The most contentious issue of the recently-completed Minnesota legislative session was a bill to allow in-home child-care providers and personal care attendants who receive subsidy payments from the state to vote on unionizing. Acrimonious debates in the Senate and the House dragged on for hours and hours, dozens of amendments were introduced in attempts to de-rail the legislation, and the rhetoric was heated. In the end, the bill (barely) passed. But setting aside the rhetoric, what does this new law really do?
A recent New York Times article described a so-called "emerging field called work-force science:
It adds a large dose of data analysis, aka Big Data, to the field of human resource management, which has traditionally relied heavily on gut feel and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning.
While the practice of human resource management could certainly use stronger foundations in rigorous scholarship, this article is insulting to generations of researchers who have used data to carefully answer critical questions in the field for decades. In 1949, the first director of the precursor to today's Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the University of Minnesota, Professor Dale Yoder, launched a series of pioneering benchmarking studies of personnel ratios, salaries, and budgets. In the 1950s, Professor Yoder's colleagues developed of a number of measurement instruments that continue to be used today around the world, including the Minnesota Satisfaction Questionnaire. And so on and so forth right up to today, such as a recent project by some of my current colleagues who worked with data from seven organizations to better understand turnover. In fact, while we can always keep learning from new data sources (especially those using company records, or, even better, field experiments), from my perspective the field sometimes has too much data and not enough conceptual clarity.
With many people still buzzing about Yahoo's termination of its telecommuting program, Best Buy has just announced the end of its Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) in which only job performance for corporate employees mattered, not time worked or time spent in the office. Like Yahoo last week, Best Buy attributes its decision to a need for greater collaboration among employees. According to a Best Buy spokesperson, "Bottom line, it's 'all hands on deck' at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business" (Star Tribune, March 5, 2013). But there might be something deeper and more troubling at work (no pun intended).
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of participating in a very stimulating conference on invisible labor hosted by Washington University's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work and Social Capital. My contribution was reflected in an old adage that states that the eye does not see what the mind does not know. We only see and value work when it conforms to our mental models of what work is. In the public imagination, why is work less visible than other key aspects of human life? Because dominant ways of thinking about work reduce it to a curse or to a commodified, instrumental activity that supports consumption. So we do not think of work as having deeper value, and therefore we overlook work in favor of other human activities. Similarly, why are certain forms of work invisible? Because when we think of work in certain ways, especially as a commodified, instrumental activity, then forms of work that are thought of as different from or only weakly fulfilling these dominant conceptualizations of work are devalued and rendered invisible.
An article in yesterday's Guardian correctly revealed the negative associations in language that have long been associated with words for work:
Words indicating labour in most European languages originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction and persecution. The French word travail (and Spanish trabajo), like its English equivalent, are derived from the Latin trepaliare - to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. The word peine, meaning penalty or punishment, also is used to signify arduous labour, something accomplished with great effort. The German Arbeit suggests effort, hardship and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives "robot"), a word meaning corvee, forced or serf labour.
Unfortunately, experiencing work in arduous ways and seeing it as something that we have to do rather than as something we choose to do is all too frequent, not only in today's society, but in many societies stretching back to ancient Greece and presumably before. But this shouldn't be the entire story.