Work Productivity: Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

From today’s New York Times by Susan Dynarski:

Step into any college lecture hall and you are likely to find a sea of students typing away at open, glowing laptops as the professor speaks. But you won’t see that when I’m teaching.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars.

That may seem extreme. After all, with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

Measuring the effect of laptops on learning is tough. One problem is that students don’t all use laptops the same way. It might be that dedicated students, who tend to earn high grades, use them more frequently in classes. It might be that the most distracted students turn to their laptops whenever they are bored. In any case, a simple comparison of performance may confuse the effect of laptops with the characteristics of the students who choose to use them. Researchers call this “selection bias.”

Read the entire article here.

On Sex Discrimination, Men at Work Wonder if They’ve Overstepped

From Nov. 10 New York Times by Nellie Bowles:

It has been a confusing season for America’s working men, as the conversation around workplace harassment reveals it to be a nationwide epidemic — and many men wonder if they were involved or ignored the signs.

Consider Owen Cunningham, a director at San Francisco’s KBM-Hogue design firm. When he looks toward the annual corporate holiday party these days, he shudders.

“Cancel the holiday party,” said Mr. Cunningham, 37, adding that he means just until it has been figured out how men and women should interact. He said he considered himself progressive on gender issues but was thinking more about the behavior he had seen in the past: “What flirting is O.K.? Was I ever taking advantage of any meager power I had? You start to wonder.”

Across white-collar workplaces, rank-and-file men are awakening to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault after high-profile cases including those of Harvey Weinstein, Mark Halperin and Louis C.K. Those cases helped inspire the #MeToo campaign, in which thousands of women have posted about their own harassment experiences on social media. Now many men who like to think they treat women as equals in the workplace are starting to look back at their own behavior and are wondering if they, too, have overstepped at work — in overt or subtle ways that would get them included in a #MeToo post.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” said Nick Matthews, 42, who works at PwC, formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers, and lives in San Francisco. “But has anything I’ve done been interpreted another way?”

Read entire article here.

Employees do want their job to matter, but meaning at work can be hard to find

From today’s Chicago Tribune by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz:

Jennifer Ruiz holds her patient’s trembling hand as she presses a stethoscope to the frail woman’s chest and belly. She compliments the woman on her recently painted fingernails. She cheerfully asks how she’s feeling, knowing she’ll get no answer from the little curled body in the big hospital bed but for a penetrating stare.

Ruiz, a hospice nurse, finds her work deeply meaningful, in part for reasons that are obvious: “We get to be there for people during some of the most tragic and tough times in their lives,” she said.

But even those who shepherd the dying and their families through the fear, heartbreak and mystery of the end of life can lose sight of a job’s meaning in the stress of the day-to-day, if their employer doesn’t foster it.

“You have to fan that flame,” said Brenda McGarvey, corporate director of program development at Skokie-based Unity Hospice, where Ruiz works. “It’s your responsibility.”

A job’s meaningfulness — a sense that the work has a broader purpose — is consistently and overwhelmingly ranked by employees as one of the most important factors driving job satisfaction. It’s the linchpin of qualities that make for a valuable employee: motivation, job performance and a desire to show up and stay.

Meaningful work needn’t be lofty. People find meaning picking up garbage, installing windows and selling electronics — if they connect with why it matters.

But many Chicago-area employers seem to be missing an opportunity to tap this critical vein.

In a survey conducted by Energage for the Chicago Tribune’s 2017 Top Workplaces magazine, local employees regarded their employers more positively than the national average on nearly all measures, but companies fell significantly short in response to this statement: “My job makes me feel like I am part of something meaningful.” Meaningfulness also was the only measure that did not see any improvement among Chicago-area respondents this year, compared with last.

Read the article here.

House GOP passes bill that rolls back “joint employer” protections for workers

From yesterday’s New York Times by Christine Owens:

House Republicans on Tuesday took another step in their campaign to cheat workers out of fair pay and workplace rights. On a vote largely along party lines, the House advanced a bill to roll back longstanding “joint employer” protections for workers contracted by big companies like Apple or Alaska Airlines.

For years, when two companies both control the terms and conditions of employment, they are also both considered responsible for workplace violations like wage theft, sexual harassment or safety problems. So if a window washer working for a contractor fell because safety equipment was improperly installed by the company whose building he was cleaning, he could sue both the contractor and the larger company for damages.

But under the bill passed on Tuesday, large corporations that outsource jobs would get virtually full immunity from workplace violations, while the typically smaller, poorly capitalized local businesses that provide the workers would bear all the liability. This could leave these small businesses exposed to bankruptcy, leaving workers in danger of having no remedies at all.

Contracting out work is not necessarily bad; it’s often a smart way for companies to efficiently handle certain tasks, like payroll administration and cleaning work.

But the problem is that many companies also contract out to lower compensation costs and, sometimes, to avoid basic legal responsibilities to workers. Even when such cost-cutting is not the top reason a company outsources, workers usually suffer.

Read the entire article here.

WeWork and the Death of Leisure

From today’s New York Times “Opinion” by Ginia Bellafante

This past week, Hudson’s Bay, whose story begins 347 years ago in the fur trade, making it the oldest company in North America, announced that it was selling Lord & Taylor’s flagship store, on Fifth Avenue, several years after it had acquired the department store chain through a deal with a private-equity firm.

The buyer would be WeWork, the office rental outfit very much rooted in the virtue-and-shell-game ethos of 21st-century capitalism. The founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey got together in a building on the Brooklyn waterfront where they both worked — Mr. Neumann as the proprietor of a company called Krawlers that produced padded clothes for babies — and quickly realized that they could make money from all the vacant space they saw around them by simulating the atmosphere of the Silicon Valley workplace, fueling the dreams of young entrepreneurs who always wanted to appear as if they were having fun. Over the summer, seven years into its existence, WeWork reached a $20 billion valuation.

On the face of it, the transformation of a department store — the first in the country to install an elevator — into the headquarters of a start-up is simply a story of the new economy cannibalizing the old. Traditional retail businesses have been in decline for a long time; the cult of shared goods and services enabled by technology is ever ascendant.

The first iteration of Lord & Taylor was a dry goods store on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan that opened in 1826. The 676,000-square-foot Italianate building in Midtown it eventually occupied in 1914 (a building for which WeWork is now paying $850 million) stood not merely as a monument to turn-of-the-century commerce but also as the grand testament to what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called the rising culture of “conspicuous leisure.”

Leisure, Veblen wrote, “does not connote indolence or quiescence.’’ What it conveys is the “nonproductive consumption of time,” by which he was not anticipating the 10,000 hours people would fritter away playing Minecraft, but any time spent away from the activity of labor. In their infancy and well into the first 80 years or so of the 20th century, department stores were largely places to pass the hours. When Lord & Taylor opened on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street it featured three dining rooms, a manicure parlor for men and a mechanical horse that could walk, trot or canter. Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of Selfridges in London, dictated that “a store should be a social center.” To that end he installed an ice rink and shooting range on the roof of his store and exhibited the first plane to fly over the English Channel.

Read the entire article here.

Actresses—and Millions More Workers—Have No Federal Sexual Harassment Protections

From today’s Nation by Bryce Covert:

After the New York Times dropped its bombshell investigation into decades of sexual harassment perpetrated by film producer Harvey Weinstein, and the New Yorker followed up with allegations of not just harassment but sexual assault, dozens of women in Hollywood have come forward with stories about his harassment and abuse. But until these articles were published, Weinstein faced few repercussions for his behavior.

There are a number of reasons why most of these women may have decided against reporting what happened to them. Many actresses talked about their fear that Weinstein would exact retribution by blacklisting them in the industry—something some victims said they experienced simply for rebuffing his advances. They likely worried no one would believe them or take them seriously. One of the few women who did report his behavior to the authorities, Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, even wore a wiretap and caught Weinstein apparently admitting to assaulting her, only to watch Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. drop her case over what he said was lack of evidence supporting a criminal charge.

But there’s another reason why actresses harassed by Weinstein may have been discouraged from reporting sexual harassment. Any who were working on a Weinstein film were almost certainly classified as independent contractors, not regular employees. And that means that the anti-discrimination and sexual harassment protections of federal law didn’t apply to them.

It’s a problem not just in Hollywood, but throughout the economy, in industries as diverse as real estate, trucking, technology, and home health care. And the problem is growing. As more companies classify their workers as independent contractors or push workers into nontraditional employment arrangements, an increasing number of people are at risk of having virtually no recourse for on-the-job harassment.

Workplace discrimination and harassment based on sex are prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws “employment practice[s] [that] discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” If an employee feels she is being harassed at work, she can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the first step in taking legal action. But the catch is she has to be an employee for Title VII protections to apply. Independent contractors, temp workers, and those employed by contracting companies are not covered under the law. “Title VII has to be related to employment,” explained Catherine Ruckelshaus, program director at the National Employment Law Project. Anyone who’s not a traditional employee can’t easily bring claims under it. “The more attenuated you get from an employment relationship, the harder it is under Title VII.”

Read the entire article here.

In the Fight Against Poverty, Work Is Our Most Powerful Weapon

From today’s Harvard Business Review by Leila Janah:

Fourteen years ago, I left suburban Los Angeles to teach English in rural Ghana. I’d expected, like so many young people with bleeding hearts and big dreams, to make a difference by donating my time as a schoolteacher for six months. Upon arrival in the village, I was shocked to discover that my students, avid listeners of Voice of America and BBC radio, already spoke English quite well, and some could speak to me about President Clinton’s state visit to Africa. These were blind or partially sighted kids from families earning less than $3 a day.

How was this possible? I’d learned from countless TV specials on war and poverty in the continent that Africans needed aid. They needed us to send food and clothes and to build wells and schools. But on the ground, almost every poor person I spoke to told me the same thing: “We don’t want aid, we want work.” I spent the next four years studying development economics at Harvard, designing a special major to focus on African development, and later working at the World Bank to further understand the problem of poverty and how to fix it.

My conclusion after all this time isn’t so novel. But it bears repeating because we’ve lost our way: Work is the most powerful weapon we have to fight poverty and all its downstream effects, from child malnutrition to maternal mortality, both domestically and abroad. We need to modernize workforce training, incentivize companies to hire low-income people, and encourage consumers to support those organizations that #GiveWork, not aid.

Last year, the 2,000 largest companies spent an estimated $12 trillion on goods and services, a lot of it directed to suppliers that mine or harvest raw materials or make and grow things in poor countries. The fair trade movement was a strong first step in working to access these reserves of capital to fund poverty reduction directly. Started in the 1950s, it pushed purveyors of commodity goods like coffee, chocolate, sugar, and cotton to adhere to a rigorous set of core principles, including deliberately working in marginalized communities and paying living wages. And the results have been good. For example, Starbucks sources all its European espresso beans from fair trade certified producers, and Dutch company Fairphone sells the world’s first entirely fair trade Android phone, with batteries made from ethically mined minerals.

But I believe we now need something broader and simpler to mobilize companies and consumers to think differently about aid: a model called “impact sourcing,” which pushes for workforces (whether directly employed or employed through suppliers) to be economically diverse enough to include some of the world’s most disadvantaged people. This shift could, by our estimation, lift millions out of poverty in a single year.

Read the entire article here.

N.F.L. Players May Have an Ally in Their Protests: Labor Law

From today’s New York Times by Noam Scheiber:As National Football League team owners consider President Trump’s call to fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, they have stumbled into one of the most consequential debates in today’s workplace: How far can workers go in banding together to address problems related to their employment?

In principle, the answer in the N.F.L. and elsewhere may be: Quite far.

To the extent that most people think about the reach of federal labor law, they probably imagine a union context — like organizing workers, or bargaining as a group across the table from management.

As it happens, the law is much more expansive, protecting any “concerted activities” that employees engage in to support one another in the workplace, whether or not a union is involved. The National Labor Relations Board and the courts have defined such activity to include everything from airing complaints about one’s boss through social media to publicly supporting political causes that have some bearing on one’s work life.

The league’s operations manual says players must be on the sidelines during the anthem and should stand. While the law might not bear on whether an individual player can kneel during the anthem, many experts say it could protect players from repercussions for making such a gesture together — or taking other action — to show solidarity on the job.

And as unionization continues its decades-long decline, some believe that these alternative forms of taking collective action may be crucial to enabling workers to speak up.

Read the entire article here.

American households finally earn more than they did in 1999, but poverty and inequality are on the rise

From today’s Los Angeles Times “Business” section by Don Lee:

Income inequality

After a long period of plodding economic growth, significant earnings gains over the past two years have finally enabled the average American household to surpass the peak income level it reached in 1999.

The median household income in the U.S. climbed to $59,039 last year, up 3.2% from 2015 after adjusting for inflation, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

That comes on the heels of a 5.2% jump in income in 2015, the highest annual percentage increase on record.

The back-to-back increases brought the median income — in which half of households earn more and half less — above the previous peak of $58,665 in 1999.

The median household income in California rose 3.4% last year to $66,637, surpassing the earlier high of $65,852 in 2006.

The national measure of poor people in America also improved significantly for the second year in a row: The poverty rate fell last year to 12.7%, from 13.5% in 2015 and 14.8% in 2014.

That translates into a decline of about 6 million people in poverty over the last two years.

The latest poverty rate is comparable to 2007, the year before the Great Recession took hold. But there were still 40.6 million poor people in the nation last year. A household with two adults and two children is considered poor if their total income was less than $24,339.

“We consider 2015 and 2016 to be the turning point on the real median household income front, as employment and wage gains, combined with modest consumer price inflation, have boosted the well-being of many American households,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., executive director of IHS Markit, an economic research firm.

“Real median household income has finally completed its nine-year slog of digging out of the ditch,” he said.

But the annual Census report was not as glowing beneath the surface, and economists are concerned that budget proposals curtailing things like food stamps could thwart continuing progress.

The impact of Trump’s promised tax reform could also change trends for the poor and middle class.

While the latest data showed solid gains for blacks and Latinos and younger adults, median incomes for full-time, year-round workers, men and women, were essentially flat in 2016, reflecting sluggish wage growth that has persisted into this year.

What’s more, a key measure of income disparity remains at the highest level in at least a half century.

And although the median income for urban dwellers jumped 5.4% last year to $61,521, households in rural areas saw their earnings basically stagnate at less than $46,000.

Read the entire article here.

Workplace Culture: In Silicon Valley, Working Nine to Five Is for Losers

From today’s New York Times by Dan Lyons:

Silicon Valley prides itself on “thinking different.” So maybe it makes sense that just as a lot of industries have begun paying more attention to work-life balance, Silicon Valley is taking the opposite approach — and branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice. An entire cottage industry has sprung up there, selling an internet-centric prosperity gospel that says that there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.

“Hustle” is the word that tech people use to describe this nerd-commando lifestyle. You hear it everywhere. You can buy hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs, with slogans like “Dream, hustle, profit, repeat” and “Outgrind, outhustle, outwork everyone.” You can go to an eight-week “start-up hustle” boot camp. (Boot camp!) You can also attend Hustle Con, a one-day conference where successful “hustlers” share their secrets. Tickets cost around $300 — or you can pay $2,000 to be a “V.I.P. hustler.” This year’s conference, in June, drew 2,800 people, including two dozen who ponied up for V.I.P. passes.

But for some, “hustle” is just a euphemism for extreme workaholism. Gary Vaynerchuk, a.k.a. Gary Vee, an entrepreneur and angel investor who has 1.5 million Twitter followers and a string of best-selling books with titles like “Crush It!,” tells his acolytes they should be working 18 hours a day. Every day. No vacations, no going on dates, no watching TV. “If you want bling bling, if you want to buy the jets?” he asks in one of his motivational speeches. “Work. That’s how you get it.”

Mr. Vaynerchuk is also a judge on Apple’s “Planet of the Apps,” a reality show where app developers compete to win funding from a venture capital firm. A recent promo depicted a contestant alongside this quotation: “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” The show’s promotional tweet added: “For the ultimate reward, he’ll put everything on the line.”

Good grief. The guy is developing an app that lets you visualize how a coffee table from a catalog might look in your living room. I suppose that’s cool, but is it really more important than seeing your kids? Is the chance to raise some venture-capital funding really “the ultimate reward”? (Apple pulled the promo after a wave of critical comments on Twitter.)

This is sad enough for start-up founders, but rank-and-file workers are buying into this madness, too. Last year, Lyft published a blog post praising a driver who kept picking up fares even after she went into labor and was driving to the hospital to give birth. Critics saw dystopian implications — “horrifying” was how Gizmodo put it — and Lyft deleted the post. But people at the company, including the driver herself, seemed genuinely puzzled by the negative reaction.

A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt. A venture capitalist named Keith Rabois recently boasted on Twitter that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation. Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALs. For a certain type of person — usually young and male — the hardship is part of the allure.

The truth is that much of the extra effort these entrepreneurs and their employees are putting in is pointless anyway. Working beyond 56 hours in a week adds little productivity, according to a 2014 report by the Stanford economist John Pencavel. But the point may be less about productivity than about demonstrating commitment and team spirit.

“Everyone wants to be a model employee,” said Anim Aweh, a clinical social worker in the Bay Area who sees a lot of stressed-out tech workers. “One woman told me: ‘The expectation is not that you should work smart, it’s that you should work hard. It’s just do, do, do, until you can’t do anymore.’ ”

This has led to tragedy. Last year, Joseph Thomas, an engineer at Uber, committed suicide. His widow blamed the company’s gung-ho culture, with its long hours and intense psychological pressure.

Now some are pushing back. David Heinemeier Hansson, a software developer, is on a crusade to persuade entrepreneurs that they can succeed without working themselves to death. (The sad thing is that this even needs to be said.)

In a recent essay Mr. Hansson excoriated venture capitalists as brainwashing founders with “an ingrained mythology around start-ups that not only celebrates burnout efforts but damn well requires it.” He says V.C.s are exploiting founders. Their attitude is, “Make me rich or die tryin’,” he wrote.

“Die trying” is by far the more likely outcome. The vast majority of start-ups fail. The odds of striking a huge Facebook-level success are infinitesimally tiny. No one knows this better than the V.C.s, who improve their odds by spreading their bets onto dozens of companies and whipping them all into a frenzy.

Mr. Hansson’s essay singled out Mr. Rabois, the venture capitalist who worked for 18 years with hardly any vacation. This prompted a debate on Twitter, where Mr. Rabois sniped that Mr. Hansson’s take-it-easy approach to building a company would be perfect — “for lazy people who want to accomplish nothing.”

Mr. Hansson and his business partner, Jason Fried, run a Chicago software company, Basecamp, that employs 56 people and turns a profit. The workweek is capped at 40 hours and gets pared back to 32 in summer. Mr. Hansson has enough free time that he competes as an amateur driver in endurance car races.

In 2010, the two men published “Rework,” a book denouncing workaholism, and they’re publishing another one, “The Calm Company,” next year. Mr. Hansson told me that they’ve grown dismayed “seeing people being asked to give up their vacations, their sleep, their youth, their family and their morals on the start-up altar.”

They run workshops and do a lot of public speaking. Their talks usually go over well — although in San Francisco they often hear “incredulous gasps,” Mr. Fried reported. Mr. Hansson added: “People tell us we’re not ambitious enough. We’re not trying to change the world. The perversion runs so deep.”

The chance to become the next 20-something tech celebrity billionaire has not lost its power. Every year thousands of fresh recruits flood into San Francisco, hoping to be baptized into the religion of the hustle. As bad as things have become today, there might be worse to come.