Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Vacuum: A Monitory Statement

The political stuff has turned monochromatic. Yes, it's all deadly, but it's also become deadly boring, so perhaps you'll excuse me for punctuating it with a rant about a long-time irritation of mine.

We begin with a few quotes from an unforgivably ingenuous article about "work-life balance:"

In theory, the concept of “work-life balance” seems to make sense – splitting your days and weeks between a collaborative and connected working life while also enjoying personal activities and leisure time with friends, family, pursuing hobbies, exercise or just watching TV....

But what if everything you thought you knew about work-life balance was a myth? Alexander Kjerulf, founder of Woohoo, and an international thought leader and author on topics relating to happiness at work, says he believes “work-life balance” as it's traditionally defined doesn't actually exist anymore....

"The modern concept of work-life balance is focused on offering employees the flexibility to work anywhere, anytime -- leaving fewer fixed working hours and more project-driven or service-level deadlines and opportunities for ongoing streams of innovation and communication between team members," [managing partner of AgreeYa Solutions Ajay] Kaul says.

The emergence of cloud-based IT infrastructure and the prevalence of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies now allows employees to work from home or remotely and seamlessly continue collaborative efforts with colleagues and team leaders, Kaul says.

"With companies of all sizes becoming more dynamic, flexible and accommodating in their use of enterprise social collaboration tools and solutions and BYOD, the 'mobility effect' will continue to cause an overlap of the workforce’s professional and personal lives," Kaul says.

Soak yourself in that for a minute or two, Gentle Reader. Let it distill itself within you. Let its essence s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y pervade your brain. What do you think these "thought leaders" are really trying to say -- without saying it, of course?

In the future they're steering toward, you'll be "on the clock" 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Oh, they'd protest to the skies that that's nowhere near what they mean. They're offering you freedom! You could choose your own hours, decide for yourself when to work and when to play, without being tied to the Procrustean bed of a standard work day and work week. Do you feel like going on a wine-tasting this Tuesday instead of dealing with the pile of crap in the in-box? Or perhaps you'd rather keep watching the latest episode of 24 than answer your insistently ringing company-issued "emergencies-only" cell phone? No problem! Our future will be all about flexibility: your unchallenged right to do as you damned well please at any instant of the day!

Not a chance, Gentle Reader. As you'd discover the very first time you declined to answer that cell phone while straining to relieve yourself of a particularly stubborn turd.

The "mobile worker / flexible workday" canard that article promotes isn't a boon; it's a trap. It would allow management to view your entire existence as being at their disposal. They would regard your in-office hours as being written in the stars, theirs by divine right, with no need to appreciate you for them, nor for the contributions to the company you make during them. Their invocations of your time and attention when you're not in the office would become the balance sheet upon which you'd really be evaluated. Your entire career would depend upon being immediately and unconditionally available for whatever they might choose to ask of you.

I've been there. It brought about the one and only occasion on which I've offered violence to a supervisor. (Believe me, he had it coming and a lot worse.)

The hell of it is, this isn't an entirely new idea. Rather, it's the culmination of a long trend. Telecommuting, which does provide certain advantages to the employee to whom it's available, is just the least part of the puzzle.

The seed idea is that of the salaried / exempt or "white collar" corporate employee.

About half of all office workers in these United States are salaried / exempt. That means:

  • Your salary is fixed at a certain amount until management decides to review and adjust it;
  • As an exempt employee, it's up to your employer whether to pay you for your overtime;
  • As an exempt employee, you need not be paid an elevated rate for overtime or "off-shift" work.

In my field, software engineering, overtime pay is a rare exception. Inasmuch as most software engineers voluntarily work more than the statutory 40 hours per week, it would seem that their employers are getting the better of the bargain. Sometimes that actually is the case. However, the incentives are bad both for management and for the engineering labor force. Management comes to rely upon the availability of overtime at no cost, while the engineer steadily comes to resent management's assumption that no hour of his life belongs exclusively to him.

Adding overtime pay to the equation doesn't improve matters. Suddenly quite a lot of salaried / exempt employees will absolutely "need" that overtime to complete their "urgent" projects before their deadlines. Management will, of course, be dismayed at the increment to its costs, and will fix a limit to the practice -- which will elicit a slowdown with which any union member would be quite familiar.

Absent a rigid insistence on a 40-hour work week that neither side has the right to violate, there is no solution. The "mobile worker / flexible workday" notion, however benignly it might have begun, is an attempt to rupture that bargain irreparably.

It can be hard to insist on a rigid work week, especially when times are tough and there are more willing and able workers than there are jobs. That doesn't reduce the importance of the bargain one iota.

About twenty years ago, I went on an interview at a company about which I knew little. (No, I didn't need a job at the time; it was simply my policy not to turn down an interview, especially one to which I'd been invited without my solicitation.) The interviewer was a typical middle manager who hadn't been hands-on for some years, if ever. He spoke glowingly (of course) about the company's plans and prospects, and fetchingly (of course) about the position he had in mind for me. It took him longer than usual to reach the point I'd been anticipating, which was (of course) that "our engineers are available to our customers at a moment's notice, no matter the day or the time."

"Oh!" I said. "I didn't know this was a field service position." I stood. "In that case, I'm not interested, but thanks for thinking of me."

He became alarmed. (Probably never had a really big fish spit out the hook before.) "No, please don't misunderstand me! You'd be running our entire research and development effort. It's just that our market window is so tight that all of us must be immediately responsive to any contingency."

I smiled. "That's a pity. It means that you're more likely than not to miss that window. If [the company's] fortunes are that precarious, I'm only available on a consulting basis. I charge $250 for every hour or part of an hour."

His look of chagrin was classic. "But this is a permanent position, and the career possibilities..."

"Sorry," I said. "If you intend to pay me a salary, I intend to work 40 hours a week for it." I extended my hand, and he took it numbly. "From what you've said I'm really not the man you want, but thanks for thinking of me."

This is a lot easier if you're financially secure and confident of your value. Nevertheless, it's at the core of my understanding of an employment relationship:

An agreement to sell one's labor is the same as an agreement to sell anything else: the good to be delivered and the payment for it must both be well defined.

That definition becomes impossible if your "workday" can be altered arbitrarily by your management and your "workplace" is wherever you happen to be at the moment. Your whole life -- possibly the lives of your spouse and children as well -- will be sucked into the vacuum that results.

Be tough about it. Give an honest day's work for your day's pay, but nothing more. Take it from someone who's looked into the abyss. It's not a pretty sight.


Anonymous said...

"Your entire career would depend upon being immediately and unconditionally available for whatever they might choose to ask of you."
Hit the nail on the head, this is pretty much exactly my situation at the moment (IT infrastructure engineering and support). The "work anywhere, anytime" mantra is an illusion.

A Reader said...

My situation is not much different. My team's function is subject to scope creep. As the resident expert on a certain kind of problem, and because the client has moved from doing stressful things on the weekends to stressful things at all hours, I get calls after hours and sometimes late at night even when I am not on call. If I was only on-call periodically, I could accept that. But I'm the go-to guy, so I'm on-call even when I am not on-call. It's fun to be the expert and good to know that my job isn't going anywhere, but doing it has begun to grate considerably both on me and on my wife.

pdwalker said...

I invite that kind of work and those kinds of hours, and I do benefit from the flexibility. It works out for me and I demand appropriate compensation. It becomes my duty to make sure I do not need to be called at all hours. If I've done my work right, then I won't get the calls.

If you don't want to do that, all you have to do is say "no". Never give out your personal phone, only your "work" number, and never answer it outside of normal hours. Your company doesn't like that? Find another one. Still cannot find the company you like, then start your own.

We still have the freedom to choose our own work and working conditions.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine once described this as "Is it working at home, or is it living at the office?"

Anonymous said...

Kind of like the old communist "holiday celebration through work" concept.

YIH said...

Last year Yahoo! banned 'telecommuting' literally saying ''start coming to the office and working there or quit, your choice''.
The reason is the abuse can work both ways - there's an endless supply of distractions at home that an employer can 'filter out' in the office such at limiting phone and internet use.
Also, the whole 'BYOD' buzz brings it's own issues such as the difficulty of controlling what is and can be done with that device. It's hard to keep the employee off pr0n sites or Amazon if it's their own laptop.
Not to mention the security issues if that 'rogue' device connects to the company network!

Steady Steve said...

I have that kind of "flexible" job. I work as a chief engineer on a private yacht. The employers are limited by the mariners work regulations imposed by the country whose flag we sail under. However my life schedule is tied to the owners use of the yacht. And we crew members do exact quite excellent compensation. The owner provides work uniforms, food, and accommodation in addition to a good wage. Those owners that try to cut corners in compensation end up with the least competent crew. It's free market employment at will. I don't have to be here, and he doesn't have to employ me. But you don't rate a six figure salary by being a twit.