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The Spread of Shadow Work

This week’s Google Duplex demo raised important and provocative ethical questions about human-machine interactions. It also offered a glimmer of hope that the long-ago promise that technology would free us from mental and physical grunt work to enjoy lives of leisure might yet live.

The work that Duplex would do, book appointments, schedule reservations, is work that, to date, most of us have done for ourselves.

It’s called shadow work, and it’s become so ubiquitous that we barely notice it anymore. Our collective anxieties about automation and AI make it easy to overlook the less dramatic ways that work is being shifted away from workers.

This week alone I’ve been a travel agent (booking my own flights and accommodation for two upcoming trips), a grocery store clerk (navigating a confusing new UI at my local grocery store’s self-checkout and bagging my own groceries), a bank teller (completing a mobile cheque deposit and then scrolling through FAQs to figure out how to find my activity history), and a gas station attendant (filling up my VW’s tank).

In each of these cases, technology has not eliminated the work involved in completing these tasks, it’s allowed corporations to shift that work to us, the consumer. While wages have stagnated in many areas and industries, we’ve all slowly taken on the work required to service ourselves as sources of revenue, enabling organizations to shrink headcount.

That’s right, we’ve been unwittingly aiding and abetting the first-wave of robot job thieves.

In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin writes:

“The promise of a computerized society, we were told, was that it would relegate to machines all of the repetitive drudgery of work allowing humans to pursue loftier purposes and to have more leisure time. It didn’t work this way. Instead of more time, most of us have less. Companies large and small have off-loaded work onto the backs of consumers. Things that used to be done for us, as part of the value-added service of working with a company, we are now expected to do ourselves.

Collectively, this is known as shadow work – it represents a kind of parallel, shadow economy in which a lot of the service we expect from companies has been transferred to the customer. Each of us is doing the work of others and not getting paid for it.”

As Craig Lambert notes in his book Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day  our focus on job loss due to automation has been on jobs at the point of production. But shadow work impacts jobs at the point of sale, something that is arguably more visible, and yet has largely escaped our collective attention. There is good reason for us to take notice. Lambert writes:

“Shadow work thus represents a major – and hidden – force shrinking the job market. In particular, it is squeezing out entry-level jobs that have launched countless careers. These jobs at the base of the economic pyramid pay little but lay the foundation for everything that rises above them – and as with any structure, when the foundation crumbles, the superstructure may collapse as well. Entry-level jobs provide more than a paycheck. They are the sidewalk of the workplace, the platform that allows entry into all the businesses on Main Street.”

Brain Drain

The reason Daniel Levitin discusses shadow work in The Organized Mind is its contribution to increased cognitive load. When we’re expected to perform a cognitively demanding job all week, and then play the role of travel agent, banking associate, tax preparer and executive assistant in our “spare” time, we’re doing more work than we, or our employer, recognizes. Our mental and attentional resources are spread thin, and to think this wouldn’t impact our paid work is irrational.

While this shadow work is fairly evenly distributed across anyone who doesn’t outsource it, for women it settles over a layer of domestic shadow work that has been there a long time, and persists in the present. The allocation of housework and childcare duties continues to be asymmetrical, and so shadow work represents a disadvantage that disproportionately impacts  women.

Downstream Effects

As with automation, shadow work likely creates jobs as well as destroying them (someone designed that awful new user interface at the self-checkout, curse them). But similarly, these new jobs are fewer, and require more education than the jobs shadow work eliminates. What impact will this have on the future preparedness of our workforces and societies? If the majority of the workers who formerly entered businesses via the ‘sidewalk’ of entry-level work are kept outside in the cold indefinitely, organizations are (perhaps inadvertently) removing slack from the system. Retirements, worker mobility, expansion, all stand to create significant pressures on an increasingly limited pool of experienced, trained workers ready to move into more senior roles. This kind of tight coupling (in which an unexpected event leaves very little room for reaction to mitigate its impact) is a risk factor for catastrophic system failure.

As much as I believe that automation and AI represent significant and unpredictable forces that will impact our organizations and the job market, we would be do well to remember that some of the changes already underway in our organizations deserve our attention too. The prevalence of shadow work demonstrates how thousands of small, seemingly inconsequential decisions can result in outcomes that offer little benefit (on balance) to workers and consumers. We should thoughtfully consider the macro ethical dilemmas that AI creates for humanity, but not allow ourselves to lose sight of the micro-decisions that erode our quality of life along the way to the future.

Recommended reading:

HR Open Source Future of Work Report

If you haven’t already, check out the HR Open Source 2018 Future of Work Report.

Exercise, Mental Health and Me – Gem Dale, Fitness Stuff

Not about HR, but by a great HR blogger, and an important post. Inspired by the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Gem shares her own struggle, and the role that exercise has played for her before, during, and after depression’s appearance in her life. A brave post, and one I really relate to.

Walk the Talk on Mental Health – Jamie Good, DisruptHRKW

On the topic of mental health, allow me to highly recommend you spend 5 minutes to watch this talk from my friend and fellow DisruptHR presenter Jamie Good. Jamie is a learning innovator, speaker, and great guy, and this talk was really powerful.


Photo by Tyson Dudley on Unsplash





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