The first time I visited India, everything was new to me. The colors, the energy, and especially the sounds. To this day, I admire anyone who dares to drive a car or a scooter in New Delhi, not just because they can navigate the complexities of Delhi traffic, but also because they seem to be able to interpret the secret language of car and scooter honking. It’s a language all its own.
At the time I visited India, globalization—in other words, offshoring of US work to developing nations—was just getting underway, and many changes and innovations were being introduced to the Indian culture. For example, whereas in the past it might have taken a family months or years to get a telephone landline, now in a matter of days, families could have cell phone access, negating the need for a landline at all. Some families who had historically lived intergenerationally were now separating themselves from their relatives and living as a nuclear family.
One of the things I noticed was how people worked and what their work actually was. I remember seeing a woman standing at the rear of a large wooden cart, parked under a tree on a residential street. The cart was piled high with colorful fabrics. Apparently it was clothing because she was ironing. She had a mobile ironing service. I saw two men riding a scooter, one driving and the other with a medium-sized refrigerator tied to his back. I have no idea if they were delivering the refrigerator to their own home, or if their job was to deliver appliances to customers, but the guy on the back of the scooter had a heavy load. The men’s combined ability to master the weight balance amidst the chaotic traffic was simply amazing.
One person in particular stood out to me. We were exiting an office building—a fairly new one—and there was a woman there, sweeping the travertine-tiled lobby with a grass broom. This wasn’t the first time I had seen this. A woman. A grass broom. A large, dusty lobby. It looked like tedious, never-ending, and somewhat ineffective work. Wasn’t there a better way to do this?
As we were leaving the building, I asked my host: “I’ve seen a lot of people using grass brooms to sweep these lobbies. I’m curious as to why they don’t use a floor polisher or similar machine to do that work. Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to do it that way?”
I’ll never forget his reaction. His head snapped back. He got a confused look on his face. I could tell that he was trying to be polite, but clearly he was shocked that I had not thought carefully about what my suggestion might mean.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “There are machines that could do that, but we would then be depriving that woman of her work and her dignity. That is something we cannot do.”
I thought back to the mobile ironing service. Back to the delivery service. And back to the woman sweeping the lobby.
My host’s response opened up my thinking to consider the downstream effects of even the most simple, basic innovation. So used to looking for ways to improve the functioning and efficiency of my own company, I was forced to think beyond it, beyond myself, beyond even my community. I began to consider what work is, and what it means to individuals, communities, and societies at large.
The coronavirus slowdown has only accentuated the value and the need for work—any work, not just meaningful work.
This grass-broom-in-a-lobby, work availability, and dignity problem is one that we, worldwide, will all be facing shortly, once we emerge from our coronavirus cocoons. Work is not ever going back to the way it was. And what does that mean for us?
I was on a call yesterday that celebrated the ingenuity of business leaders. Companies are inventing and being creative. People are getting used to remote work and finding new ways to get things done. It’s wonderful how we are all learning to adapt and innovate. It’s obvious that major systems—healthcare, education, government, business and financial infrastructure—are going to undergo massive change, all at once, as we learn what’s working and what’s not.
Alongside that, however, we are learning that there are roles and functions we can do without. We are working around folks, and in the process, discovering that perhaps we don’t need them after all. We’re doing more than just getting by. We’re seeing a different future. One not altogether hopeless.
There have been some innovations that have been on the fringes for some time. For example, remote learning. It’s been proposed, piloted, and in some places, implemented. What was once an exception or a rarity is now a necessity. What does that mean for the future of education? If we adopt more remote learning, we will have less need for physical school buildings. That implies fewer custodians, fewer school secretaries, fewer support staff. Same with telehealth. Increased use of telehealth could require fewer appointment schedulers, nursing staff, billing personnel. Our newfound fear of at-risk interaction could mean we’ll soon see only automated grocery checkout lines to minimize employee risk—and employer liability—with the next pandemic.
I know that some jobs will disappear altogether. The example that’s always given is that the days of horse and buggy are over. And the implication of that statement is, “Those horse-and-buggy drivers should have figured it out.”
Really? Do they bear all of the responsibility?
I agree, we need to be responsible for ourselves and try to find a way to provide for and protect our families. We need to be agile, individually and collectively. Our companies need to keep moving forward, to provide work for as many as possible, as soon as possible.
And yet. How are we going to go about doing that? What are the values that are going to guide us?
For we are indeed responsible for ourselves. And we are also responsible for one another. That is another lesson the coronavirus is showing us. Whether we know it or not, we carry with us the possibility of life or death for anyone we physically come in contact with. We are not just individuals. We are connected, nodes in a series of relational networks, and our influence radiates beyond that of which we are aware. In very real ways, we belong to one another.
We are in a state of evolution. It is happening right before our eyes. As David Sloan Wilson says in his book, This View of Life, “If we don’t become wise managers of evolutionary processes, then evolution will still take place but will lead to outcomes that are not aligned with our normative goals.”
What are our goals, people? Will we seek to get the economy back on track at any cost? Or will we be more conscious about it? What, exactly, are we working toward?
Innovators, think not only of the efficiencies you are creating but of the individuals you may be displacing. Bring your creative forces to bear, not just on matters of survival but on matters of sustainability. Now is the time for our most creative thinking. Now is the time to to think of the whole, not just the parts. Now is the time to think systemically.
How can we innovate for all, and not just for some? I don’t know. But I do know this: It is a worthy goal.