The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, communicate, and work. In the past, work had to be attended to in-person in a physical setting. Now many office jobs can be performed online from home, although many frontline essential workers do not have the same choices.
When work does not need to be performed at the workplace, the boundary between our work life and personal life also becomes less distinct. This invites the question about how work hours should be assessed and how our relationships with our colleagues change. Apart from making a living, what is the meaning of work today and in the future? Prohibitive travel restrictions also make us wonder about the future of long-distance collaboration and the future of work-related travel.
In a recent panel (CCG 2021), the subject of the future of work was discussed. Some panelists suggested that work could and should be distinguished from “employment.” Work is not meant to be just a “job!” Kumarappa (1957) expounds that if the importance of work can be fully appreciated: “It nourishes and enlivens the higher man and urges him to produce the best he is capable of. It directs his free will along the proper course and disciplines the animal in him into progressive channels. It furnishes an excellent background for man to display his scale of values and develop his personality.”
E. F. Schumacher, the author of Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (Sphere Books 1984) argued that work should have at least three important functions: (1) to give man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; (2) to enable him to overcome his ego-centeredness by joining with other people in a common task; and (3) to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.
To expand on the above, work can serve as a means for humans to cultivate and express their full potential, benefitting themselves and others. It should be an embodiment of our values, self-identities, and aspirations. Through work, people from different backgrounds, strengths, and ideals can collaborate and compete to pursue what they could not possibly achieve on their own.
From a Buddhist perspective, work is an inseparable part of worldly life comprising personal and spiritual development. Work is not simply the means to other ends—it should be important and essential in and of itself. (Schumacher 1984) If work is an integral part of our life, it should not be considered toil or something simply to be gotten rid of or replaced by automation. In the Buddhist teachings, work in accordance with right livelihood, as described in the Noble Eightfold Path, is an embodiment of moral life. If work consumes our time, which is arguably one of the most precious aspects of the wealth of human existence, we should spend our work time on activities that contribute to the flourishing of the individual and others. As some thinkers would argue, work can be evaluated by whether it is “wholesome, meaningful and regenerative” instead of some simple matrix of performance or profit. (CCG 2021) Work should have meaningful impact and relevance to human beings. The Buddha taught that a layperson should acquire wealth worthy of praise and enjoyment by “energetic striving, strength of his arms, sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained.” (NDB. AN 4.61)
If the meaning of work is not simply assessed by the economic profit generated but by its impact on human flourishing, work evaluation could be very different. For example, how do we access the contribution of frontline workers through their “energetic striving, strength of his arms . . .” versus a contribution through intellectual capacity? How should we justify the wage differential between a trainee and a CEO? What if salary is determined by how much we offer to the community instead of how much we desire to grab?
One of the key challenges we may encounter for work in the future is facilitating collaboration among different generational, cultural, and value systems. It is not easy when the values across different silos seem to diverge in an increasingly polarized world. While some critics may argue that new generations are no longer interested in traditional models of work, they may in fact be more engaged with work by being more conscious with work conditions and relationships. (Miller and Yar 2019)
Technology now allows for real-time remote communication, facilitating so much more audio-visual communication, but could it completely substitute face-to-face interaction? For example, during COVID-19, tele-therapy became more widely adopted to provide services, even to clients who did not have access to it in the past. However, some suggest that online communication cannot fully replace physical interaction, and that online space cannot be a full substitute for a physical face-to-face meeting. (Cherkis 2021) People may lack the privacy and resources they need to be fully engaged in online services. Many non-verbal communications, such as body language and micro expressions may also be missing online.
How can we foster human interaction and understanding when we are increasingly dependent on technology? During or after COVID-19, it will be interesting to explore what business travel or meetings might look like—whether technology will bring us closer together or move us further apart. Can technology give us more time and freedom to engage in more meaningful work and work relationships?
CCG. 2021. “Future of Work – Our Relationship With Ourselves, Nature And Machines.” CCG. https://ccg-group.eu/2021/10/ccg-advisors-on-future-of-work-our-relationship-with-ourselves-nature-and-machines/
Cherkis, Jason. 2021. “A Teenager was a Suicide Risk – and then the Pandemic Happened.” The Guardian. 22 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/nov/22/a-teenager-was-a-suicide-risk-and-then-the-pandemic-happened
Kumarappa, Joseph C. 1957. The Economy of Permanence. Varanasi: Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan.
Miller, Claire and Sanam Yar. 2019. “Young People Are Going to Save Us All from Office Life.” The New York Times. 17 September 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/style/generation-z-millennials-work-life-balance.html
NDB. AN 4.61. “Worthy Deeds.” In The Numerical Discourse. A Translation of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Translated by from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi, 449–52. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
Schumacher, Ernst F. 1984. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. London: Sphere Books. Original edition, 1973.
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