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Affordable Housing and the Gig Economy: Adapting to Changing Work Patterns

Community Development
Affordable Housing and the Gig Economy: Adapting to Changing Work Patterns

Corporate Employment Practices: A Flawed Pursuit of Profit

Growing up, I recall an unforgettable experience – one where I learned to avoid the lure of overconsumption and market-driven exploitation. My mind constructed authentic viewpoints about business, work, society, and nature, and those managing them. A healthy dose of skepticism further outlined the true nature of people or climate-related practices, revealing whether they were a calculated dishonesty or a never-encountered myth.

In this much-awaited next chapter, I’ll closely examine the work as we know it and how corporate practices have led us astray. You see, corporate employment and the way HR or People & Culture (PC) departments have been mandated to operate for decades have failed our society. Sustainability in HR should be a thing, but in my experience, the walls between HR and Sustainability are maintained with much corporate vigor. People are for “People & Culture” – the future of work is their expertise, but the impact of their actions is none of your business.

The Myth of Corporate Benevolence

There are many open secrets in our world. Genuine business intentions, though seldom advertised, are akin to nonstop positive perception, good stories, the highest short-term returns with the lowest possible costs, and quick fixes to deter regulatory audits or fines. Let’s “six sigma” the problem out of existence, Welch-style, shall we? After all, external relations foreseeably turn into window dressing by executive oversight, especially when it comes to high-risk and high-impact causes such as climate change or inequality.

While greenwashing or greenwishing are part of the lingua franca of climate action, identical acts towards community and labor are less discussed. So much so that people must conjure candid honesty when addressing overt and covert harms. In such a universe, companies can claim – uncontested and pre-paid – credentials for being the best place to work. How would anybody dissent when those working there have no voice to share their lived experience? At the same time, most staff can’t afford the essential things they help sell while abiding by in-work poverty jobs.

The Exploitation of the Hungry

This affordability gambit hinders human thriving, resource preservation, and corporate sufficiency. It’s a gambit by company leaders who have long lost the system of profound knowledge that defines our shared success or failure. As Annamaria Melegh aptly articulates, these leaders are also under public or investor pressure to show their flawless environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials. But there are many blind spots in this pursuit, and much to explore.

Let’s zoom into social sustainability in the workforce or corporate context – one that is more than executive board gender share, mindfulness training, health & wellbeing, or diversity & inclusion awareness days. As the Pew Research Center points out, “Who benefits from hunger?” Professor George Kent of the University of Hawaii wrote recently in a UN blog post that hit the nail on the head: “It is fundamental to the working of the world’s economy. Hungry people are the most productive people, especially where there is a need for manual labour.”

The typical corporate idea of cheap labor requires a group whose needs are barely met, always short on food and housing funds, reliant on government subsidies, and hence desperate to take any jobs, often underemployed. They aren’t hired and paid to care, yet expected to show enthusiasm for the corporate goals. During my decades-long work in HR, I marked such labor malpractice as hiring the hungriest. People employed under said conditions suffer from the lowest wages, highest staff turnover as a burning layer, lack of job training or skill development, unstable compensation and scheduling, and permanent incoherence and loneliness.

The Spiral of Inequality

Their choices are limited so that corporate labor budgets can be kept at the short-term operating minimum. This drives a willful negative spiral into our social, economic, and political reality. Ironically, such short-sighted budget decisions hinder long-term business development, waste prevention, and workforce management. Unless, as Professor George Kent puts it, “for people at the high end, hunger is not a problem but an asset.”

Nonetheless, despite good intentions, financial obsession with short-term gains, productivity, and making-more-with-less persist. Management consultants advise narrowly proven decisions, and executives make cost-cutting, lean management, or reorganization choices. The value of humans is as good as their job titles, deprived of human-added value to tasks, solely measured by the associated costs and transactional value to the owners. As the Pew Research Center study indicates, OECD research proves that corporate employment practices contribute to societal inequality.

The Illusion of Corporate Care

The tide turns gradually, then suddenly, in a systemically pressed world. External circumstances wear out old habits. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic became a stern leveling force when the “essential worker” title briefly shifted from executive management to the bottom half of staff. Risks to their safety and wellbeing drew headlines, followed by corporate announcements on compensations and heroic but grueling work requirements. Later, only a handful of headlines reported on the long-term stress damage to health, human-rights concerns, or the quiet revocation of supplemental pay. Companies wouldn’t volunteer a comment unless evidence escaped their enclosure.

Amid a spiraling cost of living crisis, companies may offer one-time philanthropic support for their workers’ living expenses. They may even offer affordable housing, most commonly rentals, to ease some of the equity problems. As the Talk Poverty article mentions, while a noble act, a one-time cash influx doesn’t resolve insecurities about making ends meet or historic wage theft caused by opportunist employment practices. If one skips a meal per day to lower expenses or has to queue for the restroom during an entire 15-min break, culture or corporate targets are their slightest concerns of the day.

The Future of Work: A Hopeful Vision

Suppose corporations and HR professionals wished to get a more holistic grip on employment practices and their impact. Then sustainability in HR would be a thing. But in my experience, the walls between HR and Sustainability are maintained with much vigor. People are for “People & Culture” – the impact of their actions is none of your business.

Although ripe for context-based dual materiality about work and its impact, the business wellbeing and people management narratives abstain from many vulnerable topics. Instead, their gatekeepers have overtaken the space, discussing corporate culture being a “family at work,” work stress, mental health, and mindfulness. These are advanced topics, often jaded in the process, that still overshadow basic kitchen table conversations, like economic dignity, income stability, food insecurity, safety, and work conditions.

We should talk more about how firms directly affect the disparity between the lowest and highest paid amongst us and how to reverse course by consistent and transparent corporate policies on:

  • Equity and participation
  • Employment mobility and income stability
  • Hiring for retention and development
  • Scheduling for a living wage
  • Training for transferrable skills
  • Being heard individually and through representation

These social human rights to work should be the stepping stones for the future of work, but we are presented with more gigs, layoffs for so-so automation, or concurrent job flexibility. HR folks, compliant with fads and fashion all over the corporate ladder, don’t walk the talk on the stepping stones, except for a few with solid core principles.

In the corporate or consulting world, it is nearly impossible to land a job that steers the corporate agenda towards better people outcomes while maintaining sufficient corporate gains – sufficient to sustain a business ecosystem for thriving humans and a regenerated planet. Much of their work instead is done to prevent the firm’s legal exposure.

Beyond Hollow Corporate PR

Corporate surveys often ask customers how the company treats their workforce. Not shocking to learn that the answers are pretty positive. Although it might not be true, the public relations teams instantly earn bonuses. Many unanswered questions are left in the void. Who would even know about possible patterns of workplace malpractice when no business experts exist, or local newsrooms or labor beat left to ask questions? Is it acceptable that newspapers disclose corporate press releases without salient comments? How would the public contrast views if those with intercompany lived experience don’t issue press releases?

What we’re left with is the elephant in the room. Shall we give it a name at last, like “wellbeing-washing,” “hope-casting labor mirage,” “gaslighted goodwill culture laundering,” or “labor fairytales”? At some point, public conversations will stick the name to the myth underlying corporate and people management practices, regardless of how it’s marketed.

Social issues have a long shadow; their manifestation is delayed, stretching over multiple tenures and executive boards. Nonetheless, they exist and have already spiraled closer to tipping points out of the terrain of quick fixes. As the Pew Research Center study suggests, “The higher the inequality, the more likely we are to move away from democracy,” wrote Branko Milanovic, professor and inequality researcher at the City University of New York, in 2017. A growing volume of research asserts the pressing socioeconomic reasons why people, an increasing share of women, vote for extremist parties, falling under the spell of adverse beliefs and opinions.

Towards a Thriving, Equitable Future

Corporate and public data analysis needs to scale beyond the income gap to address the interconnected impacts of exposure to climate change, intergenerational equity, the wellbeing and health gap, and the consequences of the gig economy vs. fixed employment. Rapid urbanization as a form of survival put access to housing, human rights to a clean environment, criminalization, and urban design of tree shades on the line.

When taking a hard look at where our societies are, thanks to companies’ historic employment patterns and their impact, the only conclusion is that the future of work and life shall not be defined by those who led us here. But then, who else is ready to do it? If nobody else, we deserve what comes afterwards.

At HACC Housing, we’re committed to addressing the intersections of affordable housing and evolving work patterns. Through collaborative solutions and advocacy, we strive to create a future where thriving communities and equitable employment go hand in hand. Join us in this crucial journey towards a more just, sustainable, and prosperous world for all.

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