Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
The Future of Work
Featuring Zeynep Ton & Joan C. Williams
The way we work is in constant evolution. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, do we have a chance to redesign the workplace and workforce for the better? Or will we go back to the way things were before the world locked down? Zeynep Ton, president of the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute, and Joan C. Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, join us to examine how we might improve the future of work.
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Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? A series of open-ended conversations of never-ending topics that has continued applicability, especially for our conversation today about the future of work, about what is going to happen to the workplace—not just the office, but the manufacturing floor, and not just the manufacturing floor, but the grocery, the meat packing plant, the white collar job, the blue collar job. And as you’ll hear in this conversation, I think the pink collar job. So the primary question for all of us now is after a year and a half plus going on two years of a world that everyone thought was going to change forever, and was going to change the workplace forever because of the pandemic, is that going to be the case? Was it the case? Have the reports of the death of the workplace been vastly overstated? Was that ever even true during the heart of the pandemic? And today we’re going to talk with two women, two scholars and practitioners of all these questions for years before the pandemic and presumably for years after about what the nature of the workplace is going to be, hopefully that this will be a moment of constructive change and constructive fissure of what was to what will be. I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network. We’ll be asking these questions and having that conversation along with Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): We’re gonna be talking to Zeynep Ton today and Joan C. Williams. Together, I think they’re really kind of the dream dream to be talking about work. So Zeynep ton, she’s a professor of practice in the operations management group at MIT Sloan. She’s the president of the nonprofit Good Jobs Institute, as well as the author of a book by that same name, Good Jobs. Her research focuses on how organizations can design and manage their operations in a way that is satisfactory to employees, customers, and investors simultaneously. Another way to put that is creating quality jobs for employees, making sure that consumers are having a great experience and the company is still making money. Joan C. Williams is a professor and director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. She’s also one of the most cited scholars on gender and racial bias in the workplace. So I’m really excited to talk to these two people.
ZK: And so am I. I mean, we’re always excited to talk to whomever we’re talking to, but today we’re really excited to talk to the actual people that we are talking to. And with that, we’re gonna begin this conversation. So it is such a pleasure today to be talking to two members of our Progress Network, Zeynep and Joan. We’re having this conversation during the summer. So there’s a big anticipation about—in the United States at least, Europe, probably, the rest of the world, who knows—of some semblance of work either returning to what was pre-March of 2020 or evolving to what will be post-September of 2021. So it’s a really opportune time to talk about what the world of the workplace is with two people who have been thinking about the evolving reality of work well before the pandemic, because work’s always evolving, and I’m sure have spent a considerable portion during the pandemic thinking one, I told you so, and two, what’s it all going to look like? So that’s the really broad question. And just as a Progress Network interesting note, which has been true beforehand, Emma Varvaloucas is sitting somewhere in Greece, in an undisclosed location somewhere in the Aegean.
EV: I’m in the anarchist neighborhood, actually, if anyone’s curious.
ZK: Oh good. That’s good to know, but at least they haven’t cut off the internet. And we had someone else for a while who was working from Berlin. We have someone else who’s working from Thailand. I believe now we have someone who’s working from London. So at least in terms of the brave new world of no one is anywhere and everyone is everywhere, we seem to be at least living a little bit of that. So it’d be great to hear both of you just in the biggest-picture sense, ruminate, given that you’ve been ruminating anyway, about what’s going to happen here. Is this a total change? Are our reports of the death of the workplace just a pandemic hyperbole? Is everything going to be different? Is everything going to be better? Is nothing going to change?
Joan C. Williams (JW): Well, the past 18 months have been truly surreal from my point of view. First of all, I’ve been talking about the impact of caregiving responsibilities on the workplace for 30 years. And all of a sudden, everybody else discovered that caregiving responsibilities have an impact on the workplace. Thank you. That’s amazing. So that was a very positive thing. Also, I’m part of the generation that invented flexible work arrangements. And people told us they were impossible. No matter how much we built the business case, it’s like it was impossible. And it eventually became really clear that this was an issue of a failure of imagination and threatened identities of people who had just built their identity around being kind of the ideal worker. And then, all of a sudden, having told us that remote work was impossible for 30 years, everybody did it in three weeks. I’m going, “Thank you. It wasn’t impossible.” So those are very, very positive. Those are two positives, and the third positive, which is in many ways the most exciting is that remote work has has typically been the province of the privileged, but all of a sudden in the past 18 months, we’ve seen the democratization of remote work. But what is really concerning me now is that we run hotlines for people having problems and that in the transition now to hybrid work, I’m afraid we’re losing that democratized access to workplace flexibility.
EV: What is it, just really quickly, Joan, about the hybrid workplace that is making you fear that we’re losing that democratization?
JW: It’s that what we hear through our hotlines—and of course we hear when things go wrong, so I imagine there are a lot of things going right as well. I mean, nine out of 10 employers say that when they return to work, it’s going to be in a hybrid workplace. So that sounds awesome. But what we hear is that it’s a hybrid workplace for the likes of me, but it’s not a hybrid workplace for people in more modest jobs, and that they are being ordered back to full-time work, often on extremely short notice in a context where one out of nine childcare centers have gone out of business. It’s just a mess.
Zeynep Ton (ZT): Yeah. And if I can just continue for Joan left off in terms of modest jobs, because there are almost two economies in our country, right? One is where those of us who are privileged enough to work from home, where remote work is possible, and we kept our jobs during the pandemic, and we will continue working after the pandemic. And then those other workers who are either called essential workers—so they have to be onsite to be able to work. I’m talking about meat packers. I’m talking about caregivers. I’m talking about retail store employees. I’m talking about restaurant workers. This is a significant chunk of the economy. In fact, last year, 46 and a half million people in this country worked in occupations where the median wage was less than $15 an hour. And while I’m not great at forecasting, Zachary, because all forecasts are wrong, so I don’t know what the future of work will be like. But I do hope that this pandemic also created awareness around these essential workers and the fact that they might be called essential, but you wouldn’t know that from their wages or their working conditions or their schedules. So I hope that this awareness will accelerate improvements of working conditions for workers who are not lucky enough to be working remotely and even paid decent wages to put a roof over their heads.
ZK: There’s a reality where many people are now saying, “Oh, come the fall everybody’s going to go back to work.” But then there are these tens of millions of people who are saying that we never left work, but because of what you just said, I mean, when New York City shut down a year ago—and I’m just using this illustratively because I happened to live here, but it could be multiple metropolises—it meant that a million people were operating the subways and the buses and making sure there were supermarkets and food delivery and essential services physically had to go to work because those things could not be done like this on Zoom or remotely. And they’re saying our life just became more stressful. It didn’t change in any meaningful way. And certainly not for the better. I mean, is there going to be any change in this, Joan, with—certainly the Biden administration is proposing probably the most ambitious extension of childcare and home care, federally subsidized home care childcare in order to address some of the issues that have become so acute. Whether that passes or in what form, I guess remains to be seen.
JW: I think there’s two words there. Joe Manchin. “Proposed” is the keyword there. I do think that Zeynep’s point is so important because one of the things that we have really lacked as a culture for a few decades now is a culture that talks about the dignity of work. I talked about them as modest jobs. One of the points I think that we probably both agree on is that there’s no such thing as an unskilled job. I mean, if I tried to be a hotel housekeeper, I would be a wreck. I know what those poor people do. They do a lot of hard work and it’s a lot of heavy work and it’s a lot of emotional work. So this language of essential workers is so important, and I hope we don’t lose it, because it is a language that communicates that every job is an important job. It’s a skilled job. It’s a job that should give dignity. And I think that’s another thing that I hope we don’t lose. But I think what Zeynep and I were talking about is, for this purpose, there’s a tripartite economy of the likes of us who are transitioning to anywhere jobs. And then there are these on-site jobs that worked throughout the pandemic, as Zeynep said, in extremely exploitative conditions. But then there’s the third group that I’m talking about, who also continued to work through the pandemic. They worked from home, and they have what are commonly considered to be lower-level white-collar jobs. And we hear from a lot of those people who have done their work very successfully for over a year on a remote basis, but they’re being ordered back to full-time, on-site work in a way that I hear HR people are calling the “Big Quit.” That’s what’s happening right now.
And there’s also a racial dimension to this that is often overlooked, because if you look at the recent surveys, people of color are much less likely to be enthusiastic about going back to on-site work, partly because they have a more fragile childcare. They often rely on family members for childcare. We know that’s a problem with COVID. And because, frankly, as a friend of mine said, “I am just so glad, it’s so much easier for me to work at home because I just don’t have to deal with those white people all the time and the microaggressions.” And so that is also an often unnoted racial dimension of remote work.
ZK: So I want to push back for a second, and actually ask Emma a question, and probably Zeynep as well. It is certainly true that we don’t value what used to be called trade jobs and certainly jobs that a country like Germany or some countries that recognize the value of all work and therefore recognize the need to sanctify all jobs that need doing. But there’s also a problem personally. I mean, a lot of people come to the United States, if they are from an immigrant family—Emma, If you’d said to your parents at one point, “You know what, I’m not going to go to college, I’m just going to do a trade job of some form or another,” would that have been met with, “That’s just great.” Meaning, to Joan’s point, yes, we do not value those collectively, but I’m also not sure that we particularly value those individually.
EV: Well, to answer the question, my father probably would have fallen over and died. And I don’t even mean that in a flippant way. I just mean that that would have meant that all of the work that he had put in in Greece to come to the US and then the work that he put in in the US would have been for naught. And of course, I’m like a lot of immigrants’ children in that respect.
ZT: Exactly. I want to add one thing about the dignity of work and how we think about jobs. In this country, from the beginning, we haven’t valued those jobs that since 1917 have been called unskilled, even though we all know they’re not unskilled. In fact, we just wrote a note about where did this term unskilled come from? Like, why do we call some jobs unskilled jobs? And here’s what we found: the reason that jobs were categorized was because of class. So people who are already categorizing into classes, why not classify jobs? And when you look at what jobs were called unskilled in 1917, it was farm work, manufacturing work, service work, and “other” work. And when you look at who did this work, disproportionately black immigrants and people from our parts of the world sometimes and women. It was like that in 1917. And it is like that now. Not much has changed in what jobs we value in this country, who does those jobs, and how much they’re paid.
EV: Joan, I wanted to come back to something that you said about the Big Quit, and just share a quick story about a friend of mine. Her company—who could really use the help of both of you to be honest—did exactly what you said, Joan. They had told all of their workers that they are going to come back to the office in September, and then suddenly they changed course. And they said, actually, we’re going to go back in July. And they gave them about a week’s notice that they were going to come back into the office. This particular friend, she is underpaid for her experience in the industry. And she had been pushing for a raise for about six months. It had been accepted, it was supposed to go through, but it just hadn’t been going through. So when they told everybody that you have to come back to the office, she wrote an email to her manager and said, “I’m not coming back until the raise comes through,” and like magic, it came through two days later. So I wanted to ask you, is this because she’s a headstrong person and she’s lucky to be in this Zoom class where maybe she has a financial stability to say, “You know what, I’m not doing this,” or is there something here about, there is a little bit of leverage that this transition, this coming back into the office thing, provides for workers not only in the Zoom class but also going down to lower wage jobs.
JW: Unfortunately, I see the other side. I see the side of people desperately needing to continue remote work or unable to handle an abrupt transition, and then that being a source of further vulnerability in the workplace, I don’t know, Zeynep, what you’ve been seeing.
ZT: Certainly. And somehow we expect workers to immediately find childcare, immediately arrange their lives and go back to work just because it is an option now. And from the brokers angle, I see what you’re seeing Joan, as well. So your friend’s story, Emma, is probably an exception versus the norm. I wish it were. And I wish that more companies were raising wages right now, given the shortage of workers, were improving the working conditions, given that people just don’t want to work for the prices or the conditions that they’re exposed to. But we don’t see it happening quickly enough. Perhaps partly because these are irreversible investments that they have to make.
JW: One thing I would love to ask Zeynep, if I could: the shortage of service workers, who are very low paid, do you think that that’s going to result in a rise in their wages on a permanent basis or not? That would be totally fascinating if, wow, the market’s working! Who knew?
ZT: We are working with some companies right now who have raised wages and they have, for example, committed to $2 more increased throughout the summer. They’re seeing positive financial results along with some other changes that they’re making. And yet the changes are still seen as temporary. And I’m thinking, “why on earth would you go back, if when you see that this is actually profitable and you’re attracting more people and they are productive?” And I hope they will stay permanent, Joan, but I don’t know yet. I don’t know. It’s hard to predict, again what will be in place. And, and hopefully we’ll see a federal minimum wage increase as well that will encourage more companies to raise their wages.
JW: I have only two words: Joe Manchin.
ZK: Although, it is true that since the beginning of the pandemic, it is the first—and you can look on the White House or the BEA’s website—it is the first measure of substantial wage growth in the past, I don’t know, 20 years, 15 years, something like that. Wage growth that essentially had been going at about the rate of inflation from the early 2000s. You can debate what it was in the late 90s. There are some funky data out there, but certainly the past year you saw some wage growth jumping as much as 8% month over month. There’s been some continued wage growth this year. I think the question is whether it will continue given that it’s mostly a market response to a sudden surge of intense demand, and not enough bodies can be put in motion as quickly as people can want stuff.
JW: Ironically, it’s a market response to lack of childcare. Because that’s one of the main reasons, I think, although I haven’t looked for numbers on this, I don’t know whether they exist—I took a vacation in rural Washington and Oregon, and literally, there is so much anger out there among Trump voters at the lack of ability to find any workers to work and blaming of the Democrats in the $300 supplement to unemployment. And so, I mean, somebody really needs to do a study and disaggregate the lack of childcare from the incentive of the $300, because it’s really killing Democrats in rural areas. But the other thing—I wanted to pick up on something that Zeynep said—is that we did, as people may know, a study with the Gap where we shifted a whole bunch of workers to more stable schedules and then measured the results.
And we found similar to what you found, Zeynep, with these increasing wages: the Gap stores’ sales increased sharply, and so did labor productivity. And we thought, “oh, wow, this is a finding that’s going to walk out the door.” And it walked out the door, but into a bit of a black hole. Because it makes you realize that capitalism is not as simple as we think. Capitalism also involves people going to work every day and enacting cherished identities and enacting class truths. And one of the class truths that they enact is that if they don’t control labor costs, they will be punished, either within their own company or if not within their own company then by the financial establishment. And so the fact that you can earn more money treating workers better does not mean that workers get treated better, which is something that, I feel naive, but I didn’t understand before that study,
EV: I didn’t understand that before this moment. And in fact, Zeynep, I was going to ask your own question back to you, which was, if it’s been shown that giving workers better quality jobs, paying them more, more stable schedules, like Joan mentioned, is profitable, why on earth aren’t companies doing it? So Joan provided some answers here, and do you have any other thoughts about that?
ZT: Yes. I have so many examples now because, after I published my first book, The Good Jobs Strategy, I started getting requests from CEOs of large public companies. I mean, even the largest in the world. And lots of other ones too, saying, “we want to do this in our organization, too.” Yet, even when we work with some companies and show the financial case, few of them ended up making changes. And one of the reasons is that bad jobs are also profitable. And we talk about humans having needs, CEOs who go to companies and stay there for five to seven years. As you know, CEOs, tenures have been getting shorter and shorter over time. They also care about their own reputation, their sense of achievement, and their own identity. And they want to win.
And they think that in that short period, there are much easier ways to win than investing in people and investing in operations, because what we have found, in the case of the Gap study, for example, for Gap to offer more stable schedules, they also need to change their supply chain. They need to change their promotions. They need to change lots of things about the company. So it’s a system change that’s required. And leaders look at this and say, “Do I want to make this system change during the five to seven years I’m here? Or do I go for some other things that are easier and faster? And by the way, my investors are asking me about those things.” There are even tax incentives for those things. For example, if he invests in technologies, there’s a tax incentive. If he invests in people, there is none. Investors in the retail space, for example, are not asking you, “How much do you pay your employees? What’s the pay distribution, What’s your employee turnover? Are you really pursuing operational excellence?” They asked you questions, like, “How are you going to compete against Amazon? Are you doing this digital transformation?” And it’s all about the cool things that everybody’s doing versus focusing on the customer, re-operating a good business. And so, in some ways it’s hard to blame the CEOs who are in these positions, because the system almost is against them. And by the way, their customers, they don’t necessarily choose them based on how well they treat their employees, right? And they can pay as little as they can. So I think there are a bunch of forces, but the biggest reason is because they don’t have to.
JW: And I think the other thing you’ve said, Zeynep, which is so important, which is true in the context of scheduling, it involves an entire system change, a change to marketing, a change to supply chain, and even a change to finance. And it’s hard. That kind of organizational change is difficult. The same thing is going on with diversity and inclusion. There’s a lot of what I call “woke-washing” going on: “We care about racial diversity. Awesome.” And that’s kind of, as I say, if you’re going to create an inclusive company, it’s not one sincere conversation. That is not an organizational change strategy, because in order to have an effective DEI strategy, you have to root out how bias is playing out in hiring, in performance evaluations, in meetings, in assignments; it’s a systems change. And the only that’s available in the DEI context is a series of 1% solutions, where you gradually tweak your systems and it becomes additive over time, that takes time. That takes energy. It’s a very intellectual job. And the point you’ve made about CEOs is so apt in the diversity context as well.
ZK: For those who are not versed in this world, can you spell out what DEI is?
JW: Oh, sorry, diversity, equity, and inclusion.
ZK: So if we’re going to talk about system change, question—and this is maybe a little beyond the kith and kin of some where you both spend most of your professional time, but there is an immense drive, certainly in the United States, toward higher education and degrees, and “credentializing” as an entry into job level X versus job level Y. Circling back to the beginning of our conversation about not systemically honoring the whole variety, or the whole panoply of necessary and needed jobs, there is a tension between the incredible push to get a college degree and the fact that there are many skilled jobs whose skills shouldn’t require a certainly a four-year degree, may not even be well-suited to the way community colleges are currently set up. You would have to really rethink the credentializing. And one of the only countries in the world that does this particularly well is Germany. There are probably others that you both know better than we do. But how do you even begin to start that when even saying that in the American context can seem in its own way, very disrespectfully elitist, like, “Oh, no, no, no. You all don’t need to get college degrees.”
JW: This is something I talked a lot about in my book, White Working Class. One of the statistics I got for that book was that two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates. And when I began saying that in 2017, people literally did not believe me. They’re like, you must, it must be wrong. I was like, no, it’s not wrong. It is just a number. Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates. And people in my circle wouldn’t believe it, because going back to what Emma said, within the professional managerial elite, we have sacralized and eroticized a college degree to such an extent that is literally unthinkable. Literally I’m thinkable. “My father would die.”
ZK: I’m going to use sacralized and eroticized, by the way, for multiple things after this conversation.
EV: I would like to say that I had to get into my thirties for my father to stop saying, “Why don’t you go to business school?”
JW: Isn’t age beautiful, Emma? I love it. Age is freedom. But there was a real cultural shift, if you look at the WPA murals, the Works Progress Administration murals in the 1930s, there was race, class, and gender, but they romanticized blue collar guys, white guys, but at least it was a class leveling. There was a dignity to that kind of work. And then starting in the seventies, I have to say with my generation of former hippies, there was a real shift to college education for everybody. And that was seen as the progressive thing. And often—you said it’s elitist to say, well, not everyone is, is college material. If you say it like that, it is elitist. But to say, some people have less interest in college than they do in a boring stick. That’s just not their thing. They are not part of this culture where this is sacralized. They want a good, solid job that will enable them to support their family. They are really good at working with their hands or working with people, and that’s what they want. And so this idealism of “everybody should be cool and smart and educated like me.” That is elitist. That’s the elitism, not respecting, as Zeynep pointed out, that our jobs are a little pimple on the economy. They are not most people’s jobs and they are not the only important jobs.
ZK: So how do you change that? There are some moves—and we don’t have to make this about education, but it is a discussion of credentializing for jobs. There are definitely moves, which some of the tech companies have done. You know, one of Google’s quieter endeavors is to try to brand itself as a Google license for a variety of professions that wouldn’t require a degree. There are some moves toward structuring local educational initiatives, one of which one of the members of The Progress Network, Michael Crow, has done incredibly well with ASU, thinking about what does a community need in terms of skills and credentials.
JW: What a visionary he is.
ZK: But I’m not sure that these things are anything other than isolated plots on a graph. Zeynep, if you had said, if you’d say to some companies, you should do a better job in how you think about hiring, not in terms of credentials, but in terms of skills, would they? Companies also don’t like spending money on training, right? It’s another thing.
ZT: The type of companies that I work with, Zachary, there are no college requirements. I mean, I work with low wage employers, so they’re not looking for college graduates. The good ones are looking for specific attributes, that enable people to thrive in their settings. And I wish all companies did that, look at the attributes that matter most in your setting and select based on those attributes, regardless of where you went to college and what degree you had.
ZK: Do you see change in that area, change in the sense of more willingness to train, because that’s also been a huge issue with many employers. They want to hire people who can, they don’t have to spend any time and energy training.
ZT: Again, I operate in environments—and this applies to 32% of the workforce in the United States—where you can find employee turnover as high as 100%. So when you operate in those environments… There was a recent article about the Amazon fulfillment centers, right? Those are like, that’s the work in our current work of work, and 150% employee turnover. The thing is in our society, we tend to value those types of companies. We tend to value innovation, super fast growth, or running the business really well, focusing on operations, focusing on people, hiring the right people, training them well, involving them in continuous improvement. I’m an operations management professor, so we all study Toyota, and Toyota has been an outlier in the auto industry in terms of how successful they have been for decades.
But Toyota’s practices, which are all known now, are not adapted in so many other settings because that’s not the stuff we value in our society anymore. The stuff that we value again is grow fast, at all costs, break rules, our management doesn’t matter. So those are the things that become the cool things of our era. And I hope that with this pandemic that will begin to change too. I hope that with the pandemic we realizing it’s important to be able to make things well and make things here because we tend to need them during crises. And we will see if that happens. But I do hope that manufacturing strengthens after after this pandemic, I hope that we start valuing these frontline jobs a lot more after pandemic. We’ll see. Again, no forecast, but these are just hopes.
JW: I was really heartened during the pandemic. I don’t know if anyone else noticed when Marco Rubio wrote an op-ed in The New York times called the resilient economy, basically saying these global supply chains looked, looked pretty new, nifty and keen, but now we see the downside of global supply chains. And to echo what Zeynep said, do you regret that we don’t produce computer chips in the US anymore? I kind of regret it now. Right? Anyone trying to buy a car, regrets it, anyone trying to buy a toaster regrets it.
ZK: I would push back on the idea that there should be more manufacturing per se. One, manufacturing jobs in the United States, never, even at the height of when the United States had 50% of global industrial capacity was always below 20%. Now it’s in the 10 to 11 to 12% range. Almost every country in the world, mostly because of technology and robotics, has fewer and fewer people engaging in manufacturing. So in terms of manufacturing, as an employment force, that’s decreasing everywhere globally, including China. And I’m not sure that that’s the pathway we would want going forward, given those factors.
JW: I think about Germany. In order to have manufacturing be a healthy part of your economy in a highly industrialized upper middle-class nation, you need to be making the best scissors in the world. Why does Germany produce the best scissors in the world? In my view, because they saw in the 1930s what happens when people with modest jobs see their futures go up in smoke. Gee, does this remind you of the United States, where over 90% of people used to do better than their parents, but now only 50% do? Germany learned something about the relationship between good, honored blue collar jobs and fascism. And I hope we don’t learn the same lesson.
ZT: Yeah. I was thinking about manufacturing maybe less in terms of the number of jobs, but in terms of what we value in our country, what we value in terms of we value work, we value making things and making things well, we value producing good services and creating a great customer experience because in order to do these well, we may not need as many people, but we need good people and we need strong operations.
And that provides us the resiliency on the national side, but it also gets to that dignity of each job versus the number of jobs. In fact, when you look at, Zachary, MIT just created a new report because we were very worried about the future of work and whether the robots were going to steal all the jobs. And my team initiated a three-year study. And the outcome of the study is that we don’t need to worry about the number of jobs for a long time. What we do need to worry about is the quality of jobs.
JW: But I think also the focus on manufacturing, which I just participated in, is a focus on the dignity of men. Personally I think the dignity of men is really important politically because, as I always say, there’s nothing so dangerous as a man without a future. And we see that win the United States today. We saw it in Germany in the thirties. But I also think that this focus on manufacturing jobs as part of the focus on male jobs, and as Zeynep is pointing out, there are a lot of really important jobs that are unskilled jobs that women do. And those are considered not only unskilled, like super unskilled. Those are important jobs. And I go back to retail, where for decades in retail, there has been a literature that shows the problem of execution in retail. And the problem of execution in retail is partly that you have tiny bits of people’s time. So they don’t know where the stock is and they don’t care where the stock is. The problem with execution in retail is the problem of a flawed operations.
ZT: That was my doctoral dissertation. So thank you for bringing that up.
EV: It just makes me think immediately of home health aides that have such tough jobs and are paid so poorly and are so necessary for so many people. And it does boggle the mind as to why that is why they have such poor working conditions.
JW: Race, and gender.
EV: And there’s the two-word answer.
ZT: I started a nonprofit called Good Jobs Institute a couple of years ago, and we worked with low wage employers. And our mission is to help companies thrive by creating good jobs. We work with three different senior living organizations and shadowing workers in those organizations were probably the most depressing days in my life during the last couple of years. They have extremely hard work physically, mentally, psychologically, and they do care… they care so much about their residents. They care so much, but when you’re so understaffed that a resident has to wait 45 minutes to go to the bathroom, or when they fall asleep on the work, because they have to have two jobs and they have no time to sleep. It’s just heartbreaking. And it was amazing to me how poorly these workers were paid. And when we presented to the company, the data on what percentage of their caregivers make below the living wage, they were shocked.
They had, unbelievably, no idea. And this is something that I’ve been seeing more and more in my work too, when we present to company leaders this is how much your workers are making compared to the living wage. They all know what the starting wage rate is, but hours is a big issue. They don’t know how many hours they have workers working. So when they see their monthly and how far they are behind, they are just extremely surprised. And morally they do want to do something about it.
JW: That’s exciting to hear.
ZT: Yes, but it would be so awesome, Joan, if investors like BlackRock… In the ESG efforts, there’s so much on ESG now. There’s such a huge world. If on the S part of the ESG, they asked for these metrics that really matter, instead of looking at how many women you have on the board, or how many black people you have on the board, if you said, give us your pay distribution and let us see what percentage of your workers make less than 25,000, less than $30,000 a year. Give your turnover data, give us your internal promotion data by race and gender. Let me see if you’re promoting from within. And if you’re promoting equally by race and gender. So if they asked for the right data, we could start seeing some shifts. So I’m hopeful about the future that the world is kind of going in that direction.
JW: That’s funny, Zeynep, you and I are definitely daughters of a different mother. That’s exactly what I’m saying in the DEI context, the diversity and inclusion context, it’s all about collecting the right metrics. If you’re serious about any problem, you identify the correct metrics and you keep on trying strategies until you nail your goals. This has not been done in diversity and inclusion, and you’re right. This is so exciting to think that you’re actually identifying… I mean, this is not rocket science. It’s not even hard.
ZK: There are some positive signs in terms of the business round table, and people like Larry Fink of BlackRock talking this talk. I mean, there’s an interesting debate about, Joan you earlier referred to woke washing, and there’s obviously these debates about greenwashing. There’s also the reality of once companies articulate a set of morals and ethos that can box them in a very constructive way to then either live up to the words that they are preaching or to face significant public pressure or their own employee pressure, to live up to the words that they’re speaking.
JW: Unfortunately, there’s what sociologists call symbolic compliance. You can chit and chat and chit and chat, and that’s all about all there is to it.
ZT: If we make this more about winning strategically, competitively, versus being nice, I think then we can make progress, right? If you say, look at Costco, they pay their workers $25 an hour, compared to $13 an hour in retail. And they are winning with their customers. Their sales growth is so much faster. Your members are staying with them, oh, and by the way, they provide the lowest prices and they promote almost 100% from within. Wow. And then compare that to others. I think that that type of benchmarking and framing it, framing it in the context of winning in the market versus being nice is a big difference.
I remember having a conversation with… The last year, I reached out to this one CEO who had just retired. He was the CEO of a large public company. And I reached out to him because I said, people are hurting. This was a couple of weeks after the George Floyd protests. And I said, people are hurting. And retail is a huge industry. You must do something. And his point to me was, well, if I start doing these things, my investors will say, I don’t care what Larry Fink says, I don’t care what BlackRock says. I’m not investing in you. That’s not the path that I want you to take. But it’s because he wasn’t seeing it in terms of winning competitively. He was seeing it as this is a nice moral thing to do. So I think we have to frame things, not just on the moral side, but on the competitive side and justify it financially.
JW: I agree with you. And yet what I have seen first in that work-life context, and then in the diversity and inclusion context is really elegant—and also in the scheduling context—really elegant and rigorous demonstration that people can earn more money, and yet they don’t do it. So I think you’re right, that’s the language we have to be using, but we also have to be asking why they don’t do it. And here I’d like to bring some work I did with some other folks called work as a masculinity contest. Sometimes work—and this is very true in the high levels. So virtually every industry, which are all very, very, very, very heavily white male, the work is a masculinity contest where you go to work every day and it’s kind of a dog eat dog world, and you have to have total dedication and only one person can be a winner. And everybody else is a loser. Who does this reminds you of, could it be a recent president? He was a classic example of seeing everything as a masculinity contest. And if work is a masculinity contest where, how big yours is—we’re talking about profits last year, unless we aren’t—is that the work is a masculinity contest piece is part of what keeps everything rigidly in place that in some ways is more influential than the desire to make profits.
ZK: I do wonder… It’s interesting listening to the arc of the conversation, because so much of what’s written and discussed about work today, and certainly as part of the public discussion about work and whatever constitutes a post pandemic is about work of people who are higher skilled, in offices, can remote work. How’s that going to change? How’s the office is going to change, is it going to be a hybrid culture when there’s no such thing, as, you both pointed out, as a hybrid culture in an Amazon warehouse, right? That’s a complete oxymoron. And yet the discussion will likely continue to be focused largely on the, how can people work in a hybrid remote high-tech fashion. And largely because the people writing about it are of that universe, right? They’re not… Most people writing and speaking about these things are of that world.
JW: There are a lot of relative… There are a lot of non-elite jobs that are not like being in an Amazon warehouse, that are not on-site jobs by their nature, they’re just onsite by tradition. There receptionist, the administrative assistant, they’re huge numbers of what are commonly called pink collar jobs that can be remote. So the question is, will those people be summarily ordered back to work and the elites be given anywhere jobs? That is a separate issue from the grocery worker, but it’s also a very important, low wage and middle-class issue that we’re facing right this second.
EV: And in a global context, can you create the infrastructure for more people to work remote like that? I mean, just thinking about Greece, there was not this whole working from home thing during the pandemic. Most of the workforce went to work because of the internet here is not set up to be able to handle that. Most kids were going to school because guess what? The whole handing out iPads to as many kids as possible thing was never going to fly here. There was some of it. But it’s just something to keep in mind too, is, is what Joan was saying in a global context as well. How many people could be pulled into that workforce?
ZK: Part of it is the reorienting, right? Like how much of this do we actually want to dis-aggregate? The workplace can be incredibly flawed, but is it a healthy thing also that the remote aspect of it decouples or deconstructs? And then the whole healthcare part, not healthcare, healthcare, yes, but childcare and early childcare and education in particular, which is why you do have a drive in the United States and a renewed drive in places like the UK and the fact that you have the Tory party, which spent most of the past 40 years trying to deconstruct that aspect of the state doubling down on it. Now, I mean, partly to compensate for Brexit, but also because there’s a massive demand and it’s a way of engendering support that they didn’t have.
JW: Literally, eng-endering. I mean, the idea that we’re talking about a care infrastructure… We finally recognize that just as people can not get to work without roads and bridges, people cannot get to work without childcare and elder care. They just literally can’t show up. That’s been a reality for decades. But suddenly during the pandemic, we had the glimpse where the public saw it. The question is, are we going to lose touch with it again?
ZK: We will see, and we’ll see in a few months, we’ll see in a few years, whether or not these germinating ideas, which are pretty potent in the scale that’s being proposed end up happening. It may be a two step forward, one step back and maybe one step forward, two steps back, I guess we’ll have to see, but the fact that it is so present in the public conversation and in political conversation now I take as a much more positive sign than not.
JW: As someone who had waited 40 years for it…
ZT: And of course there’s also a good chunk of people who don’t yet need care. They are going into the workforce for the first time, and I’m not sure how they feel about the hybrid work, right? They want to have a sense of belonging. They want to be mentored by people. They want to have those conversations at the water cooler. And when you’re new and you’re young and you’re entering this space, perhaps you value that hybrid less. So perhaps as we think about the future, we need a more customized approach, and respect people’s choices and create workplaces that enable those choices.
ZK: Final question for the two of you, not final as in this conversation is by any means exhausted, but finali in our time is about to be exhausted. Do you feel in the cup half full cup, half empty way that as much as the pandemic was a social epidemiological healthcare disaster, that it is also cracked open some of the things you Joan had been talking about for years and Zeynep you’ve been looking at? Is this, you know, is this an opening that we’re going to look back at as painfully constructive or is that too optimistic?
ZT: I hope so. I judge it by the number of companies that have reached out to us recently, by the number of investors who are reaching out from private equity to activist hedge funds thinking about work, and in a constructive way. I see customers paying perhaps a little bit more attention because they saw the working conditions inside some fulfillment centers, meatpacking areas. So I see a lot more awareness about the issues, and that gives me hope for them.
JW: I’m always hopeful. it’s too easy to be pessimistic. Being hopeful takes energy, intelligence, and concentration. I try to keep myself there.
ZK: That is so well put.
ZT: Otherwise why would we go to work, Joan?
JW: Yeah, exactly. Otherwise what we’re doing is truly, truly futile.
ZK: Thank you both for the conversation today.
JW: Thanks all.
ZT: Thank you.
ZK: So that lived up to my expectations. How about you?
EV: That went above and beyond my expectations. Ialmost jumped out of my seat when Joan started talking about work as a white masculinity contest. I had never heard it described that way before. Rang true for me.
ZK: There was a really good piece by Adam Posner at the Peterson Institute, talking about this exactly, that the nature of work and the nature of manufacturing in particular, is in its own way a focus, because it is largely about working class men. And it is left to the side, this vast realm of incredibly disruptive and challenging work that is largely done by women. So that was an important highlight. I do think this whole question of how the workplace is going to change if at all is a fascinating one, because we’ve lived through a period where everybody was declaiming the change of everything. And then one thing that was great for me about that conversation was, yeah, things change, but rarely are they changing as radically or completely as people in a moment of intense change think they are. And we’ve come out of one, and everybody was saying, the world will never be the same. I think in both a good way and a sobering way, this conversation reminds us that the world wasn’t changing nearly as much as some people thought, even in the midst of the pandemic. And it’s not likely to become a radical, brave new world in the years now, just because the pandemic’s over.
EV: Yeah. Perhaps not. I mean, I do think there’s a lot of energy around not wanting to go back to business as usual. They did tell me that the story that I shared about my friend is unusual, which I am sure is true, but I do see that energy being there. Something that another one of our network members said recently, Adam Grant, is that he thinks that the CEOs who are demanding people return to work— and here we’re talking again about the zoom class—they may find themselves going the way of the dinosaurs soon, that this demand for greater flexibility and to tag in with what Zeynep’s work is about, for higher quality jobs, for better quality jobs, I think overall, we’re we’re going to head the right way, even if it’s, like you said, not going to be like we turn the switch and suddenly we’re in a brave new post pandemic world.
ZK: So here’s to the two steps forward one step back. I mean, granted, it would be great if it was just two steps forward, but in the real world of human existence, the one step back is almost inevitable. And as long as it’s one step and not two steps, and that we’re not treading water, I think we can live with some of the mystery and complications of that change so long as it’s in a forward momentum. Anyway, this has been another, I think, illuminating conversation amongst many that we will keep having. I want to thank everyone for tuning in to this episode of What Could Go Right? And also tuning into all the work that’s being done as part of The Progress Network, by all the people who are involved in it, the entire thrust of which is to create that world that we want to inhabit and not the world that we fear that we might. So for me, for Zachary Karabell, thank you very much, Emma, thank you as usual. And we will continue these anon.
EV: Thank you, Zachary.
*To find out more information about The Progress Network and What Could Go Right? visit theprogressnetwork.org. You can also sign up for our weekly newsletter to stay up to date with everything happening with The Progress Network. If you like the show, please tell a friend, share an episode, or leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. What Could Go Right? is hosted by Zachary Karabell, and me, Emma Varvaloucas. We are produced by Andrew Steven. Jordan Aaron is our production coordinator. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and the Podglomerate. Thanks so much for listening.
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