New book from Rice anthropologist discusses what the pandemic workplace taught us about democracy
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New book from Rice anthropologist discusses what the pandemic workplace taught us about democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the workplace, bringing issues of autonomy, safety and common good sharply into focus. Rice University anthropologist Ilana Gershon said the unprecedented time taught workers how to think a lot more about being democratic, both on and off the clock.

The Pandemic Workplace book cover

In her new book, “The Pandemic Workplace,” Gershon examines how the U.S. workplace changed — and changed employees in the process. The book is based on more than 200 interviews from workers across the U.S., who revealed how negotiating the unexpected organizational challenges of the pandemic forced them to radically reexamine their attitudes about work and to think more deeply about how values clash in the workplace. These changes also led workers to look more closely at the contracts they sign when accepting a job as they reexamined when and how they let others tell them what to do.

“People may have been dissatisfied with how their workplaces were run beforehand, but in the pandemic, their dissatisfaction suddenly had much higher stakes,” Gershon writes. “It is one thing to be frustrated with how your boss makes decisions without consulting with everyone about whether whatever they want to do is a good idea or can even work. But refusing to take other people’s concerns into account changes from being regularly irritating to feeling life-threatening in a pandemic.”

Gershon said negotiating these tensions during the pandemic made the workplace into a laboratory for democratic living — a key place where Americans better learned how to develop effective political strategies and think about the common good.

“Going to work was so risky that people turned to notions of a common good — which is based on social contracts — to restructure agreements about how people would coordinate getting things done in a workplace,” Gershon said. “Employment contracts and social contracts aren’t the same thing by any stretch of the imagination — there are sometimes large gaps between what a social contract guarantees and what an employment contract requires. However, in the pandemic, the gap became much smaller — to stay employed and honor your employment contract, people often agreed to do what they were told to do to keep other people at work safe.”

Gershon said the federal government’s refusal to create a national response to the pandemic left a vacuum that made people much more aware of how local government and local businesses made decisions and likely inspired this action in the workplace. She said many people she interviewed talked about quitting their jobs, mainly because the pandemic had made them realize new consequences of being governed badly at work.

“So many people felt that the implicit social contract at work had been violated during the pandemic, and they couldn’t tolerate it anymore,” she said.

Throughout this book, Gershon argues workplaces are a political training ground for imagining what government should be.

“If workplaces are now the sites in which Americans are learning what counts as effective political strategies or how best to think about and act on behalf of the common good, then workplaces need to be structured in ways that can teach people how to be in a vibrant democracy,” she said. “No more consulting and ignoring, no more decisions without explanations. We need workplaces in which people can practice effectively persuading people and making choices that strengthen a given community.”

More information on the book is online at https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/P/bo214237970.html.