Wednesday, March 29, 2023

AU’s ergo program symptomatic of organizational dysfunction

Almost 100% of staff at Athabasca University (AU) work from home, at least part of the time. This is up from about 50% prior to COVID. The shift to permanent home offices was partially motivated by the cost savings associated with shifting operating costs (e.g., office space and equipment, utilities) onto workers.

The sudden move to working at home in March of 2020 due to COVID resulted in significant concerns among workers about both the financial and ergonomic implications of home work. Three years later, AU has launched new, online ergonomic training for staff.

Essentially, staff have been told to take online training and figure out how to adjust their home workplaces to be ergonomically adequate by April 30th. A key question is whether AU will fund any necessary purchases to make a home office ergonomically adequate? The answer is, of course, no.

Will there be additional funding to support any needs identified as a result of this assessment?
No. All home-office-based team members have been provided with Home Office Support Funding. This included $1,000 in 2020 and another $1,000 in 2022. Team members will be provided with an additional $800 Evergreening Fund every 6 years.

It was certainly appropriate for AU to respond to shifting operating costs onto workers in 2020 with a small, taxable payment (which might have bought a desk and chair and lamp). The taxable 2022 payment of $1000 (or $800) was negotiated in lieu of a wage increase so was essentially self-funding by workers.

In both cases, that money has already been spent by most workers. For this reason, it is not available to resolve any current ergonomic issues. (This reflects that AU rolled out the training and payment in the wrong order.)

Overall, this initiative is pretty typical of AU:
  • A long-standing problem is addressed belatedly and inadequately.
  • The workers are made responsible for solving the employer’s problem (i.e., unsafe workplaces).
  • The employer gaslights the workers about it, in this case by referencing financial assistance that is only available if you have a time machine.
So what are AU workers likely going to do? Some staff will take the training, either because they are rule followers or because they are being explicitly paid to do so (e.g., tutors). I expect the rest of staff won’t bother to take it or will take it but not implement many of the recommended changes because it will require them to spend their own money to solve an institutional problem.

This program (which is, at least superficially, a good idea) is a microcosm of how AU operates. Essentially, the administration “talks away” problems instead of addressing them and staff learn to tune out or superficially comply. The result is widespread distrust of leaders and staff disengagement.

The aftermath of the 2022 staff engagement survey results (released two weeks ago) pretty much mirrors this. Staff disengagement has been identified as such an issue it was added to the institutional threat register at last week's Board of Governor's meeting. That doesn't mean anything is being done to fix it, though.

Senior executives are heavily messaging that the results are “sobering” but not actually doing anything about it. This is the performative “talking away” of problems that fixes nothing. Staff are, of course, onto this strategy, with only 30% believing senior leaders will do anything, because successive executives have talked away problems for years and years:

Middle managers seem to be taking two approaches to the results. Some are earnestly (I think) asking for staff feedback. This ask is basically flopping because of the long-standing “big bosses who cried wolf” dynamic to problems. For example, in my meeting of people who are basically lead hands, there was just dead silence in response to the ask for feedback. Others middle managers are framing the results as a consequence of inadequate communications.

It is true that gaslighting and victim blaming are communications strategies that are inadequate. But, since this approach has gone on for most of a decade and intensified over time, it is likely this is an intentional strategy, not some sort of oopsie. Last week’s framing of engagement by the HR director as “good” because it encourages staff to work harder is essentially an admission that the employer doesn’t care about staff except as the means to an end.

For staff, disengagement (whether active or passive) is a very sensible response to a traumatizing workplace. The other response I’m seeing is people over-engaging, which is leading to burn out. This is pretty hard to watch, but perhaps some people need to hit rock bottom before they’ll change their behaviour. I know that I did.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Money Shot: The Pornhub Story

Netflix is currently airing a documentary titled Money Shot: The Pornhub Story. This documentary examines, among other things, the way in which this enormous online clearinghouse of porn makes money and its relationship with content providers. The documentary touches on a number of themes that are examined in LBST 415: Sex Work and Sex Workers, including:
  • Safety and Control: The documentary highlights that many content providers (some of whom identify as sex workers) find that the subscription services offered by Pornhub dramatically increases their safety and increases the predictability of their work. These beneficial changes for these sex workers are consistent with the benefits that accrue to sex workers from decriminalization of sex work in other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand.
  • Who Profits: Like other businesses, Pornhub exists to make money. And, like other businesses, its profitability has often been driven, in part, by some fairly objectionable business practices. The sex workers who participate in its subscription service (essentially as independent contractors) note that their income, when compared to working as an actor for a production company, is often much greater (one example is a threefold increase). Tactics designed to apply market pressure to Pornhub (see below), have forced some to move to other platforms or return to less safe and remunerative forms of sex work.
  • Sex Work and Trafficking: An ongoing issue with Pornhub (and other online porn providers) is the sharing of videos that are various ways unlawful (e.g., filmed without consent, containing minors, depicting crimes). Campaigns seeking to regulate such videos often intentionally blur the distinction between unlawful and lawful porn, much like campaigns against sex work(ers) will frame sex work as sex trafficking. The popularity of this tactic speaks to its effectiveness.
  • State Regulation: The documentary looks are two efforts to regulate Pornhub. The first is state regulation (akin to the legalization, but not decriminalization, of sex work) aimed at addressing unlawful pornography. These efforts (primarily in the US) had the effect of deplatforming sex workers, cutting their income and forcing some to return to much less safe street-based sex work. The effectiveness of this regulation at eliminating unlawful pornography appears limited. One unexpected effect appears to be that the creators and distributors of unlawful pornography have become more circumspect and difficult to catch. 
  • Market Regulation: The second approach to regulating Pornhub (and other such sites) has been through market pressure. Essentially, the financial sector (e.g., credit card companies) has been pressured to restrict billing services. This has disproportionately impacted sex workers whop are dependent upon these billing arrangements. Many have fled to other platforms (such as OnlyFans) which have been (for reasons not well explained in the documentary) more resistant to this form of pressure.
Overall, the documentary was pretty engaging. An interesting twist at about the halfway mark is the backstory reveal around one of the organizations that has campaigned against Pornhub (spoiler: Jesus!) and its actual agenda and activities.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Athabasca U staff engagement results are predictably terrible

This morning, Athabasca University released some of the results from its Autumn 2022 staff survey. The survey was about staff engagement, engagement means how willing staff are to put in discretionary effort to benefit the organization. AU framing its interest in workers as entirely instrumental was unexpected honest and went over poorly.

The basic talking points of the presenters were
  • The data is four months old (i.e., things may not be as bad as the results suggest!).
  • There is high trust among co-workers.
  • All staff need to work hard and take responsibility for reversing these poor results.
This framing elides that staff fundamentally do not trust AU senior leaders (see below), who play a pretty important role in creating the circumstances in which staff might (or might not) be able to work effectively. Anyhow, onto the results (apologies for the poor resolution; you can click on them for larger images). There was a 70% response rate, which is higher than sector norms.

Overall, about half of staff appear engaged. The biggest thing to note are the ~20% drop in that numbers since 2020. There was no explanation offered for this change but key events during that time include COVID (massive workload increases), forced relocation to home offices, efforts to bust the faculty association and deprive people of pensions, terrible wage settlements after a near strike, and using staff as hostages in a fight with the government. Given this, it is not surprising that many staff are just throwing up their hands and checking out.

Scores were broken out by different dimensions of engagement. Basically, people have good feelings about their coworkers and immediate managers. They have bad feelings about the senior leadership and how well the organization lives its values, focuses on learners, and innovates. Again, the drops really tell the tale of the deterioration since 2020.

Only about half of staff believe the institution lives its i-CARE values. There have been 11- to 18-point drops since 2020. Honestly, I’m surprised the drops have not been larger.

These results show pretty clearly that the staff see the gaps between values and actions as occurring primarily at the leadership levels.

In terms of organizational culture, these are some worrying results about caring, safety, and consultation. Again, it’s the leadership of the organization that primarily controls these aspects of the organization. The idea that staff can change the culture through some sort of personal-responsibility magic is just gaslight.

The innovation results are also quite negative. Again, look at the drops over time. I would say this manifests itself organizational in a sense that people are just giving up trying to solve problems and improve processes because it is just hopeless. Instead, some people are giving up and others are working themselves sick trying to protect students from the impact (which is not a sustainable option).

This is probably the most important slide. The assessment of senior leadership is terrible. Naturally, these results got less than a minute of discussion. On almost every dimension, the ratings are net negative (positive < negative) and, where there is historical data, it again shows profound drops over time. In many cases, AU’s executive is scoring at close to half of the sector average.

This is pretty clear evidence that staff see profound leadership failure. Only 29% agree that senior leaders inspire employees, and only 32% think senior leaders effectively establish priorities, do what they say they will do, and are adequately visible. This is a clear call for a housecleaning in the executive suite.

Only 30% think senior leadership will act on the issues identified in this survey. This was almost immediately shown to be true when, after the results were presented, the president, the VPA and the acting chief human resources officer all leaned hard on the message that the issue was a communications problem and the staff need to pull up our socks and work harder to help stem the bleeding of enrollments. While there was some lip service to the results as “sobering”and "removing barriers" to staff increasing discretionary effort, there was no real plan to address the problems or any sense that the executive was owning the results.

This is pretty consistent with AU’s past engagement surveys (2020 and 2019). The time between surveys was increased to two years to allow for a meaningful consideration and response by the executive. There was, predictably, none. And today’s presentation suggests AU’s executive are going to continue just try to “talk away” bad news instead of changing their behaviours.

That doesn’t sound like a very effective strategy to me. The staff reactions I've heard so far include anger at the victim blaming, disappointment at the vapid sloganeering, and regret for the hour of time we all wasted listening to the results.

-- Bob Barnetson