Democratizing the workplace

I came across this article from the BBC the other day and it absolutely fascinated me. The article focuses on a Swedish software firm , Crisp, and their rather innovative approach to how their business is structured.

Crisp doesn’t have a CEO.

Yassal Sundman, a developer at the firm, explains: “We said, ‘what if we had nobody as our next CEO – what would that look like?’ And then we went through an exercise and listed down the things that the CEO does.” The staff decided that many of the chief executive’s responsibilities overlapped with those of the board, while other roles could be shared among other employees. “When we looked at it we had nothing left in the CEO column, and we said, ‘all right, why don’t we try it out?'” says Ms Sundman.

This is something that I have long suspected about the business world–that in many cases, the boss is completely superfluous. More on that in a bit. So what does a workplace without a designated leader look like?

Crisp holds four-day meetings for all staff two to three times a year. They are used to making decisions on issues that affect everyone, such as an office move, but workers are encouraged to make decisions themselves at other times. It also still has a board – a legal requirement – and this can be used as a last resort to resolve issues if something is not working.

Imagine that, the people who are actually doing the work are making the decisions! Together!

Henrik Kniberg, an organisational coach at the firm, argues that not having to ask a boss for decisions on projects or budgets means the firm can respond faster. “If you want to get something done, you stand up and start driving that,” he says. Yet Mr Kniberg stresses that not having to ask permission does not remove the need for staff to discuss issues or bounce ideas off each other. Because they are all in charge, workers are more motivated, he argues. Crisp regularly measures staff satisfaction, and the average is about 4.1 out of five.

Who would have guessed that giving the worker bees more freedom and self-determination would lead to a happier and more agile workforce? Truly shocking.

What I like about this article is that, for me at least, it dispels some long held myths that people have about business that they apply to their politics. There’s this idea that business is always better at everything than government. I’ve said for years that this patently false for a variety of reasons, but I think this article really drive home on central point:

Businesses can be just as bloated, top-heavy, and overly-administrative as the worst government you can think of. The equivalent of bureaucracy is alive and well in the private sector, and it’s just as detrimental.

I’m not sure how many presidents, vice presidents, junior vice presidents, CFOs and CEOs a company needs, but I’m willing to bet that, as this article from the BBC suggests, the answer is probably “None of them.”

The average CEO in 2014 made $22.6 million dollars per year. That’s a pretty tidy sum for a position, that, if Crisp’s example is any indication of, is essentially worthless. What’s more, that year CEO salaries increased almost 9%–way ahead of the 2.4% that the rest of the economy grew. And a 2000 study found that performance is a weak indicator of CEO compensation. The best predictor of CEO salary was the size of the company–no matter how terrible of a job they did. I’m sure everyone remembers all of those Wall St. folks that gave themselves huge bonuses after they collapsed the economy? The numbers are all here for you to take a look at.

And then there’s the lovely ‘golden parachute’ that we all hear about so much, which sounds like something Donald Trump would pay Russian hookers for, but is really just a giant check they give the top brass upon retirement. Here’s a list of the top 20 golden parachutes according to Bloomberg. I’ll recreate the top five for you here:

  1. Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts): $358,134,747
  2. David Simon (Simon Property Group): $302,425,834
  3. John Hammergren (McKesson): $198,150,788
  4. David Zaslav (Discovery Communications): $161,119,864
  5. Brent Saunders (Allergan): $140,672,343

Man, what a great deal: getting paid tens of millions of dollars a year no matter how poorly you perform…and then they give you HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS when you retire!

What a fucking joke.

How many billions of dollars are wasted every year on executives that don’t do shit? Billions that could be reinvested in the company or the employees. While everyone else’s hours and benefits are slashed because of taxes or Obamacare or whatever bullshit line they throw out, the CEO gets to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars in his pocket. Notice how it’s never the top earners that are asked to tighten their belts during the lean times?

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But why is it this bad? How do these salaries get set? Well, in many companies, executive compensation is set by the board of directors. And who’s on the board? You guessed it–all of the executives. Executive salaries are out of control and keep going up despite poor job performance because they’re the ones giving themselves the raises and the golden parachutes. Pretty convenient, huh? This article in Forbes covers some of the insane catch-22s that allow this kind of unfettered greed and inefficiency to continue.

And then people wonder why a candidate like Bernie Sanders is so popular with people. Because people are tired of being bullshitted by business leaders and conservative politicians about how dire everything is while they keep making more and more money. They tell us all that they’ll need to get rid of social security and medicare while lowering the tax rates on the guy who just made $358,134,747 simply for retiring.

Because for all the ways they paint the private sector as noble, something for government to aspire to, the same bullshit happens there, too. The same bloating, the same excess, the same waste, the same frivolity. The same lack of accountability for the people at the top. Human greed and ignorance permeates all aspects of society, something that is often lost on conservatives. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies like Crisp are showing that. They’re just starting to show that there’s a different way to do things. You can essentially democratize the workplace–give the employees the reigns. Give the employees more of a stake in things. Give the employees the freedom they don’t get with a top-down organizational structure.

Because the same is is true in the workplace as it is in politics: the people have the power. Unions used to be how workers flexed that muscle. And then the bullshit started. “Well, you know, those unions, they just ensure that bad workers can’t be fired.” You hear this bullshit all the time, like with teachers. The teachers union just protects bad teachers!

An argument that seems especially ironic given that of the top 25 paid CEOs in ANY GIVEN YEAR from 1993-2012, one quarter of them worked for firms that took federal bailout money. In other words, these incompetent assholes fucked up, then used your tax money to stay in business and continue to give themselves a massive raise and an even more massive golden parachute. But hey, it’s the unions that are greedy, right?

It’s all bullshit, folks. Did you know that there are countries that don’t have a minimum wage? Doesn’t the sounds like a conservative republican’s idea of paradise!? Well, not so fast. Places like Iceland and Sweden have no minimum wage because workers have the right to collectively bargain. A lot of those evil socialist countries follow that model.

Oh, I get it: when the CEO gets to determine their own outrageous salary, it’s capitalism and moxie, but when the workers try to have a say in how much they’re paid it’s evil socialism. Again, how convenient.

So the next time someone tries to tell you that the government is wasteful and stupid, count for them the many ways the the private sector is also full of corrupt hypocrites.

 

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The jobs are never coming back

If you listen to Donald Trump, he can bring back all of the jobs that we’ve lost in the last several decades. Yes, Donald Trump, all by himself, is going to reverse three decades of globalization. It’ll be a thing of beauty, believe him. It was all he could talk about at the first presidential debate.

Except that those jobs aren’t coming back, ever. Those jobs and the US are just like Taylor Swift and any of her exes–they are never, ever getting back together.

To think otherwise is just plain ignorant. Those jobs are gone, it’s impossible for them to come back, and they probably would have left no matter what. I say this based on several things:

Automation. All of the jobs that Trump talks about bringing back are based in the manufacturing area. We lost a lot of those jobs because foreign labor is cheaper (more on that in a bit). But we also lost a lot of those jobs because technology started making workers obsolete. And guess what? That threat continues today. Technology will continue to replace workers for years to come, in all sorts of industries, not just manufacturing. In fact, some estimates show that by the next time we’re ready to elect another president, the world’s biggest economies will have lost a little over 5 million jobs to automation. And this time that extends to business and administrative work.

It’s no secret that workers are more productive than ever, but wages and employment haven’t kept up. The reason for that is technology, as laid out here by these fine folks from MIT. I’ll let the infographic do the talking:

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Those jobs that Trump likes to talk about were destined to be lost one way or another. If it wasn’t because of trade deals, it would be because of technology.

Wages and Benefits. Those jobs also left because companies suddenly found themselves in a position to pay a whole lot less for labor by outsourcing it to countries where they could pay employees pennies on the dollar. Why would a corporation bring back jobs to the US if it means having to pay higher wages and provide benefits like healthcare, sick days, etc? No American worker would settle for less than minimum wage and benefits, and many companies wouldn’t provide them for employees if they didn’t have to. It’s a pipe dream to think that someone could bring those jobs back. In order to do so, they’d have to essentially make the American worker equivalent to the overseas worker, and that wouldn’t fly.

No, taxes aren’t the problem. That’s the problem if you listen to Trump and other conservatives. The taxes here are just too high! How can anyone do business at a rate of 35%? First of all, that’s a rich argument coming from someone who probably hasn’t paid one red cent in taxes for the last twenty years. But two things come to mind whenever I hear this argument. First, American businesses and individuals have paid a lot more in the past, and the economy did just fine. Great, in fact. As evidence that this tax business is a red herring, Exhibit A:

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Corporations have never contributed less to the economy than they do now. Companies like Apple proudly boast that they stash billions or dollars overseas. Which bring me to Exhibit B:

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Many companies don’t actually pay 35%. What they’re taxed on paper and what they actually pay is quite different thanks to lots of loopholes, legal maneuvering, and offshore funny business. In fact, many companies end up paying pretty much 0% in taxes, like these assholes. So unless Trump plans to drop the tax rate to 0%, I don’t think there’s really anything else he could do.

But more to the point, how does Trump plan to increase military spending after he’s lowered the nation’s income? How does he plan to pay down the debt if he’s reduced the nation’s income? He could slash other programs, but that would mean either cutting or eliminating popular programs like social security, which wouldn’t go over well with voters and politicians.

It’s all empty rhetoric. I get why it resonates for people in the rust belt, who did lose out thanks to globalization and automation. But to believe that Trump can somehow “bring jobs back” is absolutely not true. The best thing to do would be to put forth a policy that created new high paying jobs in sectors where automation and globalization weren’t as influential. And right now, that probably means infrastructure building and rebuilding, because the last time I checked robots still didn’t repair bridges or roads. And it isn’t like our country isn’t in dire need of such repairs.

But I’m sick and tired of political seasons where we continually have this debate about a fictional economy. Conservatives love to talk about an economy that doesn’t exist, and Donald Trump has just upped this game by a factor of a thousand. In this fictional economy, employment never rises, the economy never grows, and stimulus packages never work. However, all of those things are demonstrably false. It’s great to have a robust debate about the state of our economy and the direction that we’re headed in, but it’s impossible to do when one candidate is essentially basing his entire campaign on an economy that only exists in the halls of Fox News.

Wtf, corporate America…

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This, alas, is a real photo. I know that because it came from someone that I know, from a place where I used to work way back in the day. So this is what it’s come down to? Corporate America just outright mocking its employees? I’m almost at a loss for words. I’ve always realized that the employees in any corporation below a certain level are just nameless, faceless cogs in the machine. Fine, whatever. But this is something wholly different.

The department got the not-so-coveted “plunger award” because they suck. That’s literally the message that this “award” conveys. And it’s displayed publicly for all the customers to see.

Never mind the fact that customer service surveys are a load of crap, because the only people who actually fill them out are the few outliers that are angry enough to spend the time doing so. It’s one thing to hold workers at any place of employment accountable for the job that they do. But when did it become okay to shame and humiliate your employees into doing a better job? What the hell kind of business model is that? Telling people that they’re shitty at their job, even if it’s using a toilet metaphor, is just downright mean, no matter how true it may be.

And even if it is true, being so callous and cruel about it isn’t necessary. Even if you did have a department full of employees who couldn’t or wouldn’t do their job, how about maintaining a level of professionalism? Why not just call the employees into a meeting and brainstorm ways they could improve, help them set goals, etc? Wouldn’t that do more to solve the problem than to publicly display a sign that says that your employees do a shitty job?

I just don’t get this “award.” It’s demotivating, it’s unprofessional, and it’s degrading. I haven’t shopped at this place in years, but you can be damn sure I definitely never will again if this is how they’re treating their employees now.