the pleasure ... How do you understand these expressions?

·         I've found work!

·         How will this work out? 

- Don't you feel you're making fun of things?

·         A woman's work is never done.

·         I like this lace: it's such delicate handiwork.

·         What beautiful workmanship!

·         Tomorrow's a holiday: no work!

- Do they all mean the same thing?

- No, of course not ...

- We are still using the word 'work', but the differences are significant. There are several meanings: job, profession, activity, way of behaving, achievement ... and yet often 'work' is just thought of as a job, or a place of work.

- Why?

- This narrowing down of 'work' to employment lets us ignore the relationship we have with our daily activity. Work mobilises us. We think of it at night when it's not going well ... sometimes it even makes us ill ... but at other times we enjoy it, or take pleasure or pride in it.

- Don't you think it's important to remember that work has many different meanings?

- Yes, but I wonder why we forget about this other dimension so often ...

- We can make a hypothesis: from the employment angle, work allows measurements, statistics, a rational order which develops without it being necessary for the people who do the work to be interested. This sidelining of the individual, linked to the abstraction of statistics, leads to a certain dehumanisation of work, insofar as those who are involved with it just disappear. Work becomes impersonal, just the thing which facilitates the organisation, and makes it easier to forget that those who are involved are not only 'human resources' who count, add up or subtract, but people who put part of themselves into it, to do what they have to do as well as possible.

- So are you saying it de-personalises them? So when we talk about hard work we're talking about people?

- No, you see, when we talk about hard work, very often we ignore people's vulnerability. We think that it is the people who are delicate, whereas very often, to use the occupational psychologist Yves Clot's expression, it’s the work which is sick!

- It's true that sometimes at work, things don't go well ...

- So is it the people or the work who are not well?

- Um - I would say that ... what with changing procedures, the pace speeding up, customers who are always wanting more ... at the end of the day, it's true that it's more often the work ... um ... the job which causes problems than the people themselves.

- However you often tell me that your workmates really want to do well.

- Well, yes, people are trying, they're doing their best, but you know ... it's not always easy.

- Can you give me an example?

- There are a lot ...  well, take reception the other day, for example ... you know we have more and more procedures to follow, but at the same time our targets are still the same. So you often have people in reception who are asking you for information, but who don't understand what we're telling them, so it takes longer and longer; and if it takes too much time ... then you see the prompt, which goes orange, then red, and flashes... That means that you're out of time, and you have to stop speaking to this customer and take on another one...

- Well?

- So either you stop; or else you do what I do, and say to yourself it's just too bad about the figures and the targets, but at least the customer will have understood ... I don't want to cut back, that's not why I do this job ...

- You've just said two important things. First of all that you have to make a choice: keep talking to the customer to answer his question; or else meet the targets you've been set. That’s a choice: you say that you don't care about the figures, but I don't imagine it's all that easy to do.

- Yes, because of course ... the bonuses ... It's not so bad for me because I've been there for a while, but for the younger ones it's much more difficult.

- You make these choices on the basis of a standard, or a procedure, which you decide whether or not to comply with; in other words whether you'll break the rules.

- Exactly.

- So, to carry on, if you want to respond to the customer properly, you have to decide whether to break the rule, not to do the wrong thing, as that would normally be with a 'transgression', but to do the right thing!

- Well, yes, that's certainly doing the right thing so far as the customer is concerned ...

- It's a difficult choice: either you do the right thing for the company by following the procedures, but don't satisfy the customer, or else you satisfy the customer but don't follow the procedure, and probably put yourself in the wrong ...

- I certainly do take risks.

- From what you're telling me, I would say that working is all about making choices and taking risks.

- Um - yeah ...

- You take risks because you don't follow the procedures, so that you can do the right thing.

- OK

- If it all goes well, the customer is happy and so are you ... but what if the customer is still not happy, in spite of all your efforts and the risks you take, and complains? Who's in the wrong? It's you! You haven't followed the procedures!

- Yes, that's right ... but I still can't get my head round doing my work badly, just to avoid that risk.

- You're pretty sure of yourself! Actually, that's the second point I wanted to make to you: you put yourself into your work; I mean you put your own values into it, and it's not easy to agree to mess about with your values.

- That's right!

- Of course, we hold on to our values, which often come from our families, or our cultural or social inheritance... But here's another question: if your colleague has values which are completely different from yours, how do you work that out? If you each behave the way you think you should.  Who's wrong and who's right?

- Right, yes, I do admit that ... er, yes, it can happen that we don't all see things in the same way.

- So - yes ... so work is not just a way of behaving as an individual; work also involves groups, who work things out between themselves.   That means that work involves cooperation; but cooperation is not just a word, it means discussing and sharing what we do at work.

- But we don't have time for that.

- Exactly! So you're only doing half of your work! If you don't take time to discuss and share your views on the problems you come across at reception; if you all break the rules in different ways, each of you thinking your way is best, then you're only doing half of the work! It's work half done!

- So what's the other half, then?

- The other half: it's getting together to think about the way you work; trying to see if other ways of behaving could help to change your procedures; all of you thinking together about not taking too many risks ... it's about giving yourselves time to think about what you do, so that you are not the only one taking chances ...

- Yes, it would be good, but we're a long way away from that ...

- And only yesterday you told me that in your firm, what bothered you most was not the workload but the lack of recognition from your boss? 

- Yes, there's never a word to tell us we're doing well ...  

- OK, that's bad, but what do you and your colleagues actually say about what you're doing? Are you going to tell your boss that you break the rules to do the right thing?

- You've got to be joking!

- Well, look, if none of you give yourselves the time to talk about work, I mean to talk about what you actually do for the customers, then the real work, the part that makes things go well, the part that makes you break the rules to do the right thing; the work which shows how good you are, stays right out of sight.  It can't be recognised ...

- Well, it's true that the boss doesn't really know what's going on. If he knew, he'd probably be amazed ...

- So how do you expect him to recognise your work if he doesn't know about it?  How can he appreciate your skill if he can't see what you are doing, if you hide it ... he's only looking at the figures, but he ought to see what's going on behind the figures too.

- Gah! ... well, OK, but I certainly don't want to take the risk of telling him ...

- Right! But the point is that it's not just you alone; the whole team has to talk about what you're doing, to see that it's important to let the boss know ...

- It's true, that could help ... we have time to talk in the canteen, or in our breaks; but actually the time we speak the most is when we're having training.

- That's why I'm telling you that you're only doing half of your work.  Working isn't just doing it, it's also thinking about what you're doing so that you understand what you're doing, then change it, alter it, make it better ...

- We can do that in training, but, well, we don't go there all that often.

- So there's another question: about skills, and training. It's late, and I can't stay any longer; we can go on with this the next time.

- OK, see you next week ... I'm going to give this some thought ...

 Anne-Lise ULMANN is a lecturer at CNAM and an EPALE thematic expert

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  • Thierry Ardouin's picture

    Merci à Anne Lise Ulmann pur cette chronique qui montre les termes et situations en jeu dans et au travail.

    En continuité de la réflexion sur le travail et ses différentes dimensions, nous pouvons signaler le dernier numéro de la revue Sciences Humaines, n°286, novembre-décembre 2016 avec un dossier sur les évolutions et une réflexion sur les différentes formes de travail, intitulé "Comment allons nous travailler demain ?"

    Bonne lecture