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People watching: the changing world of work

Curtis James is an ethnographic photographer obsessed with people at work. He runs an ethnographic research firm called Fieldwork that helps clients to get to know the people that keep their businesses running. In his spare time, he runs a project called Beyond Work that combines photography and words to tell the stories of humans at work in a series of beautifully bound ‘zines.

Curtis recently visited Wolff Olins London to join our on-going discussions about human experiences, compelling storytelling and the future of work. Having seen Curtis present his work through a captivating audio-visual experience at this years All About People meeting, I wanted to learn more about his motivations and methods, as well as what he could teach us and our clients about the evolving world of work.

Read on for Curtis’ views on the storytelling power of physical artefacts, the language gaps that divide workers and their bosses, the potential symbiosis between personal and corporate purpose, as well as what “more human” should mean at work and who Curtis is looking to document next…

1. It’s striking that you use physical media such as photographs and ‘zines in our digital age. Why do you think a physical record of 21st century work is so important?

I’m trying to create artefacts that are compelling to read and touch people in a human way. I think handling physical photographs, books, or ‘zines is a powerful way to review that kind of work. I’m not suggesting digital content can’t be human or touching, but we are constantly glued to screens serving up a multitude of information often without focus.

Weirdly, sharing our work and reports as books, ‘zines and newspapers seems novel to business people. When we share our work with a leadership team for example, it stands out amongst all the emails, PDFs and other digital things they have to read, and offers them a way to really focus away from everything else.

I shoot most of my photographic work on 35mm film and enjoy the constraints of not being able to see every shot I’ve taken as soon as I’ve taken it. It does make me consider what I’m photographing a little more. I enjoy the time it takes to develop the films and the moments I hang the negatives up to dry and I finally get a glimpse of the photographs. But I also enjoy using my digital camera for those times when you don’t have the luxury of waiting a day to see if you have the shot you need…

2. Many of the people you’ve documented in Beyond Work do very hands-on as opposed to corporate work. Do you think one is more interesting than the other?

A very quick answer to that is “no”.

The photographic work I’ve done in the corporate world was mostly done for clients so it’s not as easy to share. There are definitely interesting things going on both worlds. The challenge with more corporate work is that it’s not always as visually interesting - but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be documented.

The challenge I have (and I’m still working this out) is to not create more of the same style of “maker” or “office worker” photo stories that have been very popular over the years. I was commissioned to document four “makers at work” in 2014, and it was really hard to not take photographs of all the cool tools. What I actually wanted and attempted to capture was the human behind those tools.

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3. Fieldwork must close a lot of gaps between what bosses think their businesses are like, and how employees actually experience them. What’s the biggest disconnect you see?

One of the biggest issues is language.

There are still plenty of companies that operate in a blue/white collar way. So there will be people from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures and education levels in a single company. But there’s still an expectation that they will all understand a strategic directive from above written in a language that is alien to the large percentage of workers. Whether an email from the CEO or a freshly created manifesto pinned to the canteen wall, these are often disconnected from the real work that is being done.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of workers talk about wanting more connection to their leaders, citing a lack of it, and by default a lack of clarity about the strategy in the business. I’ve witnessed other leaders talk very passionately about the importance of walking the floor and being open and transparent, only to see them time and time again dash from lift to glass office past whole teams, without raising their eyes…

4. People are increasingly obsessed with purposeful work. How important is it?

I first became aware of the whole “purpose” zeitgeist a few years ago - probably in an interview that I read with David Hieatt who runs the Do lectures and a clothing company called Hiut Denim. I think there’s a lot of value in what he said and many business consultants have clearly latched on to it.

It’s easier to maintain purposeful work in a small group of people. Hiut Denim has a compelling story with a strong purpose: to get the town of Cardigan making jeans again. Who wouldn’t want to get behind that? But I think that for larger companies taking an idea and spreading it amongst their people is really hard. They’re expecting maybe hundreds or thousands of people to align with the purpose of maybe the founder or CEO of a company - I think that’s almost impossible.

And those that don’t go along with it can feel left out. This doesn’t mean they’re not going to do a good job - maybe they find purpose elsewhere. Maybe they have a personal purpose for doing good work. I think it’s important that is respected.

I also prefer the word “fulfilment” to purpose. I interviewed an accountant for Beyond Work last year and I was really impressed by his ability to be fulfilled by his work without having any purpose about being an accountant. His purpose came from his family, athletics and an interest in culture. Being able to live this full life drove him to work harder than a lot of workers I have observed.

The same can be said for a refuse collector I photographed. He’s had the job for almost 30 years, and has no interest in or connection to the purpose of the global company he works for (which is described on the corporate website as “Circular, Concrete and Collaborative”). But he does find fulfilment in his work; in camaraderie and from the community he serves.

5. “More human” is becoming a bit of a buzz-phrase in today’s business circles. What do you think “more human” work looks like?

Being “more human” at work can manifest itself in many ways and in every level of a company. It’s probably easier for a company still owned and run by it’s founders to promote a more human way of running a business than it is a company owned by shareholders with little knowledge of the day to day activities at work.

One of the reasons I started Beyond Work and Fieldwork was to remind people, companies and shareholders that behind a job title or company, there are people with feelings, needs, desires, fears and all those other emotions that make us human.

Being more human often means simple things like caring, appreciating, respecting and listening. It means paying attention to other needs beyond money, profit margins and quarterly reports.

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6. Through Beyond Work and Fieldwork you’ve got under the skin of all sorts of jobs. What’s the one profession you’re dying to document next?

An unemployed person is on my list because I’m really interested in what unemployment means today. There are many levels to that including the pressure to get a job from society, your peers and government. I’m also interested in the idea of a universal basic income – but I’m not yet convinced it’s necessarily a good or bad thing. I’m also very interested in what happens when a whole swathe of workers isn’t needed anymore and what happens to them.

Next on my list is Caroline Lucas MP. I first approached her in the run up to the General Election in 2015, but she was too busy at that time. I’m hopeful it will happen. Right now I feel like politics has hit possibly its lowest point in history, certainly in my memory. I’m really keen to document what that feels like as an MP and as a human navigating what feels like a really arcane way of working. Most of the time it feels like a pantomime rather than the serious and practical managing of our country. I do fear that even someone like Caroline Lucas will struggle to give me the access that I would want to tell that story properly, but I will carry on trying.

7. What will you do when the robots take over?

Head to hills with my backpack, tent and camera to document the ultimate in Beyond Work, my leisure time.


Zami Majuqwana is a Strategist at Wolff Olins London.

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