Traditionally, we associate work with employment. This leads to a binary labeling of people—they are either employed or unemployed. Concern shifts to how to get the number of unemployed as close to zero as possible and thereby reach the ideal end state of “full employment.” It is not a problem to exclude those who are unemployable due to age, health, capability, etc. from the count. But if a person is deemed employable, yet is not, it must be due to some character flaw in that individual or attributed (by unfettered prejudice) to a group of people to which that person belongs (more labeling). Accordingly, there is a strong resistance to state-funded welfare programs that provide assistance to those who are determined to be able but unwilling to work.

As a consequence of the ongoing pandemic and a seemingly unrelenting wave of climate change induced natural disasters, many have been removed / displaced from traditional employment. Commensurately, a growing number are “working” from home in non-traditional roles as independent contractors and small business owners or unpaid providers of essential services such as childcare, healthcare, eldercare, home schooling, meal preparation, home care, etc. to family members and close friends who are unable to care for themselves. Under these conditions, the distinctions between “visible work” counted in traditional employment measures and “invisible work,” which is critical for a functional society but not officially counted, is increasingly blurred. In other words, a lot of “good people” are unemployed / underemployed which means we must have a REAL problem!

We have reached the point where the rigid association of work with employment, absent the traditional workplace, leaves a significant percentage of the population struggling to adjust to work in this context. Adding to the confusion, time as it relates to work has taken on a new meaning. When one is not in a conventional workplace setting, the time clock no longer determines when one “on the job” or “at work.” As a result, work done apart from the conventional workplace becomes asynchronous rather than confined to a tight schedule. There are fewer meetings with set agendas added to calendars well in advance to accommodate travel arrangements to physical locations. Instead, there is a marked increase in spontaneously initiated virtual gatherings as videos calls and chat sessions that focus on immediate issues.

Now that the pandemic has marginalized time clocks, the use of time is even less clear when one’s day is divided between paid work in the “home office” and unpaid work performed in close proximity. The blending of time “at work” and “at home” becomes a somewhat seamless interface as workers resolve to wear many hats and take on a wide range of responsibilities within the same space. The lines linking time allocation to task orientation blur. This raises basic questions about how to determine the value one delivers, the time one spends doing it, and the compensation one receives for the effort expended.

This complexity suggests that the “work” as we’ve traditionally defined it gets a major makeover. To help reframe work, GAVNet curator, Bill Fulkerson, proposes the term, “meaningful engagement,” which implies a certain degree of “fuzziness” as in the application of “fuzzy logic” to better understand human behavior in complex social systems. This approach has merit when considering how individuals live out their economic lives across a complex landscape of multiple workplaces in which to deliver value, multiple platforms for communications, and multiple currencies / mediums of exchange in which to be paid. And at the heart of this complexity is the basic issue that all one has to give is one’s time, 24 hours / day, for as many days as we are allowed. How do we make the exchange of one’s time for one’s survival and quality of life as efficient and effective as possible so that as many as can may benefit from what each has to offer?