Find meaning in meaningless jobs

Sut I Wong, Christian Fieseler

Is it possible to create a sense of meaning in your work when you are sitting alone in front of the computer screen performing small and boring routine tasks? A new study yields surprising answers.

A growing number of people are making money solving small, tedious and non-prestigious routine tasks online. The tasks can e.g. be published through dedicated job posting services, also called crowdsourcing. One example is Amazon Mechanical Turk, which had more than 750,000 available tasks in March 2017.

People can sign up on these sites to perform the listed tasks. The digital odd jobs, which are called microwork, require a human assessment. This means that they cannot be completed by computer programmes or robots.

For example, these tasks might involve typing text that has been written by hand, classifying photos, classifying opinions in comment fields, assessing the relevance in a search engine search or selecting a representative illustration photo from a video clip.

Working alone

The people who perform the digital odd jobs, often work by themselves, completely isolated from others. They have no direct contact with the employers or others that are doing the job.

The jobs are often just small pieces of a much larger puzzle. It is not always easy to see what role and significance their job will have.

With such a basis, one might think that it must be hopeless to derive any meaning at all from the job. Contact with other people, whether they are colleagues or managers, is often considered the key to deriving meaning in a job.

Is the job meaningful?

Researchers Dominique Kost, Sut I. Wong and Christian Fieseler at the BI Norwegian Business School have completed a study among 110 people who work for Amazon Mechanical Turk to learn whether they find the tasks they perform to be meaningful.

The results surprised the researchers.

The people doing the jobs find the work to be meaningful, despite the fact that it appears tedious and perhaps also meaningless.

The workers derive meaning from sources such as morality, social significance, self-development, the opportunity to decide when the job can be done and the prospect of earning money. They believe that the work is a concrete contribution for others.

The microworkers feel that the job is important for society and that they are contributing to something positive. They also feel that they are able to use their skills or specific talents.

How to create meaning at work?

The researchers wondered how it is possible to see the potential benefit of their contribution when they are working in isolation and devoid of any form of personal feedback.

The workers rarely received enough information to be able to assess to what extent their work had any significance and impact for others. However, they were still able to create a perception of those that actually benefited from what they did.

Money alone is not enough

Money alone was not enough to make the job meaningful. However, financial compensation could be a positive contribution for creating meaning in the work, but only in combination with other factors. For example, this could be the significance the task had for others or the ability to decide for yourself when the tasks would be performed.

As humans, we all have a psychological need to have a meaningful job.
Is this a sustainable working model in the digital age? Or a desperate act by workers looking to find meaning?

“Even if the job by itself is not particularly meaningful, it appears as though we are still able to create a perception that makes the job meaningful,” concludes Associate Professor Dominique Kost at BI.

Kost, D., Wong, S. I., & Fieseler, C.: Finding meaning in a hopeless place: The construction of meaning in digital microwork. Conference paper. Presented at the annual conference of Academy of Management. August 2016.

Text: Audun Farbrot, Special Adviser for Science Communication at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 9. January 2018

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