...

Innovations in Adaptable Labor and Technology Can Benefit Blue-Collar Workers

From X (ex-Twitter) to Amazon to IBM to Meta to US Bancorp, the 2024 return-to-office mandate march continues.

Some commentators, including Elon Musk, claim the issue is fairness. Blue-collar workers don’t have the same work-from-home options as what Musk derides as the “laptop class … living in la-la land.”

But Musk and many others don’t seem to understand that blue-collar and white-collar workers are different. They have different tasks, different skillsets and different payment structures.

That does not mean blue-collar workers deserve less consideration. In fact, innovations like adaptable labor and technology can help. They give blue-collar cohorts much of the optionality the “laptop class” has. That is truly the reinvention of work.

So, let’s explore the differences between the workforces, why holding them to the same standards is managerial folly and why return-to-work mandates are costly.

From Work to Wages to Wardrobes, There Are Differences

Blue-collar workers engage in manual labor. They work in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, mining, maintenance, even some retail workers. Their tasks often involve physical exertion, heavy machinery and outdoor work.

White-collar workers typically inhabit office settings. Post-pandemic, many have moved to remote work or work from home. They perform administrative, managerial or professional roles. Their work revolves around intellectual skills rather than physical labor.

Blue-collar workers usually get paid by the hour. (Some factory workers get paid by the piece.) The more hours they work, the more they earn. Working more than 40 hours in a week earns them overtime.

White-collar workers typically earn a salary or commissions. They get paid based on position, responsibilities or deals closed. They can work 10 hours or Musk’s self-proclaimed 80 to 120 hours each week.

Attire used to be a major difference. Blue-collar workers still wear practical, durable clothes. But white-collar workers could sport a business suit or business casual for meetings or, as some of my employees do, “dress up” in flannels every day to work from home.

Other Differences Include Work Behaviors and Patterns

This leads to naturally different work behaviors and patterns.

The blue-collar guy clocks in for an eight-hour shift. Then he goes home.

That’s quite different from the white-collar worker who needs to fly from New York to Chicago for business. She doesn’t clock in when she gets to O’Hare International Airport, when she answers email on her laptop in the lounge or when she runs a sourcing analysis in the evening after dinner.

When not traveling, it rarely matters if she takes the 2-hour round trip commute to the downtown office. She’s going to spend most of the day on Zoom with the guy two doors down and the girl two time zones away. She can do that from anywhere.

That’s why they get paid differently and get treated differently. It’s simply part of life.

Remote Work Can Boost Profits, Which Beats Executive Hubris

Yes, working at the office can be beneficial. Many youngsters want that mentoring and professional development, NPR reports.

Much of that can happen with hybrid work schedules.

Few white-collar workers need to schlep to the office every day, particularly since, as The New York Times reports, American office workers live farther from their jobs than ever. According to CNBC, commuting and associated expenses cost full-time office workers more than $1,000 vs. $408 per month for hybrid workers.

Lunch, free doughnuts, coffee and an on-site gym don’t make up for that.

We need to stop the executive hubris that is driving many of the five-days-in-the-office mandates.

I’ve written before about how return-to-office policies affect underrepresented groups. The data continues to point that out. A recent Gartner study showed that the best employees, including women and millennials, are more likely to leave companies that mandate office returns.

Studies are mixed on whether working from home damages productivity. I don’t think it does. Even if it did, the massive decrease in overhead expenses and recruitment and retention costs can increase profitability.

In the fight between hubris and profits, insightful business leaders should pick profits.

Innovations Expand Optionality to Your Entire Workforce

So where does this leave the blue-collar worker? Always stuck at the workplace?

For the most part yes. But leaders do have new tools in their toolbox.

Adaptable labor options through companies like Task4Pros can help. Companies can develop flexible workforces for many of their warehouse operations. Full-timers might handle 80% of your needed hours. The adaptable labor can handle the other 20%.

That gives the company and the worker optionality. Jill or Jack can miss work for their kid’s baseball game or doctor’s appointment. Flexible labor gets the work done. And the workers don’t fear for their jobs.

That’s adaptable labor for a true win-win-win.

After all, for the most part, somebody on the factory line, warehouse, retail store or restaurant cannot do the job remotely.

However, in some cases, technology can make blue-collar remote work arrangements possible.

This fascinating USA Today story details the growth of blue-collar remote jobs. Options include remote restaurant order takers, call center workers, even laundry services.

Restaurants and retail have been hit hard by the labor crunch. More remote possibilities could help entice more workers.

So yes, leadership can use innovations to give blue-collar workers the optionality previously available to the “laptop class.”

Rethink Leadership Beyond Cubicles and Offices

Companies that want to secure competitive advantage must entertain the full range of employment options. Most blue-collar sectors still require work on site. In some companies, white-collar workers will need occasional facetime in the office.

You can accomplish that with hybrid options. And the people making that decision should not be the CEO who works from his private jet. (And yes, most of the CEOs issuing return-to-office mandates are men.)

Your managers who know their teams and know what needs to be done should work with their charges to structure your hybrid work program. Hire good people and trust them regarding company culture, employee engagement and office attendance.

Cubicles and offices don’t spark creativity. In fact, I would argue that I’m much more creative in a home work environment. The lack of a commute gives me more time, not less. The lack of office space and real estate worries are profitable bonuses.

Few, if any, white-collar workers need to commute to the office five days a week. The hybrid workplace should be your long-term goal.

It’s just not worth the coffee and doughnuts. Nor the cost to your bottom line.

Related Reading