Profile: Anne Helen Petersen
One of the best chroniclers of the workplace, today.
Anne Helen Petersen is one of the best chroniclers of the workplace, today.
In “I Accept Pay Less Than My Worth Just To Get A Job”: How The Gig Economy Screwed Over Millennials, Petersen offers excerpts from her Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, and brings the pitfalls of the gig economy into high relief:
The general logic behind freelancing goes something like this: You have a marketable skill, maybe in graphic design, photography, writing, digital editing, or web design. Various companies are in need of that skill. In the past, medium- and large-size companies would’ve hired full-time employees with that skill. But in the fissured workplace, those same companies are reticent to hire any more full-time employees than absolutely necessary. So they hire multiple freelancers to do the work of a full-time staffer, which gives the company high-quality work, without the added responsibility to shoulder freelancers’ health benefits or ensure fair working conditions.
From the outside, freelancing seems like a dream: You work when you want to work; you’re ostensibly in control of your own destiny. But if you’re a freelancer, you’re familiar with the dark side of these “benefits.” The “freedom to set your own hours” also means the “freedom to pay for your own healthcare.” The passage of the Affordable Care Act has made it easier to purchase an individual plan off the marketplace. But before that — and given the concerted attempt to undercut the ACA — obtaining affordable healthcare as a freelancer has become increasingly untenable.
Freelancing also means no employer-facilitated 401k, no employee match, and no subsidized or concerted means, other than the portion of your freelance checks that go to Social Security every month, to save for retirement. It often means hiring an accountant to deal with labyrinthian tax structures, and getting paid a flat fee for the end product or service, regardless of how many hours you put into it. It means complete independence, which in the current capitalist marketplace is another way of saying it means complete insecurity.
Petersen cites Farhad Manjoo from The Tech Industry Is Building a Vast Digital Underclass:
The software-driven policies of exploitation and servility will metastasize across the economic value chain. Taking DoorDash workers’ tips today will pave the way for taking advantage of everyone else tomorrow.
Which has a faint echo of ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist’, but replacing socialists with gig workers.
If you are too busy to read her book, this post serves as a great synopsis and directly from the source:
Manjoo’s right. But the people it’s most poised to take advantage of in the immediate future are those who have no other options — and those, like millennials and Gen Z, who don’t realize there’s any other way. Which underlines the current conundrum: Shitty work conditions produce burnout, but burnout — and the resultant inability, either through lack of energy or lack of resources, to resist exploitation — helps keep work shitty. Significant legislation to updates labor laws to respond to current workplace realities can and will help. But so will solidarity: an old fashioned word that simply means consensus, amongst a wide variety of people of like mind, that resistance is possible.
‘And then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me’.
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In how email became work, Petersen focuses on the myriad ways email has seeped into our pores and toxified work and life, acting as a proxy for overwork in all its insidious manifestations. She’s been influenced by Melissa Gregg, whose Work’s Intimacy I clearly need to read:
In her study of office workers, she hears a similar explanation over and over again for why employees spend their Sunday nights and weekday evenings attending to their inboxes: it would be wasteful to spend the workday emailing, and clearing an inbox ahead of time means the workday itself is less stressful.
Attending to email during off-hours, in other words, makes you more productive during the actual workday. But productive for what? More meetings, more work, that will then generate more emails. “A platform that was first designed to overcome the asynchronous schedules of co-workers has been transformed into its opposite,” Gregg writes. “It is now a means to demonstrate co-presence with colleagues and enhance the pace and immediacy of busy office schedules.”
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In Are You Sure You Want to Go Back to the Office?, Petersen ranges across the myriad threads of heading back to the office, and the reasons why not:
When I talked to dozens of analysts, H.R. experts, architects, consultants, real estate agents and office furniture designers, the consensus was clear: The future of office work is flexibility. At one end of that flexibility spectrum, there will be fully “distributed” companies like the software maker GitLab, with no headquarters and employees scattered across the world. At the other, there’ll be more old-fashioned organizations that demand face time in the office, but whose belief in the infeasibility of remote work has been permanently undercut.
And then there’s the vast, corporate in between. Headquarters aren’t going away, but more companies will embrace the hub-and-spoke model: smaller footprints in big, expensive cities, and smaller offices in places where employees want to (and can afford to) live. Some companies will keep their existing office space and allow people to claim staggered schedules that align with their preferences, avoid peak commuting times, and reduce overall capacity in the office.
Others will try what used to be known as “hoteling” or “hot desking,” in which multiple workers share a desk. Still others will offer stipends for employees to join the small, neighborhood-oriented working spaces that will proliferate as Americans get vaccinated.
People will be leaving their homes, having conversations, working with others — which is what they actually miss when they say they miss the office. They’ll just be doing it more on their terms than ever before.
Remote work will have to be viewed as equally important as in-person work. In practice, that means rethinking what remote working actually looks like — that is, very little like what we’re doing now. We’re not just working from home, after all. We’re working from home during a pandemic.
All of these companies catering to the highly skilled work force told me the same thing: Post-Covid flexibility is going to make the office even better. Workers are going to have a higher quality of life, more time with their kids, more connection to their communities. They’ll be able to live where they want to live, stop paying exorbitant rent. They might even figure out how to work less, simply by being able to concentrate more. This is the wild, blissful, utopian flexible future.
If the future of work is flexibility, our challenge now is to make sure that future doesn’t just worsen the ever-widening divide in American society between those promised a new vision of the good, balanced life, and those for whom “flexibility” means effacing your wants and needs and dreams, once again, to the fickle demands of your employer.
This is just a small sample of Petersen’s work, her insight, and her brilliant use of language.