I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Shadow Work

Last month, Rana Foroohar argued in the FT that worker productivity is declining in no small part because of shadow work. Shadow work is unpaid work done in an economy. Historically, this referred to things like parenting and cleaning the house. The definition has expanded in recent years to include tasks that used to be done by other people that most of us now do for ourselves, largely through self-service technology, like banking and travel booking. There are no objective measures of how much shadow work there is in an economy, but the allegation in the FT article is that it is on the rise, largely because of all the fixing and correcting that the individual now must do on their own behalf.

There is a lot of truth to this. Some of the incremental shadow work is trivial, such as having to update profile information when an employer changes travel app provider. Some is tedious, such as when people must patiently hurdle through the unhelpful layers of primitive chat bots to finally reach a knowledge worker to speak to. Some is time consuming, such as when caught in an irrops travel situation and needing to rebook travel. And some is truly absurd, such as spending months navigating insurance companies and health care providers to get a medical claim paid. Although customer self-service flatters a service provider’s income statement, it wreaks havoc on the customer’s productivity and personal time.

But it is unfair to say that automated customer service has been a boon to business and a burden to the customer. Banking was more laborious and inconvenient for the customer when it could only be performed at a branch on the bank’s time. And it could take several rounds - and days - to get every last detail of one’s travel itinerary right when booking a business trip through a travel agent. Self-service has made things not just better, but far less labor intensive for the ultimate customer.

It is more accurate to say that any increase in shadow work borne by the customer is not really a phenomenon of the shift to customer self-service as much as it lays bare the shortcomings of providers that a large staff of knowledgable customer service agents were able to gloss over.

First, a lot of companies force their customers to do business with them in the way the company operates, not in the way the customer prefers to do business. A retailer that requires its customers to put an order on a specific location rather than algorithmically routing the order for optimal fulfillment to the customer - e.g., for best availability, shortest time to arrival, lowest cost of transportation - forces the customer to navigate the company’s complexity in order to do business. Companies do this kind of thing all the time because they simply can’t imagine any other way of working.

Second, edge cases defy automation. Businesses with exposure to a lot of edge cases or an intolerance to them will shift burden to customers when they arise. The travel industry is highly vulnerable to weather and suffers greatly with extreme weather events. Airline apps have come a long way since they made their debut 15 years ago, but when weather disrupts air travel, the queues at customer service desks and phone lines get congested because there is a limit to the solutions that can be offered through an app.

Third, even the simplest of businesses in the most routine of industries frequently manage customer service as a cost to be avoided, if not outright blocked. A call center that is managed to minimize average call time as opposed to time to resolution is incentivized to direct the caller somewhere else or deflect them entirely rather than resolve the customer problem. No amount of self-service technology will compensate for a company ethos that treats the customer as the problem.

There is no doubt that shadow work has increased, but that increase has less to do with the proliferation of customer self-service and more to do with the limitations of its implementation and the provider’s attitude toward their customer.

Perhaps more important is what a company loses when it reduces the customer service it provides through its people: the inability to immediately respond humanely to a customer in need; the aggregate loss of customer empathy through a loss of contact. This makes it far more difficult for a company to nurture its next generation of knowledge workers to troubleshoot and resolve increasingly complex customer service situations.

But of greater concern is that as useful as automation is from a convenience and scale perspective, its proliferation drives home the point that customers are increasingly something to be harvested, not people with whom to establish relationships. Society loses something when services are proctored at machine rather than human scale. In this light, the erosion of individual productivity is relatively minor.