Finding community at the office

In a new economy where workers are “free agents” or “portfolio workers” among a relatively high unemployment landscape (at least in the United States), could workers be missing community life at work as well as the regular paycheck?

In the late 1990s the world of work moved away from security and towards freedom.

A job for life was out. Work became splintered, spliced and diced: contract, sub-contract and casual labour, part-time, sessional and seasonal, project-based, freelance and temp work emerged, as the frequencies and rhythms of work became subject to the vagaries of the economy.

Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, described it as ”new economy” work – the work of flexible capitalism where ”workers are asked to behave nimbly, to be open to change on short notice, to take risks continually”…

The experience of being a highly mobile new economy worker is as Sennett says: being continuously exposed to risk can eat away at your sense of character. You are always ”starting over”. And just like your employment, your witnesses are not long-term. The writer Karen Blixen (better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen) used this line for one of her characters: ”I was constantly in flight, an exile everywhere.”

Sometimes flight cannot be helped. But community helps stave off the feeling of being exiled, of drift.

Some interesting thoughts here. As I have talked to college students, the new economy jobs are what they want: they want to be able to use their skills, to flourish (which may be different than being happy), and to be able to set their own pace and priorities. Of course, these goals can be difficult for many to obtain in the early years after college. Additionally, many of them do want to find a community to be a part of, a place where they can fit into and still be somewhat autonomous. So perhaps this commentary is really about a larger issue: how do modern people who seek after individualistic goals also find enough community so that they don’t become alienated from society? And are there groups or companies that do this better than others?

This reminds me of what one might hear from college faculty: the job of a professor offers a balance between these two goals. We enjoy our jobs because it offers freedom (to study what we want, to have some say over our own schedules) but also places us within an academic context that runs on a very predictable calendar with regular interaction with others.

The commentary also notes the role technology can play: we can be apart from others but are seemingly connected through devices like cell phones or platforms like Facebook. But these seem less like “true” community and more like community of our own choosing, calling whom we want or making “friends” with whom we want. This is quite different than what might go on in an office:

Yet there can be a joyous, awful, wonderful cacophony when you don’t get to choose – the possibility of a richer, messier, wider community; a mosaic of quirks, histories, personalities. Look around your office – they are all there.

This not getting to choose, however, seems to go against all modern sensibilities: it is one thing to put up with others but it is another to do this without any other options.

The quick reference to television show The Office is intriguing. Throughout the course of the show, there is little indication that the employees want to leave. At the same time, there are very few (if any?) moments where the workers make a conscious decision to stay because they really like the community of people there (versus liking one or two people). It is too bad we don’t see more of these characters given options where they could leave but they choose not to because they realize who they are living behind. Perhaps this is too much to ask: if workers are given brighter opportunities elsewhere (money, benefits, chance for advancement, etc.), perhaps they will always go for that over any community ties.

Can Google incentivize being social?

There is no question that Google would like to be more prominent in the social networking (SNS) phenomenon. Apparently, Google has tied an incentive for employees, a yearly bonus, to how well the employees help the company move forward in this area:

[Your bonus] can range from 0.75 to 1.25 depending on how well we perform against our strategy to integrate relationships, sharing and identity across our products.” Social.

And yes, you read that correctly, the bonus can go up or down based upon Google’s performance in the social realm. The critics are already jumping all over this one, noting that it looks like all Google employees will be losing bonus money this year. And given the decided lack of success from products like Wave, Buzz, and to a broader extent, Orkut, who can blame them?

But on a higher level, it’s the strategy itself that may be the most interesting thing here. Mathew Ingram notes that you can’t threaten people into being social. While Mike Elgan calls this Larry Page’s first blunder (as CEO). I actually have a slightly different take on this. I think that on paper, this is actually a good idea and strategy. But in practice, I think it will ultimately be looked upon as a bad thing and may even directly backfire.

I’m not sure that I really think the headline on this story captures what is going on (“I’m Having A Party. Here’s $50. Bring Cool People — Or You Owe Me $100.”): being social online is different than incentivizing employees to walk up to people they don’t know on the street and push products. In order to be social online, one needs only to make links between people (“friends” in Facebook terms) and then provide some content (which the user gets to pick and choose). Since I would guess that many Google employees are already operating privately in these SNS realms, how hard would it be to transfer some of that activity into a Google product? While this activity is still personal and requires effort from individuals, it doesn’t seem like it would take much to be social online with a new product.

Now it is a more interesting question to ponder whether such a strategy would actually help a fledgling SNS product get off the ground. This writer suggests other SNS launches were “organic” and a push from Google’s employees would only work if the product was really good. This might be the case – but the argument here is that we know for sure how SNS products take off. Could Google do something new with this kind of incentive and with its large number of employees (and their contacts), could they get a new program/app/platform up and running? If Google employees started even a decent online party, wouldn’t some other people want to get involved?

(On a side note, it would be interesting to think more about this incentive. What do Google employees think of this? By virtue of possibly losing some of their bonus, will workers operate as homo economicus and help make something happen?)

Happy employees = better workers

Forbes has developed a list of the 10 companies in the United States that have the happiest employees. This happiness is not just a good thing for the personal well-being of the employees – it eventually helps improve the company’s quality and bottom line:

Studies show that positive employees outperform negative employees in terms of productivity, sales, energy levels, turnover rates and healthcare costs. According to Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author of “The Happiness Advantage,” optimistic sales people outperform their pessimistic counterparts by up to 37%. In fact, the benefits can be seen across industries and job functions. Doctors with a positive mindset are 50% more accurate when making diagnoses than those that are negative.

I’ve seen articles/studies like this before. If this is a consistent finding, why don’t more companies make this a priority? It might take some extra money and convincing up front, but if the payoff is harder-working yet more relaxed employees, who wouldn’t want that?