Work vs. Play

WorkersEarlier this week, a friend of mine passed along a copy of Daniel Pink’s latest book, Drive. It was a pleasant surprise because, having read his bestseller, A Whole New Mind, it was on my buy list. One of the reasons I enjoy reading authors like Daniel Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Friedman, and others, is that they consistently challenge deeply held assumptions that I’ve guarded for years.

And while Drive opened in this way—causing me to rethink what I’d previously accepted as truth—I soon read a sentence that reaffirmed what I’ve known to be true for years: “Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

The implication of this truth, as it applies to my work in the field of customer service, is that to the extent employees see their jobs as a series of algorithmic tasks (the bullet points that make up so many job descriptions) as opposed to heuristic tasks (opportunities to “perform” outside of one’s job description), they will most likely focus on job function (the algorithmic tasks associated with their job role) at the expense of job essence (the heuristic tasks that contribute to their highest priority).

What’s their highest priority? For most customer service employees it’s to create delighted customers—those who will repurchase, be less price-sensitive, and recommend the company or brand to others.

The disconnect I most often experience as a customer of an airline, hotel, restaurant, or department store, is that employees tend to execute their jobs as a series of algorithmic tasks (e.g., issuing a boarding pass, obtaining a valid method of payment, taking an order, or ringing up a purchase) that they would define as work. In some cases, they might even define these tasks as routine or monotonous. And whenever customers detect monotony from employees, it contributes to perceptions of bland, uneventful, and indifferent customer service.

The opportunity then lies in reframing employees’ views of their job roles. That is, expanding job descriptions from a myopic set of required algorithmic tasks that focus on job function to include optional heuristic tasks that support job essence.

Here is what it might look like in a hotel:

Among other job tasks, a front desk agent’s job description presumably includes obtaining a valid method of payment from each guest prior to issuing a room key. That’s an example of an algorithmic job task (i.e., following a set of established instructions) that fulfills the employee’s job function of checking-in guests. In many hotels, employees and guests alike would characterize this procedure as transactional, process-focused, and predictable—each one like the last one.

Now imagine the above algorithmic job task being completed in a way that fulfills the employee’s job function while, at the same time, supports the essence of her job role: to create a delighted customer.

Perhaps the desk agent smiles, makes eye contact with the guest, and says, “That’s a lovely tie. It matches your suit nicely. Who is the designer?” The guest, flattered by the remark, may then proudly answer, “Louis Vuitton” or “Robert Talbott.” Either way, he will be complimented that she noticed and will likely characterize the experience as exceptional, guest-focused, and unexpected. And while he probably won’t recall the transaction at all, he’ll remember the compliment for a long, long time.

All the desk agent did was expand her job description from a defined set of required algorithmic tasks (i.e., obtaining a valid method of payment from the guest) focused on job function (i.e., checking-in a guest) to include an optional heuristic task (i.e., providing a sincere and specific compliment) that supports job essence (i.e., to create a delighted customer). In doing so, she expressed her own uniqueness and creativity by doing something that was entirely optional and beyond the confines of her job description.

The late J.W. Marriott, Sr. said it well when he reflected on his own view of work: “There weren’t these two opposites, work and play, one bad and the other good. It was having a vision of the way things ought to be and then making them that way.”

That quote really encapsulates the message of this post. To the extent that employees view their jobs as a series of others-directed obligations, their jobs will seem more like work—with all the limitations and monotony associated with it. And to the extent that employees exercise their freedom to self-direct their performance using a variety of optional techniques, their jobs will seem more like play—with all the freedom and satisfaction associated with it.

Comments? (Please don’t feel obligated…they’re optional.)