It’s Labor Day weekend here in the US and for today’s Saturday Spark, we are pausing to celebrate the 3.32 billion people who went to work this week globally. This holiday is an opportunity for everyone to remember that without workers, whether front line, professional or management; retail, trade or knowledge, the world as we know it comes to a screeching halt.
Workers have brought the world incredible innovations, from locomotives and airplanes to MRIs and cell phones. They care for the sickest among us and train the best to win Olympic medals and championships. They care for or feed our children and teach them to read and to write and potentially, to learn hard things like quantum physics. They transport us, and the things we need - or want - from point a to point b. They make things, they code things, they design things, they plan things, and they write things. They convince people to buy our products and services or our stock. They handle the complaints when our products or services don’t work as expected. They do the numbers or the reports that tell us whether we, or a client, is doing well, or not.
A CEO I know once said, “I would love my job if it were not for the customers or the employees”. I laughed because I knew why he was frustrated that day. Employees are as essential as customers but they are people. People have good days and they have bad days. They can be brilliant -- and they can be really not brilliant. They can be agreeable or combative, supportive or passive aggressive. They can exceed our wildest expectations and disappoint us dearly. As leaders, our job is to try to bring the best out of our people every day to deliver the desired outcome of the business. Some of us are not very good at that, ever. No one is good at it all the time.
There is a reason that there is an entire genre of comedy tied to work - from Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi to the Office and Suits. Work can be uproariously funny, highly dramatic, and tragically sad. If nothing else, with two CEOs as parents, our children have grown up at a dinner table filled with real life employee stories. Given one of us is in tech and the other is in manufacturing, we employ a broad swath of the workforce with very different challenges. He has a lot more fighting and arrests. I could use a masters in psychology and a lot more capital.
The US labor movement happened when workers banded together in the late 1800s to fight for better conditions against business owners who history paints, very accurately, as horrifically callous and greedy. At the time, “the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living…children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages. People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants, often faced extremely unsafe working conditions, with insufficient access to fresh air, sanitary facilities and breaks.” We have made significant strides here in the US for workplace safety and wellbeing, but 15 people still die every day in work-related fatalities here in the US. The conditions workers fought against more than 120 years ago still exist for millions of people globally, contributing to an estimated 2 million deaths at work per year.
The pandemic has changed work as we knew it. The concept of ‘essential workers’ was introduced. Those of us who were less essential participated in the greatest remote work experiment of all time, which has changed knowledge work and knowledge-based companies forever. Now we can’t find enough people to work. I had a leg surgery recently where the doctor had no surgical assistant, doing all the prep and clean-up himself because 15% of the jobs at the hospital are unfilled. The local Starbucks closes now at 3pm due to lack of workers. Lines are long. “Where did everyone go?” a friend of mine asked on LinkedIn. The short answer? 3 million people moved from being workers to being retirees, earlier than planned. An additional 1.8 million women left work, moving from employees to caregivers. If nothing else, the pain we are all feeling from not having enough workers is hopefully making us appreciate those who are there.
So on this Labor day weekend, let’s celebrate people who work. In particular, those who, when they get there, try hard, are kind to their colleagues, who share their ideas for improvement, and get things done. We need you. The world needs you. And none of us thank you enough.