Breaking Stones for a Living: On Workflow Automation and Simone de Beauvoir
“There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, or when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines.” So writes Simone de Beauvoir in her essay, Ethics of Ambiguity.
While post-WWII existential drudgery is no longer a top-of-mind reference point, meaningless tasks are easy to come by in the corporate office space. I read in one of our ebooks a while ago that the IDC found 21% of information workers’ time was spent searching for lost documents or dealing with other related problems – and many of those lost documents are never found.
Meaningful work is great – right up there on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – but meaningless work is the pits. Simone de Beauvoir would go so far as to say that it is the worst possible use of one’s time – a life spent searching for long-gone documents “preserves existence in its pure facticity but forbids it all legitimation.”
Clearing the metaphorical road
Meaningless work is the worst possible form of punishment or employment. De Beauvoir notes that right after WWII in Italy, the unemployed were tasked with breaking pebbles which served no purpose whatsoever – and in turn, they revolted. Of course, most of our tasks aren’t entirely meaningless–they are not created simply to get us into an office in the morning. Most of our tasks are essential to the proper functioning of a business. Sure, many documents may be lost, but those that are found are given to the appropriate people, ensuring accountability and transparency in an organization – not meaningless at all, just incredibly boring.
A more appropriate metaphor for the frustration of office chores would be sitting in three-hour traffic to move forward three blocks–there is a place to which you are trying to get, but your means of getting there are just awful. Even writing that sentence, imagining such traffic, makes my stomach kind of hurt.
De Beauvoir writes about the downfalls of meaningless work, both practically as well as philosophically, but the casual reader would find it difficult to uncover what she considers “meaningful work.” She is critical of meaningless labor but never clearly stands up for labor of another sort.
As a leading workflow automation company, we exist under the premise that meaningful work not only exists but is within our reach. We think that when frustratingly boring tasks are automated, people benefit. We think that repeated, manual, labor-intensive paperwork and processes dampen our customers’ lives, and that automated workflows give them back what is most valuable to them: the time and space to build towards a future in which they can believe.
When we talk to our customers, they say they are happier with workflow automation. Searching for lost documents makes us unhappy – this we already knew – but not searching for documents and spending our time more efficiently actually makes us happier. Automating manual, paper based tasks maps on to taking clearing the metaphorical roads of traffic. You might get to the same place, but you’ll start to enjoy the ride. With less “traffic” you might have the clarity of mind to reevaluate and consider a new destination, too.