Incidental Happiness: Are Co-ops the Future?

June 8, 2018

It’s no secret that longer work hours lead to decreased rates of productivity. With 95% of Americans cosseting their smartphones like a bunch of seventh graders with flour babies, employer expectations are higher - in terms of accessibility and response time - than ever. If a person is reachable 24 hours a day, they are expected to be working as many hours. But, as the sudden pervasiveness of meditation and workflow apps, not to mention basic common sense, shows, tired people tend to produce shoddier work the longer they plug away at a stretch. Basically, we are working more hours with shorter breaks, but aren’t necessarily getting more done.

Though this neckbreak pace of productivity has become the norm, we culturally kind of sort of understand that it’s not, well, normal. Now, in mid 2018, Americans have been overworked and underproductive for long enough that the big players like Google aren’t the only companies acknowledging that happy employees are better assets, ceding to the necessity of employee incentives, and promoting a culture that values (at least nominally) a semblance of work-life balance.

Employees lucky enough to land a job with companies that provide weekly yoga sessions, assigned parking, or, holy of holies, actual maternity leave serve as shining beacons of hope for the rest of us mere mortals, plugging away nine to five with nary a benefit in sight. The technology age ethos of human-labor-as-a-commodity may still be alive and well, but at least we each have the theoretical potential to earn an income and a free on-campus gym (to be used during the allotted lunch hour, of course). After all, a fit employee is a happy employee, and a happy employee is a productive employee.

While companies are noticeably replacing pensions of yore with services that ostensibly contribute to employee well-being, are those efforts actually effective? In a top-down hierarchical system, HR reps and consulting organizations aren’t necessarily going to know or be able to provide what Susan in Accounting really needs to in order to be a fulfilled human being.

When companies offer a menu of Approved Happiness Options and tell us that any of the above, taken as recommended, will supply the existential balm we need, we see a blatant conflict of interest. We may be accustomed to being sold the disease and the cure all in one commercial, but no amount of conditioning can do away the fact that, given options A and B (and being told that we are lucky to have a choice at all), most people would still rather choose C through Z.

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But what if our employers actually focused specifically on happiness as the end goal of these efforts instead of happiness as a means of increased productivity? When happiness is sought only as a means to an end - higher production levels - the company, not the person, is still the entity whose well-being is ultimately prioritized. While the difference may seem purely semantic, intent is everything when it comes to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Arguments against unreasonable work hours still perpetuate the assumption that labor is a commodity and the best use of life is a yearly contribution to the GDP. With a restless workforce becoming increasingly pissed off about the shitty-ass bill of goods they were sold as bright eyed teens ready to take on the world, palliative statements from publications in the pocket of corporate advertisers do no more than point out a frankly obvious symptom of the larger issue, the issue being that corporations have more rights than the human beings that they rely on to produce their goods and services.

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Companies want employees to be happier, but only on their terms. Wellness initiatives and lifestyle perks are great in theory, but they are a band-aid on the shattered femur of our broken labor practices. Without a fundamental mindset shift, no policy can be effective against the overwhelming burnout and ennui affecting the workforce of our country. Individual well-being absolutely must be the point, not the byproduct.

Can America’s capitalist system ever integrate regulation to create this shift? The best answer I have right now is, ehh??? But individual businesses absolutely can. People all over the country are establishing cooperative businesses that put the power to choose what happiness looks like in the hands of the actual laborers.

When I was first introduced to the concept of a co-op, I honestly didn’t get the point. I was young, and the thought of having to do things like "care" and "make decisions" and "contribute to the greater good" didn’t appeal to me. Many years later, as an ambitious thirty-year-old ready to make my mark on the beauty industry (I spent four years building a career as a hairdresser until I burnt out in sudden and spectacular fashion), I ended up inadvertently bootstrapping the idea of a cooperative salon on a drive to Austin and calling it The Guild.

One day over cocktails, I was manically describing my amazing new concept to a friend. Wildly gesticulating to emphasize my point, "The stylists would all own the business together, see, and would vote on policy decisions and how to spend the money. And we’d call it The Guild! Isn’t that genius?"

"You mean like a co-op?"

Fine, yes, but I’m still using my fancy name.

While the idea may have started with a single hair salon, it soon grew into a fundamental way of conducting business and connecting industries, with the end goal being an entire country of separate but potentially interconnected Guilds. It’s ambitious and slightly sci-fi, but I started noticing that when individual well-being was the central charge of an organization - when no other concern, not productivity or even making money, could be prioritized - we were always able to find a theoretical way for the business to thrive.

A venture built on the principle that compensation and power are distributed based on contribution instead of status will by default reflect the personal values of the individuals who run it. Equitable distribution of power naturally results in an organization that respects the needs of employees first, shareholders second. These businesses also tend to have positive impacts on their local communities because participants have little incentive to implement policies that trash the environment in which they live and conduct business.

Because cooperatives are built with individuals’ happiness and prosperity as the end goal - not just a hopeful byproduct - employees get to choose for themselves what happiness looks like. For some, it may be that free work gym, for others it might be more time to disconnect and energy to devote to personal pursuits. This individualistic approach will mean that some co-ops can’t be as scalable or, frankly, as profitable as a corporation. Employees may just be working to provide a living for themselves and those their company supports - nothing more. Some may find this approach counterintuitive; I certainly did ten years ago. But it begs the question: if people are not our first priority as a culture, then what the fuck are we working so hard for?

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