When David Fahl worked for an energy reseller, which bought and sold energy from generating companies, he noticed that getting things done right wasn't always as high a priority as making deadlines, meeting deliveries or being on budget.
"You can get all those things done without doing any good work," he says. It wore on him and didn't give him a sense of accomplishment. "Not even the marketing people could come up with a plausible explanation for why the company existed," he says.
In the information age, so much is worked on in a day at the office but so little gets done. In the past, people could see the fruits of their labor immediately: a chair made or a ball bearing produced. But it can be hard to find gratification from work that is largely invisible, or from delivering goods that are often metaphorical.
You can't even leave your mark on a document in increasingly paperless offices. It can be even harder trying to measure it all. That may explain why to-do listers write down tasks they've already completed just to be able to cross them off.
"Not only is work harder to measure but it's also harder to define success," says Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer in Organizational Behavior and Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "The work is intangible or invisible, and a lot of work gets done in teams so it's difficult to pinpoint individual productivity."
She says information-age employees measure their accomplishment in net worth, company reputation, networks of relationships, and the products and services they're associated with elements that are more perceived and subjective than that field of corn, which either is or isn't plowed.
Companies should create meaningful short-term goals. Instead, "managers create all sorts of surrogate measures that they can measure, like PowerPoint slide counts and progress charts," says consultant Tim Horan. "The person doing the landscaping has a better sense of accomplishment."
Jon Williams once worked in an auto-claims department where the number of new-claim calls, which could take a half hour, were tallied with the same weight as brief reminder calls to customers. Even so, his greatest sense of achievement was transforming an initially angry and frustrated customer into someone who was satisfied and even laughing. "That wasn't measured at all," he says.
The difficulty of putting your finger on what you've accomplished gives employees pangs. James Ault recently visited a municipal park where he worked in maintenance while in college. He saw the same signs he painted, the same electrical job he wired, and the same trees he planted 35 years ago. Now, he works on state energy policy where he spends countless hours debating policy issues.
"I've said to my wife on multiple occasions, 'It would be nice to be an electrician,"' he says. "You can take pride in what you've accomplished."
At closing time, work doesn't seem completed, just temporarily abandoned. As much as he loves his job, insurance broker Ryan Bowles envies Fred Flintstone's exit from work in the quarry at day's end. "He seems so happy sliding down that dinosaur's tail when the whistle-bird blows," he says.
Similarly, Jane Vawter, a management consultant, is jealous of ground-control engineers celebrating their spacecraft's first flight. "That must be a tremendous feeling," she says, "one I will never know."
She has learned how to garner a sense of accomplishment from the work she produces, instead of the response it receives. She loves to do needlework in her spare time just to control the process from start to finish.
The loss of such control over how and when a job is done is one reason the Industrial Revolution was resisted, says Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at University of California, Davis. "It seemed like the complete destruction of the value of work to people," he explains.
Consequently, many employers had to pay workers up to a 40 percent premium to live under the employer's control, he adds.
These days, we're one step further removed from the finished product. Employees have to wait for the gratification that comes with seeing a goal finally realized. "The average delay is much, much longer for the average worker today," says Robert Frank, a professor at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. And behavioral science notes we have difficulty with a reward delayed.
Maybe that's why Home Depot's aisles are packed with do-it-yourselfers and why a colleague is complaining of soreness from spreading mulch.
Mechanical engineer Robert Schneider at least gets to see the ball bearings he designed being produced in the manufacturing plant downstairs from his office. But he spends a lot of time researching things that don't directly translate into a finished product. "Much of the work I do goes unnoticed by anyone but me," he says. "I need to rely on myself to know I am doing worthwhile work."