The pandemic has catalyzed a huge amount of social change. What do employers owe their workers now?
“An employer only owes an employee two things,” began a comment on a post by Charlie Warzel late last month. “A safe working environment and the agreed-upon wages at or above the legal minimum.”
Whether you agree with that belief is a question worth exploring. On the surface, sure, it sounds right: Workers are not slaves. We’re free to enter into contracts, to negotiate those contracts, to leave if we decide the terms aren’t good enough for us. But, as Warzel points out, this is both the status quo and an “unnecessarily cold way to approach our work lives.”
“Why, exactly,” Warzel asks, “should our culture aspire to such a calculating and extractive means of employer/employee relations? What if employers...choose to imagine something better?”
No more fake nine-to-fives
What started the conversation between Charlie Warzel and his commenters last month was the disconnect between “agreed-upon” hours and what’s actually expected of employees in white-collar work. Showing up at nine a.m., leaving promptly at five, having the weekends to yourself—that might be fine for anyone who wants to be “mediocre” at her job, but if an employee wants to keep that job, or to advance in her career, the expectation is that she’ll work far beyond the agreed-upon forty hours every week.
The reason that workers have accepted this bad bargain for so long—apart from a culture where overwork has long been the norm—is that, as Warzel explains, it came with the promise of some payoff: Eventually, that exhausted worker will get promoted, or earn some security, or reach retirement. “Paying your dues” is supposed to be worth it in the end.
But employees are increasingly pushing back against that argument. Younger workers, especially, are questioning whether the promise of dues-paying is really just a scam. What if that hoped-for career stability never comes? What if employees are submitting to the pressure to work so much not for the sake of their futures, as Warzel asks, but only to enrich a set of shareholders?
Disillusionment with work is nothing new, but clearly the pandemic has catalyzed a huge amount of social change. Essential workers, in some places, are bargaining for better treatment. In the office—or working from home—white-collar workers have had both the time and distance to reflect on the companies they spend their lives with. Things like insincerity and double standards that they may have been too busy to pay attention to before have become harder to ignore.
Social movements, too, have made everything feel different. Connie Wang, executive editor of Refinery 29, credits last year’s resurgence of Black Lives Matter with much of the change in workplace culture that we’re witnessing now:
“Corporations from L’Oréal to Amazon opened the door to criticism by aligning themselves with Black lives, when Black employees’ own experiences said something very different about these corporations’ cultures. Across the business world, the massive delta between external words and internal actions became too hypocritical to bear.”
While previous generations saw problems in the world of work from the perspective of the individual (whom the employer owes nothing but a safe working environment and agreed-upon wage), today’s workforce, Wang explains, sees those same problems as macroeconomic, linked to the economy, to geopolitics, to the environment. “When they see a problem, they are more likely to question the entire system.” And to fight for their right to work only from nine to five.
Graphic: Scott Galloway
Don’t expect change overnight
Benjamin Pring, VP of thought leadership and managing director at Cognizant's Center for the Future of Work, says not so fast. Last week, when I sat down with him to talk about how work will continue to transform over the next few years, he cautioned against hoping for rapid change:
“You always have to balance the forces of change against the forces of inertia. And the forces of inertia...are attached to fundamental, deep, economic, social, human qualities that really, frankly, don’t change that quickly. We still have to meet our deadlines, make our boss happy, make our client happy, we still have to pay the bills.”
Pring characterizes the pandemic not as a catalyst of revolution, but—for those of us who are privileged to work mainly on a screen—as something more like a holiday. There’s been an upside to not having to get dressed in the morning, not having to commute—and, like a holiday, it cannot last.
“The reality is that we live in a very competitive, late-stage Western capitalist marketplace. A very aggressive marketplace. And those are facts of life.”
What the pandemic has changed, he says, is the way we think about our work lives, and how intentional we are about deciding where to work, and for whom. Before it started, white-collar workers still followed the same lifelong pattern: move to a big city after college, work for a big-name company, pay those dues. But now, as he puts it, “we’ve got an opportunity to think about work, and about how individually, corporately, and as a society, we want things to work.”
So maybe the pandemic has sparked more change than Pring initially allowed. “The hybrid model is now becoming very conventional,” he told us, giving as one example a team where employees come together in person every Wednesday and Thursday, with the rest of the week left to workers to fill their time as needed, be it answering email, talking to clients on the phone, or doing the “heads-down” work of writing messages or code.
Which may lead to the biggest change of all: the rise of smaller cities. New York, Berlin, and Stockholm will remain expensive, but with more focus on working remotely, Pring argues, more young people may decide to start their careers in places where they can live more comfortably. Instead of commuting for an hour-plus to an office in Midtown Manhattan from a cramped apartment at the outer edge of Brooklyn, they may seek out places like Portland, Maine.
“Cities are not dead. They’re just going to be different cities, because the underlying dynamics of wealth and opportunity in places like New York and London are out of reach now, for the next generation of people who can work in different ways, in more intentional ways, on different platforms, or with different tools and technologies.”
Let’s hope those new platforms, tools, and technologies for work will make work a better experience for us all.
Titelbild: Annie Spratt/Unsplash