Last week, I wrote about the phenomenon of what author Craig Lambert called “shadow work,” defined as things we do without pay for businesses and organizations. What more can we say about it, and how can we best handle it?
Fifth, although Lambert counted commuting as shadow work, it doesn’t logically fit in that category. Commuting is not necessitated by employers, but is a result of workers choosing to live farther from their jobs. During most of my childhood, my father walked to his city employment, although many of his peers, who valued living in the suburbs more than we, did not.
Sixth, shadow work coordinates well with the jobs crisis. When Americans are so often priced out of work, opportunities to save money are increasingly welcome.
Seventh, it is both a cause and a result of both social isolation and the decline of many classic forms of community. As it tends heavily to be done without other people present, it gives people either opportunities or requirements to be alone.
Eighth, the proliferation of shadow work has masked how much more expensive American labor has become. When self-serve gas stations became the norm in the 1970s and 1980s, those that continued pump service had a price difference of only a few cents per gallon. Now, it is a few dimes – or more.
Ninth, there is almost an infinite amount of shadow work available for those who want it, especially surveys and reviews. It can fill up all the free time people have, if they so choose.
Tenth, shadow work is part of a well-established and still growing trend of paid labor and personal time overlapping. One reason why we have less pure leisure time than we expected decades ago is that often we work and play simultaneously. In many jobs in offices, and almost all at home, there is no prohibition against, for example, listening to music. That does not mean a Microsoft position fails Mark Twain’s test of work being “whatever a body is obliged to do” and becomes voluntary recreation, but does mean those doing it are getting some leisure concurrently. The result can be a feeling of doing something enjoyable by choice, which may make employees more willing to take on tasks from their paid jobs, such as answering emails, while they are also engaged in nonwork tasks.
So how can we best deal with shadow work?
First, and most importantly, we need to keep realizing we have choices in what tasks we perform. On jobs, we should consider doing things only if they meet one of four standards: if they help you, if they help your organization, if your management requests them, or if they improve others’ perceptions of you. If we adapt that to our nonworking lives, the second standard drops out, the first and last stay the same, and the third becomes “if someone or some group which you value requests them.” Since we are on our own time, we can also add something about enjoyment. Therefore, if a task which you are somehow being prodded to perform a) will not help you, b) is not being asked for by someone or some organization you value, c) does not make you look better, and d) you just plain don’t want to do, then you should not spend time or effort on it. These rules may seem intuitive or obvious, but it is remarkable how many things consuming our resources, including money and hope as well as time and labor, don’t conform to them. And, don’t forget, the above list is not justification in itself – not every task meeting one or more of these standards should be completed.
Second, we should become more aware of shadow work as it appears. What are you being asked to do, and for whom? Is this something new, and if so, who if anyone took care of it before? Just how much time and other resources will it require?
Third, be aware not only of the shadow work itself, but how happy you are with doing it. There may be alternatives. If you can’t stand ATMs, bank tellers are available. If you don’t want to negotiate finding your own purchases at Wal-Mart, or deciding for yourself exactly what you need at Home Depot, many smaller stores with more helpful staff are still out there. If you don’t like the lack of forthcoming advice from your physician, others will provide it. With so much employment endangered and getting more expensive, and the average age of others staying the same, the march of shadow work will not stop or even slow down, but most of the choices it offers are still ours to make.