A return to cottage work

Businesses care about productivity. At the core of their ability to create a profit is the simple formula of work produced per dollar spent.

Frederick Taylor used a stopwatch to revolutionize the production of cars and just about everything else. By measuring the output of each person on the line, he was able to dramatically increase how much a company like Ford could produce for every hour of labor it used.

Working in a system like this can be exhausting. While it brings the comfort of knowing precisely what’s expected in any given moment, it’s also an endless tug of war between humanity and profit.

Many in the idea economy haven’t recognized the rare situation that they might be in. Better pay, better working conditions and a job that’s hard to measure with a stopwatch. So you’ve got the chef for the Grateful Dead cooking you lunch and a purple couch in the lobby, along with a long series of perks and benefits. I had one friend who worked at a law firm for two years before they realized that he kept switching departments every few months so he could avoid being asked to bill too many hours.

But management has never stopped looking for a way to measure output. Sooner or later, they do, or the company disappears. It can vary from the insulation of paying for your time (but keeping track of impact created) all the way to paying by the keystroke, the click or the sale.

When bosses had trouble measuring output, they bought our time, and then layered ‘process’ and bureaucracy on everything as a stand-in for actual productivity. But now, measurement is everywhere, freelancers and contractors are easier to find, and work is being atomized. Being good at process is a weak stand-in for being good at work.

The shift to self-directed days, working from home, focusing on projects and not simply selling our time means that this push back to cottage industry management is going to be accelerated. Before Manchester factories were up to speed, this was normal–you did your work on your kitchen table and got paid by the piece.

The alternative is to double down on work that’s truly hard to measure, to sign up for emotional labor and experimentation and group leadership and working on the frontier. These jobs are harder to get, harder to keep and are fraught precisely because they’re less measurable. These are the jobs that create quantum leaps in value, but are hard to spec and manage.

Companies aren’t going to trust you because you asked them to. They’ll do it when they believe that you are one of the few people who can lean outside of the comfort zone and bring back something extraordinary.

It’s pretty clear to me that we’re unlikely to see much in the way of steady jobs where someone tells you what to do all day, allows you to allocate your own time and effort, but doesn’t measure your output. Because one thing that we all keep learning is that if something can be measured, it probably will be.