Shadow Work

We have been trained to be store clerks, grocery baggers, gas station attendants, and we have even become our own travel agent. That is the premise of a book written by Ivan Illich, an Austrian philosopher and social critic, in 1981 titled “Shadow Work”.

Shadow work, according to Wikipedia, is the unpaid labor in any economy through self-service.

A few years ago, Chris Lambert wrote an article in The New York Times titled “Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work”.

Shadow work does not just affect front line workers. It affects everyone from top-level executives on down the chain.

Where top-level executives of days gone by had a secretarial pool to take care of correspondence and other tasks, they now do a lot of their own communication through email, texting, and making their own phone calls.

If you are in a store and need to check the price on an item, then you become what used to be a paid store clerk because many retailers now have scanning devices placed strategically around the store so you can check your own prices.

Think about the time you spend on shadow work. Most people spend around one minute and 30 seconds every day deleting spam from their email. This is around nine hours of unproductive time every year.

Now think about how much time you spend pumping gas, making reservations, bagging your own groceries, etc. and you’re not getting paid for any of it. How many hours (or weeks) a year are you spending on shadow work?

When did this happen? How did they manage to totally remove customer service and make us do everything for ourselves … with no compensation?

All of this has also impacted our economy. How many travel agents have lost their jobs because people go online and make their own travel arrangements? How many people in retail have lost their jobs because we bag our own groceries and perform the entire checkout process ourselves?

If you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, then shadow work may be partially responsible.

I am not saying shadow work is good or bad. I actually like the speed and convenience of self-checkout. I much prefer going through the self-checkout than going through a register with a clerk who is barely acknowledging my presence, talking to their friend, and annoyed that I’m even in the store making them do actual work and keeping them from talking to their friend.

(A short rant …the CEOs of brick and mortar chains are scrambling trying to figure out how to survive in this Amazoned economy. It’s really pretty simple. You do not need a store remodel. You do not need a different logo. You do not need a new tagline. You do not need to add 100 more items to your menu. How about training your people to love your customers and take care of the people giving you money and keeping you in business? I’m thinking maybe that would work. And fire the employees who are not on board with this until you eventually hire someone who is on board.)

It’s just the world we live in. Everyone has more and more on their plate and shadow work is responsible for a part of it.

What are your thoughts on the impact of shadow work?