Work Futures is an exploration of critical themes of the future, present, and past of work, led by work ecologist Stowe Boyd.

Monday, May 7, 2018 

Work Futures Daily - Wait! It's May?

Yikes. How can time be passing so quickly?

2018-05-07 Beacon NY - Perhaps it’s the timeline for my on-going book project, but I just looked up and noticed it's May seventh. Yikes.

Expect more news this week about Work Futures’ continued evolution from a Medium publication, to a newsletter, and next, becoming a research institute. Your subscription will become more like a membership. More to follow.

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On Brainwaves at Work

Apparently, Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is monitoring the brainwaves of workers on its assembly lines, and using data collected as part of virtual reality training programs. But it sounds more like one piece of an overall surveillance of workers there, to monitor their mental state. Very Orwellian.


On Wellbeing

The trenchant prose of Mark Eltringham never ceases to amuse me. Here, he's poking a stick at the way that wellbeing has displaced productivity as the default topic for workplace research:

For decades, humankind has sought to establish the link between office design and productivity. And by humankind I mean a parochial band of researchers, suppliers, workplace specialists, futurologists and designers with a special interest in the whole thing. Most other people only expressed a passing interest in the subject. It did not seem to matter to this band that the whole thing had been proved many times over many years, invariably falling on cloth, if not exactly deaf, ears. We’ve known for some time what makes people happy and productive at work and much of the new research has merely served to proved something we already know. Undaunted, researchers maintained their quest for the evidence that would get the message across to an apparently indifferent world. This quest has mutated over the past few years into something that is at first glance only slightly different but which has some rather interesting implications. The go-to workplace topic of the early 21st Century is no longer productivity per se, but wellbeing, and that is making all the difference.

Along with its sometimes evil twin, wellness, wellbeing covers issues that range from the demonstrably true such as the effects of daylight, movement, nutrition and breaks; moves on to increasingly difficult ideas that may or may not be within the control of employers, such as stress and happiness; before drifting off into the realms of things that are probably no business of employers in the first place such as spirituality and various forms of woo-woo.

Eltringham goes on to review a new book by Andre Spicer and Carl Cederström, The Wellness Syndrome, whose authors

claim that the fixation with monitoring wellbeing and initiating wellness programmes may be having the opposite effect to that intended. The book argues that an obsession with wellness obliges some people to pretend to be happy at work, even when they are not and that the pressure to fit with a corporate notion of what constitutes a ‘well’ person makes them depressed and anxious that they will be labelled by their employer and colleagues if they don’t fit an ideal. The wider social pressures to present ourselves as fit and happy are transposed into the office.

A must read.

Peter Bloom also reviewed The Wellness Syndrome, saying

Overall, The Wellness Syndrome is a comprehensive but readable account of the rise of this titular “syndrome.” It takes aim simultaneously at the “wellness” industry and at the growing common sense assumptions that are fueling this lucrative trend. It can be found in places as diverse as innovative tech companies like Google to American evangelical congregations. Further, even where it is not being implemented, it remains a tantalizing desire for many twenty-first-century citizens—a dream of “work/life balance” that may be reserved only for the privileged few but can one day also be their own.

Yet the book soars beyond being a purely sociological account, which in and of itself would be significant enough. Rather, it delves deeper into what this embrace of “wellness,” so innocuous on the surface, means for our contemporary identities. As the title suggests, it positions this discourse as a “syndrome”: a threatening modern pathology that has turned inward on itself so that it now subjugates and disciplines individuals as capitalist subjects. As Cederström and Spicer write:

Today wellness is not just something we choose. It is a moral obligation. We must consider it at every turn of our lives. While we often see it spelled out in advertisements and life-style magazines, this command is also transmitted more insidiously, so that we don’t know whether it is imparted from the outside or spontaneously arises within ourselves. This is what we call the wellness command. In addition to identifying the emergence of this wellness command, we want to show how this injunction now works against us.

[...]

The authors highlight, in this respect, the rise of the “coached self,” associated with the effort by individuals to become “healthy” through turning to a “life coach.” They argue that this social identity reinforces neoliberalism, as it represents

the self that is often best equipped to meet the contradictory demands of present-day capitalism: to be simultaneously extroverted and introspective, flexible and focused, adaptable and idiosyncratic. In other words, coaching does not just seek to improve people’s wellbeing, or to teach them how to enjoy more. It is a technique aimed at reshaping the self.

They similarly depict the modern workplace as now obsessed with “health,” witnessed in the providing of employees with free gym passes to the use of the “treadmill desk” and the “bicycle desk.” According to Cederström and Spicer, the “healthy individual” is a “healthy worker,” so much so that “the image of the idealized worker has transformed from the workaholic Stakhanov of Soviet Russia into the exercise-addicted corporate athlete who is able to carry out a hard day of creative labor while happily leading an exercise class after work.”

It's a now central gambit in the endless cultural onslaught of workism.

Bloom closes with a compelling insight,

The Wellness Syndrome reveals in stark and at time tragic-comic details the real “new spirit of capitalism” – where individuals are “responsible” for their own fate and wellbeing. An obligation that forces them to anxiously and constantly work on “bettering themselves,” overcoming any and all structural barriers that may be in their way. They will succeed not only through but in spite of an unfair market and financial system. And if they do not, they must hold themselves, not their social conditions, ruthlessly accountable.

Reminds me of the story about Health HQ, that was mocked as being 'fit supremacists'. On their website at one time:

  • We don’t have a pool table. Instead we have a gym in the middle of our office. Not in a side room, not in a corner, it is right in the middle of the entire office.

  • There is no sugar, candy bars, soda (diet or otherwise) allowed in our office. If you bring some it will get thrown away.


On The Sandwich Generation

One side effect of low unemployment is that company are becoming even more inclined toward providing family leave, and Gen X workers are moving into being 'sandwiched' by family demands, with aging parents and time-consuming children on both sides.

According to the Society For Human Resources Management (SHRM), over 75% of employers say caregiving benefits will grow in importance to their companies over the next five years, especially when it comes to caring for elderly or ailing family members.

That’s likely because as AARP chief advocacy and engagement officer Nancy LeaMond noted in HR Today, “Of today’s 40 million family caregivers, 24 million are juggling caregiving responsibilities and employment. By recognizing and supporting their needs, employers can improve productivity and foster a stable and healthy workforce.”

The article goes on to highlight specific programs that various companies have rolled out. Check it out. We'll be hearing more about this, I guess.


On Technical Ignorance

I was mildly amused by the startling level of obviousness of our national representatives in the recent interactions with Mark Zuckerberg in Washington DC: starting with their astonishing level of technical ignorance about the internet in general and then, with Facebook specifically.

Danny Crichton enlarges that to the business class, in general, starting with politicians but going beyond:

Such a pattern is hardly unique to politics though. Hang out with enough business executives, lawyers, doctors, or consultants, and you will hear the inevitable “I don’t really do the computer,” with an air of detached disdain.

Yet it isn’t just the technical challenges that this class avoids, but anything to do with implementation in general. In the policy world, wonks spend decades debating the finer points of healthcare and social spending, only to be wholly ignorant at how their decisions are actually implemented into code. There is an elitism in policy between those who make the decisions and those who implement them, just as much as there is a social distinction between corporate executives and the people who have to carry out their directives.

In many ways, this disdain for the technical mirrors the disdain for math, where the phrase “I’m not a math person” has become sufficiently ubiquitous in the U.S. as to be covered regularly in the press. Being bad at math is a way to signal that someone isn’t one of the worker bees who actually have to care about calculations — they just read the reports prepared by others.

Yet, that ignorance of technology is increasingly untenable.

[...]

CEOs, senators, and other leaders are synthesizers — they rely on staff to handle the details so they can focus on strategy. We would never trust a CEO who brushed off an accountant by saying “I don’t do cash flows,” and we shouldn’t trust a CEO who doesn’t understand how the internet works. Changing times require adaptable leaders, and today those leaders need tech literacy just as much as our grade-school children do. It’s the only way leadership can move forward today.


On Automation

In Robots and the future of work, Jennifer Ho presents a pretty good rundown of what robots are capable of today, and the likely impacts on jobs.

Janna Anderson takes 48 minutes (!!!) to spell out the threats of AI and robots on work, in The Future of Work? The Robot Takeover is Already Here. I still suggest you read it, because it gets at a number of challenges that confront us, and more than the first-order problems arising from AI and robots taking our jobs. As she wrote,

I recently enjoyed the opportunity to give the final plenary talk at the World Future Society’s annual conference in San Francisco. The event featured marvelous speakers like Steve Jurvetson, one of the world’s top venture capitalists, John Hagel of Deloitte, Brian David Johnson of Intel and top futurist Paul Saffo.

It was an honor to get the chance to speak about “AI, Robotics and the Future of Work” in California, home to the most amazing innovations being made to advance our best and brightest future. Digital engineers and digital storytellers and the entrepreneurs who stand behind them are the primary movers continually shaping the possibilities for who we can be now and who we might become, imagining, inspiring and building the global future. That’s a heavy responsibility. It can’t be taken lightly.

I share this expanded version of my World Future talk, with its plea for a much-accelerated examination of the overwhelming impacts of the advance of algorithms to be undertaken as formally as possible right now.


Work Futures is an exploration of critical themes of the future, present, and past of work, led by work ecologist Stowe Boyd.