Monday, July 20th, 2009

No more employees (or employers)

No more employees (or employers)
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You’re probably a fine person; meanwhile, I believe I’m a generally decent human being. If we met over drinks, we’d probably have a fine time and perhaps even become friends. If, however, I hired you to work at smashLAB, you might end up hating me.

Where does it all go wrong?

I’ve experienced this on a few occasions now, and the pattern is typically pretty consistent. Everything starts nicely with all parties happy to be working together. With time though, the excitement diminishes. This happens on both ends. What started as an “opportunity” for the designer starts to feel like a “job”.

Most times this is okay. The feelings of excitement experienced in the first months of a new position are slowly replaced by ones of familiarity and routine. In a creative firm though, I argue that there are additional pressures not present in most other vocations. Perhaps the most notable example is found in creative differences, which prove challenging for everyone at one point or another.

Let’s say that you were working at smashLAB as a designer and we reached an impasse. You were convinced of your direction and articulated it compellingly; yet, I still believed that another direction was best in this instance. It’s almost impossible to say who’d be right in such a case, so it would come down to power. Like it or not, in an employer/employee, relationship, the power always lies with the former.

When you put your heart and soul into a project, it’s very difficult to let go of what you believe to be the right thing. Someone is forced to break the stalemate though, and this can sew the seeds of disenfranchisement. With time, the walk to the studio changes; the skip in one’s step is replaced with slunk shoulders and a general dread of walking in the door. With the excitement gone, the desire and care are soon to follow. (Some may argue that I oversimplify, but I counter with the observation that few employees talk about their workplaces — and employers — without some disdain.)

A two-way street

From the employer’s standpoint, this can be equally difficult. What’s often missed by the designer in such situations is a litany of other significant concerns regarding a given project. Sometimes I’ve appreciated the direction suggested, but also realized that the client would balk at it; other times I’ve noted complexities in a direction that would cause us to run high on hours. (This is a very, very bad thing for small studios.) Meanwhile, at times I’ve believed myself to be more objective, given that my eyes weren’t on that project fully over the past month.

Be that as it may, these are perilous waters for a manager and they’re rarely navigated without incident. In this role, one must ensure that the project goals aren’t compromised and that the studio remains healthy and profitable without morale being diminished. So, you try hard. You work to make everyone happy and perhaps have staff appreciation activities and get-togethers. These may be well intended, but “forced-fun” rarely actually works. Meanwhile, that staff member who has lost their “mojo” tends to pay less attention to the details. Perhaps they fail to save files at regular intervals, losing a day’s worth of work. Maybe they pay less attention to start/end times. Or, maybe they start to spend company time working on more exciting freelance projects.

I’ve seen such things happen a few times now, and sometimes with people I like. This past spring, I committed to never being a part of such a dynamic again. I don’t want to make anyone feel crummy, nor do I want to be seen as some kind of “creative slave-driver”. I just want to do my job and make stuff I like; that’s it. Over the past months though, I’ve wondered why such conflicts seem to transpire, and if there couldn’t be a better way.

“Come on team! Let’s play foosball!”

For some time I vacillated between feeling like a poor manager and lamenting the dismal work-ethic held by a few. With time though I returned to the notion that the issue was bigger than any of us involved. Even those who I found hard to work with are good people; additionally, I remember how much I dreaded asking people to do things they didn’t want to do. I’ve mulled this one over for a while now, and the only answer I have is that employment is flawed–particularly in creative studios.

Sure, there are some great places to work with terrific employee/manager relations; but, workplaces without conflict are arguably in the minority. The ones that are make “50 best companies to work for” lists and have websites featuring photos of happy staff members break-dancing at staff functions. Scratch the surface of any of these places though, and I bet you’ll find some pissed-off folks. “Corporate culture” is a compelling catch-phrase for promotions and recruitment, but largely a fable.

Few are at a job because they want to be. Even if they love the work, they probably like something else more. That’s a reasonable enough thing. I feel strongly about smashLAB, but such feelings don’t come close to the ones I have for my family. Given limitless funds, I’d probably spend less time here and more with them. What’s important to note though, is that this company is an extension of myself and my business partner, Eric Shelkie. As such, we have a lot more to gain by its prosperity than anyone else does.

We can bring others into our studio and work to make it a great place for them, but one core point becomes an impediment to them ever feeling like a “corporate culture” is real. That one thing is the power structure I alluded to earlier. We can say all we like about “corporate culture”, but the fear of a manager firing an employee at a moment’s notice simply strips such gestures bare.

This is the funny part about management. As employees, most of us think that we’ll be great managers, able to sidestep all the blunders our past bosses made. In actuality though, we’re caught in a current stronger than our best intentions. Managers and staff can be friendly, but they can almost never be friends. Power gets in the way of this, and the larger the organization, the worse it is. While you may be that 1-in-10 employee who is amazing, you’ll be restricted by rules made to fence in the turkeys on staff. Every company has them, and they’re the reason for stupid things like punch-cards and policy manuals. Notions of fairness need to be maintained, so you have to live with these things, even if they feel suffocating.

You can’t “sort of” own it

I say the crux of this issue comes down ownership. If you own something you treat it differently. You care about it more and carry it with pride, maintaining it and sheltering it from threats. Renting something though (be it an employee or workplace) is different. It’s not yours and you can always walk away from it. This means diminished responsibility as a result of limited personal cost. An employee can always get another job and an employer can always hire someone else. Your spouse though? That’s a different relationship altogether. You have something big to lose by screwing-up that sort of a situation.

Some will say that things like ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) exist to remedy just this, but I argue that these are ill-conceived notions. The fact is that a minor percentage in a company does little to diminish problems associated with power. Meanwhile, large equally-divided partnerships are similarly problematic as they tend to make organizations slower in making decisions. It’s harder to feel like you own something if it’s shared with twenty others; similarly, if you own a smaller percentage than the others, you hardly feel as though it’s yours. This kind of thing may be financially rewarding, but still a pale shadow of what it means to be one a few equal partners in something.

Unless we’re really equal, we’re not equal. Let’s be frank here: your employer may like you and treat you well; similarly, you might work hard and enjoy the working environment. When push comes to shove though; we’re all looking out for ourselves. Given significant financial pressure, they’ll axe you; similarly, you’d take on another job if offered a 15% pay increase or opportunity to work on better projects. “Corporate culture” is a bullshit notion predicated on the idea that by feigning the gestures of “family”, loyalty and goodwill can be established.

My proposal is that companies have to become smaller and much more plentiful. This allows people to truly own them and bear both the burden of this ownership alongside the potential rewards. I say that almost every creative-worker out there needs to quit today and become a 100% owner in their own company. This shifts our industry from one of large factories filled with frustrated — even if well compensated — designers, to one of a million tiny enterprises.

Start whenever; finish whenever

A fellow named James has been working with us in this capacity. I’m not his boss and he’s not my employee. I’m not sure what he looks like and I don’t know where he lives. I don’t have any idea of when he starts his work-day and I don’t care. Early in the year James made contact and more recently offered to sell the ads on this site and for a fixed percentage. If he does his job, he makes money; if he doesn’t, it’s not my problem. This is lovely for both of us, as he makes a reasonable profit for what I surmise is a relatively small amount of work. I’m happy to contract him to do so, however, as it’s so easy.

It’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts. I have to keep writing a good blog and affording him space to sell, or he’ll stop doing so for us. Meanwhile, if he doesn’t do his job, I’ll find someone else who will. There probably won’t be any hard feelings if this relationship doesn’t work out though. We don’t hang-out together after hours or share friends. It’s simply a matter of two independent bodies working together in a well-defined and commitment-free fashion.

In a world filled with millions of tiny enterprises, we see a few things die in short-order. Corporate nonsense, awkward Christmas parties, and staff handbooks are tossed in favor of diligent, personable and common-sense methods of working. These can be augmented on-the-fly, with little concern as to the behavior of the lowest common denominator in a massive organization. Micro-specialization also becomes possible with great benefit to all parties. For example, you could brand yourself as the definitive expert on writing for tourism websites in British Columbia, and our company would benefit by working with you. Similarly, you’d have an easy vertical to operate within and market your services to.

As with anything though, there are some shortcomings in being a company of one or a few. I’m not sure how it is in America, but in Canada small business owners have fewer privileges than employees. There are no paid sick days, maternity/paternity leaves; additionally, we are not protected by employment insurance. Sometimes there are no holidays; but, the freedom of being in control of one’s destiny quickly outweighs such benefits, no matter how convenient they may be.

Let’s not get married

In my experience, many laborers desire freedom without cost. They want flexible work schedules and added autonomy without needing to take responsibility for errors or shortcomings. While I see such perspectives as flawed, I understand how they come to be. Freedom is compelling, but few of us want to give-up the security that employment affords. Likewise, countless large organizations (i.e. McDonald’s) require human-cogs and therefore forgive occasional ineptitude in order to leverage the energy of a small army. With that said, I see a colossal opportunity for those of us who don’t like being caged. Freedom does come with a cost, but being able to navigate one’s own path is worth such associated costs, for those so geared.

Sometimes I yearn for those days of walking into the office, chatting with staff and hearing how their weekends were. We had a great team for a while there, and I miss those guys. At the same time, I don’t want to check in on how things are going, or worry about who’s ensuring that the printer received clean files. Put simply, I don’t want to tell you what to do, nor do I want to have anyone do that to me. My guess is that many others out there feel exactly the same way. We just like the work.

It’s not that I don’t want to work with you. It’s that I don’t want to have some power-dynamic get in the way of what could otherwise be a fine interaction. There might always be factories and cubicle-farms, unions and management, company policies and team-building exercises. I posit that such things in this day and age are doomed as a result of inequitable power distribution though. Organizations of more than a few start to mimic unhappy marriages; most will begrudgingly soldier on, but few will ever perform to their potential. I wonder if we’d all be better off by living alone and “dating” when it suits us to do so.

If you liked this post, you’ll love Speak Human.

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