Towards an improved process for balancing jobs

September 8, 2021

One of the main institutions of a participatory economy is that jobs are balanced for desirability and empowerment. That is, the collection of tasks that a person does in their work are comparably desirable and comparably empowering to the collection of tasks that every one does in their work[1].

I would like to explore some details how this could be generalized as a theory, and offer one specific recommendation for how to proceed.

Some years ago, to prepare for the debate I had with David Schweickart, I did some research into the small number of real-life examples of balancing jobs. Both South End Press (according to Lydia Sargent) and The NewStandard (according to Jessica Azulay) had similar approaches to balance jobs at both workplaces: Aggregate all the tasks within a small number of categories (three or four), and then ensuring that everyone did a comparable number of tasks among all categories.

Michael Albert, in his book Parecon: Life After Capitalism mentions one example where tasks are given an empowerment rating by number which could serve as a basis for a general approach for balancing jobs:

We can then imagine someone giving each task a rank of 1 to 20, with higher being more empowering and lower being more deadening and stultifying. So in this experiment we have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of stripped-down tasks from which we create actual jobs.

The thinking is that given these rankings, it’s easy — or at least it’s feasible — to create balanced jobs. Take the average of the ratings. It certainly is feasible, but I believe there’s an easier way to approach this:

First, make a list of all of the tasks to be rated. As an example, let’s image a workplace with just three tasks:

Task A

Task B

Task C

Second, arrange the tasks in order from least to greatest for the desired ranking, assign the middle task in the order a ranking of zero:

Task A – score of ?

Task B – score of 0

Task C – score of ?

Third, assign the tasks with a lesser ranking a score with a negative number, and those with a greater ranking a score with a positive number:

Task A – score of -1

Task B – score of 0

Task C – score of 1

Now you can balance jobs simply by ensuring that the sum of hours spent on each tasks sums to zero. If there’s an imbalance, you immediately know in which direction to correct: If your job is too highly rated (that is, it has a cumulative score greater than zero), add the necessary number of tasks with a negative rating until you achieve
a sum of zero. Likewise, if your job has a rating too low (with a cumulative score less than zero), add the necessary number of tasks with a positive rating until you achieve a sum of zero. Repeat the process for each metric.


[1] In Michael Albert’s recent writings on balancing jobs, he appears to dispense with considering balancing jobs for desirability, focusing solely on empowerment. This would be at invariance to the original articulation of balancing jobs, and that which Robin Hahnel has consistently written about — that jobs are to be balanced for both desirability and empowerment. Robin Hahnel has even gone proposed to go further: in chapter 10 of the book Democratic Economic Planning, Robin and chapter co-authors Peter Bohmer and Savvina Chowdhury propose a third balancing criterion, that of caring labor, in order to make a participatory economy more equitable along gender roles which had an imbalance of caring labor. The proposal outlined here can be used to help balance tasks in a job complex along these and any number of other balancing metrics.

Notable Replies

  1. Our existing workplaces tend to be hierarchical and in some instances due to some individuals having more experience than others. For example where I work we have entry level junior analysts, senior analysts and managers. A manager and senior analyst basically share the same skill sets, except that the manager has HR related responsibilities. But the junior analyst has fewer skills mainly due to lack of experience. I’ve coached junior analysts and sometimes they are reluctant to take on more responsibilities because they find them intimidating. In other instances they haven’t got the experience to work efficiently.

    How would you sort something like this out?

  2. Hi, @Claude

    To be fair, your question isn’t related to the topic I raise in this post (that of a suggested improvement for balancing jobs). But you pose an interesting and important question nevertheless: How should balanced jobs account for different levels of experience among different workers in a workplace?

    I’ll offer this as a tentative solution: Tasks in a job can be made more rudimentary even if they are desirable and empowering, then adjusted once new and recent members of a workplace gain more experience. This has been my own experience in (admittedly hierarchical) workplaces and in gamification theory that’s referred to as “scaffolding” — starting out easy and then progressing to increasingly more difficult tasks, but staying balanced the whole time.

    This merits more discussion and thought, maybe as an episode of the forthcoming PE podcast. I’ll add this to the list of proposed topics.

  3. I think this is an improvement. Is your job bundle above or below zero? Good, easy.

    What about also factoring in duration to a workplace’s job balancing formula? If a person spends longer hours as part of their job than a co-worker on an undesirable task, then this more negatively impacts them.

    It will be very interesting to see the different approaches workplaces might take. There is obviously a trade-off between accuracy and practicality with balancing jobs. For me personally, I would favour fewer categories. The simplest could be just two categories, where everyone does something empowering and then the stuff that nobody wants to do is shared out. I guess the relevant question is what is sufficient so that everyone feels empowered enough to participate and comparably fulfilled at work.

    There is also the issue of how this would work if jobs are also balanced between workplaces, but I think that deserves a whole separate article and discussion on.

  4. I think you’re right that it won’t always be possible to balance jobs perfectly in every workplace because, like you say, of differences in experience and skills that will exist, especially considering those entering the workforce. I don’t think it can ever be perfect, but I think every workplace can set it as a goal to try to eliminate any persistent differences in empowerment that exist over time through training and job shadowing, and the education system of a participatory economy would play an important part in that too. Of course, another important difference to work today is that less experienced junior workers would still have the same income for their efforts and voting rights as more experienced workers.

  5. I was thinking again of my own workplace how this could play out. First off, a lot of the new employees coming in are actually quite competent. They lack practical experience but have a lot of technical experience. I’ve actually been playing a role of coach to a few newbies at work. what they lack in experience they make up for in motivation. Their main obstacle in their case is confidence in carrying out some of the tasks. For example, leading meetings in certain circumstances. So long as I provide them with support at the meeting, or I model for them at a meeting how to proceed, then let them take the reigns at the next meeting, this approach seems to work out just fine. So overall, there has been a bit of a job balancing where I work, where I’ve taken on some of the more mundane roles of reviewing some of their work or just being there as a support person, while they’ve had opportunities to do some of the more empowering tasks like leading meetings, (while I’m there as a support person, less empowering).

    Depending on individual attitudes and if they are of a collaborative and cooperative nature, it should not be a big reach to achieve some sort of balance at work.

    Another thing to consider in terms of work dynamics, is that there would no longer be a culture of moving up the corporate ladder. This would be a pretty important cultural shift for people to get used to in and of itself. But it creates a vastly different environment if workers are not trying to score points by being at the forefront of accomplishments to claim credit. This is an area that may have already been studied hopefully so that we are not starting from scratch to figure human behaviour in this area.

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