Work Can Be Different
In the late 1800s organized labor moved to create a “working mans’ holiday” to pay tribute to the American worker and their contributions to the American dream. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law recognizing Labor Day as a national holiday. While the history of the labor movement has not always been inclusive, labor unions have been responsible for transforming what it means to work in this country. We can thank labor movements for things like the 40-hour work week, weekends, paid overtime, focus on worker safety, and benefits like paid time off, retirement funds, and employer-sponsored healthcare.
The labor movements of yore made work better. And I believe that we can continue to carry this legacy forward and push the boundaries of what work life can be. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated what makes work hard for so many of us. Many are realizing the nonstop demands for productivity are hindering our ability to live healthy, full lives. We live in a world that teaches us that productivity matters most. To be valuable is to create value. To thrive is to produce more value faster, better, and cheaper than the other. Move up the hierarchy. Be rewarded with power and control. Gather resources. Get more. Have more and you are more.
But that drive towards more and more productivity has a cost. It often strips us of our humanity. It keeps us from the knowledge that our value is not in what we do. Our value is because we are. Our current work life keeps us from realizing that collectively, our society has everything we need for all of us to thrive and live abundantly.
Work is an exchange — those with capital exchange money for labor from those who labor. And currently our society has decided to value those with capital over those with labor. A hierarchy of value exists there. And whenever a hierarchy exists, power struggles will appear. Thus the way we work centers power and controlling others. Our current approach to work is built on the legacy of exclusionary cultures and inequity. There is a legacy of requiring overwork from those who labor and too much sacrifice. There is a legacy of isolation and separation from our communities.
But what if we decided to change that legacy? What if we chose to disrupt our old work patterns? What if we leaned into our shared humanity and worked together differently? What if we worked in ways that did not rely on hierarchy and instead created shared abundance?
Work can be different. It can change people’s lives in powerful ways. It can unleash great potential. It can be inclusive. Work can be a place where many people can thrive.
With deliberate intention, we can make workplaces great. Places that recognize people’s humanity — the need for meaning, the need to have space to do what you were made to do. And the need to rest and restore. Workplaces can be committed to disrupting and rooting out inequity so all of the team can belong and thrive.
People can feel belonging at work. They can feel truly seen. They can feel celebrated. They can learn. They can grow. They can truly be fulfilled at work.
We can embrace new ways of being at work. Work can be a community. Companies are made up of people. Whole and wonderfully complex people. Our workplaces can embrace all of these people and our shared humanity. Work can sustain us instead of merely extracting value out of us. Work can be done in ways that allows people to be fully human — with families and pets and friends and commitments and things that fill up their time and hearts with more than just work. We can recognize to thrive, we must rest. We can structure our work in ways that creates space rest, restoration, and reflection. We can ensure people can care for themselves and others in their care when they need to.
Work can edify. It can celebrate and center our strengths. We can rejoice in the possibility that there are multiple ways of being excellent at work. We can resist stifling others with uniformity and the false premise that there is only one way to do things at work. We can shift towards learning and move away from evaluating and judging each other through work. It is unnecessary. The judgment does not make us better. Punishing others for their difference hinders us all. If we accept the truth that NONE of us knows what we are doing really, we can step into an amazing space where we can all learn and grow together.
We can thrive together.
Work can be a way to ensure we all have what we need. Workplaces can use resources to support their employees equitably. We can actively work together to disrupt bias and root our racism in our midst. We can do our own self work to understand how we are each complicit in how we uphold systems of inequity — often unconsciously. The lack of consciousness does not absolve us from our responsibility to change to create a better world. We can commit as individuals and organizations to deconstruct that which leads to separation and inequity and reconstruct something new together. We can ensure the exchange between those with capital and those who labor is just.
We can create something new. We can dismantle that which does not serve our desire to create our new, extraordinary vision. To achieve this vision, we must commit to letting go of the ways things have always been done and commit to new ways of being at work. This summer, so many social constructs are tumbling down right before our very eyes. Perhaps now is the time to start to tear down traditional ways of working.
Let’s work together to make work different.