This might be the workplace question of the decade.
Does the boss buy your time or your productivity?
In the pre-industrial age, when we worked from home (“cottage industries”) workers got paid by the piece.
As we moved to factories, it shifted. Many workers preferred a reliable regular paycheck, and owners decided to profit by investing in productivity and keeping the upside. When new machines show up, the workers don’t get paid more, but the boss makes more.
Now, as work-from-home promises/threatens to become a norm for many knowledge workers, the question is back.
Some bosses are demanding workers return to the office, and some managers have spent the last year forcing people to endure endless zoom meetings. The mindset seems to be that if your time is what got purchased, the boss wants to be sure you’re spending all of that time at work on work, not, who knows, tending for an ill family member or something.
But as it gets easier to measure productivity and contribution, and as it gets easier to outsource any task that can be described clearly, there’s a fork in the road:
If we’re not buying or selling hours, what, exactly do we measure and how are we compensated for it? Are workers ready or open to getting a commission, a profit-share or a per-piece price? And if we’re not selling our time but our contribution, does that further self-center the culture?
And if we are buying and selling hours, how does that work when surveillance capitalism bumps into workers needing flexible schedules and the trust that it takes to develop leadership and creative contribution?
Is it okay with you, the boss, if one of your workers dramatically increases productivity through some outsourcing or tech shortcuts on their own nickel and then goes home at 2 pm every day?
Is it okay if you have another worker who works until midnight every night but doesn’t get nearly as much done?
What about a team of five deciding to skip most of their meetings, coordinate through a shared doc and put the time they save into going for a walk or thinking about the next breakthrough?
If it’s truly about what we produce, how many people on the team are aware of how much they produce? What would happen if they were?
The theory of the firm was based on two key assumptions: That workers needed to be in physical proximity to each other, and that communicating with and measuring outsiders was simply too expensive to scale. For a lot of knowledge work, neither is completely true any more, and so we have to reckon with what the right size of a ‘firm’ even is.
The very nature of the factory and employment is completely up in the air. Instead of bragging about how many employees a company has, how big the office is, how many folks are in any given meeting… some leaders may start optimizing for how few they need to get the work done.