1. Redesigning our work lives
A window of opportunity to reimagine and restructure a system ripe for change
This is the introduction to a series of illustrated essays about the decisive role of work in our lives and the opportunity we have right now to redesign the system that holds it all together.
The Power Has Shifted
This past Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor released the latest jobs report and another 4.4 million people quit their jobs (3% of the population) in September, breaking the numbers on record for the second month in a row and the third time this year, after 4.3 million Americans quit in August (2.9% of population) and over 4 million in April (2.8% of population).
This news comes as a strange, unexpected gift after a difficult couple of years.
Inequities at work were exacerbated by the global pandemic: those already well off worked safely from their homes away from the exposure to the virus while their wealth grew with a booming stock market and decreased spending. Essential workers, despite keeping the economy and society afloat, were forced to work on the front lines and put themselves and their families at higher risk of exposure. Those not as lucky to be either knowledge workers or essential workers, likely saw their jobs evaporate before their eyes.
As access to vaccinations have made it safer to return to work and life, the number of open jobs have skyrocketed. Despite plentiful options, workers have been slow to put themselves back into the same positions they were in pre-pandemic.
The reasons are wide-ranging and myriad. Depending on the person and the context, they might blame burnout, poor working conditions, remote work, healthcare, childcare, better pay, changed priorities, higher savings, early retirement, or simply a new perspective on their life. Employers are now scrambling to figure out how to respond to the changing needs of the workforce and keep their current employees from leaving for a better deal elsewhere.
“Employees have a totally unprecedented ability to negotiate in the next 18 to 48 months.
If I, as an individual, am dissatisfied with the current state of my employment, I have so many more options than I used to have.”
- Johnathan Nightingale, author and co-founder of Raw Signal Group, a management training firm, told The New York Times
Right now, we have a window of time to ask ourselves, each other, and our employers about what we want to change in our work lives. By carefully reflecting on the past few years, we can individually pinpoint what is not working, develop a new vision for what work could be, and use this moment to speak up, loudly and clearly.
The Role of Work in Our Lives
There are so many other systemic problems out there. Why talk about work?
If we look at work as a system, at the center there are two main players: the worker and the job. The worker provides their time and skills in exchange for money and possibly other benefits such as healthcare, stock options, training, a sense of purpose, prestige, and more (all of which have interesting sub plots that we will discuss in future essays).
To keep it simple for now, the purpose of work is to trade our time for a price.
How much of our time do we trade?
Turns out, a lot. People spend more time on average at their jobs than anything else, except sleeping.
Looking at the data published by the U.S. Department of Labor on how Americans spend their time, the average work day is 8.14 hours for full-time employees and 5.41 hours for part-time. Given it’s an average, we know a significant portion of full time employees spend more than 8.14 hours each work day at their jobs.
A few other stats from the 2020 survey that really put things in perspective:
After sleeping and working, the number one way Americans spent their time is watching TV. The average American watched 3.05 hours of TV per day.
A huge chunk of this time was eaten up by chores. Grooming: .61 hours, Travel (e.g. commuting): .79 hours, Purchasing goods: .38 hours, Household activities (e.g. cooking, cleaning, gardening): 2.01 hours. Combined, chores took an average of 3.82 hours a day.
The average American spent 0.08 hours a day volunteering, which works out to less than 5 minutes a day. Of course, a big reason this number is so low is only 4% of the population volunteered on an average day in the first place.
If you are like the average worker (and sleeper), you have 6.85 hours of discretionary time - which likely are eaten up by chores and watching TV given the numbers above. Trying to motivate people to tackle global systemic problems like poverty, climate change, homelessness, and more in the few spare minutes at the end of the day (or god forbid, their precious weekends) is a hard ask.
We need to talk about work because it’s where we currently spend most of our time. Time is our most precious resource. We cannot make more of it, we can only use less.
If we focus first on tackling the system that takes most of our time, we can free up space to use our time for other, potentially more fulfilling things.
A Systems View on Work
“Dangers lurk in all systems. Systems incorporate the unexamined beliefs of their creators. Adopt a system, accept its beliefs, and you help strengthen the resistance to change”
Frank Herbert, science fiction writer and author of Dune
The number of things that influence our decisions about work are infinite. Naming and understanding key elements of the system helps us examine our behavior from a new vantage point. For example, if we can understand how American culture might feed our belief system that we are only worthy if we achieve, we can begin to understand our toxic productivity or why we never seem to have time to buy healthy groceries or go for a run after work.
Let’s take the simple system we used previously of the exchange between a worker and a job, and then include a few more elements to get a sense for how changes in a system can trigger a domino effect.
Following the red arrows, the worker has internal skills and motivation that feed their value as a worker, and a tangible schedule, a place of work, and a commute. Following the orange arrows, a job has responsibilities and tasks baked into it, that influence the wage and benefits as well as the title. One change, say in responsibilities, could trigger a change in every element of the job (wages, benefits, title, tasks) but also the worker (their motivation, their schedule, etc.).
If we are dissatisfied with an element of our work lives, seeing how that element is connected to the rest of the system might provide some clarity on a leverage point for change.
Let’s zoom out again:
Now we’ve added the person behind the work and the business behind the job, plus a number of critical internal and external factors that influence their work life
Following the orange arrows, you might see how the reputation of a company could influence the integrity of its values which in turn might either reinforce or distance a worker from their work depending on the values alignment.
Following the red arrows, a job title and salary change could downstream effect the individual lifestyle one leads and their sense of identity.
In a final zoom out, we can begin to imagine how other systems like American culture, rising activism, government policy, or the global pandemic might impact a single element and have a cascading effect on the system.
Over this series of essays, we’ll become more intimate with the system that is work, its key elements and interconnections that drive such a crucial part of our life.
The goal is to find leverage points for change and imagine new win-win scenarios between the worker, the job, and society at large to ensure sustainability. With these identified, together we can take individual and collective action to upgrade our work lives so we can devote more of our energy towards tackling society’s big challenges.
“We [must] reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it. Obvious. Yet subversive.
Comforting, in that the solutions are in our own hands.”
Donella Meadows, scientist and author of Thinking in Systems
For more detailed and bonus illustrations, follow Figures on Instagram.
Up next in the series: What are the real reasons so many workers are quitting, retiring, or striking? What in the system has changed?
So creative and insightful!