The Secret To A Strong Workforce Is Making Workers Happy
As we approach the end of the year, and a year of writing this newsletter, I am somewhat astounded by the response - I did not set out to make this a “thing” or to be an expert or sell anything or do anything, really, other than letting out the demons that fester in my skull when I don’t write a lot. Nevertheless, in the space of a year, this newsletter has gone from 380 subscribers - most of which were leftovers from when I put up a “subscribe to my newsletter!” button on my old personal website - to 4515 subscribers, an active readership, and some degree of notoriety. It has turned into regular writing gigs elsewhere, too, which is crazy.
While I dreamed of something like this getting a readership, I didn’t actually expect it to happen. And for that, I’m incredibly grateful - it takes time to read the things I write and more time and energy to share or comment. I feel weird writing like this - I keep wanting to write “we appreciate” or "our fans” and stuff like that despite this being a newsletter run by one person and generates no revenue. I do not have merchandise, and I have no plans to do a paid subscription unless I can find a very obvious way to make it worthwhile for people to pay.
Of the last year, my most successful posts were far and away The Work-From-Home Future Is Destroying Bosses’ Brains and then, surprisingly, yesterday’s post about being On The Edge Of A Worker Revolt, primarily because it somehow made the front page of Reddit (which I would love to happen again, which means it never will - also, welcome, if you subscribed from there!). My favorite thing I wrote was my piece about Personal Branding Ruining People’s Lives. In the last year, I’ve written 311,532 words (178 posts, 1750 words-a-piece average), and they are all free, except for the time they cost to read and the little chunk of your soul I shave off in the process.
Anyway, enough navel-gazing - to the topic at hand.
The one thing I’ve constantly come back to in writing about the present and future state of work is how obvious many of the solutions are, and how many executives are allergic to doing the very obvious things that their workers want. I’ve read a good amount of management theory as part of writing this newsletter, and I run into one consistent problem - the conflation of “getting the most out of workers” with “giving them the bare minimum to survive and the minimum viable working conditions to get the job done.”
The thing is, loyal employees are better. A study from 2015 found that employee loyalty is significantly related to and positively influences company performance. Another from 2009 found that service workers’ loyalty directly impacts customer satisfaction and loyalty, ultimately leading to “firm profitability in high-contact service industries.” And, unsurprisingly, a study from 2019 found that loyalty has a positive relation between working conditions, rewards, and benefits. A 2009 study into workers in the Malaysian hotel industry found that “relationship with supervisor, recognition, rewards, working conditions, teamwork, and cooperation showed the strongest correlation" with employee loyalty. A Turkish study from 2009 found that employee loyalty was directly correlated with working conditions and employee satisfaction. Finally, a 2013 study found that “the higher levels of satisfaction, supervisor support, fringe benefits, teamwork, working environment, and training were positively associated with the higher level of organizational loyalty.”
The point I am repeatedly trying to make is that people are loyal to companies that pay and treat them well. The labor shortage is not a mystery - it’s a symptom of the larger problem that companies have forgotten that workers are people and that they are the ones courting the worker, not the other way around. We have societally accepted a bizarre and broken contract with our employers, where we are grateful for the opportunity to make them money, and when things go wrong, we’re expected to accept that our mistakes cost them money and accept that they should fire us.
However, when things go wrong at the company, workers are the first to go, evaluated based on arbitrary productivity metrics calculated by those who haven’t done the jobs they’re cutting. And the commonality of at-will employment means that companies are not legally bound to be loyal or classy to anyone, yet they expect workers to give two weeks’ notice when they leave a position.
What is remarkable about the last two years is how broken American society is and how poorly it treats workers. The pandemic was hardest on frontline workers, who have been treated like crap by companies and customers alike. And many of those who were lucky enough to be able to do their jobs remotely have been repeatedly told that they’ve been doing a bad job and need to return to the office by the media and their bosses. The last year was an opportunity (as I’ve said before) for companies to step up and protect those that continued to line their coffers - which, of course, they did not.
Like all general statements, there are definitely exceptions, but the majority of what I’ve read and heard in the last year has been a painful reminder that there are many, many bosses and managers that do not care about workers and, in some cases, even really understand the work that they do. The endless carousel of ghoulish anti-remote op-eds may seem minor, but they’re all part of a larger corporate tantrum over losing even the smallest amount of control over their workforce. So much corporate infrastructure has been built to please moronic management rather than make the company money, and the entire great resignation/labor shortage argument exists because these companies would rather cry to CNBC or Bloomberg about how hard they have it than pay people more money.
I feel like an AI that’s been fed 500 articles on the future of work that spits out a column every few days, because so much of this is so obvious. The way to end the “labor shortage” is to incentivize workers to work for you by paying them good money and making their working lives easier. When a union wants equal pay, benefits and reasonable hours for workers in the same year you’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars of profit, you give it to them - you don’t make them wait 3 months, because nobody gives a shit about frequent recognition when they’re paid poorly and worked for too many hours.
Let’s make this even simpler - happy workers are more productive and loyal. There are lots of studies about this. And bad leaders literally kill people, with a study from the Karolinska Institute showing a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees. I cannot be clearer that the big mystery of the great resignation can be solved by paying and treating workers well. Please, bosses, will you fucking listen to me. There is no argument here - no riposte, no data you’ve analyzed, and no consultant you can pay that can disprove that the best way to get the most out of people is to incentivize them to work hard, which means paying them well and making their job easier.
I believe the problem is a philosophical issue rather than a fiscal one. Many companies believe that they should “only have to” pay a certain amount for a worker and that they should be “happy to have work.” The tougher the economy gets, the more grateful the employees should be for whatever they’re given. It’s the late-stage version of the protestant work ethic that poisons American business culture - that there’s valor in work, and a moral connection between the amount you work and how good a person you are. And I believe that many companies believe that they are owed labor simply because they created a business, which means that when people quit, or are thinking about quitting, they’re breaking an unwritten rule about their place in society.
But workers can (and have been!) choose not to participate - they can quit. And it’s tough for those quitting, as they still need to work, just not for the assholes who have treated them poorly. This is definitely not going to be a fairy tale - people are going to bounce between jobs and find that there are shitty bosses everywhere, but they have been and will continue to quit these jobs.
A better-paid, better-treated workforce is good for the economy, significantly better than one where corporations steal wages from their workers, by proxy depriving the economy of that spending (though please note “workers aren’t spending more money in the economy” is not something that really bothers me). Having an economy built on the back of screwing workers at scale is both morally and fiscally stupid - it is unsustainable because eventually, a situation occurs where the workers resign en masse, which is what is happening now.
American consumers also need to learn to treat workers properly. The person you are yelling at in whatever store you’re in has absolutely no control over whatever it is that pissed you off. They do not control the pricing, or the deals, or the barcode scanner, or the weather, or whether something was broken or not. You are not their victim (in fact, they are often yours!), and you should treat them, at worst, as a symptom of a larger problem (greed or inefficiency on the part of the person running the business). When something bad happens, wait three seconds and think about whether the person you’re talking to is even indirectly responsible - and even if they are, remember that they are also a human being existing in the same Earth as you.
Every shitty server or attendant you’ve dealt with is someone dealing with their own shit while also dealing with yours. If they personally mess up, be nice about it, ask for a manager, but honest to god defend the worker in question, tell the manager that it’s likely a mistake, and that you just want whatever it is fixed. And if it can’t be fixed, again evaluate whether it’s really worth causing a huge stink over - the Reddit thread about yesterday’s article is full of stories about customer service people being outright abused for things that were either simple mistakes or absolutely nothing to do with the person being yelled at. If you feel personally scorned, remember that the person in question likely makes shit pay for whatever job it is, and it’s a wonder that they still mostly get it right.
And seriously, bosses should be kicking these customers out.
I hope that 2022 continues the trend of workers fighting back, and I hope that bosses begin to feel it. It is not hard to be a good boss - pay people a good, living wage, make their work as easy as possible, pay them on time, resolve their problems quickly and carefully, and if they mess up, work out why and help them through it. Whatever micro-percentage you’re saving by making every hire as poorly-paid and supported as possible is lost in their productivity and in your own personal ethics - every time you support this process, you are being deliberately and willfully evil.
And if your answer is “well I have to pay them this little or the business is unprofitable!” then my answer is “you’ve got a shitty business that should shut down.” If your success is predicated on using another person - and yes, you can still use a person even if you’re paying them - then you are an evil person acting in evil ways. If that offends you, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been such a pleasure writing for you all this year, and I look forward to doing so throughout 2022. Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful holiday.