Reading the Workplace: How Reading Fiction Shapes our Understanding of Work

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I majored in English because I love reading books. So, what does one do with a BA in English? Work in HR of course—at least that is where my life has led me. Knowing where all the commas go and when to use affect or effect has come in handy when writing policy, but I find the lessons I have learned from literature just as valuable in how I approach my career in HR. In today’s post I will share how my love of books has helped me be better in HR and look at some lessons learned from two fictional workplaces.

HOW READING AFFECTS US

In 2013, the Department of Labor released a list of books that shaped work in America in order to commemorate their centennial. The list includes classic novels like Little Women and Grapes of Wrath as well as more recent nonfiction works by people like Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Covey. In addition, a recent study by Dr. Gregory S. Berns shows the positive affects reading a novel can have on brain connectivity.

When other people pull out their phones to pass the time while waiting for a cup of coffee, I usually pull out a good, old-fashioned paper book—not even a Kindle, just paper for me! Whether I’m lost in someone else’s fictional world or working on my own stories, I often find ways to squeeze fiction into any spare minute I can find.

So, it is no wonder to me that books shape the way we work and the way our brains understand the world. We learn through stories and sometimes gain valuable insights into ourselves through reading, hearing and watching stories. The reason Shakespeare still resonates today is that he was exploring tried and true themes that relate to our lives regardless of what century we are living in.

MENTORING NEW HIRES

One of my favorite fictional workplaces is the Jurisfiction office in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. The workplace Fforde creates is humorous and filled with the kind of personality conflicts, drama and management styles you would find in a real workplace. In Lost in a Good Book and The Well of Lost Plots, the second and third books in the series, Thursday Next finds herself apprenticed to Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. She is working at Jurisfiction, the organization that polices the fictional world to make sure characters are sticking to their storylines. Miss Havisham is tough and expects a lot out of Thursday. She shows her around the fictional world and guides her through on-the-job training.

One of the things I like about Fforde’s no-nonsense version of Miss Havisham is that she sets out her expectations for Thursday the first time they meet. Too often we throw new employees into jobs and hope they will learn absorb what they need to do simply by being in the workplace. It would be nice if this were the case because training takes time, and we always have many other things needing our attention. But, that approach does little to make an employee feel welcome.

REMEMBERING THE HUMAN PART OF HUMAN RESOURCES

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, takes place in the future and looks at what happens when almost every job has been replaced by a machine. What happens to the workplace when humans no longer figure prominently in human resources? In the machine-filled future imagined by Vonnegut, people create jobs that are essentially busy work in order to give their lives purpose. In fact, people assigned to the army train with wooden rifles just to give them something to do. They are never really going to fight because machines are actually fighting all the wars, not people.

Vonnegut’s book paints a grim picture of machine dependency. When I read this book a couple years ago, I was struck by how technology has changed the real world workplace. Workplace safety and efficiency have improved greatly with more and more manual tasks being automated, but sometimes technology can negatively affect the way people see their work. When automating processes, we need to consider how this may affect the humans in our workplace. In some cases, it may change the value of an employee or it may even make someone redundant.

This necessitates thinking of how to use technology in a way that improves people’s jobs but does not devalue their skill set. Training and learning new skills should be an ever-present part of your workplace, so your employees continue to feel a sense of purpose even as technology changes the way we work. Consider Player Piano a rather dire and extreme cautionary tale for what happens when we forget the human part of work.

IN THE END…

Whether we are reading, listening to or telling them, stories shape our understanding of the world and help us see things in new ways. What are some of your favorite fictional workplaces, and what lessons have you learned from them?

Photo Credit: Tim Pershing

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Comments

    • Michael, thanks for sharing your post and for reading mine. Given that HR is a field that draws people from a variety of educational backgrounds, I think it is good to talk about how we draw our HR skills from all the areas that you mention.

      By the way, some of your recent posts on technology and robots in the workplace got me thinking about Vonnegut’s Player Piano and how I might mention it in my post.

      Reply
      Stephanie Hammerwold

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