Utne Blogs > Politics

Rethinking Work

The industrial age is over, so why are we still punching in? 

Lewis Hine Power House MechanicWelcome to the 21st century, where women are an official fixture of the working world. One catch: the laundry never went away. Or the dishes. Or the kids. Sure, men have gotten more involved at home—but with everyone working, finding balance between work and home has become a challenge. Something’s gotta give, and it might mean rethinking the way we work.

Work as we know it just isn’t working,” writes Amy Brown for Solutions Online. “Our labor laws and practices still focus on an antiquated Industrial Model of Work that uses time spent in the office or at the work site as a measure of productivity. We still cling to some kind of 1950s middle-class nostalgic belief that an ideal worker does not have time constraints because someone at home manages child care, elder care, and household responsibilities. This is no longer true.”

First of all, as anyone who works near an internet connection will tell you, time spent at work is not synonymous with time spent working. And the interweb isn’t the only difference between now and the 1950s. Seventy percent of children are currently raised in homes where all adults work, and as baby boomers reach retirement we’re about to see a large increase in the number of elderly who will need home care.

Work schedules that don’t leave time for balancing these care-giving responsibilities leave employees stressed, tired, and vulnerable to illness, says Brown. And recent research suggests companies that don’t support work-life balance are likely to see higher rates of turnover. When you consider that replacing an employee typically costs a company at least half of that employee’s salary, employee dissatisfaction starts to look bad for the bottom line, too.

Work arrangements like telecommuting and flexible scheduling help, says Brown, but there might be a better option: the “Accountability Model of Work.” Here, workers are given a set of responsibilities and complete control of their time, creating incentive to use every minute wisely. The result is high quality work done quickly, and employees are happier too.

It’s normal, says Brown, for companies’ first reaction to be that the accountability model would never work for them. But when Gap Inc. finally made the switch, both management and employees reported increased levels of engagement and higher quality work. The company also measured a 17 percent increase in productivity.

Paired with changes in social policy, suggests Brown, the accountability model could easily take the place of today’s industrial model. “Work is not a place you go, it is something you do,” she writes. And a different take on how it’s done could make both workers and their bosses more satisfied.

Photo: "Power house mechanic working on steam pump," by Lewis Hine, public domain. 

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kshatrya
10/19/2013 7:56:28 PM

Writers, managers, artists, "information workers", etc... have the luxury of working from home. (Or not having a defined workplace.) But for industrial, production workers, the workplace is where the means of production are. I may be able to produce a new manual while sitting in my local coffee shop, but I have to be at a workbench to repair a radio. (Both of which are part of my job.) Eliminating the traditional workplace is a privilege for non-industrial workers only. It will take more than that alleviate the squeeze, time and otherwise, for the mass of workers.


tim nelin
7/27/2013 4:59:32 AM

Ok, so what do we do about the people that can only survive with a dollar in their hand? If most people can't earn a buck by working, they have no way of surviving. The skill of self-sufficiency and being able to survive on one's own resources is gone, and there is virtually no way to get it back. Worse than that-most people don't understand anyway! And by the way-how do you think the entire USA can avoid bankruptcy considering that, as a nation, you all owe about a kazillion bucks to India, China, Russia, Germany, Japan and countless people that have lent you all money thru stocks and bonds. Welcome to Detroit's world. And by the way, GOOD LUCK!!!! Also, would someone please ask their representative where all the gold in Ft. Knox went? HUH???


mark horner
7/26/2013 10:23:51 PM

I agree, however, I think that industrial work was/is more about control of people's movements and thoughts than an actual valid method for producing needs and wants. Productivity, as you point out, is now way beyond what the western world (and more so our manufacturing satellites) needs. Ownership of stuff is also a method of control - envy and conformity are powerful drivers. When we get to the state where nearly everyone has a sufficiency, the pathological chase of super wealth is seen for what it is, and technology fits within natural processes, then work will be once again work.


joshua
7/26/2013 10:08:54 PM

The other question that I have yet to see addressed in this work equation is how much work is really required to produce what we need as a nation or, as all of humanity, to consume. I've hardly tried the math, and I'm not even sure what or how to count it, but I do wonder if everybody in the country, or in the world, worked full time, I can only imagine that we would produce way more than we could all consume. And the more technology advances, the more productive each individual person will become, right? As it is, we already produce so much junk that nobody really needs; but it sure feeds the bottom line of corporations and the GNP. So it seems to me that here is another argument for people to work less. We as a planet just cannot afford full productivity, nor do we need it.