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'Culture of Work' Focus of latest Behind the Headlines

23 November 2021 - ‘Work is a necessary evil’, wrote the American author Mark Twain. But as we continue to grapple with the pandemic and the changes it has brought to our working lives, do we need to reconsider our attitude to the culture of work? As part of its latest ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion, the Trinity Long Room Hub gathered a panel of industry and academic experts and author Caitríona Lally to discuss these issues with an online audience.

Participating in the online event which took place on Monday, November 22nd, 2021, were Ryan Shanks, Managing Director of Accenture, The Dock; Carole Holohan, Assistant Professor in Modern Irish History, Trinity; Ilse White, Corporate Learning Researcher at Learnovate, Trinity; and writer and Trinity Long Room Hub Rooney Writer Fellow, Caitríona Lally. The speakers considered the function and representation of work from a variety of perspectives and the prospects for our working culture in the future.

Caitríona Lally is the inaugural Rooney Writer Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub, and author of Eggshells and Wunderland.  Caitríona lives in Dublin and divides her time between her young children, her writing, and working in the housekeeping department at Trinity College Dublin. When Caitríona was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2018, she received international media attention for being both a writer and a cleaner with some comparing her to “a real-life Good Will Hunting.”

Caitríona, who spoke about the different types of work she does, in terms of pay, commitment, satisfaction and respect, said she has always been "drawn to physical work for its satisfaction and sense of completion", and she highlighted how her cleaning job allows her the free time to write. She has also used her work material for her latest novel Wunderland, where one of the characters works as a cleaner in a model railway exhibition.

"There's no politics in my cleaning job, there's no meetings, no pretence, no smoozing, no spoofing, no pretending to know things you haven't a clue about; you do your work, it's obvious whether you've done it or not and you get paid."

The online audience also heard from Dr Carole Holohan, an Assistant Professor in Modern Irish History at Trinity College Dublin, who teaches on the social and cultural history of nineteenth and twentieth century Ireland. Her research also examines the social history of the sixties, with publications on the history of youth and the history of poverty in modern Ireland.


Dr Holohan used the example of her parent's working lives to trace the work cultures of the past, including gender roles and the paper trails ("payslips, pension forms, p60s from the Revenue") that tell us a story about people's lives, the structures of the economy and the ideologies that prevailed at the time. She also spoke of the dominant elements of the Irish story of work, including emigration and seasonal migrants, while arguing that class difference is necessary to understanding different work cultures.

Also speaking at the event was Ryan Shanks, Managing Director of Accenture, The Dock (Accenture’s flagship R&D and global innovation center). Ryan has been working for over 20 years at the coal face of industry around the globe, implementing new technologies, restructuring organisations, and developing talent with global organisations. He is also sits on the Trinity Long Room Hub's governance board.

Speaking about the changing culture of work, Ryan noted that new technologies will enable a level of collaboration not previously available, allowing remote working to become even more engaging. He questioned, however, to what the extent workers have the power and "agency" to shape this new work life.

Ilse White is a Corporate Learning Researcher at Learnovate at Trinity College Dublin where she consults and collaborates with clients looking to improve practices in learning design and employee development. At last night's Behind the Headlines she spoke about the relationship between wellbeing and learning and its importance for the future of work.

Ilse said wellbeing has been a topic of research and debate for centuries but she noted that “research suggests levels of wellbeing are decreasing. Even before the pandemic, people reported the lowest levels of wellbeing and engagement ever. Organisations no longer perceive wellbeing solutions as ‘nice to have’ or an add-on. They realise wellbeing solutions can provide their organisation with a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent. However much more needs to be done and there is a massive readiness gap. While 80% of organisations say worker well-being is important or very important to the success of their organisation, only 12% say they are very ready to address the issue.”

 Watch the full disucussion here.


The Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.

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