You know what work is?
Work is love made visible. So says Khalil Gibran in The Prophet. “And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.”
But the story of work is more tragic, with striking changes in the way work has been perceived and organized throughout history. The form and nature of work is a reflection of our values and determine the character of society.
Independent craftsmen of the Renaissance owned their own tools and set their own working hours. Artisans were regarded as creative workers rather than manual laborers. They weren’t slaves. Great talents were born, among them Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, who fused science and art to create masterpieces.
The Industrial Age changed everything. Artisans and their cottage industries were no match for the new, power-driven machinery. Factories produced goods on a large scale, altering the organization of work.
“There had been set in motion that deplorable process of transition,” writes H. R. Percy in The Decline of Craftsmanship, “from a state in which the craft was carried proudly through life as a privilege to one in which it became a burden to be borne reluctantly for the sake of mere subsistence ... The craftsman’s hand, which once was a sublime instrument of creation, degenerated into a mere insensate link between mind and machine.”
Workers entered the bondage of the industrial economy. Now the employer owned the tools and raw materials and set the conditions for employment, creating a new cleavage between capital and labor. Ten-to-sixteen-hour workdays were normal so factories could run non-stop. Workers were concentrated into cities and towns, as the new factories had to be located near power and transportation.
By the second half of the twentieth century, the auto industry was the biggest employer, and General Motors was the richest company, with more than half a million employees in 1955. Automation had by now made it possible to attain greater consistency and quality with fewer workers. Accounting principles had ingrained the idea of treating labor as a cost to be managed.
The focus of labor shifted to central city office towers, separating white-collar and blue-collar work. With the advent of computers came the burgeoning knowledge economy. Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe the growing cadre of employees who labored with their minds rather than their hands.
Corporate skyscrapers became a visible statement of power and prestige. Office layouts were inspired by the factory floor, with rows and rows of desks crammed tightly together. Designer Robert Propst called it a “wasteland” that saps vitality, blocks talent, and frustrates accomplishment. “It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.”
Propst designed the office cubicle in 1968, and it was used by at least 40 million Americans by the turn of the century.
Source: Getty Images
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 8.8 hours every day yet is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes. The rest of the time is spent doing unproductive activities like reading news (1 hour), checking social media (44 minutes), discussing non-work-related things with co-workers (40 minutes), and eating snacks or drinks (33 minutes).
Being present is not the same as being productive. The fakeness of work was in full display in pop culture shows like The Office. A staggering 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job, according to Gallup.
Even before the pandemic, a new meaning of work was forming, one that holistically integrates with life: a sense of purpose, creativity and autonomy, more flexibility to focus on well-being, developing as an individual, and creating new sources of value in relationship with others.
After our forced experimentation with work from home, there’s no going back to the way things were. Over half of employed adults who are able to work from home say that they want to continue doing so after the pandemic is over. Work will become more spatially and organizationally distributed.
We have seen the demise of small-scale craftsmanship, the scourge of the factory system and automation, and the rise and quiet fall of the “company man.” To look back even a year is to look at a bygone world with which we find it difficult to identify. Workers are again freeing themselves from many traditional bounds and constraint.
The transition to remote working has been relatively easy: 87 percent say they have the technology they need to do their job at home, 80 percent say it’s easy to complete their work on time, 77 percent say they have a proper workspace, and 64 percent say they feel motivated.
Many companies say productivity has remained at pre-pandemic levels, or even gone up. Workers are getting more done without the average 54-minute commute time round trip and in the absence of small talk with colleagues and leisurely coffees in the break room. Online tools are a good substitute for in-person contact. If any job can be done from home, it will.
“We’re in an all-digital world,” says Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. “The past is gone. We need to rebuild our companies and ourselves to be successful in this new digital future.”
A survey of 248 US chief operating officers found that one-third plan to reduce office space in the coming years as leases expire. Moody’s Analytics predicts that the office vacancy rate in the US will rise to 20.2 percent by 2022, compared to 16.8 percent in 2019.
By 2025, 36.2 million Americans will be fully remote, nearly double the pre-pandemic level. Combine that with the figures for partial remote working and over one-third of workers may be working remotely at least some of the time in the long run.
It’s time to embrace this radical shift. Working from home is not just the biggest test of business-continuity planning, it’s a new way of life in which we no longer worship at the altar of the office for self-worth.