The Meaning of Work and How to Transform It

For many people, work is one of the most important things in their lives. It’s how they support their families, pursue their passions, or build a successful side business. It’s why they’re willing to put in long hours and go the extra mile for their jobs.

And while work is often thought of as a necessary trade-off between time and money, it can also be viewed as a way to grow and develop personally and professionally. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see the same people working from home part-time or full-time who say they feel more fulfilled at their job than those who are in the office all day every day.

When it comes to discussing the future of work, many people think about how we can increase productivity through the use of technology or by changing the nature of work itself. However, reskilling employees or training them to complete different types of tasks may not fundamentally change the problem for workers or capture the potential that employers have to create new opportunities (see Figure 2).

A more radical approach is needed to shift the conversation away from institutions versus individuals and toward what we can do together to identify, address, and ignite worker passion over time. That requires understanding and leveraging intrinsic human capabilities to transform the purpose of work in ways that offer more meaning and value for everyone involved.

Whether you’re a scientist, a People Operations professional, or just an average person, the word “work” has a pretty specific meaning that relates to energy. In the scientific sense, for something to be considered work, a force must be exerted on an object and it must result in displacement of that object. The relative direction of the force and displacement determines whether the work done is positive, negative, or zero.

Let’s take a few examples of this concept. If a teacher pushes on a book, the book moves. This is a good example of work because the force caused a displacement. It’s positive work because the book moved in the direction of the force.

Another example is lifting a box. This is positive work because the box moved from where it was on the ground to over your head. This is positive work because the force changed the distance of the box. It’s negative work because the force moved from where it was to a lower position on the ground. So, the moral of the story is that for something to be considered work it must have either a positive or negative magnitude of power and must transfer energy from where it was to somewhere else. The SI unit of work is the joule, the same as the SI unit for energy.