We Need A New Work Culture

And we can’t wait for more enlightened management to show up or grow up.

Stowe Boyd
Oct 30, 2020 · 4 min read
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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

The discourse about a more enlightened future of work that hinges on the enlightenment of business owners and managers is basically a surrender, like handing over your wallet to a thief and asking him to please, at least, give back your drivers license.

If the suffragettes had waited for men to grant them the vote instead of organizing and marching, they’d still be disenfranchised.

We need a new work culture, one that is larger than company cultures, and one that is not the product of corporate mythologizing or the propaganda of internal communications. We need a deep work culture grounded in science and centered on the welfare — financial, psychological, and physical — of working people, not a shallow culture that glorifies bronze age charismatic leadership while downplaying the strength of emergent order that arises from the messiness of social self-governance.

Unions once played a role like this in America, and still do in other countries, but a combination of forces — corporatism and political forces on one side, and the intermingling of unions with criminal organizations — led to the decline of American unions over the past one hundred years. And unions have never gotten more than a foothold in the white-collar workforce, although journalism and tech workers are now bucking that trend. But, still, I think we need something better than unionism, that takes the best elements behind that once great movement and weds them with twenty-first century thinking about where work can take us.

We need to seek fluidarity, a more agile version of the solidarity that unions were based on. Where we don’t have to agree on everything, we only need to agree on a few core principles, like an end to precarity, fair pay for work, fair access to work, fair redress for grievances, and a larger voice in the governance of companies where we work.

Just as we no longer allow companies to exploit child labor, or to do whatever they like with the land that they own — which led to pollution, overuse of resources leading to ecological decline, and the subsequent degrading of adjacent land, as well — just so we should not allow companies to be managed however the owners want, or whatever they can get away with. Efforts like the National Labor Relations Board have been co-opted by the corporations that they are meant to regulate. And we can’t pretend that market forces will control the excesses of companies either ecologically or sociologically. Witness California’s A.B. 5, which seeks to counter the exploitation inherent in the gig economy as championed by Uber, Lyft, and Doordash, which the market — from venture capitalists to the average ride hailer — was willing to tolerate.

But before we can reform the controls on business that will be needed to create a more just and equitable economy, we need to accept that a new work culture is needed, one that breaks with the old. One that breaks with contemporary norms.

We need a new work culture in which management is considered at most a necessary evil, and something we should have as little of as possible. We have learned something about alternatives to conventional management, and we should continue to experiment and observe new approaches. But we know some things to be true, such as lessons we have learned about the danger inherent in power imbalances, the pervasiveness of our cognitive biases, and the value and challenges of diversity.

However, the majority of businesses operate on premises that are grounded in folklore, not science. We don’t allow restaurants and grocery stores to ignore the science of food, but businesses continue to ignore the science of human motivation, organizational dynamics, and social psychology, with impunity.

We need a new work culture that relies on the primal drive for autonomy and mastery in our work, the sense of belonging that comes from sharing goals and meeting them, and the impulse to gain the respect of those we respect.

Businesses based on anything less are both missing their greatest point of leverage and shortchanging those that hope for more.

I don’t know exactly how we are going to achieve this new way of work, but probably one small step at a time. Maybe by writing this I have taken a small step. Maybe others will join in. Maybe we’ll collectively attract others, and shift the discussion away from more the shallowness of hoping for more enlightened management to show up or grow up. Instead, let’s have the discussions about a deeper work culture based on more enlightened principles, and how we can influence businesses to adapt to it.

It’s our work culture, after all. Not theirs. Ours.

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The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

Stowe Boyd

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Work Futures

The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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