What Are Employers Paying For, Anyway?

A man wearing headphones sits in front of a laptop computer. Image Credit: Austin Distel, Unsplash

I haven’t always made my money via freelance writing. I’ve also been conventionally employed in various jobs: medical records clerk, camp counselor, editor, lawyer, adjunct.

Despite its challenges, I find I prefer freelancing to conventional employment. The headaches of filing my own business taxes or worrying about cash flow bother me less than the fact that conventional employment gives me no control over where I spend my time.

In fact, presence — not performance — seems to be the thing most employers are paying for.

40 Hours of What?

At least, this is the impression I get from the job suggestions that land in my LinkedIn inbox every few weeks. They’re always unsolicited, always from recruiters, and they always have one thing in common: They offer to pay me roughly the same amount for the same work I do now.

It’s just that employers want to pay me to use 40 hours a week to do that work, when I do it in 10 hours a week as a freelancer.

A highly-compressed schedule just works better for me. I get up, have breakfast, read a book, make a few bad jokes on Twitter, and then I grind. I don’t come up for air for three to four hours at a stretch. That 3–4 hours is all the energy I have for the day, however.

Based on years of perusing job postings for work like mine, I’ve concluded that my system makes me more efficient than the market thinks I should be. Tuesday is my peak work day; on an average Tuesday, I do what the market seems to think is 14–16 hours of work between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

It’s exhausting, so much so that I don’t work on Wednesdays at all. I can’t work at that pace for even eight straight hours, let alone for eight hours a day, five days a week. But the fact that the market thinks my three to five-hour work sprints ought to be spread over eight or ten hours a day makes me suspect that what I’m really being paid for is my physical presence, not the results of my efforts.

All the job offers I receive are salaried offers, too, which makes the prospect of taking them even less attractive. I know I’ll never make more than a set amount per week, whether I compress my work into 15 hours or spread it over 40. At that point, it feels like I’m being paid to be present in someone else’s office, not to do work.

If the market has decided that X amount of work is worth $Y, and that the worker won’t be paid more than $Y for any multiple of X over 1X, why does it matter whether that work is done over three hours or eight?

Who Owns the Benefits of Automation?

Yet it clearly does matter. It’s the crux of the debate over who should benefit when workers automate their own jobs.

Take, for example, the now-famous example of StackExchange contributor Etherable, who automated their entire job — to the point that “what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes to clean the spreadsheet and run it through the program.” Etherable estimates they spend “probably 1–2 hours per week on my job for which I am getting a full time wage.”

But, as Etherable points out, the employer is “getting exactly what they want” — in this case, “glorified data entry.”

Which raises the question: What is the employer paying for? Are they paying for the “glorified data entry” to be done, or are they paying for Etherable’s time and mental presence (if not physical; Etherable states they work remotely)? Which one is an employer paying for, and which are they entitled to?

The form of payment may shed some light on the question. Hourly workers, for instance, are pretty clearly being paid for their work, on the presumption that the workers will only be present when there is work to be done. Salaried workers, on the other hand, are paid a fixed amount no matter how quickly they complete their assigned tasks or how much work needs to be done, implying that they’re being paid for their presence. (Yet many workers are paid hourly but still expected to be present for an entire shift, regardless of how much work needs doing, which suggests that even these workers are still being paid for their presence.)

More than one commenter on Etherable’s post concluded that it is unethical for Etherable to conceal their job automation from their employer. I’d be tempted to ask first whether the job is hourly or salaried. It’s a valuable piece of information on what the employer thinks they are paying for: Actual effort expended, or mere presence.

…And Who Owns the Costs?

Etherable is not a unique case. Many workers have automated their own jobs, then struggled with whether or not to reveal this fact to their employers.

Despite my skepticism over what workers are paid for, exactly, I’m generally in favor of workers automating their own jobs. I question, however, whether employers ought to be the ones who get to decide what happens to the worker as a result of that automation.

A worker automating their own job should be an opportunity for workers to move on to more interesting and challenging work. Yet when automation is introduced to a job, the opposite often occurs.

As Astra Taylor notes in an article for Logic, “automation” in the workplace is often simply code for shoving low-complexity tasks onto workers or customers, unpaid. Worse, workplaces often use “automation” as a threat or a bludgeon, claiming that if wages don’t stay low and workers complacent, both will be replaced by machines.

Yet workplace automation, when it does happen, isn’t actually replacing workers. Rather, it’s shifting the burden of work. Taylor cites McDonald’s restaurant order kiosks as one example:

In reality, what is actually striking when you watch that video [of customers using McDonald’s kiosks] is not the cybernetic futurism but rather just how un-automated the scene is. Work has not disappeared from the restaurant floor, but the person doing the work has changed. Instead of an employee inputting orders dictated by the customer, customers now do it themselves for free, while young, friendly-looking employees hover nearby and deliver meals to tables.

If we ask what McDonald’s is paying workers to do in this scenario, at least two answers arise: Monitor the kiosks and deliver meals to tables. As for actual order-taking, McDonald’s is paying no one at all. The costs of “automation” are being shifted to customers, not eliminated by the automating tools.

Workplace “automation” often shifts unpaid tasks to workers as well. Electronic calendar systems, for instance, may allow a business to reduce the number of administrative assistants on its payroll, but by pushing their calendar-keeping tasks onto the rest of the staff rather than automating those tasks. Email did not automate written communication so much as it made written communications impossible to avoid, even during non-work hours.

One significant difference between worker-led automation and employer-led automation, at least in the examples I’ve seen, is that worker-led automation actually manages to reduce the amount of work involved by making task completion more efficient. Employer-led automation, by contrast, tends to increase workloads by shifting the burden of who completes the task.

Efficiency is a measure of time use. My own method of working in three to five-hour hyperfocus stints is efficient. If I can do a day’s work before lunch, I can use the rest of that time for other tasks. If I spread that work over an entire day, however, I wouldn’t have the use of those afternoon hours. Since I’m being paid the same amount for the work either way, engaging that deep work efficiency is worthwhile.

If businesses are to find efficiencies that actually reduce workload, rather than simply turn it into unpaid work, they need the help of workers who deal with the same problems from day to day. They may need to clarify exactly what it is they’re paying workers for, whether that’s task completion, physical presence, mental presence, or something else.

Such clarity would make it easier for workers to admit when they had automated their jobs. It could spur greater engagement, particularly if it created a means by which workers could “earn” free time in their day or the chance to do more interesting and challenging work.

As David Youngberg notes in FEE, “Work is not the goal of economic activity. The goal is human flourishing. The goal is to discover ways to utilize resources in the best possible manner, finding the right tool, or bundle of tools, for the right job.”

The right tool for the job of increasing efficiency isn’t imposed automation. It’s a pay structure that makes it clear what workers are being paid for.

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