Two Sorts Of Workwashing

Telling stories that might be or could be true to prop up work inequities.

David Gelles interviews Hayden Brown in How Freelancing Is Changing Work, who says some sensible things about the business scene and what the post-pandemic world of work might be, but as the CEO of Upwork, the freelancer platform, I think she is workwashing the rise of the gig economy:

Gelles: There’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum here. Are there more freelancers now because companies have been reducing their full-time head count, or are people really opting out and choosing to freelance?

Brown: We are not seeing companies shrinking their work forces because they’re really going to freelance talent. We’re in the early innings of the adoption of freelancers across the economy. That means for most companies, they’re using freelancers to augment their full-time teams, to prevent their teams from burning out by having this virtual talent bench of skilled freelancers who are at the ready and doing a bunch of work, and that can flex up and down.

Companies transitioning from full-time employees, or opting to use freelancers instead of hiring full-time employees, are not doing so because freelance talent is more skilled or talented than employees. It is a massive cost-saving measure.

Consider Google, which as of 2019 had more contract and temp workers (130,000+) than full-time employees (123,000). They are saving a lot of money:

Though they often work side by side with full-timers, Google temps are usually employed by outside agencies. They make less money, have different benefits plans and have no paid vacation time in the United States, according to more than a dozen current and former Google temp and contract workers, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed nondisclosure agreements.

Better treatment for those workers was one of the demands made by organizers of a Google employee walkout last year to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

“It’s time to end the two-tier system that treats some workers as expendable,” the walkout organizers wrote on Twitter in March.

When Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, did not respond to those demands, a group of anonymous contractors sent an open letter demanding equal pay and better opportunities for advancement. In April, hundreds of Google employees signed another letter protesting the dismissal of about 80 percent of a 43-person team of contingent workers working on the company’s artificial intelligence assistant.

In response, Google said it was changing a number of its policies to improve conditions for its temps and contractors.

The reliance on temporary help has generated more controversy inside Google than it has at other big tech outfits, but the practice is common in Silicon Valley. Contingent labor accounts for 40 to 50 percent of the workers at most technology firms, according to estimates by OnContracting, a site that helps people find tech contracting positions.

OnContracting estimates that a technology company can save $100,000 a year on average per American job by using a contractor instead of a full-time employee.

Google is saving $1.3B per year on this scheme. It's all about the money, and Upwork and other freelancer platforms are part of the machinery that supports the two-tier, inequitable work system in tech and other industries.

Share work futures

In My Years on Wall Street Showed Me Why You Can’t Make a Deal on Zoom, William Cohan, a former investment banker, makes the unsupported claim that those aspiring to become Wall Street world beaters must learn their craft at the feet of financial titans at the office, and nowhere else.

Before the recent Covid surge, fueled by the Delta variant, executives of Goldman Sachs, one of Wall Street’s biggest and most respected banks, concluded in May that most U.S. employees needed to return to the office in June. JPMorgan Chase said in June that U.S. employees would need to return to the office at least part time by July 6. The executives decided, correctly, that the benefits of in-person collaboration outweighed the potential health risks. This is the only way employees will have the chance to fully thrive at their craft.

Now, some big banks are re-evaluating their plans, amid the confusion about whether the vaccinated can safely resume life as we knew it before March 2020. Bankers and traders are not exactly frontline workers; theirs is not life or death work. And Wall Street has proved it can make plenty of money while nearly all its employees work from home.

But we need Wall Street to get fully vaccinated and back to work in person so that the next generation of bankers and traders can learn how capital is raised and distributed, how industry-transforming deals get done and how to provide the liquidity that enables the trading of stocks, bonds, loans, options and other essential financial instruments. We rarely notice until it’s gone.

There is such a thing as the art of the deal. And that artistry, too, can be lost if it’s not passed down from one generation to the next — in person.

Total folklore, and without any research to back it up.

This is a common form of whitewashing these days: telling stories that could be, might be true -- or partially true -- so that the rank-and-file will shut up about commuting and covid and get their asses back to the office because the leaders like it that way.

So don't listen to the retired gasbag high on nostalgia, the defining emotion of postmodernism (according to Zygmunt Bauman). We are way past postmodernism, and deep into the postnormal.

I bet that some future captain of Wall Street is out there, right now, figuring out how to construct a 21st-century investment powerhouse with the absolute minimum viable office.