Work Futures Weekly | Getting Down to Business

A sample of the new weekly for subscribers only going forward


Long Beach Island, NJ | I am on a semi-vacation, working from a friend’s house on the New Jersey shore, and having a relaxing time despite the rain and clouds.

:::

This is the first of a new weekly issue of the Work Futures newsletter, where I will be curating news and ideas that have found their way to me in recent days, many of which I have not touched on in the normal Work Futures newsletter. My plan is that this newsletter will be — most of the time — directed toward Work Futures members: those who have opted for paid subscriptions. Members will also be gaining access to other benefits.

Several have asked if I might start some live events — interviews and panels with those I admire for their contributions — and members will gain access to those, while others will have to pay to attend.

I am also planning to create a quarterly ebook series, expanding on themes like Minimal Viable Work, Paradoxes of Engagement, and A New Way of Work. These will be accessible to members, while others will have to purchase copies.

So, I am getting down to business in my efforts to spend more of my time on Work Futures, and less working on other projects, and I hope that this will encourage more readers to help underwrite my work, here. If you can afford it, please consider it.



Quote of the Moment

Humans have a responsibility to their own time, not as if they could seem to stand outside it and donate various spiritual and material benefits to it from a position of compassionate distance. Humans have a responsibility to find themselves where they are, in their own proper time and place, in the history to which they belong and to which they must inevitably contribute either their response or their evasions, either truth and act, or mere slogan and gesture.

| Thomas Merton


Stories

Jesse Hirsch does a good job pulling thoughts about Amazon’s growing reliance on cold-blooded algorithmic management in Terminated by an Algorithm. Here he cites Spencer Soper of Bloomberg:

Amazon knew delegating work to machines would lead to mistakes and damaging headlines, these former managers said, but decided it was cheaper to trust the algorithms than pay people to investigate mistaken firings so long as the drivers could be replaced easily.

He collates commentary from Alex Rosenblat on Uber’s use of algorithmic management, Ars Technica’s Tim De Chant on Amazon, Brian Merchant on DoorDash, and others.

An observer to follow.


Claire Cain Miller returns to the myth of serendipity in the office in Do Chance Meetings at the Office Boost Innovation? There’s No Evidence of It:

When Yahoo banned working from home in 2013, the reason was one often cited in corporate America: Being in the office is essential for spontaneous collaboration and innovation.

“It is critical that we are all present in our offices,” wrote Jacqueline Reses, then a Yahoo executive, in a staff memo. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”

Today, Ms. Reses, now chief executive of Post House Capital, an investment firm, has a different view. “Would I write that memo differently now?” she said. “Oh yeah.” She still believes that collaboration can benefit from being together in person, but over the last year, people found new, better ways to work.

As the pandemic winds down in the United States, however, many bosses are sounding a note similar to Ms. Reses’ in 2013. “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity,” said Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, about post-pandemic work. “It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had.” Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, said working from home “doesn’t work for spontaneous idea generation, it doesn’t work for culture.”

[...]

“The idea you can only be collaborative face-to-face is a bias,” he [Dan Spaulding, Chief People Officer of Zillow] said. “And I’d ask, how much creativity and innovation have been driven out of the office because you weren’t in the insider group, you weren’t listened to, you didn’t go to the same places as the people in positions of power were gathering?”

[...]

“There’s credibility behind the argument that if you put people in spaces where they are likely to collide with one another, they are likely to have a conversation,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, who teaches at Harvard Business School and studies the topic. “But is that conversation likely to be helpful for innovation, creativity, useful at all for what an organization hopes people would talk about? There, there is almost no data whatsoever.”

I wrote about research on ‘the anatomy of collaboration’ from Bernstein and his collaborator Ben Waber, in Institutional Cowardice:

The authors explore case studies where companies found that open office plans led to decreases in productivity, examples where decreasing interaction between different functional teams — in one case by moving people to other buildings — led to beneficial results.

The key takeaway from this — which I recommend you read in its entirety — is that companies have to decide how to measure what behaviors and outcomes they want, and experiment with office architecture and interaction patterns to gain them. You can’t simply adopt what WeWork office designers give you and expect to operate at some nebulous peak of efficiency.

Although expect CEOs to continue to push the unsupported canard that chance interactions in IRL workplaces are the wellspring of innovation.

I also profiled Bernstein in Profile: Ethan Bernstein, Organizational Behaviorist.


Elsie Chen writes about the Tangping movement in China, a reaction to the Chinese overwork culture of 996 (9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week), which I have written about before. Here’s Chen:

Five years ago, Luo Huazhong discovered that he enjoyed doing nothing. He quit his job as a factory worker in China, biked 1,300 miles from Sichuan Province to Tibet and decided he could get by on odd jobs and $60 a month from his savings. He called his new lifestyle “lying flat.”

“I have been chilling,” Mr. Luo, 31, wrote in a blog post in April, describing his way of life. “I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong.”

He titled his post “Lying Flat Is Justice,” attaching a photo of himself lying on his bed in a dark room with the curtains drawn. Before long, the post was being celebrated by Chinese millennials as an anti-consumerist manifesto. “Lying flat” went viral and has since become a broader statement about Chinese society.

A generation ago, the route to success in China was to work hard, get married and have children. The country’s authoritarianism was seen as a fair trade-off as millions were lifted out of poverty. But with employees working longer hours and housing prices rising faster than incomes, many young Chinese fear they will be the first generation not to do better than their parents.

They are now defying the country’s long-held prosperity narrative by refusing to participate in it.

Mr. Luo’s blog post was removed by censors, who saw it as affront to Beijing’s economic ambitions. Mentions of “lying flat” — tangping, as it’s known in Mandarin — are heavily restricted on the Chinese internet. An official counternarrative has also emerged, encouraging young people to work hard for the sake of the country’s future.

“After working for so long, I just felt numb, like a machine,” Mr. Luo said in an interview. “And so I resigned.”

Reminds me of the 'walkaway' movement Corey Doctorow wrote about in the utopian Walkaway:

In a world of non-work, ruined by human-created climate change and pollution, and where people are under surveillance and ruled over by a mega-rich elite, Hubert, his friends Seth and Natalie, decide that they have nothing to lose by turning their backs and walking away from the everyday world or "default reality," shortened to "Default."

The improvement of 3D printers over current real-world versions, as well as the invention of machines that can search for and reprocess waste or discarded materials, the characters no longer have need of Default for the basic essentials of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter.

As more and more people choose to "walkaway", the ruling elite do not take these social changes sitting down. They use the military, police and mercenaries to attack and disrupt the walkaways' new settlements. [source: Wikipedia]

Again, science fiction turns out to be a great predictor of the near future.


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