Work Is F*cked, It’s High Time We Fix It
Stop. Breathe in. Breathe out. We’re in for the long haul. What’s going on in the world is not something to be processed intellectually. The suffering, the solitude, the shock of it all begs to be felt — to be lived. Unless you’re working on the front-line or providing an essential service, the absolute best way to make a contribution right now is (and for some, it’s no choice) to stay home. To retreat.
But we’re now presented with a wonderful opportunity. It may not feel it amidst all the pain and suffering, pandemonium, and paranoia — but we are. It’s nuanced and textured. We have the benefit of reassessing the values we value. We have a chance to reset, to shift priorities, to transform the way we work, the businesses we support, and change our cultural-cognitive grammar.
Indeed an entirely new lexicon of vocabulary (I’ll keep my distance here and spare you the details as I’m sure you’ve heard/read enough) has surfaced. But we already have shared vocabulary that’s worth re-investigating: duty, morality, inequality, access, etiquette, fairness, compassion, collaboration, dignity, solidarity, connection, family, joy, and borders. To be sure the border here isn’t between nations — but between humans and the virus.
Bugs like this one don’t discriminate.
Among the many openings laid before us is our relationship to the planet, to others, to the self, and to work. Indeed overnight, the future of work is here. For those in the wired world, we’re becoming more digital day by day and cultivating thoughtful and inventive ways to work from home.
But more so than ever — social mobility, access to good education, equal opportunity, and job security is becoming pipe dreams for all too many. The modern economy, which is on the brink of breaking, is leaving too many behind.
More so than ever — social mobility, access to good education, equal opportunity, and job security is becoming pipe dreams for all too many. The modern economy, which is on the brink of breaking, is leaving too many behind.
What we’ve done is confused value extraction with value creation. And this adversely affects companies, workers, society, and our planet. Reflecting on the ugliest truth facing America, growing economic inequality is a glaring signal to the misery that lies ahead. It is time to renew the values we value most.
To add more fuel to the fire, we face acute employee disengagement, a shortage of skilled labour, gender pay inequality, widespread underemployment, and machines that continue to gobble up our jobs. Oh yes, and millennials have had to endure the bleakest financial future of any generation in over a century.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Business as Unusual
We have seen some companies step up and show their true colors and others unsurprisingly shit the bed. Those that make it a priority to dispense work in a more equitable way have given more of the means of production (or capital) to workers. The 8 trends are not just well and alive, they’re swooshing towards us in a tsunami. Working from home, although by mandate instead of by choice--has and always will be about trust. And finally it’s clear that growing bigger for its own sake is a disease and that better, indeed, can be beautiful.
For over a decade the Enspiral Network, a group of social enterprises, businesses, and individuals have taken a radically different approach to work. The collective is living proof that ownership, governance, decisions, and resources can all be more widely and effectively distributed. When everyone is a leader in a learning organisation like this, it becomes infinitely more resilient.
Instead of platform corporations extracting value to no end, we could support platform cooperatives that don’t alienate workers or consumers (who really are one and the same). Rather than the monopolies parading around sporting the fake T-shirts, these progressive organisations represent the real sharing company: Modo (ride sharing), Peerby (sharing goods), Stocksy (photo sharing), Fairmondo (co-op version of eBay), Fairbnb (co-op version of Airbnb), Resonate (music co-op), Up & Go (home cleaning), to name but a few.
The dance between structure and fluidity is a delicate one, and like any business not all of these will make it. Along with several positive deviants around the world, new models of innovation and production are taking hold. The time is ripe for supporting the people behind the businesses that add, not strip, to the fabric of society.
Let’s not forget that what we choose to consume governs what we produce, and in turn the companies that flourish or flounder. It’s clear that the industrial age imperative for efficiency and the subsequent ways we organise, grow, and compete are no longer serving us. We’ve fluffled the ego for too long and spinning our wheels in what can best be described as a turbo-charged hedonic Peloton stationary bike.
Do we need even more evidence than this Pandemic to see that changing our course is urgent? Maybe so. The hills in Japan are littered with tsunami stones that warn people not to “build any homes below this point.” Sometimes builders listen and villages survive a disaster. Other times, signs are ignored and people perish.
We have all the signals we need in front of us right now.
A New Horizon
During the Reagan–Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, the horizon of our shared future began to fade. We entered the age of individualism, and our perceived needs and ego-driven wants reigned supreme. But Gordon Gekko was wrong: greed is not good. Being decent is.
We’re still wheeling in the aftermath of this special blend of laissez-faire capitalism that jacked up the economy. The 2008 financial crisis presented an opportunity to course-correct that we squandered. In the same vein, this era also perpetuated the falsehood that self-actualization is an independent affair. But we know that work, as life, is a team sport. We’re now in a similar moment — and the big question is what a new world order will look like.
Instead of platform corporations extracting value to no end, we could support platform cooperatives that don’t alienate workers or consumers (who really are one and the same).
While our social inequality, economic stagnation, and financial instability might not be enough discomfort to spur a revolution, it has ignited a renaissance. We now express ourselves on a globally connected stage. We search for alternative forms of meaning, new tools to become enlightened, and novel ways to feel a sense of belonging. It’s reflected in our cultural melting pot, art that pushes the envelope, and efforts to solve our most pressing human problems.
We can choose to actively engage with the unknown. Resolve to participate. Present our best selves in everyday life. Foster soulful connections with others so we can challenge our assumptions and re-assess the very purpose of the business firm. Although we may behave like it more often than not, we aren’t designed to serve the economy. We don’t have time to mull it over, the time to act is now.
The pandemic is a war on our collective consciousness. The asymmetry we face now forces us to adopt new behaviours, new ways of thinking, and new ways of being. It’s a test of our resilience and capacity to lean into the liminal. This is the time not to shun our humanity but to seize it. Our response must take the long view to bring the horizon into view for our next generations.
The question should not be if we’ll play the same record when the tide goes out — but what new tune we’ll choose to sing.
This is a guest blog by Jonas Altman. He is the founder of design practice Social Fabric and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. Altman is passionate about new models of organizing and is the author of SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future. More info here.
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How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”