The Work Project: Reimagining Work and Time

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Image: Hilary Cottam

By Hilary Cottam

This is the second blog in a new series about the future of work. The series reflects on workshops that were held in five locations across Britain over the past two years. The project has been generously funded by Laudes Foundation, Open Society Foundation and James Anderson.

In the first blog in this series, I set out the context for this project: a shifting socio-economic paradigm driven by technology change, looming environmental catastrophe and the unaddressed legacies of injustice that mean we must think again about work. Here I reflect on responses to the core question: what makes a good working life?

“We are walking on shifting sands…very, very bad times are coming…” It was February 2020, one month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and a workshop participant started to share her worries about an uncertain future. She was not alone: her remarks captured the sense of unease and instability that pervaded workshop conversations. Few people I spoke to felt that they were coping very well.

Uncertainty is about a lack of predictability at work where contracts, hours, and tasks constantly shift. The decline in real wages has justifiably received increasing attention but for low income workers in particular, predictable work patterns are just as important for everything from household budgeting to arranging child care.

Beyond work, the ground seems equally unstable. There is a widespread distrust of institutions, from insurance companies to many national charities. The latter are seen as the home of overpaid London elites and distinguished from local community organisations and informal self-help, that almost everyone is involved with. Even the NHS cannot be fully relied on because who really knows how long it will last.

It’s a deep unease misunderstood by policy makers as they simultaneously make grand claims for the potential of regional development, tweak fiscal policies and count jobs — whatever the quality — in a vain search for a new Pareto optimality. Workshop attendees expected equilibrium to be fleeting at most. What they discussed was a new design, one that can work with constant change providing communities with the wherewithal to flow with and navigate the tides.

There is a surprising consensus about the ingredients of a good working life. Workers in the BAE submarine base in Barrow, carers like Sara in Morecambe, Andy and Tracey on assembly lines in Barnsley, borough police commanders and many more prize decent pay (the ability to afford the basics, save for a rainy day and get the things your kids need — other material possessions were ranked as much less important); they prize predictability (to enable the budgeting of money and time); a sense of purpose (not to be confused with an employer’s declared values) and freedom from surveillance.

Surveillance comes in many forms, from the cameras on the factory floor to the respect (or lack of it) shown by a manager. For gig workers — those whose work is defined by a platform-based algorithm, such as the Deliveroo drivers — talk of surveillance took on a particular urgency. “We are slaves to the algorithm”, I was continually told as participants made repeated, almost manic calculations on the tables showing how wages are managed continually downwards through an invisible process which always surveils and blames the driver not the customer.

But these practical necessities are simply an expected baseline. What matters more are the bigger things in life: a sense of belonging, relationships with family and friends ‘everything starts here’; a connection to the nature that everywhere surrounds us.

The good working life is baggy and expansive. You have time to do a good job. You have time to be outside, to nurture relationships, time to care, time simply to be. All the really important things require time; ‘disposable time’.

The Struggle for Time

“I don’t want to work until I’m broken, take the same 5 weeks holiday a year… I don’t want to try and care for my family in the gaps in between. Why can’t we rethink it top to bottom?” This question — asked by Jonny, a grave-digger in Kilmarnock, one wintry day in the early workshops — opened a theme that was to be taken up in all the workshops to come. A four-day working week would be the start (and was a universal ‘ask’) but the imaginings ran much deeper: how to undo the linear (study, work, retire) life?

Jonny’s work is back breaking, and as the grave-digging trade has been changed by technology his work has become harder to find and lonely. New mechanical diggers mean formerly convivial work teams have been reduced to a maximum allocation of two people per job.

Kilmarnock in East Ayrshire was once home to miners, cotton mills, carpet and lace makers. It was also the birthplace of Johnnie Walker whiskies (founded when the eponymous Johnnie was just 15 years old). But in 2012 Diageo (owners of Johnnie Walker since 1997) closed the one remaining bottling plant with the loss of the last 700 factory jobs. Good work today comes from the Council or the NHS.

Jonny knows he’s lucky to have one of those council jobs. He is also fortunate because he works for a Council where he is not the only one reimagining. East Ayrshire is home to a work experiment led by the inspirational public leader Katie Kelly. She is practising what could be seen as a new form of very local industrial policy which she has called Vibrant Communities. Katie thinks that vibrant communities are about the talents and lives of people who live there. It’s obvious really but it is surprising how few local economic strategies start with local workers.

In Katie’s vision core workers like Jonny make the community so she has been thinking how to ensure Jonny and his colleagues don’t burn out. A starting point has been to reserve the less physical council jobs for older workers introducing a new pattern where you might start on the bins or the graves (heavy lifting), progress to training as an HGV driver (medium intensity) and then become a caretaker or janitor (paced to allow for conversation and for community relationships to grow in ways I have described here). It’s a simple but powerful way of re-weaving life and working time.

Time appears immutable, the law that governs work which cannot be changed. But change can and does happen. The ‘common sense’ of one era or revolution — life organised according to periods of prayer or agrarian seasons for example — gives way to another.

Today industrial time — life lived according to a now internalised metronome of the ticking clock — is the norm. But for those who started the great factories, finding workers who could keep to time was one of their biggest challenges. The industrialists of the era tried many tactics, from the commissioning of the beautiful, municipal clocks that still grace so many towns and cities to Henry Ford’s explicit linking of the US$5 wage to punctuality.

The Kellogg’s experiment

One of the most interesting experiments in working time was started ninety years ago, in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg’s, the largest manufacturer of breakfast cereals in the world, made a revolutionary offer to its workforce: shorter working days. Almost all of the 1,500 workers were offered six-hour shifts, in place of their former eight hour working day, for the same pay.

Household studies conducted at the time show that workers did not consider their freedom remarkable. They expected that modernity in the form of the mass industrial technology revolution would mean that eventually everyone would work less. The experiment was an instant success. The company reaped dividends in the form of higher productivity, reduced absenteeism, turnover and accidents whilst the workers recorded rich lives with time to care, make, converse. They felt ease, with flourishing, whole lives.

Why did it end? Ironically it was the unionisation of the Kellogg’s plant that sowed the first seeds of division. Union organisers suggested that better pay was possible. Workers who had heard of night bonuses and paid lunch hours at nearby plants in Detroit were attracted. They also liked the idea of greater democracy at work, which was core to the ideals of union organising.

Not everyone was convinced. There was a culture clash between predominantly young, male union organisers who prioritised wages above all and could not conceive of the social value of less paid work, and women who saw a difference between leisure time woven into the everyday rhythms of life and a periodic paid vacation. Mr Kellogg reputedly wept at the new unionised contracts that won out and — not surprisingly — women were the last to be convinced. As Kellogg’s productivity started to fall another experiment was launched to address the decline: a team of managers schooled in the new science of Taylorism.

The Kellogg’s story told ninety years on seems remarkable because, despite the contemporary predictions of Keynes — that the grand children of the Kellogg’s era would work a 15-hour week, — the opposite has happened. Technology has so far not led to a widespread redistribution of time. The notorious 9:9:6 shifts of the Chinese factory producing most of what we consume, may have been finally declared illegal but very long working hours are the dystopian reality for many millions of us.

The Kellogg’s experiment is about the re-positioning of work. For a short period of time in Battle Creek the job was simply a part of life. Today most of us find ourselves subsumed in a culture which prioritises work and wages above all. Culture in all its forms: making, playing, meeting has been re-categorised as a consumption good, things we buy with our wages. But the household studies of Kellogg’s workers tell of something else: the way that the gaps in between, the bits of life that household interviewees called ‘nothing special’, were also the bits that created good lives. Journalists who visited Battle Creek, reported a common theme: that people had ‘more life’.

What is a good working life? A good working life is making time. Even as the Dagenham gig workers talked about their relentless hours, or those who work in the Barnsley fulfilment centres report that they are not allowed to chat, the conversations continually reached back to an earlier value of time and forward to a new way of thinking about work, local places and what is valued. There is a hunger to live whole, connected lives — those of sapiens integra — and clear ideas about the steps required. The first of these steps: rethinking care, will be the subject of next week’s blog.

Hilary Cottam is a social activist, the author of Radical Help and an Honorary Professor at UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose @hilarycottam

The Work Project is made possible by a grant from Laudes Foundation. I’m grateful to the Open Society Foundation and to James Anderson for financial support which funded the workshops in 5 UK locations between 2020 and 2021 and I would like to thank the workshop participants and my local hosts in Barking, Barnsley, Barrow, East Ayrshire, Grimsby and Peckham.