How to Measure the Value of Work During a Pandemic

The pandemic has certainly changed how we work. It also has us questioning why we work. Local professionals share how their perspectives have shifted.

It’s a moldy tale from the Middle Ages, familiar to any kid schooled by nuns. Two men were winding through the streets of Paris, each wrestling an overburdened cart, each staggering to control his towering load. A passerby stopped the first man. “What are you doing?” he inquired. “I’m hauling rocks,” the exhausted worker snapped, sweat soaking his begrimed tunic. “And you?” the onlooker asked the second man. The fellow raised his head—eager, energized, face aglow with a celestial light. “I’m building a cathedral,” he replied.

Illustration by Antonio Rodriguez/

Even if you didn’t have Sister Immaculata for precalculus, you get the lesson: All work is fulfilling if you have the right attitude. If your labor feels like hauling rocks, the implication is that you are the problem. You lack purpose.

But for many people, the past year has driven a stake through the heart of this guilt-trippy parable. Work has changed—incrementally for some of us, catastrophically for others. There are eviscerated businesses and jobs that have evaporated. Some workplaces have been reshaped for the better, yes; others became infinitely more demanding, stressful, even dangerous overnight.

And with all this transformation, no one is entirely sure what will be permanent on the factory floor, in the shop, behind the bar, at the law firm, on the stage. With so much uncertainty, it’s no surprise that many people are reevaluating not only what they do, but why they do it.

Even the most dedicated cathedral-builders may be looking at that heavy cart these days and thinking, Rocks? Ugh.

Back when the century was new, the online company Zappos introduced the (admittedly unsurprising) idea that happy employees make for good business. And so began a generation of TED Talks, as academicians, economists, and CEOs set out to explain what motivates employees.

For psychologist Barry Schwartz, a prolific TED Talker and author of the 2015 book Why We Work, an important part of job satisfaction is linked to autonomy—that is, having some degree of decision-making independence. Also important is being respected and appreciated. And the biggie, the I’m-Building-Notre-Dame factor, is seeing one’s work as part of a larger mission.

Certainly some of the changes we’re experiencing now can feed those satisfactions. Consider the early days of last year’s lockdown, when communities were applauding frontline workers each evening. “Thousands of people became more visible and appreciated,” says Schwartz. They were part of a huge mission—serving in a global pandemic—and everyone recognized their value. Will that last, he wonders, “or will those people stocking grocery shelves go back to being invisible?”

If anyone is feeling invisible, it’s probably the significant population that’s now working from home.

Schwartz says remote work has shown that “there are huge individual differences in what people find satisfying and helpful.” For some, WFH is a peaceful, productive paradise; for others, it’s a stressful swamp where the efficiency and gratification of face-to-face contact has been replaced by Zoom meetings, janky Internet connections, and juggling grown-up work with kids’ homeschooling. And since remote work is probably here to stay to some degree (“There’s too much money to be saved by companies to not close down office space,” says Schwartz), workers are trying to find the way forward.

Elaine Hollensbe, head of the management department at the University of Cincinnati’s Lindner College of Business, has researched and written about work/life balance, and she agrees that the constant demands of remote work have complicated things. But she points out that 2020 created plenty of additional reasons for workers to question whether the pay is worth the pain.

Hollensbe echoes Schwartz’s example of frontline workers. “Healthcare providers have such dedication, and they may charge on in spite of the dangers,” she says. “But a grocery store worker may be committed to the paycheck. Then it’s more difficult to accept the change. They didn’t sign up for a job that’s a threat to their lives.” The media may call them heroic, but it doesn’t feel heroic when you’re stocking shelves hemmed in by toilet-paper-hoarding, belligerent, mask-resistant customers. “It may make some feel disposable.”

The lack of in-person connection in many workplaces has sapped satisfaction, too. The freedom and flexibility of working from home doesn’t feel like autonomy if your boss is digitally monitoring you like a rabid watchdog. Virtual cocktail hours are poor substitutes for spur-of-the-moment lunches and water cooler conversations when you’re new to a team. And even if you’re a kindergarten teacher who’s mastered distance schooling like a 21st century Mr. Rogers, you’re missing the very thing that drew you to education in the first place: children.

“It’s hard to predict where all that will go,” says Hollensbe. But whether you’re struggling with the new normal or delighting in the changes, “This is a time to examine what’s most meaningful in work and figure out how to satisfy that under the new circumstances.”

The pandemic has shined a spotlight on workers who are on a mission—people like doctors and nurses who see their work as a calling. These are the people, says Schwartz, who are the most highly motivated and the most satisfied. The past year has been hard on these cathedral-builders, too, as a nonstop health crisis burns through their resilience. “I have the feeling we will see a lot of people leave these professions after the pandemic is over,” he says.

Jay Hanselman knows how that happens. He grew up itching to work in radio, and he did, starting as a broadcast journalist in 1990 while a Northern Kentucky University student. But in October, the highly-respected WVXU reporter left a career in public radio news to work in a machine shop. “I wanted something hands-on, where you clock in and clock out and the machines can’t follow you home,” he says, laughing. But he isn’t joking.

“The year 2020 was a firehose,” says Hanselman. “One big news event after another. I’d been a reporter for 30 years. I could see that pace continuing, and I realized I couldn’t keep doing it.”

His work had changed over three decades because the media landscape changed, with new responsibilities for constant tweeting and blogging to get the news out. COVID-19 showed him, as it may show others, that it was time to leave the career he loved for work he hopes he’ll like.

And if the new job doesn’t provide sufficient satisfaction? Hanselman, ever the reporter, says, “I overanalyze everything. I have a backup plan.”

Barry Schwartz has made a name for himself writing and talking about work satisfaction, but even he is quick to point out that engagement, meaning, and autonomy “are luxuries when people don’t know if they can put food on the table and pay the rent.” The job losses of the past year have hit industries like leisure, hospitality, personal services, and the performing arts especially hard. And the incredible uncertainty about when—or if—things will return to normal is daunting.

Maddie Regan, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s managing director, recalls the shutdown in March as traumatic. The impact on finances, cast, crew, and staff was immediate. She created a worst-case scenario for reopening the theater in 12–24 weeks—in retrospect, a laughable timeline.

The Over-the-Rhine theater remains closed, with plans to reopen in the fall. In the meantime, the company has launched a number of programs ranging far beyond live stage performances, including Shakes Makes, which markets the services of CSC’s carpenters, costume-makers, and designers for personal projects.

It’s an effort to generate revenue for staffers, of course, in hopes of keeping talented people in town and providing a bit of the gratification these craftsmen felt before the curtain came down almost a year ago. Because, Regan points out, for people in the performing arts, “They’d already chosen a career where satisfaction was more of a priority than money.”

She says it’s not uncommon for people, when they’re taking about the challenge of closed theaters and cancelled performances, to use the same phrase about their situation. “They say that what they’re missing is job joy.”

Until the nation is healthy economically as well as physically, we all may have to recalibrate our standards for what counts as good work. But when we do recover, “job joy” sounds like a fine career goal.

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