Work Futures Weekly - What the Hell is Work Futures, Anyway?

A good time to clarify and reorient.

Beacon NY - 2018-07-29 - Work Futures Institute is a research organization, pursuing an exploration of critical themes of the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future. The project originally was launched as a Medium publication, but I grew disenchanted with Medium's many changes in direction for publishers, and as a result I shut down that publication (formerly found at, and I shifted the emphasis toward publishing a paid subscription newsletter. The result of that is Work Futures Daily (, published five times a week (four in August).

This is Work Futures Weekly, which is a free weekly issue, with stories taken from the week's dailies.

This week, I have also returned to Medium because I missed the sense of community here, and I decided it was pigheaded for me to deny myself that connection to others who care as deeply as I do about the future of work. So I've reposted much of the content that I had moved away to other locations, and started a new publication called Work Futures ( where I will be sharing the public results of my research and inquiries into the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

I hope you will follow me and Work Futures, both here on Medium and Substack, and consider signing up for a subscription to the Daily. Right now you get a free month if you subscribe, so there's no risk. Give it a try.

On Learning and Growth

from I am made greater by the sum of my connections, and so are my connections

Larry Emond of Gallup interviewed the Chief Human Resources Officer of Microsoft, Kathleen Hogan, and the discussion reveals the difference that comes from orienting people operations around learning and growth instead of conventional reviews.

Part of that is reflected in renaming what was 'People Review' into 'Talent Talks' [emphasis mine]:

Emond: What was the goal of Talent Talks?

Hogan: At its core, it was about being intentional about our talent and preparing for the future. At the same time, we wanted to eliminate anxiety in the process of having talent discussions, and instead create open discussions with real purpose and business value.

A lot has been written about "today's Microsoft." We're focused on lifelong learning and a growth mindset, and our approach to our people, processes and products is really different than it was in the past. Under Satya's leadership, we've taken a hard look at not just how we do things, but why we do them.

One of our major adjustments in the HR space was how we look at talent for both today's and tomorrow's needs on the individual level, as well as how we look at our talent bench at a higher, organizational level. In the past, we had a process called "People Review" that ended up creating significant nervous energy for a lot of people. While the initial approach was sound, it had deteriorated into a process of number analysis and wasn't yielding results. Our former CEO Steve Ballmer decided it wasn't adding value, and it was shuttered in 2014.

As we looked at our culture, we recognized a key part of embodying a growth mindset is learning from your past to reinvent a better future. With that concept in mind, our leadership team decided to revive the concept of People Review, but with a new process and a new name. We decided to call it Talent Talks, because we wanted to make it less abrasive and judgmental -- and more about placing an emphasis on developing our talent and planning for the future. We needed some way for our leaders to be accountable to building organizational capability, and to ensure that our processes were rigorous and our CEO could get an end-to-end view of the depth of our talent.

She goes on to discuss succession planning, moving people into different roles to get more exposure to different aspects of the business, diversity and inclusion, and a lot more. A must read.

On Burnout

from If This Goes On–

Ben Wigert and Sangeeta Agrawal report on Gallup's research into employee burnout in part 1 of a three part series. This issue focuses on the five major causes, and the authors start by pointing out the high level of burnout, which is at epidemic proportions:

Organizations are facing an employee burnout crisis. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job.

A scary factoid:

burned-out employees are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

It's been fairly well-established that the main reason people quit their jobs is bad managers. The Gallup poll clearly lays the blame for burnout on bad management:

The main factors that cause employee burnout have less to do with expectations for hard work and high performance -- and more to do with how someone is managed.

The five factors are these:

  1. Unfair treatment at work

  2. Unmanageable workload

  3. Lack of role clarity

  4. Lack of communication and support from manager

  5. Unreasonable time pressure

Note that all of these are failures of management. A must read.

On The End of Low-Wage Jobs

from If This Goes On–

McDonalds is rolling out self-service ordering kiosks in all US Locations by 2020.

The former CEO, Ed Rensi, makes an argument for the detrimental impacts of automating entry-level employment, like working the counter at McDonalds, but stubs his toe on minimum wage:

While some consumers may appreciate the novelty or added convenience, the conveniences come at the cost of entry-level jobs.

My concern about this is personal. Without my opportunity to start as a grill man, I would have never ended up running one of largest fast food chains in the world. I started working at McDonald’s making the minimum wage of 85 cents an hour. I worked hard and earned a promotion to restaurant manager within just one year, then went on to hold almost every position available throughout the company, eventually rising to CEO of McDonalds USA.

The kind of job that allowed me and many others to rise through the ranks is now being threatened by a rising minimum wage that’s pricing jobs out of the market. Without sacrificing food quality or taste, or abandoning the much-loved value menu, franchise owners must keep labor costs under control. One way to combat rising labor costs is by reducing the amount of employees needed.

I think Rensi's passion for the benefits of entry-level jobs are misplaced, since the great majority of people working those jobs today are not teenagers in high school, or recent grads: they are grown-ups, and their restaurant jobs are not an entry-level onramp to senior management: they are perhaps dead-end jobs, but not entry-level.

And while it is true that companies often respond to any increase in minimum wage as an opportunity to automate, that doesn't make keeping the minimum wage at below poverty levels a good policy. Even if companies like McDonald's, Panera, and Chili's use Rensi's argument as a smoke screen for decreasing their reliance on human workers, we should still push for above poverty level minimum wages and other benefits.

Christina Larson raises the macroeconomic question:

For two centuries, countries have used low-wage labor to climb out of poverty. What will happen when robots take those jobs?

It seems we will soon find out, since the transition in many industries -- like textiles -- is already underway:

Recent advances in computing power and artificial intelligence are making it possible to automate much of the work of moving, folding, and stitching fabrics. Such automation has advantages — speed, lower prices, and so on. But for poor countries, the automation of garment work now threatens to eliminate a crucial economic opportunity. A 2016 study by the Geneva-based International Labour Organization found that more than half the textile factory jobs in five Southeast Asian countries were “at high risk of automation” — 64 percent of the workforce in Indonesia, 86 percent in Vietnam, 88 percent in Cambodia. The research doesn’t predict when machines will supplant these workers, but in some places the process is already underway. The Mohammadi Fashion Sweaters plant in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, has replaced about 500 workers with industrial robots since 2012. In other cases, retailers are coming to rely on high-tech factories closer to their customers: Walmart has worked with U.S.-based producers to churn out robot-made bathmats and towels for sale in U.S. stores, and Adidas is experimenting with 3D printers to make sneaker soles in Germany.


In place of armies of “factory girls” — a phrase made famous by Leslie Chang’s 2009 book on China’s migrant workers — future textile hubs may be filled with Sewbots, which are produced by the Atlanta-based start-up SoftWear Automation. Sewbots can stitch a complete T-shirt in 22 seconds, twice as fast as a person operating a machine, according to Pete Santora, the company’s chief commercial officer. “Overall computing power has seen such dramatic growth. It just wasn’t possible to do this kind of thing 10 years ago,” he said. Fabric, which is soft and malleable, has traditionally been difficult for robots to manage. But better sensors and artificial intelligence have helped overcome obstacles. “Machine vision maps the fabric, then robotics moves the needles,” Santora said.


Last year, China’s Tianyuan Garments announced plans to construct a $20 million factory in Little Rock, Arkansas, powered by more than 300 Sewbots. (Santora said the company is not currently selling its technology for use in Asia.) Should more apparel companies adopt Sewbots or other smart machines, the industry could “go from being labor intensive to capital intensive,” said Greg Distelhorst, an assistant professor of global economics and management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That would mean that poor countries’ large populations of low-skilled workers, long an economic asset, could become a liability.

Saxena, the ISAS [University of California, Berkeley Institute for South Asian Studies] executive director, argues that it’s the responsibility of governments and companies to manage any transition for the good of their workers: “There is a potential to improve the labor conditions, but it would require a lot of investment and foresight. Will that happen? It’s hard to know. There needs to be a strategy. Change is coming.”

Well, I can tell you what will happen, even without a sinecure at Berkeley: companies will employ the highest proportion of Sewbots possible, lay off the 'factory girls', and all the capital will flee South Asia and move closer to the point of sale for the clothes and furnishings being made. My t-shirts next year might be 'Made in the USA', but few jobs will be created here, and a great many will be eliminated in Bangladesh and Vietnam.

On Enforced Ethics

from Corporate Ideologies

WeWork, the coworking giant, has announced that employees buying a hamburger at a business lunch won't be getting reimbursed. New corporate policies intended to reduce the environmental impact of the company's operations include going meatless. David Gelles expands on the quasi-religious nature of this move:

WeWork’s enforced vegetarianism could easily be dismissed as just another whimsical human resources directive from a high-flying technology start-up with an inflated sense of self-importance.

But the move also represents a more substantial development that is reshaping workplaces around the country: In ways large and small, companies are imposing corporate values on the personal lives of their employees.

Hobby Lobby has refused to pay for birth control for its employees, citing the owner’s Christian values. And the chief executives of companies including Koch Industries and Westgate Resorts have sent memos and informational packets to employees suggesting how they vote.

Other companies have tried to prevent employees from using everything from Uber to cigarettes. In 2015, IBM banned employees from using ride-sharing apps, citing safety and liability concerns. (Employees rebelled, and the company did a U-turn a day later.) And several big employers, including General Electric, have successfully paid employees to quit smoking. Scotts Miracle-Gro even has a policy of not hiring smokers, a move it says helps keep health care costs down.

In some of these cases, the values of a few executives are imposed on workers who must adhere to their employers’ worldview, often relating to issues with scant connection to the business. But WeWork appears to be the first big company to tell its employees what they can and can’t eat.

Of course many companies have rules on what they reimburse for, and how much. Many employers choose to not reimburse for alcohol or adult movies, for example. But if the meatless gambit goes a bit far in a culture where meat eating is a norm. Note that they do reimburse for seafood and alcohol, at present.

And WeWork is not done yet: Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, says 'the company will evaluate its consumption of seafood, eggs, dairy, and alcohol'.

Pretty soon, WeWork's employees will be gnawing lichen off rocks, the way things are going.

Gelles notes that Google tried to institute Meatless Mondays, and had to drop the idea after an uprising by employees:

“Human beings really don’t like when you take choice away from them,” said Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google and the author of “Work Rules!”

“What people are much more amenable to is nudges,” he said. “How can you change the environment that doesn’t remove choice, but sends a signal for people to make a good decision?”

My personal reaction is that ideology is not a great ingredient in the company stewpot.

Quote of the Day

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.

| Aldous Huxley, Collected Essays

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