Why some roles are alienating and why we should do something about it
As a customer, when you have a question about a service or a problem, have you ever experienced your call or email been put through to an endless number of people? How does that make you feel?
When a customer is made to feel like a pinball, this is often the manifestation of staff disengagement and the alienating effects of jobs “subdivided into petty operations” (Braverman, 1974). So what are the barriers today to making admin roles more interesting? Why haven’t these roles been made more engaging?
I have been working in the educational sector since 1992 and admin roles changed dramatically with the introduction of more sophisticated databases and IT systems. In 2018, while studying at Birkbeck University, I researched the effectiveness of the professional development scheme and since then I continued observing how job roles are created and how performance is measured, focusing especially on administrative roles and roles that are admin-heavy.
These roles, according to Harry Braverman, in “Labor and Monopoly Capital. The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century” (1974) were a byproduct of technology, which was expected to improve the work conditions of some roles but instead caused them to become even more mindless and perceived as unimportant; he wrote: “work has become increasingly subdivided into petty operations that fail to sustain the interest or engage the capacities of humans with current levels of education; that these petty operations demand ever less skill and training; and that the modern trend of work by its “mindlessness” and “bureaucratization” is “alienating” ever larger sections of the working population.” This means that admin jobs are there to cover the tasks that system can’t.
The main consequence of this is that job descriptions for administrative roles tend to require minimal competences. This in turn means that progression and the possibility of promotion is close to nil (Rodriguez-Muñoz, 2012). The lack of intellectual challenges and of any opportunity for advancement manifests itself through disengagement, so what can a company do to alleviate their negative impact on its customers and, just as importantly, on their staff?
During the research I conducted in 2018, administrative staff expressed need for training on time management, stress management and an opportunity for ownership of their tasks so to make them efficient. This showed that people have a natural disposition towards reflecting on practice, one essential element of professional development (Megginson and Whitaker, 2007) but the professional development schemes analysed during the research failed this category as they focus on the evaluation of performance and do not include any opportunity for professional development; there is a tendency to focus on the past rather than the future.
In conclusion, mindless jobs have a negative impact on customers, staff and ultimately on society. I would encourage any employer to move away from creating cheap and alienating roles and instead move towards more articulated roles in which staff have the opportunity to grow professionally and as individuals.