Welcome to the Antique Shop Part Three: Will Granular Work Replace the Full-time Work Week?

For ever, or at least as long as there have been Human Resources departments, employers have shipped talent (or at least manpower) into their factories and offices in one uniform container. That container is called the Forty-Hour Work Week, although it hasn't been anywhere near as small as 40 hours a week in decades. That's what employers love about full-time workers, of course, and the reason most of them are so reluctant to mess around with part-timers and job-sharers.

They like the fact that the full-time worker container is almost infinitely elastic. You can stretch it. You can load people up with work and use the big stick to keep them in fear, and get sixty or seventy hours of work out of them every week. You can hire them as 'permanent' employees to pay them less than contractors, and lay them off at any moment.

You don't want to get me started on the harm this new paradigm has done, not only to individuals and their families but to the mental and physical health of working people and to the health of organizations, because that's a topic for another column. Let's just say that the full-time worker frame is very well established. We know how it works. You have a full-time job, and the job owns you. The threat of dismissal keeps you in fear and convinces you that your job is to please your boss at all times. If your social life, your health and your sanity suffer in the process, that's just the breaks.

At the same time that we're groveling and panicked, we're cynical. We can see that what HR people call the Old Social Contract lies in tatters. The corporate ladder is sawdust at our feet. We know that we're not going to retire from wherever we're working now, unless we're collecting Medicare already.

An HR friend of mine was leading a Monday-morning orientation session for new employees, and when she got to the point where she said "We're going to talk about the retirement plan now" the group of newcomers burst out laughing. They thought it was hysterical. Oh please, they told her, do we really have to sit through that?

If the idea of long-term employment with the same firm, or the notion that full-time employment has some connotation of stability or fixedness about it, are history -- and they are -- can the concept of a full-time, salaried work unit survive? I don't see how. Employers are going to start paying for what they need, and letting the non-essential stuff go by the wayside. For every full-time job that an employer can wring sixty hours out of, there's another full-time job somewhere in the organization where hours and hours are spent on work that has no point and no value to the employer or its clients.

Now we have crowdsourcing, and employers are starting to be able to find vendors to complete critical projects without adding overhead or headcount (or office expenses or real estate taxes or carbon footprint or energy costs). We tend to think that when lots of people are available to perform work, prices must fall, but needs can be incredibly specific.

I did a consulting project one time for a boutique strategy consulting firm, and it was a last-minute thing. This was in 1997, and the CEO needed me and the guru strategy guy to interview a bunch of his top execs within a few days and give him some insights back. The strategy guru told me to name my 'inconvenience price.' I didn't have a number -- I'd never had a project like that. I quoted him what felt like a sky-high rate: thirty-five hundred dollars a day for four days of work. He said "That's fine." After the project was done, I asked the guru "Did you mark up my rate the way you do for the associates?" He said "I charged the client twelve five a day for you." He marked up my rate by nine thousand a day, and you know what? That's fine with me. I love that he did that. He deserved that markup, because he knew he could deliver and he knew what his project was worth to the client. Welcome to the antique shop.

Crowdsourcing lets companies piece out work to people who can do it on the buyer's schedule and to the buyer's specifications, and to learn what works for them and which providers work the way they like to work. I'm trying to see the evil in it, and I'm failing. We have a company here in Boulder that manages SEO optimization on a crowdsourced basis. The company is called Trada, and they put companies together with SEO optimizers who take on projects that make sense for them. There are something like 2000 'optimizers' who work on Trada-enabled PPC and Facebook campaigns. Here's what I see: 2000 people who are working when they want at rates and under conditions that work for them. That seems like a good thing, to me. What's interesting too is that Trada is a company that values its employees like we used to do at U.S. Robotics -- they tell them "We care about what you get done, not when you come in and when you leave."

If you were doing SEO optimization professionally, wouldn't you want to work for a bunch of different clients, rather than being stuck with one management team (whose appetite for SEO innovation might wax and ebb over time) or one crazy boss, or one anything? Wouldn't you want to hone your craft working on multiple projects over time? Sometimes, I talk to corporate people who say "Man, I'm glad I'm not a consultant. Too hard to drum up business all the time!" I worry about people who say that. Anybody who doesn't know what s/he brings to the marketplace, who needs it, and what it's worth is in trouble, if you ask me. (Welcome to the antique shop.)

Any kind of work that can be done in a more granular way than the way it's done now is ripe for crowdsourcing. That means legal work, administrative work, HR work, and tons of other things. You're not going to crowdsource the installation of snow tires on your Jeep, but you can crowdsource almost anything that can be done in an office, and I'm sure there are folks already working on granularizing all kinds of work apart from SEO optimization. For a lot of different reasons, I like the trend, but because I acknowledge that it's also likely to be massively disruptive to employers and to working people, I feel I should tell you why.

For starters, I hate the container called full-time work; it's not fair to employees. Companies use power and fear and guilt to get people to spend way too many hours and brain cells on jobs that don't actually value or deserve them. I see crowdsourced work or granular work more generally as a way to re-balance the employer/employee equation. When you only get to take one full-time job and then you're stuck with it for some period of time, you're tying up your brand and your value with the employer's brand, and that's not always to your advantage. We need to manage our own brands, our own credibility and our own learning. No employer is ever going to value your career or your mojo as much as you do.

I think it's embarrassing and ridiculous that we still walk into big office boxes at eight-thirty in the morning and walk out of them at five or six or seven in the evening, believing that although we think all the time and have ideas all the time, the only time that 'counts' as work time is the time we spend in the box. That's goofy. One hundred years from now, anthropologist/historians are going to look back and ask "What the heck was wrong with those people?" We know we don't need the box. It's fear that keeps managers keeping people in the box, and crowdsourcing has the potential to loosen that stupid, outdated leash .

When I started to speak and write and consult on my own, I had to find my voice and find my value. Frankly, I couldn't make a dime as a consultant doing the stuff I used to do as a corporate HR VP. The message to me, a decade later, is that there's not a lot of value (to an employer or to its employees or shareholders or customers) in much, perhaps most, of what happens in corporate America on any given day. If we could separate the political posturing and wrangling and CYA garbage from the actual work and quantify it, the lost time and energy would be huge -- incalculable. We know this, but we don't acknowledge it, much less dig in to solve it. Crowdsourcing says "Work has value, and we're going to pay what the market demands." People who work as crowdsourced SEO optimizers don't have to do corporate toady things because no one cares, and no one is paying them to.

Now that I work for people who actually need what I can do for them, I'm closer to the need and to the market. Crowdsourcing helps you get there. The danger of being a corporate person is that you lose touch with the actual value of your work. That's why so many of my clients are laid-off corporate people who say "I worked on several large cross-functional initiatives related to assimilating pan-divisional processes" while I scratch my head. That's a dangerous way to live. What good does your work do? What pain does it solve? People whose work is granular always know those answers.

Crowdsourcing is happening and it's inevitable, but I think the shift to granular work deserves a higher-level perspective than "We'd better figure this out, since it's coming whether we like it or not." I think that getting comfortable with a mix of 'regular' old-fashioned staff people and crowdsourced workers builds muscles that every employer and every team needs to build. I think that losing our reliance on the phalanx of employees walking into the box at a certain hour and walking out one minute after the boss departs can only be a good thing. I think teaching people and enabling them and then ultimately requiring them to name their price can only be a good thing, for everyone.