Worker, Work, and Working

Worker, Work, and Working

Work is related to the worker’s consciousness since ages. Systematic, purposeful, and organized approach to work is specific and unique human activity. In fact, work is a matter of a deep concern for both the management and the workers. It is important since it is central to the organizational performance.

All the economic and social theories made earlier have focus on the work, since it is the means of production needed by the society. Though the work has been central to the human activity all along, organized study of work has not begun till the later period of the 19th century. Frederick W. Taylor was the first person in the recorded history who considered that the work deserves systematic observation and study. Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ which is the science of work, laid only the first foundations.

In the scientific management of work, the worker is given less attention, and the knowledge worker receives even lesser attention. There has been plenty of loud thinking, but serious, systematic study has been confined only to a few aspects of working. There has been ‘industrial physiology, dealing with the relationship of such things as lighting, tool and machine speeds, design of the work place, and so on, to the human being who is the worker. To this effect, the fundamental work was done in the early years of 20th century, such as the fatigue and vision studies. Then, there has been ‘ industrial psychology’ which focuses on the aptitudes, that is, the relationship between the demands of specific manual work and the physical skill, mechanical coordination, and reactions of individual workers. Finally, there has been development with respect to human relations, which is, the study of the relationship between people working together, though in human relations work itself, that is, the task to be done, received almost no attention.

The totality of ‘worker’ and ‘working’,  the totality of task and job, perception and personality, work community, rewards and power relations, has received practically no attention. It is rather a complex area which has never been truly understood. The management cannot wait till the experts and researchers have done their work. Nor can the workers. The management has to manage the present. It has to put to work the little what is known, though inadequate. It has to try to make work productive and the worker achieving.

Hence, it is necessary to put down what is known about the work and the working. The most important thing which is known is that work and working are fundamentally different phenomena. The worker does, indeed, the work, while the work is always done by a worker who is working. But what is needed to make work productive is quite different from what is needed to make the worker achieving. Hence, the worker is to be managed according to both the logic of the work and the dynamics of working. Personal satisfaction of the worker without productive work is failure, but then so is the productive work which destroys the worker’s achievement. Neither is, in effect, tenable for very long.

Work is impersonal and objective. It is a task. It is a ‘something’. Hence, the rules which apply to objects are also applicable to the work. Work has logic. It requires analysis, synthesis, and control. As with every phenomenon of the objective universe, the first step toward understanding work is to analyze it. This, as Taylor realized a century ago, means identifying the basic operations, analyzing each of them, and arranging them in logical, balanced, and rational sequence.

Though Taylor worked on manual operations, yet his analysis applies just as well to mental and even to totally intangible work. The ‘outline’ which a promising writer is being told to work out, before he starts to write, is in effect scientific management. The most advanced, most perfect illustration of scientific management has not been developed by industrial engineers even during the last hundred years. It is the alphabet, which enables all words in a language to be written with a very small number of repetitive and simple symbols. But then work has to be synthesized again. It has to be put together into a process. This is true for the individual job. It is, above all, true for the work of a group, that is, for a work process. Then, the principles of production is needed which enables the people to know how to put together individual operations into individual jobs, and individual jobs into ‘production’.

Gantt, who was Taylor’s fellow pioneers, saw this clearly. The Gantt chart, in which the steps necessary to obtain a final work result are worked out by projecting backward, step by step from end result to actions, their timing and their sequence. Gantt chart, though developed in early 20th century, is still the one tool which identifies the process needed to accomplish a task. The more recent advances as PERT chart, critical path analysis, and network analysis are elaborations and extensions of Gantt’s work.

But the Gantt chart expresses very little about the logic which is appropriate to the given kinds of processes. It is, so to speak, the multiplication table of work design. It does not even say when to multiply, let alone what the purpose of the calculation is. Finally, work, precisely since it is a process rather than an individual operation, requires a built-in control. It requires a feedback mechanism which both senses unexpected deviations and with them the need to change the process, and maintains the process at the level needed to obtain the desired results.

The three elements, (i) analysis, (ii) synthesis into a process of production, and (iii) feedback control, are particularly important in knowledge work. For knowledge work, by definition, does not result in a product. It results in a contribution of knowledge to somebody else. The output of the knowledge worker always becomes somebody else’s input. Hence, it is not self-evident in knowledge work whether the work has results or not. This can be seen only by projecting backward from the needed end results. At the same time, knowledge work, being intangible, is not controlled by its own progress. People do not know the sequence of knowledge work in the way they know the sequence of manual operations. Hence, the knowledge work requires far better design, precisely since it cannot be designed for the worker. It can be designed only by the worker.

Five dimensions of working

Working is the activity performed by the worker. It is a human being’s activity and an essential part of his humanity. It does not have logic. It has dynamics and dimensions. Working has a minimum of five dimensions. These are shown in Fig 1 and include (i) machine design and human design, (ii) work as curse and blessing, (iii) work as social and community bond, (iv) the economic dimension, and (v) the power dimension of working. In all of them the worker has to be achieving so that he is productive.


Fig 1 Five dimensions of working

Machine design and human design – It is the first dimension which is a physiological dimension. The worker is a human being and not a machine. Hence he does not work like a machine. Machines work best if they do only one task, if they do it repetitively, and if they do the simplest possible task. Complex tasks are done best as a step-by-step series of simple tasks in which the work shifts from machine to machine, either by moving the work itself physicality, as on the assembly line, or, as in modern computer-controlled machine tools, by bringing machines and tools in prearranged sequence to the work, with the tool changing with each step of the process. Machines work best if run at the same speed, the same rhythm, and with a minimum of moving parts.

The worker, being human being, is engineered quite differently. For any one task and any one operation, he is ill-suited. He lacks strength. He lacks stamina. He gets fatigued. Altogether he is a very poorly designed machine tool. However, the worker excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action. He works best if the entire human being, muscles, senses, and mind, is engaged by the work. If confined to an individual motion or operation, the worker tires fast. This fatigue is not just boredom, which is psychological.  It is genuine physiological fatigue as well. Lactic acid builds up in the muscles, visual acuity goes down, and reaction speed slows and becomes erratic.

The worker, being human being, works best at a configuration of operations rather than at a single operation. But also, and this may be even more important, he is singularly ill-equipped to work at an unvarying speed and a standard rhythm. He works best if capable of varying both speed and rhythm fairly frequently.

There is no ‘one right’ speed and no ‘one right’ rhythm for workers. Speed, rhythm, and attention span vary greatly among individual workers. Different studies strongly indicate that patterns of speed, rhythm, and attention span are as individual as are fingerprints, and vary fully as much. Each individual worker, in other words, has his own pattern of speeds and his own need to vary speeds. He has his own pattern of rhythms, and he has his own pattern of attention spans. Nothing, which is now known, creates as much fatigue, as much resistance, as much anger, and as much resentment, as the imposition of an unfamiliar speed, an unfamiliar rhythm, and an unfamiliar attention span, and above all, the imposition of one unvarying and uniform pattern of speed, rhythm, and attention span. That is unfamiliar and physiologically offensive to every worker. It results speedily in a buildup of toxic wastes in muscle, brain, and bloodstream, in the release of stress hormones, and in changes in the tension throughout the nervous system. To be productive the individual worker has to have control, to a substantial extent, over the speed, rhythm, and attention spans with which he is working. He has to have substantial control over learning speed, learning rhythm, and learning attention span.

Hence, while work is best laid out as uniform, working is best organized with a considerable degree of diversity. Working requires latitude to change speed, rhythm, and attention span fairly often. It requires fairly frequent changes in operating routines as well. What is good industrial engineering for work is exceedingly poor human engineering for the worker.

Work as curse and blessing – The second dimension of worker at work is psychological. Work, as is known, is both a burden and a need, both a curse and a blessing. It does not matter whether this is inherited or culturally conditioned. A human being is always conditioned to work. Work is fundamental to a person. Unemployment creates severe psychological disturbances, not because of economic deprivation, but primarily because it undermines self-respect. Work is an extension of personality. It is achievement. It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself, measures his worth, and his humanity.

‘Lazing’ is easy, but ‘leisure’ is difficult. The peculiar characteristic of the work ethic is not that it glorifies and sanctifies work. It preaches that all the types of work are contribution and equally deserve respect. This is a deliberate break with the old belief that certain categories of people are to be freed from manual work to have time for higher work, for learning, for statecraft, for civic duties, and for military service. As a result, in older belief, manual work belonged to certain classes of people while the soldiers’ and knowledge work was pertaining to the noble class of people.

However, the commercial and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries brought a sharp step-up in the hours worked by man. In large measure, this reflected a sizable improvement in living conditions and above all, in nutrition, which greatly increased the physical energy available for work and a man was able to do far more work in the course of a year.  The great increase in working in these centuries also represented a shift in values. Economic rewards became more meaningful—mostly, perhaps, because economic satisfactions became more generally available. Availability of things had improved and people also needed higher purchasing power for satisfying their needs.

The rejection of the work ethic, therefore, does not represent pleasure-seeking. In part, it represents a reaction against several decades of overworking, and a correcting of the balance. In larger part, it may, however, signify a return to earlier work concepts which relate certain kinds of work to the nobility or to baseness of the person. What lends support to this hypothesis is the strong, positive value which the educated young people, who supposedly reject the work ethic, give to the work of teacher and artist. Teaching and art, however, are far more demanding taskmasters than operating machines or selling products.

The workless society of the futurist utopia indeed may be ahead. If it comes, it is, however, going to produce a major personality crisis for most people. It is perhaps fortunate that so far there is not the slightest fact to support the prediction of the imminent demise of work. So far the task is still to make work serve the psychological need of man.

Work as social and community bond – Work is social bond as well as community bond. In the society of employees, it becomes primary access to society and community. It largely determines status. For a man to say that he is a researcher, or he is an operator, is a meaningful statement about himself, his position in society, and his role in the community.

Perhaps more important, work, since very earlier time, has been the means to satisfy man’s need for belonging to a group and for a meaningful relationship to others of his kind. When it is being said that the man is a social animal, then it is said since the man needs work to satisfy his need for the community. To be sure, few people are determined in their social and community functions solely by and through the work group to which they belong. For most people, work provides much of his companionship, group identification, and social bond. It is the one bond outside of his own narrow family and often more important than the family. This is the experience of many organizations. For loyal workers, the work place becomes their community, their social club, their means of escaping loneliness.

The people, who leave an organization, do not miss the work which they were doing, but miss the organization, miss their colleagues and friends. Seldom, they want to know, how the organization is doing but want to know, what the people do with whom they have worked, where they are, and how they are coming along. They are no longer interested in the annual report or volume of production, or organizational turnover, but in the gossip since they miss even the people they did not like. This is since, the work bond has greater strength and has its singular advantage compared to all other bonds of community. It is not based on personal likes or dislikes. It can function without making emotional demands.

A man can work very well with someone whom he never sees away from the job, and for whom he feels neither friendship nor warmth nor liking. He can even function well in a work relationship with someone whom he cordially dislikes but if only he respects the other man’s workmanship. But the worker can also be a close friend with whom he spends as many hours away from work as possible, with whom he goes for picnic or fishing, spends his vacation, spends his evenings, and shares much of his life. The work relationship has an objective, outside focus, the work itself. It does make possible strong social and community bonds which are as personal or as impersonal as one desire.

This can explain why, throughout man’s history, and above all, among primitive peoples, work groups have always been sexually differentiated. Men work together and women work together. But we rarely hear, either in history or in cultural anthropology, of work groups of mixed sex. Men work outside the houses such as in fields, and women do household works. Rarely same work has been done by sexually mixed groups.

The economic dimension – Work is a required for living. It has an economic component the moment a society adopts even the most basic division of labour. The moment people cease to be self-sufficient and begin to exchange the fruits of their labour, work creates an economic connection, but also an economic conflict. There is no resolution to this conflict. One has to live with it. Work is a living for the worker. It is the foundation of his economic existence.

But work also produces the capital for the economy. It produces the means by which the economy continues itself, provides for the risks of economic activity and the resources for the future, especially the resources needed to create tomorrow’s jobs and with them the livelihood for tomorrow’s workers.

There is need in any economy for a wage fund and for a capital fund. But the capital fund is in direct competition with the workers’ need for a livelihood here and now. Socialism preaches to deny the need for a capital fund. The great appeal of socialism to the working man is precisely that it presents capital accumulation as exploitation and as unnecessary. The appeal of socialism is its prediction that the capital fund disappears once the workers own the means of production. This is, however, seen as a total misunderstanding, since all social economies have put the capital fund into the centre of its economic planning. In other words, they all have realized that profit is not a result of power, let alone exploitation, but objective necessity.

The classical economists argue that there is no conflict between the demands of the capital fund, that is, the demands for a surplus, and the demands of the wage fund. Their argument is that, in the long run, these two harmonize. The worker needs the capital fund fully as much as he needs the wage fund. He needs, more than anyone else, to be protected against the risks of uncertainty. He, more than anyone else, needs the jobs of tomorrow.

The rapid improvement in wages and living standards of the worker has in large measure been the result of steadily increasing capital investment, that is, the capital fund. But here ‘the worker’ is a concept. The beneficiary of the capital fund is rarely the same worker who has made the contribution to the fund. The capital accumulated in one industry, can go to finance a new industry, rather than to create new jobs in the same industry. Also, the capital fund creates jobs and incomes of tomorrow, whereas the contribution to it has to be made today.

There is, in addition, the tremendous problem of comparative gains and sacrifices among different kinds of workers. It is probably true, as labour economists argue that trade-union activities do not, and cannot, much influence the total level of real wages in an economy. It is often that one group of workers can and do obtain sizable wage advantages at the cost of other groups of workers. In other words, it is true that there is no ultimate conflict between wage fund and capital fund but this is largely irrelevant for the individual. For him there is a real and immediate conflict.

There is an even more fundamental conflict between wage as living and wage as cost. As living, wage requires to be predictable, continuous, and adequate to meet the expenditures of the family, its aspirations, and its position in society and community. As cost, wage requires to be appropriate to the productivity of a given employment or industry. It is to be flexible and to adjust easily to even minor changes in supply and demand in the market. It is to make a product or service competitive. It is determined, in the last result, by the consumer, without regard to the needs or expectations of the worker. Again, here is conflict which cannot easily be resolved and can at best be moderated. No society, no matter how designed, has been able to eliminate these conflicts.

Worker ownership has been the alternative to both capitalism, that is, ownership by the providers of capital, and nationalization, that is, ownership by the government. It has a long, though not a very distinguished, history. It is being proposed seriously very often. It may be highly desirable that workers have a financial stake in the organization. But wherever tried, it has worked only as long as the organization is doing well. It works only in highly profitable organizations. And so do all the variants of workers’ participation in profits. As soon as organizational profits drop, worker ownership no longer resolves the conflict between wage as living and wage as cost, or that between the wage fund and the capital fund.

A financial stake in the organization is to always remain a secondary interest to the worker compared to his job. Even in the most prosperous organization, profit, that is, the contribution to the capital fund is never more than a small fraction of wages. However, it varies on the type of organization, that is, whether it is a manufacturing organization, service organization or any other type of organization. Profits, at their richest, can, therefore, rarely contribute more than a very small additional bonus. It is welcome but not fundamental.

It is also highly debatable whether worker ownership is in the worker’s own financial interest. No organization can remain profitable forever. And if the worker then, as in the typical worker-ownership plan, is dependent for his future, e.g., for his retirement benefits, on investment in the organization he works for, he is exceedingly vulnerable. The worker should no more than any other investor have all his financial eggs in one basket. In this respect, the approach is required to be as adopted for the development of a pension fund which invests broadly, and typically does not invest at all in the organization which employs the future beneficiaries. This approach is financially far sounder and far more in the worker’s own financial interest than worker ownership in the organization he works for.

From a theoretical point of view, the developments in some of the countries seem to represent the optimal approach to the resolution of these conflicts. The employees of organizations in these countries are gradually becoming the true ‘owners’ through their pension funds and mutual funds, which have become the dominant investors in the country’s economy. By now these institutional investors, i.e., the trustees for the employee and his savings, control, in effect, the large publicly owned corporations. In other words, these countries have socialized ownership without nationalizing it. Yet this has by no means resolved, or even lessened, the conflict between wage fund and capital fund and between wage as living and wage as cost.

It helps if people learn to think and speak of the costs of capital and of the costs of the future rather than of profit. But it only helps. It does not make the conflicts go away. The conflict remains, whether the organization operates in a market economy or in a government-run one, whether it is privately owned, government-owned, or plant community-owned.

The Power dimension of working – There is always a power relationship understood in working within a group, and especially in working within an organization.

A farmer who tills his own land is required to impose on himself a very strict discipline. What he wants to do is not very relevant, if farming is to be done. But the forces to which he is subordinated are impersonal. They are wind and weather, season and rain, or the impersonal forces of a market. But in any organization, no matter how small, there has to be a personal authority. The organization members are subordinated to an alien will.

The imposition of the clock on a man’s life which forces him to come to work at a given hour may appear a small exercise of power, and one that affects everybody equally. But it came as a tremendous shock to pre-industrial people. In an organization, jobs are to be designed, structured, and assigned. Work is to be done on schedule and in a prearranged arrangement. People are either promoted or not promoted. In short, authority has to be exercised by someone.

Anarchists are right in their assertion that ‘organization is alienation’. Modern organization theorists who hope for organization without alienation are idealists (though many of their concrete proposals for ‘participation’ are highly constructive and needed). Modern society is an employee society and will remain one. This means power relationships affect everyone directly and in his capacity as a worker. Authority is an essential dimension of work. It has little or nothing to do with ownership of the means of production, democracy at the work place, worker representation at the board of directors, or any other way of structuring the ‘system’. It is inherent in the fact of organization.

The power dimension of economics

The power dimension of economigs is sometimes called as the sixth dimension of working. It reflects a need for authority with respect to economic shares. Power and economics are inseparably tied together in the modern organization. Apportioning the economic rewards to the members of the organization requires a central organ of authority with power of decision.

It is the fundamental fact that the modern organization is an organ of society, existing to provide satisfactions outside of it. Hence, it requires obtaining its revenue from the outside such as from a customer in the marketplace. At the same time, the contribution of the individual member of the organization cannot be directly related to the revenue. It is impossible to say, even approximately, how much of the sales of the organization an individual employee contributes. All one can say is that everyone’s contribution is, in theory, indispensable, although not everyone’s contribution enters into every single product or performance, nor is everyone’s contribution in any way equal in importance, skill, or difficulty. Hence, an authority is needed which divides the revenue available among the members. The organization itself is necessarily a redistributive system. Where the contributions are simple, similar, and few in numbers, redistribution on the basis of complete equality is possible.

The simple fact that the results of a modern organization always lie outside of itself and hence, that  the economic rewards for its members always come from the outside and are not determined internally, inescapably leads to power and authority. In fact, it creates two power relationships. There is a power relationship between management and worker. Also, various groups within the work force, while in a common power relationship to management, also stand in sharp and intense competition to each other for the relative shares in the total ‘product’ available for internal distribution.

Socialists believe that the problem lies in the nature of modern organization rather than in ‘exploitation’, ownership, or any other legal, political, or social structure. They believe that the industrial democracy requires a completely self-contained and self-sufficient economic unit. However, the distribution problem is generic in nature. It cannot be manipulated away. There has to be a decision how to divide the revenue available from the outside among the members inside the organization. The moment the organization produces more than a very few simple products meant mostly for consumption within the group, the relationship between the individual input and the organizational output can no longer be determined ‘impersonally’ or ‘scientifically’. At this moment also, equality of reward becomes at once impossible. There has then to be redistribution and an authority to make the redistribution decisions.

Redistribution, however, is, in effect, a political rather than an economic decision. It is influenced and restrained by a great number of forces such as supply and demand, social convention, traditions, and so on. But in the final analysis, a decision by authority and a decision based on power structure and power relationships, has to be made somehow by somebody. And this is the decision, which cannot be escaped by the modern organization.

Fallacy of the dominant dimension

The above dimensions of working whether the physiological, the psychological, the social, the economic, and the power dimension, are separate. Each can and, indeed, is to be analyzed separately and independently. But they always exist together in the worker’s situation and in his relationship to work and job, fellow workers and management. They have to be managed together. Yet they do not pull in the same direction. The demands of one dimension are quite different from those of another.

The basic fallacy of the traditional approaches to working has been to declare one of these dimensions to be the prime dimension. Most of the earlier economists have seen that the economic dimension as dominating everything else. If only economic relationships can be changed, then there has been no more hostility. However, this thinking has become bankrupt when it has become apparent that the ‘expropriation’ of the ‘exploiters’ has not fundamentally changed the worker’s situation and his alienation because it has not changed in any way any of the other dimensions neither it has even changed the economic problem.

People who has another and radically different thinking, see the dominant dimension as the interpersonal relations within the work group, that is, in psychological and social aspects. And yet it is not only true since one cannot employ a hand, the whole man always comes with it, hence the work is what matters and affects group relations. And neither the economic nor the power dimensions which has been seen by these people.

These dimensions stand in highly complex relationship to each other. They are a true ‘configuration’ but one which changes rapidly as the worker’s conditions change.

Abraham H. Maslow, the father of humanist psychology, showed that human wants form a hierarchy. As a want of a lower order is being satisfied, it becomes less and less important, with a want of the next-higher order becoming more and more important. Maslow applied to human wants what might be called ‘marginal utility’. His was a profound and lasting insight. Maslow put economic want at the bottom and the need for self-fulfillment at the top. But the order is not of first importance. What matters is the insight that wants are not absolute. The more one want is being satisfied, the lesser of its satisfaction matters.

But what Maslow did not see is that a want changes in the act of being satisfied. As the economic want becomes satisfied, that is, as people no longer have to subordinate every other human need and human value to getting the next meal, it becomes less and less satisfying to obtain more economic rewards. This does not mean that economic rewards have become less important. On the contrary, while the ability of the economic reward to provide a positive incentive diminishes, its capacity to create dissatisfaction, if disappointed, rapidly increases. In fact, economic rewards cease to be incentives, if not properly taken care of that is, if there is dissatisfaction with the economic rewards, they become deterrents. This is true of every one of Maslow’s wants. As a want approaches satisfaction, its capacity to reward and with it its power as an incentive diminishes fast. But its capacity to deter, to create dissatisfaction, and to act as a disincentive rapidly increases.

Two senior executives in the organization whose salaries are only marginally apart are equals economically. At high salary level, various deductions are so high as to make the pay differential meaningless. Yet the senior executive with the lower salary normally has frustration and envy. No matter how good his income, it is always a thorn in his side. The same applies all the way down the organization. Every trade-union leader knows that his biggest problem today is not absolute pay scales. It is the pay differentials among various kinds of workers. There is no way of satisfying either the skilled worker who insists on receiving certain percent more than the semiskilled worker, or the semiskilled worker. They are equally dissatisfied. If the pay differential is being narrowed, the skilled worker feels that he has been deprived. And if the differential is not being narrowed, the semiskilled worker feels deprived.

But also, contrary to what Maslow seemed to imply, the various dimensions of man at work change their character as they approach being satisfied. Salary, as it has been just seen, becomes part of the social or psychological dimension rather than the economic one.

The opposite can also happen. Power and status can become the basis for economic demands. Worker representatives, who hold positions of great social prestige and considerable power, almost immediately want more money as well. At the least, they want perquisites such as housing, an office, a secretary, and so on. This they see as economic rewards befitting their new rank.

Hence, it is essential to know much more than it is now known about the dimensions of working and about their relationships, since people are dealing with a configuration likely to defy analysis. Nevertheless, the management has to manage now. It has to find solutions, or at least accommodations, which enables it to make work productive and the worker achieving. It has to understand what the demands are. It cannot expect to succeed by continuing the earlier practices. It has to develop fast the new approaches, new principles, and new methods.

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