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30 Jun

Does ChatGPT provide perspective?

Here's a hypothetical conversation at a pub between Neel (Assistant Director), Aditi (Architect), Surabhi (Marketer @ Fintech), and Amit (Software developer). Although hypothetical, I think you'll find it relatable.

Amit - I have such a backlog of projects left to do over the weekend. And our office has also started calling us to the office four out of five days a week. I don’t know why they don’t trust us.

Surabhi - Oh, that’s sad to hear. Thankfully, I work at a startup where remote work is allowed. But I don’t like the amount of back and forth I have to do before a campaign or social media post goes live. It's so toxic!

Neel - I don’t know where to begin if we are ranting about work. I got my current gig after almost a decade of unpaid internships. Thankfully, my parents didn’t expect me to be the breadwinner, so I could work without being paid too much. The tough bit was sourcing contacts and interviews for the different assignments. I tried using LinkedIn, but it isn't quite helpful in my line of work.

Aditi - My health has gone for a toss because of my work hours, and I have to do multiple other assignments to earn a little less than most of you do. I don’t know how long it will take me to lead a life with a work-life balance.

Neel - Oh ya!! I relate to poor sleep hygiene because of work. Some days, shoots extend into the night because the equipment is rented for a day. On some days, the interns don’t show up, so I double up as a costume coordinator, production intern, and floor director. It is just too much, man.

Aditi - Talk about the limits of your trade! So often, vendors mess up the design while finishing interiors, costing the firm and the client quite a bit. The senior architect and the clients both shout at us for not being around while the work was being done, and replying with, “If I could be in two places at once, I would”, is considered rude. It is so strange that we are not trained about how projects work in real-time in the five years of architecture school. Most of the senior architects don’t even communicate well. We are just shouted at when something gets messed up and can’t be fixed.

Amit - Man, that sounds tough. While I try to code at work and figure out my other assignments, managing house chores is another issue. The house help I hired doesn’t show up on most days. On some days, I run out of dishes to eat food from. Over the weekends, I try to clean, but then I can’t allot time to other hobbies I have. Makes me question how long I can do software development. It also feels like my work is not fun enough.

Surabhi - I spend most of my weekends finishing pending work, binge watching shows, trying to forget how stressful work is. I think it is the only way to manage how overwhelming working as a marketer is. It is like you are the face of the business and are responsible for generating leads. It feels like a lot of responsibility.

Does this conversation sound familiar to you? Unless all your friends followed the same professional path, chances are you have interacted with different professionals and vented about work stress. It's only natural.

Amit and Surabhi, whom I define as knowledge workers for this piece, vent about issues of abundance. If Amit wants to moonlight and doesn’t like being called to the office, it is an issue arising from his choices. It is not an issue that is caused by the industry he works in. Or if Surabhi is upset by the back-and-forth on a social media post, she could get better at communicating with her manager to avoid such a thing from happening. She could try planning the posts in advance so it does not feel last minute.

On the other hand, Neel (Assistant Director) and Aditi (Architect) are venting about issues that are completely outside their control. If the budget allows renting crucial equipment only for a day, or if the clients demand last-minute design changes to a house, it is not Neel’s or Aditi’s fault per se. These are the externalities of their trade, and they have to maneuver their way around them.

Everyone’s issues are valid. But one set of issues sounds vapid when compared to the other.

And here’s the problem with all the conversations that happen around the workplace in the tech/knowledge-worker bubble:

The definition of work-life balance, mentorship, and how promotions happen is not standard across all industries. But most of our interpersonal and online conversations highlight these as primary issues at work.

Knowledge workers on Twitter and LinkedIn are writing diatribe after diatribe about how work cultures need to change; the management should be sensitive, and there should be flexible working hours — sharing endless hacks on cheating your bosses and getting by with less work — without paying any attention to how employees in other industries fare on the same metrics.

But so much work around us in other professions continues to be unstructured.

How movies are made, how factories operate, how hospitals serve their patients... literally every other job that doesn’t involve going to an office or using a laptop to get work done is unstructured, by its very nature.

But the accounts of how unstructured work brings along a new variety of workplace issues are far too few and don't show up online beyond the confines of those industries.

You won’t see a LinkedIn post on how unsettling entry-level work at an architect’s firm is.

You won't see a Twitter rant about how doctors have to show up for incoming cases at odd hours in the night, and how there's zero work-life balance.

You won't see someone going to a media publication to complain about how most internships in the movie industry are unpaid and how there's no certainty around whether one will be able to make it even after spending years in the industry.

This is because everyone who wants to make it big in those industries knows the mess they're getting into. And don't think I'm condoning unpaid internships. But it's just the nature of the market where there's a tonne of demand for jobs but very few suppliers of jobs. The dynamics are totally skewed in the favour of the firms hiring you.

And there's nothing you can do about it.

The film industry is known to work in sprints. And within those sprints, while the shoot is going on, there is absolutely no work-life balance to be seen anywhere. There is a fixed budget, there is a stringent timeline, and all work and uncertainty need to be adjusted and cramped within that timeline. There's very little give.

The same goes for the medical profession. You cannot control when an emergency arrives at the hospital. And you can't say no to a patient when they arrive. You simply don't have the liberty to do that. Contrast that with knowledge work that is so much structured, scheduled, flexible, and benefits from loads of capital being pumped in. Workers are earning fat paychecks, there is a reliable path to growth within the industry, and there's very little uncertainty — at least when compared to other professions.

In the movie industry, your training stage lasts for a longer time — much, much longer than a measly 3-month internship that converts to a full-time job. But you could be promoted faster as a marketer if you do well at a startup. The learning and feedback loops are shorter for a marketer as opposed to someone working on film production or direction.

To add to the mess, how to find work, what entry-level work entails, what kind of exposure you get, and how to find solid footing in the industry is not as easy as having a personal brand on LinkedIn for employees in a wide range of fields. There are other avenues like Instagram pages and portfolio websites which do lend some form of organization in these industries, sure, but it still takes a lot more for a young job seeker to figure their way out. It isn’t nearly as easy as it is for the rest of us who live on LinkedIn or Twitter.

But our need to neatly package work and label work as toxic or stressful conveniently leave out swathes of employees working in industries that cannot be neatly structured. And this is a problem. Only certain industries dominating cultural discussions on work create utopian expectations for the nature of work and how it should look like.

Ideas like work-life balance, working in a hierarchy, doing remote work, or having flexible working hours are not possible for a wide range of industries. And I am not saying our work is easier; just the access and ecosystem around most knowledge work is far more sophisticated, structured, and balanced than in other highly competitive job markets where supply and demand are extremely skewed towards the supply side.

I think we as knowledge workers largely lack perspective.

We are blind to how work takes place in unstructured industries. This doesn’t mean our problems are trivial. But we certainly have the longer end of the stick.

Right from regular and fixed remuneration, health insurance policies, fancy office spaces, and access to basic resources and loads of perks enable our work to a great extent. And yet, we make it seem like our issues at work are the only kind to exist.

I am not saying this is your fault as an individual. But culturally, we are flooding workplace conversations with problems that will be considered luxuries in other industries.

If you were to ask me what you can do about this, I would tell you to complain less. I would also urge you to get out of the bubble of your cushioned workplace and talk to your own peers in industries that we would term harsh, cruel, and toxic.

If that doesn’t make you pause before you complain again, I doubt anything else will.

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