Sunday, March 17, 2013

The 24/7 Worker

No matter how much you work, it is never enough. No matter how much you train, it is never enough. No matter how much you give, it is never enough. That is the attitude of world corporations. Continuous improvement. "Harder, better, faster, stronger." The question is what this vision of the future will lead to.

Take for example the popular Agile with Scrum management methodology. It organizes the time of teams of workers by sprints, often two-week periods of work on projects. The goal of management of course is to pack as much into these sprints as possible. After the team finishes one sprint, they immediately start another. The teams are always sprinting, never resting, and never really thinking because they have short-term delivery goals. In the past, long-term difficult projects became death marches. Now they can become an series of death sprints. Nothing has really changed.

Consider also today's employee evaluations, used to decide who gets higher percentage salary increases each year. They are used as well to help decide who to let go if times get tough. Frequently the highest mark on these evaluations is "exceeds expectations." This would make sense if the worker were being compared to an average worker in the position. But in the "harder, better, faster, stronger" world, that is not the case. Workers are expected to exceed their own expected efforts. That is total nonsense, of course – how can one expect to exceed what one already expects? Managements lose a little of their touch with reality when they put this kind of thing in their employee evaluation process.

As with politicians, however, maybe it is better not to ask whether "expecting to exceed expectations" makes any sense. Maybe it is better to ask what management means when they say it. At, we believe that it means that workers' productivity is expected to grow between every evaluation period and the next. The only job security workers have is to continuously increase their output. And for the same pay.

The issue, really, is what constitutes fair pay for work done. There is a story from the old Soviet Union in which a young Communist Party member is sent to work in a coal mine. On his very first day he notes that it is easy to meet the assigned quota and wonders why his experienced co-workers cannot keep up.

When they realize what he has done, however, his co-workers do not praise him. Instead they gang up on him and shove him against the wall. "You fool! Look, if we meet today's quota, then tomorrow they will increase the quota! And then more after that! We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us, and it is good enough as it is. Take your Revolutionary fervor and shove it! Do not make it harder for us to live!"

The point is that management, either capitalist or communist, will always demand more productivity. If they successfully convince workers to "take the hill," then they will exploit the workers as far as they can. They will exhort workers to "take" a sequence of ever-higher "hills" until the workers fail.

This accomplishes two things. First, the managers can tout their own glory. "See, we got more out of our workers than our competitors did." Second, it is always psychologically useful to put workers in the wrong by making them fail, especially if one can make them break their own promises. This is a variation of the financial "squeeze play" that tosoc has mentioned before.

As in the story from the Soviet Union, workers get used to being in trouble at all times and to failing management expectations. In fact, it is important to fail in order not to be exploited. Workers cannot overtly resist management, so resistance must be passive – passive-aggressive. This has advantages for both sides because it is essentially an armistice. The workers do enough work, get paid enough, and take the blame for their failure to do more. The managers get to crack the whip, blame the lazy workers, and feel personally superior to the "average man."

Gradually, however, management is beginning to intrude more and more into the lives of American workers. The downside of instant communications is that you are never more than a text or phone call away from work. How can a worker refuse to do just an hour or two of urgent extra work every once in a while (unionized workers being an exception)? It is when urgent situations, or emergencies, last for weeks and even months that one realizes that one is being exploited.

Some managers call workers in for overnight sessions, offering some kind of energy boosting drink for free. Instead of the exception, putting in extra unpaid hours is expected, though managers try to make it as "fun" as possible. This makes some sense for start-ups where the workers have significant numbers of stock options and are trying to get rich. However, many of these situations are fakes because workers get only a few stock options and the company has no chance of being the next "Google."

Now that so many enterprises are 24/7, expects that managers once again dream of 24/7 workers. If only there were a drug that workers could take so they would not need sleep and would stop caring about what happens outside the workplace. At one time, amphetamines were the solution, but it turned out that amphetamines have undesirable effects. Now that there are companies with "X"-hour energy drinks, however, maybe further research will increase them to 10- and 18- and, ultimately, 24-hour energy boosts.

There are limits to growth, yet the job of corporate management is to encourage growth in every way. For workers, that means ever-more training, ever-greater donations to the company's favorite charities, and ever-higher productivity per worker. Management is always a little insane because they by nature question all limits. It is true that science and technology have helped humanity overcome so many limits over the last few centuries. This may have led us into overconfidence that all limits can be overcome and all expectations exceeded.

To illustrate this, there was once a U.S. general in charge of a satellite communications program who was told that there was a four-millisecond delay between sending and receiving. Naturally the general became angry, demanding that this four-millisecond delay be eliminated. Of course, the four-millisecond delay is due to the speed of light, a physical law. It is not clear whether the general was ever convinced that it is pointless to demand the overturning of a law of physics.

On the other hand, an enterprising researcher might say, "Sure, General. We can do that with a new research program. We estimate that it will take 20 years and 100 billion dollars." Do not fight the craziness; work with it.

All management is a little crazy in demanding never-ending growth and improvement. thinks that this is necessary, however, to keep us all on our toes and to keep us questioning our assumptions. That is one reason why we support the rich and propose external currencies and markets for their businesses.

What we want to avoid is crazy systemic processes that drive workers to fail and into passive-aggressive behaviors. To accomplish that we recommend multiple exclusive currencies and markets, national unions for all workers who are members of internal markets, and that all elected officials and government employees be paid only in internal currencies. These steps plus a few others will by their nature blunt the exploitation of workers by external companies and by their own government, and reduce the impact of management craziness.

Socialism for the socialists and capitalism for the capitalists.

TheOtherSideOfCapitalism (

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