Friday, September 13, 2013

Fulfilling work

I've been struggling for a while to figure out what makes, for me at least, a fulfilling or satisfying job. Yesterday it struck me that the answer was more or less at my fingertips in the form of a book by my friend Tharon Howard called Design to Thrive. In that book, Tharon lays out a model for how to think about a successful online community around the handy mnemonic RIBS: Remuneration, Influence, Belonging, and Significance. It occurred to me that a tweak on that model would equally well describe what I would want from the ideal job:

Remuneration: Obviously this includes salary and benefits, but beyond a certain point salary doesn't make much difference (until you are talking about start up IPO levels of Walk Away money). But remuneration also comes in other form such as respect of colleagues and industry peers, thanks for a job well done, or the knowledge that you've made a difference. In fact, the R in RIBS could stand for a whole collection of Rewards including Respect and Recognition.

Influence: It's well established that people are happier in their work when they have more control over their environment rather than feeling like helpless drones working on one assignment after another. That can mean little things like personalizing your workspace, more substantive things like flex time, and ultimately having a significant say in what assignments you are working on. This concept can be seen in so-called self-managed teams, and in the development world it's a significant (if often overlooked) element of the Agile movement. Even something as simple as believing that your opinion is taken into consideration in your manager's decisions makes a difference.

Belonging: This is a huge element of the success of online communities, and includes the rituals and stories that people tell each other to reinforce their sense of belonging to something greater than themselves. Many companies have a "founding myth" that, factual or not, helps new employees adapt to the culture. The team I'm in right now has been fairly good at this kind of thing: we have ritualized expressions ("Yes, and..." instead of "Yes, but..." is one) and running jokes that we initiate new team members into.

Significance: This one is probably the hardest to achieve when you're in the depths of a large company. I've left jobs before even when the day to day work was interesting and satisfying ("remuneration") because it felt like what I produced made no more difference than throwing stones into the ocean, that nothing I did or said or wrote would matter to anybody a month from now. 

Everybody will weight these four elements differently, but for me significance is the biggest one. I get very restless when I feel that my job amounts to no more than shuffling paper, reviewing other people's proposals to evaluate considering investigating something, or spreadsheet engineering. To be satisfying to me, my work has to at least appear to matter to somebody's real life.