Work Futures Daily | Confusing Control With Order

| Margaret Wheatley | WeWork Cuts | The End of Babies | Knowing Coworkers | Red and Blue Metros Differ | Worker Agency |

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Beacon NY | 2019–11–18 | Keeping to the new program.

Quote of the Day

We have created trouble for ourselves in organizations by confusing control with order. This is no surprise, given that for most of its written history, leadership has been defined in terms of its control functions.

| Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World


WeWork May Lay Off Thousands | Peter Eavis and Mike Isaac on the continuing mess at WeWork:

WeWork is preparing to cut at least 4,000 people from its work force as it tries to stabilize itself after the company’s breakneck growth racked up heavy losses and led it to the brink of collapse.


The End of Babies | Anna Louie Sussman details how workism — the cult of overwork — is leading to fewer children being born in developed countries. ‘It seems clear that what we have come to think of as “late capitalism” — that is, not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities and absurdities — has become hostile to reproduction.’

Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising “workism” — a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson — and declining religiosity. “There is a desire for meaning-making in humans,” Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is “inherently fertility reducing.”

Denmark, he notes, is not a workaholic culture, but is highly secular. East Asia, where fertility rates are among the lowest in the world, is often both. In South Korea, for example, the government has introduced tax incentives for childbearing and expanded access to day care. But “excessive workism” and the persistence of traditional gender roles have combined to make parenting more difficult, and especially unappealing for women, who take on a second shift at home.


Powering a People-First Culture | Globant’s new report makes a good case for the power for knowing co-workers:

Four out of five employees (83%) say knowing their coworkers better would make them a more engaged team member. And many employees are eager to get to know their coworkers better — in fact, 62% wish they did. But often a lack of time and physical distance stand in the way of forming more and deeper connections.

As to be expected, managers tend to know more people in their organizations than non-managers. (See Figure 3) The nature of managers’ work means they have greater and more frequent exposure to people across the company, which makes it easier to develop personal relationships. For many other employees, it’s difficult to connect with coworkers without investing more time and energy, even when there’s the desire to get to know others better.

I was surprised at ‘Bad Managers’ being only fifth in this list of top five reasons employees left their last jobs:


Red and Blue Economies Are Heading in Sharply Different Directions | Jed Kolko — chief economists of Indeed — looks into the underlying differences between left- and right-leaning metros, despite superficial similarities:

At a quick glance, red and blue metropolitan areas are performing equally well on average in the most watched indicators of labor market health.

Employment growth in the year ending in the first quarter of 2019 was 1.4 percent in both Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning metro areas, and the unemployment rate in both types of places is roughly equivalent.

Silicon Valley (blue) is booming. So is Provo, Utah (red).

But below the surface, red and blue local economies are worlds apart on enduring, fundamental measures that determine their future prospects and their biggest economic challenges.

The correlations between deeper economic measures and how the contrasting metro areas voted in 2016 are striking.

In bluer metros, more residents have college degrees: The 10 large metros with the highest educational attainment each voted for Hillary Clinton by at least a 10-point margin. Median household incomes are higher in bluer metros even after adjusting for the cost of living, which is higher in bluer metros as well. (Metro area is a better measure for a local labor market than a neighborhood, city, county or state.)

And bluer metros have a more favorable job mix for the future, with fewer manufacturing jobs, a higher share of harder-to-automate “non-routine” jobs, and a higher share of jobs in occupations projected to grow faster.

These measures — education, household income, cost of living, non-routine jobs and projected job growth — are highly correlated with one another, and with voting Democratic.


Post-productivity: Building a better way to work | Ben Taylor, in the third of a series from Dropbox:

Perhaps the most common theme among happy workers is agency. Workers who feel empowered to make changes, to choose a unique working style, tend to navigate tensions successfully. Rather than feeling boxed in, they can recalibrate and adapt as their life or circumstances change.

What are the implications for tools?

Knowledge workers use a vast array of tools at work, from mobile phones to monitors, task managers to sales trackers, water coolers to desk chairs. Sometimes, employees get to pick what they use (i.e. a note-taking app). Other times, the company must keep it standardized (i.e. the HR portal for billing and benefits).

Still, workplace tools provide dozens of opportunities for giving employees agency, and those choices can range from simple to multi-faceted. Can workers choose a preferred brand of laptop? Can they arrange for an upgrade if it might help their particular job? What about the chair a worker sits in, and for how long (or for how many days per week)? When it comes to software, can workers sub in certain tools they prefer, so long as they work with the company’s broader suite of applications? To what extent?

These are great questions, the sort that job candidates don’t ask but should.

Originally posted on Medium.

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Work Futures Daily | Myths Of One Kind Or Another

| Nick Hardaway | Eliot Peper | The Nobel Prize for the Future of Work | Platform Capitalism | Boomeranging | Diversity Lawsuits Help |

Beacon NY | 2019–11–17 | I have been ridiculously busy, so much so that I created a spreadsheet to model the impact on existing projects when a new project is being considered. I have blocked meetings and calls on Fridays and Mondays so I can have large blocks of time to work. (Don’t tell anyone, or that won’t work, because the only acceptable excuse for not accepting a call or meeting is that you’re already booked for a call or meeting. Your time is not your own.)

Needless to say, WFD has been the most obvious casualty of this busyness. I won’t make promises, but I am going to try a new approach of posting everyday, seven days a week, even if the posts are tiny.


I’m adopting a convention that the title of WFD will be based on the Quote of the Day, so I won’t have to mention it.

Quote of the Day

As information technology and brain science begin to unpick our decision-making and it is revealed that the premise of democracy and capitalism — our ability to make decently sensible decisions — turns out to be radically flawed? What happens as all our certainties are revealed to be myths of one kind or another?

| Nick Hardaway, from An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality| Eliot Peper


Three Nobel Prize Winners On The Future Of Work | Bram van der Lecq of The Corporate Rebels reviews the presentations by three Nobel economics laureates at the 2019 RenDanHeYi forum in Shanghai: Eric Maskin, Oliver Hart, and Bengt Holmström, plus W. Brian Arthur, the economist who pioneered complexity economics. Go read the whole thing.


“Sharing economy” is merely a euphemistically designated aspect of a new digital economic order: platform capitalism | Sascha Lobo coins a new term:

The problem with the “sharing economy” is not a disgusting start-up like Uber. It is the transformation of the digital economy into platform capitalism and the lack of preparation of politics and society for it. Platform capitalism is changing the concept of work, the gray area between private help and moonlighting, the understanding and regulation of monopolies .

Massively important essay introducing platform capitalism.


Why Workers Are Leaving Jobs for Companies They Used to Work for, According to a LinkedIn Executive | Wanda Thibodeaux interviewed Brendan Brown, LinkedIn’s VP of Talent Acquisition, about ‘boomeranging’ — returning to a previous company after leaving:

Businesses are seeing past hires as a strong talent pool to recruit from and re-engage. After all, these people already have a strong foundational knowledge of the companies, and the new experiences, skills and connections they bring back can have enormous value.


Poll: 66% of workers say offices will disappear by 2030 | Valerie Bolden-Barrett reports on a Zapier survey on remote work:

Seventy-four percent of U.S. workers said they’re ready to quit their jobs for one that lets them work from anywhere, and 66% believe the physical office will be obsolete by 2030, a new Zapier survey showed. The study of 880 knowledge workers, conducted online by The Harris Poll, also found that 95% of respondents want to work remotely.

In other survey results, 31% of respondents want to work remotely, but their employers don’t offer the option, and 26% have quit a job for one that lets them work from any location. The top five reasons respondents gave for wanting a remote-work option were to: save money; work anywhere; have time with family; be more productive at home; and maintain mental health.

Women value remote work benefits more than men, but it’s less likely women will have access to the perks, the study found.


Do Lawsuits Improve Gender and Racial Equality at Work? | Elizabeth Hirsch lays out the findings on research into the impact of lawsuits on diversity, and the skinny is that they do so long as there is media coverage involved:

Overall, we found that lawsuits did have equity-enhancing effects: Regardless of whether it involved sex, race, color, or national origin, a discrimination lawsuit produced measurable gains in managerial representation for all three of the groups we studied. In the three years following a lawsuit’s resolution, the percentage of white women in management increased, on average, from 18.7% to 21.8%; black women from 2.1% to 2.3%; and black men from 3.0% to 3.4%. Though these changes are small in absolute terms, they indicate gains of 10% for black women and 13% for black men — which are significant given the low representation of these groups in management. All of these changes were statistically significant, meaning they were not due to chance and could be attributed only to the lawsuit, not to other things going on in the company or economy.

But the conditions of the legal resolutions mattered considerably. We found that the impact of lawsuits varied depending on whether shareholders and the national media took notice and by whether the resolutions brought monetary payouts or additional pressures for change, including policy change mandates.

WFD | Questioning the Unquestionable

| Zygmunt Bauman | Pay Algorithms | Fair AI | Mad World, Broken System | Nine Lies |

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Beacon NY | 2019–11–08 | The title is drawn from Zygmunt Bauman, featured as the quote of the day.


We’ve fallen off the cliff of autumn into real winter all at once. Below freezing most of the day, and snow forecast. Winter’s here, and nobody asked me.

Quote of the Day

Questioning the ostensibly unquestionable premises of our way of life is arguably the most urgent of services we owe our fellow humans and ourselves.

| Zygmunt Bauman

Delivery drivers for Instacart, Postmates and others say algorithms are destabilizing their pay | Abha Bhattarai digs into the vagaries of the food delivery services, where precarity is built into the pay schemes. There is no certainty in what a worker’s pay will be, and the companies keep changing the deal [emphasis mine]:

Filling and delivering grocery orders is labor-intensive and costly, and drivers for many third-party platforms say they are being wrung out in ways that ultimately result in lower pay and less transparency about how their wages are calculated. Their pay is typically structured on an automated maze of moving parts — including order size, driver availability and driving distance. But with one tweak of an algorithm, companies can effectively change wages for hundreds of thousands of contract workers, who are not guaranteed an hourly minimum or other employee protections.

“These companies got established, they got good workers, and now they’re following a classic business playbook: squeezing workers as a first-line approach to making profits,” said Erin Hatton, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo who studies labor issues. “This technology — which could easily be used to increase transparency — is actually being used to do the opposite.”

Experts who study the gig economy say they expect pay rates to inch lower in coming months, as companies such as DoorDash and Instacart take steps to go public. And, experts say, they fear that any pullback in consumer spending could also have an outsize effect on their pay — grocery delivery and takeout orders are, after all, relatively easy targets if costs need to be reined in.

These workers are very much on their own,” said Alexandrea Ravenelle, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy.” “All of the power in the gig economy is held by the platforms. Workers are constantly being rated and ranked, and are competing against each other for pay.”

That “game-ification” of gig work — offering sporadic bonuses for delivering a certain number of orders, for example — allows companies to keep workers on their toes without committing to higher pay long-term, she said. And the opaque nature of algorithm-heavy platforms, she said, means companies can make incremental changes without raising red flags. “It’s not even like they have to change an hourly rate across the board,” Ravenelle said. “There is no hourly rate.”

The piece goes on for pages with stories from workers who can’t predict their cash flow or estimate taxes.


Are Your Algorithms Upholding Your Standards of Fairness? | Michael Li demonstrates that using profitability to roll out new services can lead to profoundly unfair results, as in the case when Amazon rolled out same-day delivery areas based on the prevalence of Prime members in those zip codes:

Given historical patterns of racial inequality, profitability-focused metrics can exhibit a stark bias against minorities. In fact, the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars recipients of federal funding from using “facially neutral” practices that have unjustified negative impact on members of a protected class. Even if the law isn’t directly applicable for many companies that don’t receive federal funds, it still provides a good guide to societal expectations.


The World Has Gone Mad and the System Is Broken | Ray Dalio has looked into the crystal ball:

At the same time as money is essentially free for those who have money and creditworthiness, it is essentially unavailable to those who don’t have money and creditworthiness, which contributes to the rising wealth, opportunity, and political gaps. Also contributing to these gaps are the technological advances that investors and the entrepreneurs that I previously mentioned are excited by in the ways I described, and that also replace workers with machines. Because the “trickle-down” process of having money at the top trickle down to workers and others by improving their earnings and creditworthiness is not working, the system of making capitalism work well for most people is broken.

This set of circumstances is unsustainable and certainly can no longer be pushed as it has been pushed since 2008. That is why I believe that the world is approaching a big paradigm shift.

or as Choire Sicha once wrote:

Capitalism is like a vat of boiling oil. Sure, you’d rather not be in the vat at all. But there’s nothing worse than being halfway submerged.


Theodore Kinni reviews his choices for the best three management books in Best Business Books 2019: Management, and picks Nine Lies About Work, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall as the best of the year, characterizing it as ‘a stealth attack on the whole discipline of management’ [emphasis mine]:

As you read, you’ll realize that these Nine Lies have taken hold because each satisfies the organization’s need for control,” write authors Marcus Buckingham, whose previous books were instrumental in extending strengths-based practice to business, and Ashley Goodall, senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco. “This is why you are told that your organization’s culture is monolithic, that the plan must be adhered to, that work must be aligned through cascaded goals, that humans must be molded into well-roundedness and given constant feedback until they become so, and that each one of us must rate the others so as to conform most closely to the prescribed models of leadership, performance, and potential.

What’s the problem with control? Nothing, in small doses. But taken to extremes, control quashes individuality, and all the energy and creativity that accompanies it. Excessive control turns people into automatons — which brings to mind a connection to the ongoing debate involving technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning: With machines becoming capable of imitating humans, why would any company need or want humans to imitate machines?

Managers won’t be surprised by some of the nine lies that Buckingham and Goodall seek to expose. Consider Lie #6: “People can reliably rate other people.” After several pages describing the ubiquitous, increasingly complex systems designed to rank employee performance and potential, they drop the bomb: “It is going to bother you to learn, then, that in the real world none of this works. None of the mechanisms and meetings — not the models, not the consensus sessions, not the exhaustive competencies, not the carefully calibrated rating scales.…

I’m adding Nine Lies to my reading list. I’ve discussed it before, back in May, which was inspired in part by Buckingham and Ashley’s HBR article, The Feedback Fallacy.At the time I wrote Some Feedback About Feedback, in which I said,

The only area where we can rely on a person as a source of truth is about their own feelings, not about others’ capabilities.


Tasks as Infrastructure | Microsoft’s Business Operating System Is Coming Into Focus | Stowe Boyd

Today’s Apocalypse | All the leaves are burned and the sky is gray | Stowe Boyd

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WRD | Institutional Cowardice

| The Truth about Open Offices | Werner Herzog | Bias, Bias, Bias in The Workplace, including ‘Lookism’| It Pays To Be Smart |

Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

Beacon NY | 2019–11–01 | A wave of stories about bias in the workplace: how attractive people benefit from ‘lookism’, how we should dissect the constituent elements building to systemic bias at the atomic level, why supposed efforts to counter gender inequality in tech just isn’t working, and how we might employ AI to sidestep human blinders.

It seems we need to move to a war footing against bias in the workplace. I think Herzog’s quote below is apt.


In The Truth About Open Offices, Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber jab a finger in the eye of today’s prejudices about the workplace. Writing in a strongly admonitory tone — with a strong undertone of disdain for the unexamined premise that there is a single, best form of workplace — the authors advocate extensive research and experimentation around what they call the ‘anatomy of collaboration’:

Workers are surrounded by a physical architecture: individual offices, cubicles, or open seating; a single floor, multiple floors, or multiple buildings; a dedicated space for the organization, a space shared with other companies, or a home office. That physical architecture is paired with a digital architecture: email, enterprise social media, mobile messaging, and so forth.

But although knowledge workers are influenced by this architecture, they decide, individually and collectively, when to interact. Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so. They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones). Ironically, the proliferation of ways to interact makes it easier not to respond: For example, workers can simply ignore a digital message.

When employees do want to interact, they choose the channel: face-to-face, video conference, phone, social media, email, messaging, and so on. Someone initiating an exchange decides how long it should last and whether it should be synchronous (a meeting or a huddle) or asynchronous (a message or a post). The recipient of, say, an email, a Slack message, or a text decides whether to respond immediately, down the road, or never. These individual behaviors together make up an anatomy of collaboration similar to an anthill or a beehive. It is generated organically as people work and is shaped by the beliefs, assumptions, values, and ways of thinking that define the organization’s culture.

The authors explore case studies where companies found that open office plans led to decreases in productivity, examples where decreasing interaction between different functional teams — in one case by moving people to other buildings — led to beneficial results.

The key takeaway from this — which I recommend you read in its entirety — is that companies have to decide how to measure what behaviors and outcomes they want, and experiment with office architecture and interaction patterns to gain them. You can’t simply adopt what WeWork office designers give you and expect to operate at some nebulous peak of efficiency.

Quote of the Day

Thwart institutional cowardice.

Werner Herzog, A Guide for the Perplexed: Conversations with Paul Cronin


Using AI to Eliminate Bias from Hiring | Frida Polli lays out the bind confronting business: for every open job around 250 people apply. HR starts by reducing the 250 to a manageable number of candidates, based on heuristics like college background, employee referrals, and if the candidates work for competitors. This leads to lack of diversity since these factors are in effect filtering out candidates with diverse backgrounds. Consider this thought:

AI can assess the entire pipeline of candidates rather than forcing time-constrained humans to implement biased processes to shrink the pipeline from the start. Only by using a truly automated top-of-funnel process can we eliminate the bias due to shrinking the initial pipeline so the capacity of the manual recruiter can handle it. It is shocking that companies today unabashedly admit how only a small portion of the millions of applicants who apply are ever reviewed. Technologists and lawmakers should work together to create tools and policies that make it both possible and mandatory for the entire pipeline to be reviewed.

The longer article is good, too.


10 Ways to Mitigate Bias in Your Company’s Decision Making | Elizabeth C. Tippett applies what has been learned in how to counter school discipline bias to the context of employee experience. Here’s just one example:

Work backwards from pay, promotion, and performance criteria. If you already have well-defined criteria, consult with managers to break them into subparts. What are the steps an employee needs to complete to achieve those objectives? What skills, knowledge, and experience do they need? Then figure out which components are most important, and whether all employees have equal access.


In Why Tech’s Approach to Fixing Its Gender Inequality Isn’t Working, Alison Wynn seems to reflect Polli and Tippett’s points:

Past research shows that organizations contribute to inequality in varied ways: through referral hiring that leads to narrow pipelines of candidates from similar backgrounds; through subjective evaluation criteria that open the door to bias during performance evaluations; and through a lack of transparency and accountability in pay decisions that leads to unfairness in who gets rewarded.

My work suggests that if tech companies want to attract and retain women, they can’t place the blame on individuals — they need to recognize the role their policies and culture play in causing inequality, and they need to pursue organizational change. Implementing broader recruiting strategies, specific and measurable performance evaluation criteria, and transparent procedures for assigning compensation will go a long way toward reducing gender inequality in tech.

And use AI in hiring.


Attractive People Get Unfair Advantages at Work. AI Can Help. | Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic on a specific sort of bias benefiting attractive people, or ‘lookism’.


It Pays to Be Smart | David Rotman points out that ‘superstar companies are dominating the economy by exploiting a growing gap in digital competencies’.

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WFD | A World We Do Not Want

| California on Fire | Gareth Rushgrove | James Chappel on Eugene McCarraher | Tech Uprising| Esko Kilpi on Uncertainty | B Corps | Proximity Bias |

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

Beacon NY | 2019–10–31 | Today’s title is lifted from James Chappel, see Readings, below.


I respond to Farhad Manjoo’s op-ed about California’s wildfires in a piece I wrote this morning, Today’s Apocalypse.

The wildfires in California make it clear — if it was at all unclear before — that we have passed an inflection point in climate. It’s not some future threat, it is right here, right now, and has been for some time.

Farhad Manjoo tries to seek a way out for California while minimizing the scale of the problems confronting the most populous and wealthy state in the union by calling this just another apocalypse in a series of earlier California apocalypses.

Manjoo reveals that he still thinks this is still a future apocalypse, writing,

All the leaves are burned and the sky is gray. California, as it’s currently designed, will not survive the coming climate.

My response?

It’s today’s climate that is burning the leaves, not the coming climate. Today’s winds, today’s fires, today’s apocalypse.

You might want to read the whole thing. (Or as a crosspost on Medium.)

Quote of the Day

Fundamentally changing how we work, without also changing the tools, rarely works.

| Gareth Rushgrove, in a post about devops and security, states a universal truth.


A World We Do Not Want | I excerpted some bits of James Chappel’s review of Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, in which Chappel characterizes our relationship with capitalism as a bad romance, and in which he offers us this:

Capitalism has created a world that we do not want.


Tech workers call out their companies | Ina Fried reports on tech workers standing up to their own companies. For example more than 250 Facebook workers, in a letter to their management:

Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing. Misinformation affects us all. Our current policies on fact checking people in political office, or those running for office, are a threat to what FB stands for. We strongly object to this policy as it stands. It doesn’t protect voices, but instead allows politicians to weaponize our platform by targeting people who believe that content posted by political figures is trustworthy.


Esko Kilpi, in The new business cycle embracing uncertainty, talks about a foundational shift in our sensemaking:

The new, entrepreneurial experience of work is very different from the mass-industrial experience. It is about acting into the unknown, not necessarily working towards a known goal. It is more about improvising together than creating and following a script. It is more about emergence than rational causality. It is more about sciences of complexity than systems thinking.


Why Thousands of Companies Are Turning Their Backs on a Business Doctrine That’s Been Accepted for Decades | Keith Mestrich and Mark A. Pinsky tell us how B Corporations are having their day.


How proximity bias holds employees (and workplaces) back | Rebecca Corliss does us a great favor by providing the term proximity bias for ‘the incorrect assumption that people will produce better work if they are physically present in the office and managers can see (and hear them) doing their jobs’. And she catalogs steps that businesses — especially managers — have to take to counter proximity bias.

Originally posted on Work Futures.

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