“There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work,” wrote poet Donald Hall in his superb 1993 book, Life Work. “Reading proof is a chore; checking facts is a chore. When I edit for a magazine or a publisher, I do a job. When I taught school, the classroom fit none of these categories.” Hall loved being in the classroom because there he got to “show off, to read poems aloud, to help the young, and to praise authors or books that I loved.” Not everything about teaching was “larkish” for Hall (“Correcting piles of papers is tedious, even discouraging”), but he fit all pieces into his mosaic of professional life: “When I finished reading essays and correcting and grading and commenting on seventy-five essay-questions about a Ben Jonson or a Tom Clark poem, then—as a reward—I would get to work.”
When he says “work,” Hall’s talking about his vocation, his craft, the act of writing his own self-assigned poetry and prose… but as we see it was only one of his various professional obligations. The 14th U.S. Poet Laureate is not alone here; all our careers are just as complex. Parts of them we love, parts we tolerate, parts we sort of despise but endure. With more than 38 million people quitting in 2021, companies must recognize this mixed reality. And they need to see that happy, productive employees can balance the elements into a ratio that engages—today and for the long-term.
The idea that employers should create excellent jobs for their people is one to take very seriously. The Great Resignation, the somewhat nebulous idea of it, is nudging many workers to think about and even find better jobs. This flight pattern is distressing to many companies, for obvious reasons, and it has sent many of them scrambling to respond. We’ve heard that disengaged employees cost companies $350 billion (or about $2,246 per demotivated person). Some think the answer might be contracting to a four-day work week. Others suggest snuggling up to the idea of slow productivity. The answer, we think, might have something do with focusing on the craft of work.
We’ve long been thinking about this at EPAM Continuum—for our clients and their employees, and even for ourselves. As Tim Tocci writes in a recent blog post: “[E]ach occupation attracts people who resonate with core skills or craft required to excel in a given field” and each “requires a certain amount of drudgery or tedious minutiae we like to call ‘stuff.’ Ethnography enables us to separate the craft from the stuff, which in turn allows us to prioritize and empower a user’s craft while automating or removing the stuff that detracts from their experience.” This sort of career recalibration is as relevant for the developer experience, as we heard in this podcast, as we learned is it for firefighters we’ve ridden along with on their firetrucks.
Once an organization sorts the craft from the stuff, the next step is to use this information to create jobs will love doing. Toby Bottorf wrote about this back in his 2018 post “Robots for People: A Humanist Reframing of Automated Labor”: “There’s a lot of anxious chatter around the question, 'Which jobs will robots take?' Please join me instead in a conversation that asks: ‘Given emerging technologies, how can we craft valuable, excellent jobs for people?’”
This can be a difficult dialogue for many. The idea that tech can enable an extreme professional upgrade isn’t, alas, an obvious idea to every organization or every industry. As Dr. Eric Topol, in his episode of our Resonance Test podcast, said: “I think the idea that technology could enhance humanity in medicine is alien in this country.” Nonetheless, we strongly believe that once business leaders understand the craft mindset and its relationship to talent acquisition and retention, they will look into ways in tech can help their humans focus more on the parts of work they love most.
Deep employee engagement requires an organization to create a culture of craft, and this is not what happens in most workplaces. Traditionally, employees rise from being practitioners to being skilled practitioners, before finally becoming managers of other practitioners. It’s time to rethink that model and to try placing craft at the center of professional evolution.
There is, of course, a place for people with real managerial skill—management is an important task for every business—but organizations must learn what cultivating craft can mean in the employee experience. Ed Zitron’s Atlantic article, “Say Goodbye to Your Manager,” sketches this out perfectly:
“What we need—and will likely see—are more organizations opening a different track for people who are very good at their specific job, where these people are compensated for being great at what they do and mentoring others… Countless companies let high-flying performers write books and do seminars about their successes, but rarely take that success and look inward to see how it might be given to others.”
I’m walking this path myself. Here’s how I got here. Years ago, my organization issued an advertisement seeking two people for the marketing department. It listed a number of different functions and asked: What can you do? I went down the list. Writing? Check. Social media? Check. Community building? Check-plus! I wrote a strong letter that detailed how I’d done all three throughout my career and explained how I’d apply my trio of skills to the org. I then sat through five interviews, met about 20 people, made a whole bunch of allies, iterating my job description with each meeting. I’ve been iterating, happily, ever since—always in the service of deepening my craft, and then transmitting it to others. My professional peregrinations led me to become more than just an advanced practitioner but a teacher, coach, and mentor. For instance, I was able to apply service design principles I learned at EPAM Continuum to transform the writing workshop from a hungover dread of college composition class into a happy hour of literary community.
Of course, the path to mastery may look vastly different for different people, occupations, and organizations. But in order to make it a real, you must make take a few initial steps. Say you’re a manager who wants to make craft more of a priority for your most excellent employees. Where might you begin?
Ask your people about their craft and their stuff. It all begins with honest conversations. Work with them, individually, to identify the craft and the stuff on their professional plates. Ask directly which parts of the job they love, tolerate, and despise—and why. Explain that it’s your intention to make sure their experience moves closer to craft. If you’re dealing with some brilliant introvert who’d rather talk over chat, do it that way.
Explain your rationale. It’s important that your people understand why it’s valuable to the organization that they concentrate on and deepen their skills. Give them a systems-level picture of why and how their professional development matter. It’s not enough that the employee is engaged in craft; explain how their high-level craft is also organizationally meaningful.
Demonstrate the business value of this focus. Meaningful work is not ancillary to jobs, or something that is nurtured at the expense of business performance. Make sure meaningful distinctions in quality—what comes from craft—are measurable and communicated. Build mentorship and career development pathways and track their impact on performance and retention.
Find solutions for dealing with stuff. Automation is always an option, and there are many tools available. Challenge your employees to look into ways their self-identified stuff might be offloaded to software. You might talk to people whose business is intelligent automation. It’s probably also good to consider other, not-technological methods of excising stuff from their work lives.
Create a vision of professional mastery. Have your practitioners create a model of their craft-first future. This could be an annotated timeline of skills to hone or acquire over time. It could a narrative exploration of what a future day might look like. It could be a visualization of their future office, or a mini-series of podcast interviews with skilled pros who are currently engaged in their aspirational tasks. Get them to make something that embodies excellence of craft.
Ensure that there are resources available. It’s no good to promise your professionals that deepening their craft will be valuable to the organization if you don’t have the authority to make it happen. It’s complicated work and it might require you to have some budget fights, but this step is essential if you’re interested in a long-term, loyal employees.
Resign yourself to the fact that your best people will leave if you do nothing to make their work lives excellent. Donald Hall: “Almost twenty years ago, I quit teaching—giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises—as one of my children began college and the other was about to. I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages—but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.” If you want your stars to stick around, make their work into work they love. Get crafty.
Want to talk about cutting a path for craft? Let’s chat.