The Coronavirus Reveals Everything That’s Wrong With Work In America

Business
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Work looks different today. I don’t mean capital-T-Today as in “not the past,” but literally today, yesterday and tomorrow, for the last month and, in all likelihood, for a number of months to come. Maybe forever. 

Work looks like your boss in a hoodie. The books on your colleague’s shelf. A newscaster’s cat. Its soundtrack includes a barely perceptible audio lag and a dog barking in the background. It is illuminated by the fixture with one burned-out bulb over your kitchen table and punctuated by your 2-year-old busting into the room, noticing your manager and entire team video chatting on your laptop screen, and asking, “Who are these people? Is he in him’s home?”

Yes, he is in him’s home. And for the millions of us working remotely during the coronavirus shutdown, we are in him’s home, too. And he is in ours. No one is wearing shoes.

When I interviewed people for this article, asking them about the shifting landscape of work amid the pandemic (while I sat cross-legged on my bed, hiding from my husband and our 7-month-old and our Staffordshire terrier), I was surprised at how many times I heard the word “human.”

The coronavirus has shaken our sense of security, exposing chasms of instability and inequity along fault lines that already existed in the mantle of society. But it has also exposed our humanity, the private portions of our lives we pack away before commuting to the office, the fine lines we walk between personal and professional, the unraveling threads by which so many in this country are just barely hanging on.

When we eventually emerge from the panic state into whatever life-after-coronavirus looks like, experts are genuinely optimistic that work can foster our humanity instead of punishing us for being human.

“What I’m hoping this has done is to swing the pendulum back from our individualistic system …  toward more of a collective consciousness, and the idea that we’re all in this together,” said Arne Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author, most recently, of “Precarious Lives: Job Insecurity and Well-Being in Rich Democracies.”

Making Work Work Better

For some of the roughly 42 million people who can work at home (about 29% of the U.S. workforce), separation from the traditional office setting is actually bringing workers closer together. 

“We’re seeing a lot more listening,” said Jessica Orkin, CEO of the consultancy SYPartners, describing how the companies she works with are adapting to business in quarantine. “A lot more communication where CEOs and leadership teams are communicating more regularly, more vulnerably, more humanly. Everybody’s lives are on display.”

“Somehow it’s more intimate,” said Raj Sisodia, a business professor at Babson College and co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism movement. “We’re peeking into each others’ homes. There’s a level of human connection that can happen if you use technology in the right ways.”

The clarion call for humanity is on Zoom.

What’s more, that Zoom call is a symbol of freedom: from the tyranny of rush-hour traffic, from missing pickup at your child’s day care and from that other pandemic, burnout.

Dan Schawbel, managing partner of research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence and author of “Back to Human,” called the current situation the grand remote-work experiment, and it’s looking good. “People are going to want to keep doing it for the rest of their careers. If a company doesn’t offer flexibility, it’s going to be strange. People expect certain benefits outside compensation.” 

Not just remote work, but flexible hours, job sharing, paid parental leave — the ability to work where and when you’re most comfortable and productive, to be there for your family and to attend to your personal well-being. Some companies have already shown that instituting a four-day workweek, while still paying employees their full salaries, can improve work-life balance and combat burnout without sacrificing productivity or profits.

“Coronavirus has poured gasoline on a lot of these workplace trends,” Schawbel said.

Under intense pressure of circumstance, human beings are capable of innovating rapidly.

— Raj Sisodia, Babson College professor of business

“Employers have to be willing to accommodate workers’ needs more,” Kalleberg said. “I think we’re seeing a lot of shifts.”

The option to work remotely (for those who have the privilege to do so) isn’t just good for people, he pointed out, it’s good for the planet: “We don’t need to go to all these meetings. We don’t need to travel to all these places, meet for a half a day and travel back.” 

Americans make about 460 million business trips a year, about 1 in 6 by plane. Transportation is the country’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; more than half of that contribution comes courtesy of cars, trucks and minivans, while about 7% is from commercial flights. 

“We are learning to work remotely and collaborate in different ways. We can operate in ways that are more efficient — fewer people commuting, less pollution — and still achieve what we want to achieve, without all the pressure on the environment and well-being,” Sisodia said, calling this “spring training for the real game to come” of addressing the climate crisis.

“Under intense pressure of circumstance, human beings are capable of innovating rapidly,” he said.

‘This System Never Worked In The First Place’ 

While those of us currently toiling in the Sweatpants Sector can grasp at the future promise of a more human, more sustainable workplace, an overwhelming number of Americans are barely hanging on in the here and now. Tens of millions of people, including those in the service industry and people with uncertain or precarious jobs, find themselves adrift in a system that never worked in the first place, with their livelihoods at risk on the one hand and their lives at risk on the other.

“The pandemic is the great revealer of the pain points, the tender bits, the parts that are absolutely not working within our society, within our government, within business, within how we as individual people have been living our lives daily,” Orkin said. “It reveals just how many of us as Americans are living on the edge and how there’s not enough support underneath us.”

About 26 million people have lost their jobs since mid-March. But even before COVID-19 hit, a quarter of Americans were scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck. An estimated 44% worked low-wage jobs, earning a median income of less than $18,000 a year. More than a third didn’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. 

“People are living so close to the edge of financial ruin,” Sisodia said. “These were booming times, and yet ordinary, average people were really struggling. Our system really wasn’t working. At some companies, HR will give people the forms to apply for government assistance because they pay them so little.”

Now, as unemployment hits record levels, many are being pushed off that edge into financial free fall. People are lining up for food banks by the thousands, and perhaps millions won’t be able to pay rent on May 1. 

For some of the 10 million restaurant employees who’ve lost their jobs since the shutdown — along with several million other tipped-wage earners in salons and carwashes across the country — unemployment may not even be an option because they make too little money.

People who work for tips are only required to be paid $2.13 an hour, the federal subminimum wage. Only seven states pay tipped workers the full minimum wage. In 28 others, tipped minimum wage ranges from just above the federal limit to about $9 an hour. Read Full Article HuffPost.

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