Thursday, June 3, 2021

The future of work?

Me. Second from left.

20,000 years ago or even 10,000 years ago, most hominids were hunters and gatherers. There wasn't a whole helluva lot of agriculture, if there was any at all.

There were, however, a ton of animals for humans to prey on. And fruit. And grubs. Look! There's a handful under that log. 

Hunter-gatherers had a pretty good life--all things considered. Sure, they could die from a scraped knee. But on the other hand, there was plenty of game, and not that many people. Your little area of land could sustain your people. There was little need for anyone to come into your territory or for you to stray into anyone else's. From the perspective of the 20th Century--the bloodiest century in human history, or even the 21st, it was a relatively peaceful time.

What's more, as I said, game was abundant. Most hunter-gatherers only had to "work" between two and four hours a day to feed themselves and their families. That's true with the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies today. 

Along about 9000 years ago, agriculture came into the picture. People began modifying and cultivating grains and domesticating animals. The good news was, they could stay put and build homes. The bad news was that they had to work many more hours to sustain themselves--usually more than 12 hours a day. It's tough to till the soil. Just ask my wife. She's growing cilantro.

Agriculture, for all its work, opened the doors to a lot of things. For one, a community could have a surplus of food. Second, since a few farmers could produce a lot of food, labor became specialized. People could do things other than subsist.

Because people lived now in villages, they needed protection. So some people became royalty--kings and dukes, some became knights, some became artisans. Some removed offal. Some in the lower orders wrote ads. But the most salient point in all this is that people had to work longer and longer for their survival and became more and more interdependent on others for their propagation.

Today--about two of every five articles I see on LinkedIn seems to be about the future of work. Everyone seems to be speculating or postulating on what life will be like assuming the Pandora's Box of worldwide pandemics is nailed shut once again.

So with Covid seemingly in abeyance, we ask what will the office look like? Will we return? Will we work from home? What about those of us who have left the city for places far afield?

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal ran its annual report on CEO pay and performance. You can, if you subscribe to the WSJ (who have a tough paywall) read the whole thing here.
The distance between CEO pay and the pay of the rest of the world is, not surprisingly, widening. The rich are doing what they do: getting richer.

I don't think you can have a real discussion on the future of work if you don't have a real discussion about disproportionate CEO pay. For instance, John Wren, CEO of Omnicom made just over $11 million last year--just over 262 times what his "median" employee earned. So for every dollar you earn, Mr. Wren made 262 dollars.

Back in the 1960s, if my memory holds, someone at J. Walter Thomson realized that their offices looked like shit. That they were a bit dispiriting because they were drab and beige and decrepit.

To get people to stay in the office longer and work harder, the word was that JWT gave people small budgets to fix up their offices. All of a sudden, cheap plastic furnishings were replaced by mahogany and leather. People felt better about where they worked. They stayed in the office later and worked a little harder. Who knows--employee attrition (which often leads to account attrition) might even have slowed. 

People, for this brief shining moment, were treated with respect. It makes me think of this from Yale professor of architecture Vincent Sculley. He was speaking by in the mid 1960s of the difference between the old Penn Station that was torn down for the new one.

Sculley said, "One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat." I think we can say the same thing about office space and work conditions today.

My point in all this is simple.

All the bushwa about the future of work seems to ignore what would make employees happy--now and in the future. Being treated like individuals. With personal space and effects. And maybe a slim slice of quiet now and again.

Maybe offices that don't look like a still frame from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. How about decent furnishings? A $50 gift card because you're you? An occasional thank you?

How about treating people like people, with a certain nobility--not as they are today, with a faceless interchangeability?

When I started GeorgeCo., LLC, a Delaware Company, I had some models to learn from. Whatever holding companies did, I would try to do the opposite. 

Not only would I charge a lot, I would pay people working for me a lot and try to treat people fairly. Because I want the best people. I am able to do this because good people produce good work and produce it more quickly and more of it than people who are underpaid, underfed (emotionally) and over-stressed.

I'm 16-months in and I haven't had anyone tell me I'm too expensive. Most clients seem happy. As are the people who work with me. I'm as happy as I can be, being a beaten on Shtetl Jew, unaccustomed to happiness.

Maybe we should think about making people happy and being happy. About treating people well. Rewarding them. Showing care and appreciation.

Maybe that's the future of work.

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