Experts and political and trade union leaders address and analyze the implementation of the 4-day or 32-hour working week on May, 27 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo: Jorge Gil/Europa Press via Getty Images)

Collective Governance Is Collective Care

Our workplaces present opportunities to experiment and learn what it actually takes to build a more caring world.

Creating a culture of collective care in the workplace is as essential as laying a strong foundation for a sturdy home.

I decided then to make a proposal to my colleagues: institute a four-day workweek with a full-time salary for all employees.

A few years ago, I became a single parent. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a living wage to afford childcare, housing, food, health care, transportation, and other needs for one adult and one child is about $100,000, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. My salary was under $70,000 at the time, and I suddenly found myself under a tremendous amount of financial stress. Although I received support from my former partner, I could not sleep at night from the worry and overwhelm. How was I going to provide for my family?

The organization I co-founded ten years ago, Pangea Legal Services, is a worker collective. We organize decision-making across eight hubs, or leadership committees. Every staff member sits on at least one hub responsible for an administrative area of the organization: HR, finance, communications, etc. We do not have an executive director. We co-govern our workplace through collectivized and decentralized structures built on our team's culture of deep empathy and care for one another.

By the time I became a single parent, Pangea had instituted an optional four-day workweek with 80% pay. The trade off had worked for me in a two-income household, but as a newly single parent, I needed both a full-time salary and a four-day workweek to spend time with my toddler because I was no longer going to have full weekends with her. Even at reduced pay, the four-day workweek had not only improved my wellbeing--it also improved the quality of my work, and there is research to back it up.

I decided then to make a proposal to my colleagues: institute a four-day workweek with a full-time salary for all employees.

Presenting the proposal challenged me deeply. Prior to our four-day workweek, and before I became a parent, I was an extreme workaholic. I carried family-of-origin trauma and the trauma of immigrants and people of color who are taught to prove ourselves worthy through overwork. When I first started Pangea, I worked seven days a week, and now, here I was requesting a four-day workweek policy at full pay. Even though I knew I was working hard for our organization and our clients, I wondered if my colleagues would consider the proposal equitable. I worried that perhaps I was asking for too much, centering my own experience at the expense of the organization. I felt torn, uncomfortable, and vulnerable.

But my belief in our values ran deeper than my fears. My colleagues and I built Pangea on the premise that how we govern in our organization creates the conditions for how we relate to each other. The policies that dictate our income, our healthcare, and our time have incredible power over the quality of all of our lives, so we were going to make them together. In nonprofit workplaces, where overwork, high stakes, high stress, and high burnout rates are the norm, the individual alone cannot possibly control the quantity and quality of their work. It is therefore the responsibility of the collective to do so.

I decided that a four-day workweek was a form of structural care we deserved, and I submitted the proposal to the HR Hub. In it, I shared my personal struggle as a new single parent, and I outlined options to address it with the goal of balancing financial security and flexibility for Pangea employees and parents. The options included 1) a 100% paid, four-day workweek by allotting 52 additional vacation days to staff with a minimum number of years at Pangea; 2) for all staff to transition to a four-day workweek; and 3) a four-day workweek option for staff with dependents at full-time pay.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, kind, and supportive, so we set out to figure out and decide together what constituted our workweek. To start, Pangea's HR team conducted a survey of all staff to explore needs, desires, and potential avenues to implement the policy. We voted to pilot two policies over the course of four months. In the first two months, individual staff chose our day off between Tuesdays and Thursdays. In the second two months, all staff took off Fridays, and the office was closed to the public. After the four months, we evaluated the pilots and voted to close the office on Fridays and make the policy permanent. We learned that a uniform four-day workweek created a period of collective rest, allowed for consistent messaging with partners, and reduced the pressure to be available in person and over email. As we gradually shifted to working four days a week, expectations of productivity and workload also shifted, and this was later reflected in our five-year strategic plan. Through an intentional process of gathering information and incorporating feedback, we learned that creating a four-day workweek was a desired and beneficial policy not only for me as a single parent but actually for all staff.

Wellness is a collective practice as much as it is individual. It is also a collective responsibility. Collective governance promotes taking this collective responsibility. It enables healing and transformative growth through processes that ask us what we need, what we desire, and to acknowledge one another. Many of our systems of injustice are perpetuated through a lack of policies and support for collective care that recognize individual needs and circumstances--from inadequate access to healthcare, to lack of subsidized eldercare, childcare, and parental leave.

Our physical and mental states and capabilities are often assumed to be our individual responsibility: "what are you doing to take care of yourself?" But our actual ability to be well hinges on our interdependence and--therefore--on the quality of our environments. These include our workplaces, schools, homes, and communities.

Participation in the development of workplace policies, agency in our work, and authority over decisions in our workplaces--these are all practices of care that foster collective wellness. It's not easy but it is possible, and it is worth resourcing for retention and sustainability for the long term. Our workplaces present opportunities to experiment and learn what it actually takes to build a more caring world. As we work to end injustices, what we're building together is how we're structuring our care beyond crises and toward wellness.

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