Work is like an ex; someone whose whose incessant demands are resented but who is missed when they are gone. It is a long-term relationship; the average person spends more than half their life at work. Work defines people’s social status, defines income levels and creates a circle of friends.
Attitudes to management, as to work, are double-edged. The modern economy has become complex. Co-ordinating the production of goods and services across international supply chains represents a huge achievement. Becoming a manager is usually seen as a promotion, yet the role of a “middle manager” is often utilised as a useless layer of bureaucracy. Workers simultaneously blame managers for not providing enough leadership and for interfering too much with their daily tasks.
For their part, managers desperately want to improve their performance. Enter “management books” as a search term on Amazon and you get more than 100,000 results. Budding executives solemnly learn the buzzwords of the profession to give their pronouncements greater authority and conviction, like trainee priests memorising the liturgy.
Management at all levels is probably more difficult today than ever before. Activist investors harass firms that underperform profit and share-price targets. Pressure groups want them to conform to higher standards of corporate governance, environmental sustainability and employee well-being. News of a product fault or customer complaint can swiftly reach millions of people on social media.
Technological change is a massive threat to both managers and workers. Businesses fear the arrival of a low-cost competitor on their patch, causing the sort of disruption that they have already witnessed in retailing and the media. Workers, too, worry that their job will be the next to be automated, a threat that has shifted from the factory floor to middle-class jobs in accountancy, law and finance. The danger is that the future labour market will have a very few high-paying jobs and a lot of lower-tier roles, satisfying the demands of the cognitive elite.
The rise of the “gig economy” means that, for many people, employment no longer entails a nine-to-five job in a factory or office with a single employer. Instead, they find themselves in a version of the old “putting out” system in which textile workers worked at home, conducting specific tasks for a piece rate. Those who do trek to an office or warehouse may find themselves monitored more than ever before, thanks to artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Future workers may be able to enjoy income security or personal freedom, but not necessarily both.
One thing seems certain. Big changes to how people work, and the way businesses are managed, are bound to occur. Electric power was first developed in the 1880s, but industry took 40-50 years to adapt fully to the new technology. The biggest impact of the internet and greater computing power is probably yet to come.
In a short story by Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener, Bartleby initially worked extremely hard at his job, copying and checking documents. But suddenly one day, asked to perform a task, he replied: “I would prefer not to.” His manager pleaded, remonstrated and threatened him. But the scrivener simply repeated the same five words, with no explanation for his conduct. Later Bartleby started sleeping in the office, refusing either to leave or to undertake any work at all. His exasperated manager eventually moved office to escape Bartleby’s melancholy presence.
This enigmatic tale can be interpreted as an essay on management failure; the unnamed narrator fails to find a strategy that can motivate his employee. Or it can be seen as an act of human rebellion. Bartleby fails to acquiesce in carrying out his humdrum, tedious tasks. The world is full of Bartlebys, who have to deal with the mundanity of working life and carry out their bosses’ often bewildering orders, even when they would “prefer not to”.