What Is Work?

In physics, work is defined as the force acting on an object that causes its movement (or displacement). It is a scalar quantity meaning that it has only magnitude and no direction. Work can be transferred from one object to another, or from one form of energy to another. The SI unit for work is the joule. Examples of work include a horse pulling a plow through a field, a father pushing a grocery cart through a store’s aisle, a freshman lifting her backpack full of books onto her shoulder, or an Olympian throwing the shot-put.

The word “work” also refers to a piece of textile art such as needlework, weaving, or lacemaking, or the output of an artist or composer considered or collected as a whole: the works of Bach. It can also be used to describe a factory or plant or similar building or complex of buildings where an industrial process is carried out. The word can also be used to refer to an internal mechanism such as the one in a watch or clock.

There are three key ingredients to work: force, displacement, and cause. The Physics Classroom notes that there are many examples of work observed in everyday life: a horse pulling a plow, a father pushing a cart through the grocery store aisle, a student lifting her backpack full of books onto her shoulders, or an Olympian throwing the shot-put. The important point is that in each case, there is a force acting on the object that causes its displacement. The object’s energy increases as the work is done. If the force is opposite to the motion, the energy decreases resulting in negative work.

Whether the work is positive or negative depends on the direction of the force and the displacement. If the force is applied in a direction that is parallel to the displacement, the work is positive; if the force is at an angle to the displacement, the work is negative.

While reskilling workers to complete new tasks or introducing technology to replace repetitive manual labor does help to mitigate the impact of automation, it isn’t going to fundamentally change the future of work. The most exciting opportunity for organizations is to cultivate and unlock the intrinsic motivation of employees to pursue their own unique purpose and make a meaningful contribution in ways that are fundamentally different than before. Only then can we move the conversation from fear and adversity to hope and opportunity, with everyone winning. To do that, we need to redefine work itself. Click here for our free whitepaper: The Future of Work is Not Just About Skills. It’s About Passion and Purpose.