Work Futures Update | We Know We Are Being Fooled

| Curtis White | Overload | Lee Bryant | Everlane Unravels, Patagonia Holds Fast| Pandemic as Promise |

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

2020–04–19 Beacon NY | I stumbled upon Curtis White’s two-part series in Orion, written in 2007. One is entitled The Ecology of Work, and I could have selected almost any part of that essay to serve as a quote of the moment.

The coronavirus crisis rages, and we have suspended the capitalist system to enact what looks like a temporary social democracy. And many are wondering, like Jamelle Bouie, who recently wrote,

In one short month, the United States has made a significant leap toward a kind of emergency social democracy, in recognition of the fact that no individual or community could possibly be prepared for the devastation wrought by the pandemic. Should the health and economic crisis extend through the year, there’s a strong chance that Americans will move even further down that road, as businesses shutter, unemployment continues to mount and the federal government is the only entity that can keep the entire economy afloat.

But this logic — that ordinary people need security in the face of social and economic volatility — is as true in normal times as it is under crisis. If something like a social democratic state is feasible under these conditions, then it is absolutely possible when growth is high and unemployment is low. And in the wake of two political campaigns — Bernie Sanders’s and Elizabeth Warren’s — that pushed progressive ideas into the mainstream of American politics, voters might begin to see this essential truth.

We know that countering climate change will be every bit as hard as recovering from the pandemic, and it is likely that we will have to supersede capitalism with something new — and better — to get there.

Quote of the Moment

Let’s be honest. For the moment, not even the pleasantly affluent people who regularly support the major environmental organizations (people like me) want to hear about how bad capitalism is or to think seriously about abandoning it as an organizing principle. Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with rogue corporations, a few “bad apples” as President Bush likes to say, and not with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably) frightening for most people. Nevertheless, our loyalty to capitalism makes us fools. Worse than that, we know we’re being fooled, and yet we lack the ability not to be fooled. Not for nothing did the philosopher Paul Ricoeur once observe that capitalism is “a failure that cannot be defeated.”

| Curtis White, The Ecology of Work


Too much work, too little time | Theodore Kinni reviews the newly released Overload, by Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen, the result of a yearlong effort at a Fortune 500 company — anonymized as TOMO — focused on serious work changes in the IT department. The effort was the outgrowth of a pervasive culture of overwork where ’41 percent of workers and 61 percent of managers agreed or strongly agreed that there was not enough time to get their jobs done’.

Kelly, Moen, and their team parachuted into TOMO to find out if there was a better way of working. Acting toward this end, they introduced an initiative called STAR — an acronym for support, transform, achieve results — in half of the IT division’s teams. STAR is a dual-agenda work redesign program. Such programs require that everyone — employees and management — be involved in and take responsibility for revamping the way in which work is done, and that the ultimate design of work serves the needs of both the company and employees.

As you may imagine, dual-agenda work redesign reaches far beyond the kinds of paternalistic flexible-work policies in place at many companies. At TOMO, the STAR teams identified practices and processes to give employees control over their time, including new work schedules and a reduction in low-value tasks, such as unproductive meetings. Managers were trained to better support both employees’ personal lives and the effectiveness of their performance on the job. This took months.

Once the STAR groups were up and working, the research team used business data, interviews, and ethnographic data to evaluate the initiative’s effects against the results from the control group over the same period. One year in, report Kelly and Moen, “with STAR, the company experienced increased job satisfaction, reduced burnout (which means more sustained engagement), employees who are less interested in finding another job, and fewer people choosing to leave the company.” STAR employees reported benefits to their “personal lives, health, and community connections.” Moreover, there was no discernable negative impact on productivity or business results.

Sounds good, right. But there is a fly in the soup:

While the field experiment was going on, TOMO merged with another company, and its management team [which I am interpreting to mean the management team of the other company] played a controlling role in the combined organization. The new leadership team abandoned STAR and reverted to the old ways of working, a decision the authors peg to the stumbling block in so many deals: cultural differences. “Leadership of the newly merged firm never explained STAR’s revocation to rank-and-file employees,” they write.

For reasons that are totally unclear to me, Kinni interprets this semi-positively:

It’s a good ending to the story, albeit an unhappy one, because it suggests an explanation for why overload is so prevalent and why management at large has not properly addressed it. Sometimes, the authors tell us, it is due to a reluctance to cede control over the way in which work is done. Leaders want to see butts in seats; when they call a meeting, they want to play to a full room. Other times, it is because of a need to exert greater control in a crisis.

Think of Melissa Mayer’s stupid decision to end distributed work at Yahoo, and likewise, IBM turning its back on distributed work in 2017 after decades of success with it, which looks increasingly like Ginni Rometty’s final efforts to halt IBM’s slide.

Kelly and Moen examine six similar revocations of work redesign initiatives and they note that, in each, management announced the need for greater collaboration and innovation as the rationale behind the decision. “What is not stated in these official accounts,” they write, “is that executives are downsizing and laying off employees at the same time they are pulling back from new ways of working.” In any case, it’s not a very flattering view of leaders.

Those paeans to collaboration and innovation are simply justifications for what they have decided to do, and just as IBM’s leaders were talking about agility and innovation, the actual goal was more likely shaking loose a lot of older and more expensive workers.


Don’t just talk — show your work! | Lee Bryant, an endless source of smart insight, ponders why things have changed so little in our work when everything has changed so much:

This is a slightly puzzling time for the first-wave pioneers of enterprise social business tools (or whatever you prefer to call them). On the one hand, we are watching a world suddenly forced to come to terms with online collaboration, remote working and using the internet to connect people and their work. But on the other hand, the ideas, methods and tools we grew up with and which were once imagined to be the future of work are now almost quaint artefacts of a long-forgotten, more optimistic period.

People who spend their lives in meetings and calls have entered the new era doing exactly the same, but from home, using Zoom or MS Teams or a.n.other tool rather than meeting face-to-face in a room. The idea that meetings are ‘work’ and constitute an act of value creation, rather than performative organisational politics, seems to persist even when there is no office.

Meanwhile, people who are used to remote work, as opposed to just remote meetings, tend to operate a toolkit that is balanced between real-time synchronous (Slack, MS Teams, IRC), semi-synchronous (online collaboration tools — wikis, forums, collaborative planners and design tools, etc.) and asynchronous deep work (anything from paper to coding tools).


In other words, don’t just talk — do some work! Write. Curate. Connect. Architect. Build on other peoples’ ideas. Share. Ask. Reflect. Show your work. Accept feedback gracefully. Start to learn the power of real collaboration and distributed work.


The Recession’s Calling Bullshit on ‘Mission-Driven’ Companies Like Everlane | Rob Walker notes that Everlane has jettisoned its mission-driven marketwashing and dumped hundreds of employees when retail got punched in the face by coronavirus, amid claims that the company is using this as an opportunity to clean house of workers who were seeking to form a union.

Patagonia is one of the most fearlessly ideological companies around — it has literally sued the president to advance its point of view about preserving the natural world. But it is also a highly profitable $1 billion-a-year company with a six-decade-plus track record of surviving good times and bad, pro-environmental stances intact. It’s also a proven outdoor-gear brand commanding premium prices, even among discriminating consumers who may not care about its mission. So there was no crisis when, in mid-March, it announced it would close its retail locations and its website (and warehouse facilities) while it retooled operations — but keep paying employees. (It has since restarted online sales, but the Covid-19 update on its site noted: “As always, we encourage you to buy only what you need, buy local when possible, and repair what you already own.”) The company has, so far, evidently stuck to paying employees.

Things get dicey in that Everlane middle ground when the mission feels like a flashy feature that is maybe not all that supportable. It’s true that people want, in the broadest sense, to help improve the world. And they’ll accept the idea that buying a certain mission-driven product or service brand can be a form of “helping.” What they won’t accept is perceived hypocrisy: A brand that fails to walk its own talk, especially when times get tough. Suddenly, that “mission” just looks like marketing.


Could the Pandemic Wind Up Fixing What’s Broken About Work in America? | Claire Cain Miller gently unrolls the pandemic as promise.

Regarding paid sick leave for hourly workers:

For hourly workers, the importance of paid sick leave has become clearer. Just one in three service-sector workers has it, according to data from the University of California’s Shift Project, which runs a large and continuing survey of these workers, and 60 percent say they go to work when sick.

“What feels different, like an opportunity for change, is the public health case is just so obvious and strong,” said Kristen Harknett, one of the leaders of the Shift Project and a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “We’ve never before had such evidence for how this collectivizes the problem. It’s not just the bottom line.”

For white collars working at home (more about Overload by Kelly and Moen):

For white-collar, salaried workers, coronavirus is, in a way, offering a natural experiment, by forcing companies to let people work from home, create their own schedules and spend more time with their families. It could convince companies that constant face time is unnecessary, said the sociologists Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, who this year published “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”

“Part of the reason companies haven’t really changed is it’s a shift in mind-set to not focus on hours and being instantly responsive to a text at 9 p.m.,” Ms. Kelly said. “It’s a shift to working on the assumption that employees should decide when, where and how they do their work.”

An abrupt shift to working from home with schools closed is in no way a perfect experiment — people may feel less in control of their lives than ever, and most have no child care. But now, Ms. Moen said, it’s forcing companies to innovate.

“It’s no longer, do they want to,” she said. “We have to think of new ways of working, and sometimes a crisis can be an opportunity as well as a danger.”

Miller thinks there is no going back:

The policy changes that have already happened in response to the virus have come very quickly. They have illuminated how relatively easy it would be for workers to have these rights — employers or policymakers would just have to say so. It may be hard for them to take back benefits, analysts said, even those they’ve said are temporary.

“Once you make it clear that these things are within your capacity to do, people’s baseline expectations change,” said Mr. [Patrick] Wyman, the historian. “That was true of the New Deal, the Great Society, Obamacare. We can do a lot more than we think we can.”

Miller closes with a perfect takeaway from Wyman:

Crises are a useful reminder, useful in a tragic kind of way, of what we can do if we wanted to, if we had the will to do it.