Notes on the Meaning of Work

[We’re pleased to welcome author, Anne-Laure Fayard of New York University. She recently published an article in the Journal of Management Inquiry entitled “Notes on the Meaning of Work: Labor, Work, and Action in the 21st Century” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, she reflects on the backstory and motivation for this research:]

This piece is a reflective essay that I started a few years ago when I submitted a paper for a subtheme “Reflections on New Worlds of Work” for the EGOS conference. I had at the time two ongoing projects where the concept of “work” emerged as relevant: one was a research project on an open innovation platform for social innovation where I observed people spending a lot of time working on developing ideas and / or giving feedback to other participants although they did not seem to see it as work. At the same time, I had been noticing an increasing dissatisfaction with managers in a big international company where they kept complaining that their work has become boring and felt more like labor than work. These two empirical observations made me curious to explore more how people interpreted work as well as whether work as a practice has changed. Having been trained as a philosopher, I could not help to go back to texts and philosophers I’ve read. This led to a first version that I presented at the conference and the feedback was positive overall.

About a year later, I started reading more and more about AI, automation and future of work. I was invited to various seminars and working groups. One thing that was obvious to me was that the debates, sometime fierce, did not reflect one single understanding of the concept of work. In fact, that was one of the sources of the debates. It seemed to me that turning to philosophy would be generative. Indeed, one of the main preoccupations of philosophy is to clarify, through the analysis of meaning, the questions at stake. A philosophical analysis thus provides concepts that can explain empirical phenomena. I felt that the exploratory piece I had previously written had become particularly timely in the context of the debates on the future of work, and thus I revised it and submitted it to the Journal of Management Inquiry. I was lucky to have an editor and reviewers who thought my endeavor was worthwhile and pushed me to clarify and deepen my argument. In the process, the empirical focus (my original starting point) shifted on the gig economy. Along the way I read a lot about the issues and mobile on-demand platforms such as Uber. I also engaged with literatures that I did not know about and enjoyed learning about and integrating them in my thinking. One of the reviewers framed the review process as a constructive conversation and while the review process does not always feel like this, in this case, it really did feel like a constructive conversation where the reviewers suggested directions to explore theoretically and empirically. In the end, I hope these notes on the meaning of work will provide conceptual distinctions productive for the analysis of the “new worlds of work.”

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