Lights on at the office

A Long History of Doing Employment Wrong

Over the weekend, we took a tour of Laura Plantation, about an hour down the Mississippi River from our house. The tour includes a walk through one of the old slave cabins, and the guide talked a bit about not just what a slaves life on a sugar plantation would have been, but also what their lives looked like after the Civil War, when they were “paid” in money that was only good on the Plantation, and many wound up owing money to the company instead of making money.

It got me thinking about how we’ve always viewed employment, and the relationship between employer and employee.

We can look back at something like slavery, or indentured servitude, and clearly see that those types of “employment” arrangements really were about the employee being property in a  very real sense.

But we can also look at the Feudal system, and the scrip system used by post-war plantations, or the mining or mill companies where employees got paid in money that could only be used to purchase things from the very same company, and see that while the word “property” maybe wasn’t as accurate, clearly employers viewed the labor provided by employees as something they owned, and something they had complete control over, and they felt free to extend that control into the entire life of an employee.

Over the years since, we’ve created a whole lot of labor laws and set a bunch of rules about this employment relationship, which has obviously improved the situation, but I am struck by how much the root thinking still exists in the workplace. To some extent, that made sense when the workplace was a sugar cane field, or a mine, or an automotive plant. You could only work when the whole group was working, or when the production line was moving. Some places are still like that, but the vast majority are not, and we still view employee hours the same way. Employees are paid and rewarded for hours worked, not actual outputs.

How many employers still want to “own” work hours? How many want to also “own” the time spent out of the office by employees?

Think about it. We’ve developed immense technology that allows us to work from anywhere, anytime, and yet how many workplaces actually give employees the flexibility to just accomplish the work they need to accomplish from wherever they want to during whatever hours they need to? Nope, instead the technology is used to simply create jobs that you are never really away from. We spend 8-10 hours in the office, and then have to be available the rest of the time. If that’s not a form of ownership, I’m not sure what it is.

And it’s clear that even that full day at the office, isn’t really a full days work, because at the end of the day we aren’t robots. We’re human beings and only have a finite ability to focus and be productive. Spending more hours at work, or “in touch” with work, is probably doing no one any good. Consider this article:

Some observers have suggested that workers today are never “turned off”. Like our mobile phones, we only go on standby at the end of the day, as we crawl into bed exhausted. This unrelenting joylessness is especially evident where holidays are concerned. In the US, one of the richest economies in the world, employees are lucky to get two weeks off a year.

You might almost think this frenetic activity was directly linked to our biological preservation and that we would all starve without it. As if writing stupid emails all day in a cramped office was akin to hunting-and-gathering of a previous age … Thankfully, a sea change is taking place. The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

So all that time we spend at the office, in meetings and answering emails, is probably only serving to end our lives earlier, but the company pays us so it’s cool, right?

Well, what if work didn’t work that way? What if, instead of just being connected and available all the time, we could simply check in, pick up projects and complete them, with some discretion as to where and when that happened?

For example, let’s say that in the eDiscovery space, instead of everything being done at the last minute on a rush basis, we had a task/deadline approach. Instead of needing employees to sit at a desk in case we have a need for their labor, we had a system where we could list our project task, and the deadline, and they could still be responsible for meeting the deadline, but could decide for themselves how to make the best use of their time? So instead of being inactive all day, we could take off and go for a run during a slow time during the day, and pick up the work later in the evening? Or we could simply take a 5-10 minute break every hour, which is exactly what studies show we should do to be productive, by doing some quick errand, or running out to our mailbox, because we’re working from home?

Think about how much less office space we’d need. Think of how happier, and better balanced, our employee’s lives would be.

That’s the appeal of the gig economy, isn’t it? Instead of being “owned”, we can choose when and where to work, and how much. Of course, if you should choose the gig economy instead of full time employment, then you’re also on your own for health insurance, retirement savings, and a bunch of other things that come along with full time employment. That’s not great.

So as we have managed to develop the technology to allow for much more flexibility in the employment relationship, to allow work from anywhere, to reduce the footprint of our offices and transportation needs, we also don’t use it, because the basis of the employer/employee relationship is too entrenched into the rest of our lives. We may be free to choose where we work, and to move from one employer to the next, but how much work freedom do we really have?

Ironically, it may be some of those very laws that were aimed at helping employees that are now trapping us. How many of us would rather go into business for ourselves, or work a freelance job but can’t because of the need for healthcare coverage? How many of us could even have one spouse work part time but the extra cost of health insurance for them is too much? How many of us could make better use of our time if we could put in 10 hours spread across morning and evening, for four days, yet can’t because of overtime rules?

A time is coming when the old dynamics won’t make sense anymore. I’m not sure they make much sense now, but the field is tipped too far on behalf of employers still, so we mostly sit in our offices all day. They still “own” labor, and they look forward to replacing as many of us with robots or artificial intelligence as they can, so that they can return to full ownership status. It only makes sense economically. I can’t even blame them for it. Slavery, as morally repugnant as it is, came into being because of the economics. Robots and AI have that same benefit, without the atrocious morality. But that’s a post for another time. It is, however, one of the forces driving a change in the relationship. Employers are going to need fewer and fewer employees to fill jobs that are dependent on 8 hours of work time at the job site. We already see it with ordering kiosks at fast-food restaurants, self-checkout lines, ATMs. That will push more and more people into the knowledge economy, where the old rules of the 8 hour work day are completely outdated.

I’ve heard many an old-timer bemoan the way kids these days switch jobs and have no loyalty, and I chuckle when I hear it. I suppose many of them think I’m with them, despite my own history of job-hopping. I’m not. I completely understand why an employee would have little reason to be loyal. They are, after all, only a function of hours of labor. Oh employers talk a good game about caring about their employees, and they even try to do nice things for them occasionally, but in the end, even those things can be tied directly back to getting more work. (The onsite gym, the health checkups, the free food, all of it just makes sure we spend more time at work, instead of sick or going out to eat, doesn’t it?)

Or as someone recently put it to me: “If you really want to reward me, give me more time off or the flexibility to work from home at times. I can buy my own effing donuts”.

People are starting to see through these kinds of things. What they want out of work isn’t what employers are used to giving, but if they want to attract and retain truly exceptional talent, they’re going to have to figure out how to reward that talent in meaningful ways. That is going to force as much change as automation will. To offer that level of flexibility means that managers will have to plan better, actually measure productivity instead of just how many hours are worked, and communicate effectively across a diverse, spread out, staff. It also means they’ll have to figure out what truly engages employees, when it’s no longer about just getting a raise.

That, frankly, is going to be a massive challenge. I’m not sure many managers are up to it, but it’s coming nonetheless. Smart people would be figuring how to adjust the employment contract and it’s place in society, before they find themselves unable to attract any talent.

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