Through thick and thin

London Essays – Issue 7: Work

Through thick and thin

We need a different way of thinking about work – and planning for it.

By Charles Leadbeater

We are used to separating work into the skilled and the unskilled, white-collar and blue, manual and non-manual, manufacturing and services. But many of these distinctions no longer hold good.

Most work, even in manufacturing, is no longer manual and blue-collar: it entails looking after automated systems. Many people in what were skilled trades and professions now find themselves threatened with being de-skilled by the emergence of artificially intelligent systems that will make important decisions previously left to managers, accountants, lawyers, doctors and editors.

A different kind of distinction may help us think about what work will be like in the future, and the mix of work we want to do: the difference between ‘thick’ work and ‘thin’ work.

Thin work will be task-based, modular and tightly-scheduled. Working for Deliveroo is archetypal thin work. It requires turning up on time, following the instructions given to you by an app and little beyond that. The task is defined by the platform. The instructions are issued by an algorithm. The timings are set by the system. This kind of work can be picked up easily and requires little commitment on the part of the employer or the employee. Platforms like Deliveroo, Task Rabbit and Uber provide ways to organise thin work at scale. There is no workplace, no shared canteen, no after-work drinks: work is just a series of discrete tasks that you log on to complete. The only thing that knits all these tasks together is a digital platform that coordinates consumers and providers. Thin work may well be the more efficient way to do things when jobs can be broken down into separate tasks and parcelled out among many people willing to perform as commanded.

“Caring for someone with dementia or for a young child is thick work.”

Thick work is quite different. Thick work is required when the problems, opportunities and solutions cannot be predicted and specified in advance. It is difficult to do anything genuinely creative other than through thick work, which requires time, patience, persistence and iterative problem solving. Thick work also requires a degree of emotional commitment. Caring for someone with dementia or for a young child is thick work: it is always changing and never predictable. You cannot change a nappy with an app. This kind of caring, empathetic work requires emotional commitment and adaptive skills.

Being part of a creative team that requires high levels of collaboration and trust is also thick work: it relies on thick relationships between the people involved. Acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company is thick work; playing for the London Symphony Orchestra is thick work. So, too, is being part of a team writing new code or conducting scientific research. Thick work requires commitments to a project, other members of the team, common values and culture: it means going beyond what is specified in advance, doing what is uncalled-for and unexpected. Thick work also requires knowledge and skills built up over time through patience and persistence, rather than acquired for the task in hand.

Thick work in groups and teams thrives on intense, repeated face-to-face encounters. Thin work just requires you to turn up, follow the script, to do what is expected of you at the right time. Thin work does not invite people to take the initiative or add something special. For thick work, people need to care about what they are doing and making, and their personal reputations.

These two types of work, thick and thin, tend to happen in different kinds of communities and spaces.

Thin work, taking place through platforms and systems, coordinates people who barely need to know or talk to one another. Thick work, requiring intense concentration and conversation, calls for places for practice and performance designed with that in mind. Apple and Google spend so much money on turning their offices into places for community because they value thick work. Creativity requires a degree of psychological safety and shared commitment in order to allow the taking of risks. The reason insurance companies still cluster around the Lloyds building is that some of the work people do there still depends on the closeness of their relationships. And it turns out that the dispersal of the newspaper industry from its shared home in Fleet Street was an early sign of how the work of journalists was being thinned out.

Thick and thin work also involve different approaches to time. The more we can measure, divide and manage time, the less we seem to have. Everything appears to have got faster and busier, as time presses on in ever more stressful ways. Time is being broken down into smaller, more urgent fractions of significance. Every second counts. This favours the thinning out of work into pre-packaged tasks and routines, cutting time up into ever-thinner slices.

Call-response times are monitored minutely. General practitioners in the UK have eight minutes per patient. The average social care worker looking after an elderly person has less than half an hour per client per day. Just as powerful as this external micro-management are the bleeps and reminders from our online calendars to urge us to come to attention.

What gets lost in this headlong rush to cram as much as possible into already hectic schedules are two other kinds of time that have now become the most precious in modern life. Both of these require “thick” chunks of unscheduled time.

We are short of the time to be with other people, to linger, talk, mull and muse. Perhaps the scarcest resource in modern life is the sustained and undivided attention of other people. The creation of little protectorates of “quality time” in which busy parents find out what has been happening in their children’s lives while they have been away working is just one a sign of the gap between the fast, thin time of systems and the thick, slow time required to build relationships.

The more we can measure, divide and manage time, the less we seem to have.

The discretionary time we need for ourselves, in which we can reflect and contemplate, is also in chronically short supply. We are often scared witless when we suddenly find we have time to do nothing. As if finding ourselves in a vast open space with no paths, we don’t know how to navigate time with no schedules and deadlines. We go from being hellishly busy to feeling like we are killing time, not knowing what to do with ourselves.

Yet nothing creative comes out of a series of meetings scheduled into hour-long blocks in faceless meeting rooms. People who create and make things, such as software programmers and writers, experience time in a quite different way from people who mainly manage their time.

Managers live on the thin-slices time of rapid-fire meetings. The more meetings packed into an online calendar, the more powerful the manager is.

People who are creative – writers, artists, architects, designers, innovators of all kinds – do not break down their days into hour-long slots. They generally prefer to use time in thick chunks, units of half a day at the very least. When someone is writing a book the relevant unit of time may be months or even years. Micro-managed time is the enemy of sustained creativity.

As consumers, we all rely on other people’s thick and thin forms of work. We want to be able to have a proper consultation with a doctor but pick up our prescription from the pharmacy in an instant. We like the flexibility of online and telephone banking but sometimes need good advice from a trusted financial advisor. A film requires a lot of people doing just what is expected of them, in quite humdrum jobs, to allow everyone’s work to be brought together as a creative whole. You cannot spend your entire day being creative: you need to take a break, in part by doing work that is less demanding. Young creatives will do relatively undemanding work to fund the work that really counts as artists and musicians. Working part-time in a job with a definite start and end time suits many people with family commitments. In other words, it’s not that thin work is necessarily bad, and thick always good; it is in part a question of being able to find the right balance.

The trouble is that more work seems to be in the process of being thinned out, and quite dramatically, by technology and systems. The result may be that we will find ourselves yearning for thick forms of work and the thick communities that come with them, when only thin ones are available.

Look at airline pilots: the development of fly-by-wire planes, largely controlled by computers, has significantly improved safety. Since the 1980s, when these “fourth generation” planes started to be introduced, commercial airlines’ safety has improved fivefold: there is now only one accident per 5 million departures. The consequence is that pilots who once flew the planes are largely reduced to being system-minders. They operate the computer that flies the plane. Most of the time they try to work out what the system is doing. When something goes wrong with the system it is not unheard of for pilots to find it difficult to adjust: when their skills are called upon, they have been thinned out to such an extent that they cannot always cope.

As technological systems reduce the role of human involvement, so human performance declines. That in turn justifies further automation, which further thins out the role of human judgement and limits initiative – a self-reinforcing cycle in which previously thick cultures and skills of work become dangerously thinned. When a crisis comes and humans are called upon to act, they can find it hard to do so.

The world no longer rewards people simply for what they know: what matters is what you can do with what you know.

The battle between black cabs and Uber is a struggle between thick and thin cultures work. Driving a taxi around London used to require thick skills: memorising routes around the city by spending hours on a scooter following maps. To be a black cab driver was to be part of a thick community. The trouble with thick communities is that they can also be quite closed: black cabs are largely driven by middle-aged, white men.

Uber has thinned that by dramatically lowering the barriers to entry. As a result, the makeup of Uber drivers is more ethnically diverse, although most are still men. Suddenly, black cabs and their drivers face an existential crisis. Uber meanwhile seems to be the ultimate thin platform, with so little commitment to its drivers that they could be discarded once self-driving cars are accepted on the city’s roads. Thin work creates greater efficiency, but at unknown future cost: Uber is not so much thinning work as emaciating it.

Perhaps the most troubling effect of the incursion of thin work into a thick setting is seen in schooling, which has increasingly become a systematic way to instruct young people so they are good at following instructions to do what is required, in the right way, at the right time, when the examiner asks for it.

Yet the world no longer rewards people simply for what they know: what matters is what you can do with what you know, working with others to solve tricky problems. In a more volatile, uncertain world, driven by innovation and entrepreneurship, we need to equip young people to find, frame and solve problems, including those that don’t come with instructions.

This kind of problem-solving is rarely just about being smart. It requires persistence; a sense of animating purpose; collaboration to engage the insights of other people; empathy; and the ability to turn ideas into action, to test and improve them. Learning to be a creative problem-solver requires a dynamic combination of cognitive and non-cognitive skills, hard and soft, explicit and tacit, in addition to academic knowledge and entrepreneurial ambition. These characteristics are not developed by turning schooling into an ever-thinner system of teaching to the test, doing exactly what is expected and no more.

As the world becomes increasingly dominated by systems that encourage and reward thin work, so we need to make a countervailing effort to encourage people to develop the thick skills that allow us to solve complex, difficult problems and devise brilliant new solutions. This means valuing the capabilities needed for thick work, resisting the drive to consign some citizens exclusively to thin work, and recognising the benefits – both economic and in terms of wellbeing – to individuals (and the city as a whole) of a rich texture of thin and thick work for everyone.