Work Futures Daily

| Bottom-Up Unions | Who Manages The Managers? | Longer Commutes | Interruptions | Bullshit Jobs | George Santayana | Forgotten Newsletters |

Beacon NY | 2019–10–10 | We have — at least many of us — made a Faustian bargain: an exchange of our time for knowledge, a paycheck, and status in the world. Most of the stories in this issue touch on that in one way or another. The lousy commute, the bullshit job, the need to push back on manipulative bosses, the need to organize in retaliation to work-related grievances.


Also, I have made my own Faustian bargain, which is why I have transitioned to a less frequent schedule here at Work Futures Daily: too many other obligations.


The Radical Manifesto Embraced by Google Workers and Uber Drivers | Naom Scheiber looks into the recent organizing in traditionally un-unionized sectors, like white collar tech workers, Uber drivers, and Starbucks retail staff, and finds the influence of Staughton Lynd, a labor historian, who wrote the first edition of Labor Law for the Rank and Filer in 1978, and updated editions in 2008 and 2011 with participation of Daniel Gross after the two met at a labor conference in 2000. Gross is 50 years younger than Lynd. The book draws its inspiration from the thinking behind the International Workers of the World, a form of bottom-up unionism from the early 1900s, that can be contrasted with top-down conventional unionism:

Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross lay out a practical guide for staging a kind of workplace revolution that upends the balance of power between management and labor.

They explain, for example, when striking workers enjoy strong legal protections (in taking aim at unfair labor practices like retaliation) and when they are more exposed (in strikes focused strictly on economic demands). They discuss the circumstances under which workers can take their concerns to the media, such as a news conference in which coffee shop employees disclosed evidence of rat and insect infestations.

But more broadly, the book serves as a polemic contrasting mainstream “business unions” with what the Wobblies refer to as “solidarity unions” — that is, worker-led groups that are not typically certified as exclusive bargaining agents under federal law and therefore don’t need to win majority support to exist.

The business union “is controlled from the top down by officers and staff (usually white males) who are not regularly employed at the workplace,” Mr. Lynd and Mr. Gross write. They complain that a business union is preoccupied with achieving a bargaining agreement that requires workers to give up the right to strike and any say in the company’s major decisions.

When there is trouble at the workplace, they write, “the union member calls a steward or business agent and hopes that some bureaucratic process disconnected from the rank and file will right the wrong.”

In a solidarity union, by contrast, the workers “decide together on a course of direct action to right the wrong, which the workers will lead.” Solidarity unions may seek written agreements with management, but they are loath to make them overly comprehensive, at the risk of letting management get too comfortable.

This is a mislabeling. It would be better to call the bottom-up unionism of the Wobblies fluidarity, because the workers don’t have to agree on a complete platform prior to taking action, as opposed the the top-down solidarity generally practiced in conventional labor unions, which is a reflection of the top-down orientation of major corporations. But let’s not let names get in the way of the major distinction between conventional, top-down unions and the unconventional, bottom-up ones advocated by Lynd and Gross.


Who manages the managers? | Jonathan and Melissa Nightgale try to answer a hard question. If businesses use tools that attempt to harness people’s natural desire for mastery, autonomy, and purpose, they can be overused, right?

Once you understand what goes into motivation, you can design for it. You can feed people’s need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You can help them connect with a rich vein of energy for the work. And that energy can help them run faster and think smarter. It’s such an inspiring thing for any boss to see their people giving it everything they’ve got.

But if you keep pushing, you can run that vein dry. We’ve both worked in orgs that fed our sense of purpose so much that taking any down time, making any space, felt like a moral failure. And that’s what this person was asking. Where’s the braking force? Who stops this from becoming abusive?

There are two answers to that question. Or one answer, in two parts. The first answer is: no one. Look around. There are CEOs who step in, but there are far, far more who don’t. There are boards that act, but there are far, far more who wait for it to blow over. Those people should act, to be clear. They are ignoring their legal and moral duty when they don’t. But unless you have good reason to believe that your org is different, it’s not going to make sense to count on them.

The more complete answer is: no one, so we have to govern ourselves. If we’re going to build skills around managing people. If we’re going to say yes to the promotion and take the pay that comes with leading people as a career. Then we have to do the job. We have to wear the responsibility for where it leads. And when you let that fully rest on you, when you really feel it, and it’s overwhelming to you what a big thing it is, that’s when you start doing the work.

I wrote a piece years ago called Dig Your Own Hole, Sharpen Your Own Shovel that builds on the idea we have to take responsibility for our own personal development, and that includes managing the managers.


Want a Better, Nicer, Shorter Commute? The U.S. Government Just Revealed Some Really Bad News | Bill Murphy reports that commutes are getting longer, and some thoughts on why:

And depending on where your business is located, your employees might be spending as much as 17 hours a year more commuting than they would have a decade ago.

As The Washington Post put it while reporting the data:

“Relative to 1980, the picture is even more grim: Since then, American workers have lost nearly an hour a week to their commutes, the equivalent of one full-time workweek over the course of a year. All told, the average American worker spent 225 hours, or well over nine full calendar days, commuting in 2018.”

The causes of the increase in commute time are sort of obvious — the kinds of things that add up over time. Among them:

º New housing isn’t being built fast enough in metropolitan areas, and what housing exists is much more expensive.

º So, workers are settling further away from where they work — especially after they start families.

º Overall populations are growing, but we’re barely spending enough to maintain the existing transportation infrastructure, never mind expand it.

And stupid bosses are resisting the benefits of remote work, four day weeks, and any number of other approaches to counter this trend.


Digital tools interrupt workers 14 times a day | Roberto Torres has more bad news about wasted time at work:

The constant chime of digital workplace tools including email, instant messaging or collaboration software interrupts knowledge workers 13.9 times on an average day, according to a survey of 3,750 global workers from Workfront.

In the company’s State of Work 2020 study, 86% of workers said they expect simplicity and ease of use from their workplace tools, likening ideal systems to the user experience provided by platforms such as Instagram or Amazon.

Respondents say just 43% of their week is spent focusing on the job they were hired to do. The rest of their work day goes to administrative tasks, unproductive or nonessential meetings, responding to emails or other tasks.


Bullshit Jobs | Jonah Galeota-Sprung reviews David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs, and has fun dissecting the core motivations for working:

Why do we have to do it? What else do we have to do? The questions are staging a comeback. Old dreams of new deals and new dreams of old jobs wake and walk. David Graeber’s latest book, Bullshit Jobs, is one of many contributions to this rethinking. Slapdash and anecdotal, it reads like a parody of a pop-business manual, an anarchist take on Charles Duhigg or Malcolm Gladwell. The premise, which gained wide coverage following a 2013 article of the same title, is that many-to-most people in the wealthy world are employed in jobs not only unpleasant but purposeless: their days are filled with what amounts to busywork, however cleverly disguised, or they are filled with sitting around doing nothing.

Graeber’s scheme divides the working world in four. There are those who do actually necessary labor, like harvesting, manufacturing, cleaning and caring for children, the sick or the elderly. These jobs have clear value, tend to be low-status and poorly paid and are often performed by the most vulnerable. The upper echelon of meaningful and rewarding work — art, medicine, science, NGO administration, etc. — is reserved almost exclusively to those born into wealth, not least because such careers often require expensive degrees or long unpaid apprenticeships. Alongside them stand the better-remunerated but less obviously virtuous elite of bankers and corporate executives and such — roles with clear duties and goals, even if those goals are often at odds with public interests. Everyone else is stuck doing some sort of bullshit: work that’s not only of questionable utility in broad terms, but clearly pointless or redundant within its own organizational context. Personal reports from workers in this last group, which Graeber subdivides into the categories of flunky, goon, box ticker, duct taper and taskmaster, form the core of the book.

A tensile network of bitterness and sadomasochism holds the system stable. The useful resent that the money all goes to their useless overlords; those overlords resent the intrinsic rewards work brings their underlings; those in between resent everybody; and the well-paid and purposeful feel keenly, at some level, the vampiric nature of their satisfactions. Graeber calls this arrangement “managerial feudalism,” and is at pains to show that its paeans to efficiency are but a thin cover for a much weirder and more atavistic set of relationships. “The whole point,” he writes, “is to grab a pot of loot, either by stealing it from one’s enemies or extracting it from commoners by means of fees, tolls, rents, and levies, and then redistributing it. In the process, one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies (goons), or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.”

Go read it. It’s good even if you’ve read the original, and incorporates a great deal more than Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs polemic.

From the Archives

The way we work doesn’t work, anymore | Stowe Boyd | February 2017 |

Gallup has released its 2017 State of the American Workplace, and the first words, from Jim Clifton, Gallup’s Chair and CEO, takes a very strong stand:

“The very practice of management no longer works.”

Still true.

Quote of the Day

Faust founds his kingdom because he must do something; and his only ideal of what he hopes to secure for his subjects is that they shall always have something to do.

| George Santayana


Email-Newsletter Start-ups and The Future of Media | Kaitlyn Tiffany reports on venture capital moving into newsletter startups:

Substack, founded in 2017 by Chris Best (former chief technology officer of the Canadian messaging app Kik) and developer Jairaj Sethi, as well as the former journalist and Tesla alum Hamish McKenzie, is at the head of a pack of new email-newsletter start-ups — a surprising sentence mostly because it’s hard to think of anything less thrilling, from a venture-capital perspective, than email, a decades-old technology that essentially everyone is accustomed to using for free, all the time, rarely for fun.

But Andreessen Horowitz led a $15.3 million round of funding for the company this summer, with general partner Andrew Chen taking a seat on the board. We’re living in “a pivotal time in the history of mass communication,” Chen wrote on his firm’s blog at the time. “The golden age of new media.” Substack, and its intimacy-leveraging subscription model, he argued, was the future.

Buttondown, which also launched in 2017, charges newsletter writers nothing until they reach 1,000 subscribers, and $5 a month per thousand subscribers after that. Revue, which has a sophisticated suite of editing tools, and is aimed more at publishing teams or “thought leaders,” is free up to 50 subscribers and then charges a variable fee based on audience size ($5 a month up to 200, $8 up to 750, $10 up to 2,000, and so on). It raised an angel round of €300,000 in 2016, is currently profitable thanks to subscription revenue from its 60,000 registered users, and plans to fundraise again at the beginning of 2020.

Substack works on commission, taking 10 percent whenever a writer starts charging her audience a monthly or yearly subscription fee. Though anyone can use the product entirely for free and charge their readers nothing, Best, who is the CEO, told me the company considers free newsletters something like “lead generation.” When people are new to the platform, they’ll start out publishing for free, but that’s ideally an “incubation period” before they start converting their audience. The site has a dedicated discovery section where top newsletters are ranked, then promoted based on “internet points,” and the founders often emphasize their personal investment in helping writers grow their subscriber lists.

Her history of the newsletter world stands in dramatic contrast to Mike Isaacs’ male-dominated piece The New Social Network That Isn’t New At All. She sums up the current frenzy:

Newsletters were a private world, a club so thoroughly feminine it was forgotten. Now they’re the next big thing.

Mentions Griefbacon at Substack, but its creator Helena Fitzgerald is winding that newsletter down soon.


Workplace Growth and The Frontline Workforce | Stowe Boyd | Facebook’s Workplace continues its expansion with special attention on the 80% of the workforce that doesn’t sit behind a desk.


Departing the File Platform | Stowe Boyd | How Dropbox and Box are Diverging, and Why

If you are receiving this you've probably signed up for the Work Futures Daily newsletter. If not, sign up, here. Support our work by becoming a sponsor, here. Or become a follower on Medium, here, and click on the applause button. Drop a few bucks in the hat, here, if you'd like to support our work on a one-time basis.