Having a Cow with Work

Virtual Reality headsets for bovine milk machines and the future of office work.

Pre-pandemic, the average total commute was just under an hour. Those commutes took people to jobs they probably weren't engaged with, and paid them a lot less than they deserved. We’ve been over all that, and if you’ve forgotten, just check the hyperlinks in the preceding sentence. 

As a next step, imagine arriving at work and adorning yourself with the latest VR headset. Such may be the life of many a bovine laborer at the RusMoloko dairy farm outside of Moscow, Russia (this being minor news from Russia, its veracity has been difficult to obtain). The living meat n’ milk sacks arise each day to their present reality, only to arrive at work and be transported to another. The rationale is cows produce more milk when they’re relaxed. To that end, the VR headsets transport the moo machines off to serene summer fields. 

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VR headsets or not, it’s true that relaxed, happy cows produce more milk. Could the same be said for humans and powerpoint slides produced, emails sent, excel models created, and any other digital ephemera I couldn’t think of? Probably...Isn’t that the intended purpose of open office plans, in-office phone booths, and nap pods?

The VR enjoying cows are the logical extension of those in-office attempts at increasing productivity through the surrounding environment. This, in concert with the recently published report detailing the successes of 4-day workweek trials in Iceland, reveal a fork laying in the road ahead for white collar executives. 

One fork takes white collar workers further down the path they’ve been on. This is the VR headset path. A never-ending attempt to make the office as appealing and as productive as possible. If open offices, nap pods, snacks, whatever the infantilization du jour hyped by Inc. Magazine, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, or the NYT don’t do it, perhaps VR headsets will. A chrome coil which plugs into the back of our necks, like Neo jacking into The Matrix, only we’re transported, slack jawed and reclined, to a VR Microsoft office replete with wafts of a coworker’s microwaved tilapia flowing through the headset. 

This logic neglects a crucial component of work everywhere. It’s not just that work itself has the potential to suck, it’s often the work accoutrements which suck the hardest. Commutes, small talk, sitting for hours, having to pack a lunch (or buy one, which adds up), wearing clothes you don’t like, fitting your productive moments into somebody else’s schedule, and so forth.

If the cows produce more milk when they’re relaxed, and they’re not relaxed all the time, maybe it’s best if they just do it less often? Or maybe, and this is just my theory, it’s all the milking accoutrements the cows have to deal with that heightens their anxiety? How the farmer starts their days, what they’re fed, how they’re treated and transported. The knowledge that 80% of their time is milk time.1 Producing milk is natural, producing milk as part of a profit-driven enterprise is not. 

Working is natural too. Humans have an innate drive to produce and to contribute. Profit-driven enterprises are a fact of life that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. This brings us to the other fork - a reordering rather than a perpetuation. This is what makes the results of the Icelandic study exciting: Improvements in well-being, productivity, and work-life harmony, almost across the board for nearly 3,000 workers. Lest you think Iceland’s an outlier, productivity went up 40% in a similar study at Microsoft Japan. And for you bottom-line beefcakes, Perpetual Guardian, a trust management company out of New Zealand, have seen revenue and profitability increase by 6% and 12.5%, respectively since the institution of a 4-day week.

While conducted in the context of white-collar work, these studies have implications extending to all forms of work. The cows, in their inability to produce milk under stress, are trying to tell us something. Work, in the broadest sense, needs to be re-thought. It will be uncomfortable, but the 4-day week is a great place to start both in practice and in shifting the guardrails of popular acceptance. 

First and foremost, we need to start closing that productivity/pay gap I’ve been yammering about since I started writing. The more the two lines coalesce, the more that workers of all stripes will be paid. If productivity is increasing, so are revenues, and thus profits. It’s possible all the additional productivity since 1975 doesn’t flow down to the bottom line, but highly unlikely. Higher hourly wages require fewer working hours, assuming all other things remain equal.

Given the need for relaxed cows, the VR headsets seem like a pleasant solution to a pressing problem. However, we may get more milk, but do the cows get any happier? Does it matter?

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To clarify, I eat meat.