Reading Predictably Irrational got me thinking again about workplace organization: in particular, the extent to which companies try to set up the employer/employee relationship as a primarily social relationship instead of as a primarily market-driven relationship.

And, of course, it’s both: work involves people interacting together over a long period of time, but work also involves a paycheck. That means that there’s not going to be a bright division between those two realms; and that blurring of lines makes me wonder: who benefits in what contexts from that blurring, especially in the context of Silicon valley startup / tech company culture. (And, of course, that brings me in the direction of the cynicism that I was talking about a few days ago.)

Take, for example, meals: ever since Google made a splash with them, it’s been common for tech companies to provide free meals, and pretty good ones at that. Which feeds into the social side in two separate ways: it feels like a gift instead of a transaction, and breaking bread together regularly has incredibly strong social resonance. But, from a market-based approach, there are two other benefits for the employer: people don’t have to take time off over lunch driving to and from lunch, and dinner no longer provides a natural stopping point for people to leave work.

Or work hours: people arrive at work at tech companies at irregular times (and generally starting later than at a lot of other workplaces), and in general if something comes up where you need to work from home for some reason or need to duck out in the middle of the day, nobody will think twice about it (as long as it doesn’t interfere with some specific meeting): this is similar to a social context where nobody will think twice if you’re not home at some specific time, as long as nothing is planned, sometimes something important comes up. But the flip side is that sometimes something important will come up at work, so it’s natural to stay there late, too. This blurring can also happen in terms of doing personal stuff while physically at work and work stuff while physically at home. If work pushes the boundaries more than home, then this starts to make a lot of sense from an employer’s market-based perspective; and work is very good at coming up with tasks that are important.

But then there’s the question of what happens when you want to pin down some of these time/space boundaries instead of leaving them loose. Maybe it’s a personal request to say that you want to work from home on a fixed schedule to deal with family responsibilities; maybe it’s a request from your employer that you be physically present at work for a certain number of hours a week. Both entirely reasonable requests in many contexts; but the concept of crunch has normalized excesses in the latter domain, while a lot of workplaces are terrified of making any sort of formal statement that, say, a parent of a small child might be allowed to reliably work from home during some portion of core work hours. And that latter attitude has real consequences: if you can’t depend on being available to provide child care yourself on a reliable schedule, then you have to set up your child care arrangements on a worst-case basis based on your work schedule, because child care providers are not going to say “oh, it’s okay if something comes up at work and you occasionally won’t be able to pick up your kid until 8:30pm”.


So, in all of these cases, it feels to me like the blurring of lines masks an underlying battle where your employer is trying win a market-based struggle against you: the presentation of social norms doesn’t reflect a real social context, it’s trying to get employees to let down their guards in hopes that they won’t realize that there’s a struggle going on.

Of course, that’s not the only thing that’s going on: the non-financial benefits that are being offered have real value. I’m glad that I don’t have to work on a fixed schedule, for example, and while I’ve been perfectly happy in the past to bring leftovers for lunches, it’s nice to have coworkers around over lunch instead of having us fragment. So there’s nothing wrong going on here; you just have to keep in mind that compensation of all forms is subject to bargaining and negotiation, and to be ready to push back if the result isn’t to your liking.

At least there’s mostly nothing wrong going on here: crunch is bad, and it’s bad to normalize expectations for family needs based on the model of men who are either single or not an equal partner in child-rearing. And then there’s the joke that I’ve run into in various contexts about being glad that there’s no H.R. department around: I like being informal, but I also like being professional, and these days I think that following certain behavioral norms at work is a good thing.


Returning to the whole social norms / market norms thing: the other main sticking point for me there is how it interacts with power. Because, when I’m in a social context, I generally don’t want to set up a situation where some people have power and some people follow orders; the one exception that comes to mind there is parenting, but then the flip side is that, when I’m at work, my boss is not my parent, and I am not a child.

I’d be perfectly happy to experiment with the idea of removing that sort of hierarchy from work. But I’m not strongly against hierarchy at work, either; it’s just an area where a mapping of social norms sets up a juxtaposition that I’m not comfortable with.

Though, having said that: I’ve had bosses whom I considered friends at the time and whom I still consider friends since. I dunno; I guess I’m having a hard time coming up with absolutes here. I like social norms, I just don’t want to be blinded by them.

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