The Definition of Work – What Does it Mean?


If you’ve had any formal education at all, odds are you were taught a definition of energy that includes “the ability to do work.” It’s a simple enough concept if you think about it. But when it comes to describing how our day-to-day activities generate meaning, it becomes a lot harder to grasp.

In physics, work is defined as the amount of force applied multiplied by the displacement of an object. This is called the work-energy equation.

Work can be either positive or negative, depending on the direction of the force and the magnitude of the displacement. It can also be zero, which means no change in position. The unit for work is joule (newton-metres-seconds), the same as that of energy.

While many of us associate the word work with labor, it actually has a more general and scientific meaning. In fact, in physics, work is any action that increases the energy of a body. It is therefore the opposite of inertia, the tendency of a body to stay at rest or move at a constant velocity.

Despite the wide definition of work, the term is rarely used in practice. The reason for this is that most of the things we do every day do not involve work as defined by physics. For example, if a teacher holds a book without moving it, no work is done on the book. If the teacher drops the book, however, it will fall on the floor and the book will be displaced from its original position. The amount of work done on the book is equal to the weight of the book multiplied by the distance the book is displaced.

Another key difference between the everyday and scientific definitions of work is that an object must be displaced for work to be done on it. This is because, as the physics textbook explains, “work is the conversion of energy into some other form of energy.”

If the force is directed perpendicular to the motion of the body, the work done is zero. For example, a chain pulling upwards and rightwards on Fido causes the ball to be displaced to the right, but does no work at all on the dog because the force is perpendicular to the motion of the ball.

As companies identify the need to redefine their workplaces, they will have to consider how to cultivate a new type of employee capable of identifying and addressing unseen problems and opportunities. This will require a shift in management systems, work environments, operations, leadership and management capabilities, performance and compensation practices, and other aspects of human capital management. It will also require a shift from an organizational structure that is rigid, based on process and compliance to one that fosters questing and connecting dispositions. It will also require a mindset that is focused on creating more value by unlocking the hidden potential of frontline employees. This is where the real work lies.