Bullshit Jobs

Post #112 by Laurie Aznavoorian

Yes, I know it’s been ages since I’ve composed a post. Other pursuits such as PHD proposals and novels have occupied my time. If you know any publishers or agents who might be interested in a humorous memoir or a cynical tome titled ‘The Pitch’ – a story of three design firms competing for a prestige project, please let me know. By the way, should either be published, you would not find them in the literary fiction section.

Yesterday I did a presentation to our office on pre and post Covid workplaces and commercial office buildings, I talked about the inevitable imperative for place to now ‘earn the commute’ along with other key themes including employee’s strong desire for their work to align with their individual sense of purpose. Pragmatist may argue there’s no need to pay attention to such silly woke ideologies, which is true if you’re happy to have younger workers, in particular Millennials, leave. This is the cohort that a new report by McKinsey says are three times more likely that others to be re-evaluating work.

The same report found that 70 percent of employees’ sense of purpose is defined by work, so it makes sense for organisations to pay attention because it is becoming clear the work first culture is being replaced by something more personal and altruistic. Also, people who live purpose at work are more productive, they’re healthier and have greater resilience and when an individual’s purpose aligns with the organisation’s, they’re more engaged, loyal, and likely to recommend the company to their mates.

These findings mirror recent research conducted in the US and Australia by Atlassian and PWC. They don’t mince words with their recommendations.

It’s now clear that employees expect their employers to make a difference. We are seeing an increasingly activist workforce that holds business to account and prioritises wellbeing over career progression.”

Atlassian Co-Founder and CEO Scott Farquhar warns the consequences of inaction will be real in the war for talent, he says there has never been higher expectations of businesses and their leaders.

So how do you know if your job aligns with purpose? It’s a tough question, one test would be to ascertain whether you have a bullshit job. The term comes from the anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book. He postulates some jobs are meaningless and cause societal harm, he goes on to suggest that over half of societal work is pointless and psychologically destructive, particularly when comparing what we do to a work ethic that associates work with self-worth.

Mentioning bullshit jobs in the office caused my colleagues to laugh nervously and look at each other, their eyes silently imploring – are our jobs bullshit jobs? The answer is no. For a job to be a bullshit job the person doing it can’t even justify its existence, and if a bullshit job is eliminated society would be no worse off. If architects or interior designers suddenly vanished the world wouldn’t work very well and face it things would be butt ugly. Society might not miss us the way they would teachers, garbage collectors or shelve stockers at Woolworths, but our absence would be felt.

In addition, bullshit jobs are often highly respected, and they pay well; we all know that architecture is all flash, no cash. It might be easier to explain the concept of a bullshit job using Amazon as an example.

If the rocket carrying a ridiculously wealthy boss exploded, would we care? On the other hand, if an underpaid shift worker failed to pack and post the HoMedics Pedi Luxe Foot Spa with heat boost power ordered during lockdown for a pick me up, well that would be a different story.

What does this have to do with workplace and commercial office buildings? Quite a bit, Covid has changed how life and work are conducted, it constitutes a social legacy that will lead to social change and that will manifest itself in both our mindset and how we use physical space. In some instance it may demand we reimagine spaces.  

One priority that should drive a potential rethink of environments should be mental health given researchers suggest this is the most important issue of 2021. Hopefully it is now understood that supporting mental health involves more than breakout areas, fruit bowls and temperature checking stations. Workplaces must now demonstrate to employees that the organisation cares about them and the issues they worry about, which is increasingly humanity, community, and the planet, not shareholders and supporting a neoliberal economy.

Looking at the projects that are currently on our digital drawing boards suggest there is a greater likelihood of acceptance and inclusion of places that are designed with mental health and social responsibility in mind.

Ideas such as access to multi – modal areas and blurring of public and private space are the same as those pitched pre pandemic, but now they are seriously being considered indicating this may be the time that organisations not only listen but act.

One concept gaining traction involves reimagining commercial building’s ground planes and podiums as spaces that can support and be shared with the broader community. This includes the spatial arrangement, supporting technology and security to enable activation and extended hours of operation. The concept benefits community in that there is somewhere and something to go to at night and on weekends and combats the expected change in city’s population due to changing patterns and the uptake of hybrid work.

Embedded in this idea is the notion of creating zones for building tenants and invited guests that when creatively conceived offer the opportunity for space to support social causes.

It may not be an idea most developers, landlords or organisations can stomach right now, but including the thought and provisions to execute the concept later is damn smart move, especially if Scott Farquar is right about an activist workforce.

An example of how and why this might work came to me after a Zoom catch up with old friends in Seattle who delivered an earful about how hot it was. The Pacific Northwest had experienced what is referred to as a ‘heat dome’ resulting in several days where temperatures were well above average. Roads cracked and bitumen buckled, overhead cables that supply power to electric busses melted, further North in Canada over a million mussels and clams baked in their shells. Oh, and a bunch of people died too because this is a region where no one has air conditioning.

To save lives cities set up cooling centres, big spaces with cots where people escaped the heat. They looked a lot like commercial office lobbies! More cooling centres are being established in the Pacific Northwest to contend with a second heat dome scheduled to hit this region this week.

Australian climate scientists are paying close attention to this weather phenomenon because it is likely there will be a heat dome coming to your town soon, no doubt squeezed in between the bushfires, floods, and pestilence. I would suggest any Aussie architect who comes up with a clever way to use vacant commercial office space to help us out when that all hits the fan would definitely not be someone with a bullshit job.

Sources:

Atlassian, PWC; Return on Action Report 2021 – The Rising Responsibility of Businesshttps://www.probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/atlassian-2021-return-on-action-report-australia.pdf

Dhingra, N., Samo, A., Schaninger, B., Schrimper, M. (2020) “Help your employees find purpose or watch them go”, McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/help-your-employees-find-purpose-or-watch-them-leave

Graber, David; Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, Penguin Books, 2019

Milman, Oliver; “Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge” The Guardian, July 22, 2021

Spocchia, Gino; “Jeff Bezos criticised by Amazon workers and customers after thanking them for funding space launch.” Independent.co.uk July 28, 2021

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