Sharing economy deprives workers of opportunities of convenience

My motivation for writing this post comes is a gripe I have about the advice to quit unhappy jobs as frequently promoted on job sites like LinkedIn.   The common case presented in these articles is the employee who is unhappy with his work, who feels his skills are under-appreciated and under-utilized.   The alternative is to find another employer or to start his own business.   The advice comes from people who have succeeded in some form of quitting in the past.   Quitting worked for them and so it might just work as well for others.

At the risk of being hypocritical given my own history of quitting employers, I argue that quitting is a bad idea, and not just because the practice has not brought success to me.   I can’t justify my past voluntary departures in terms of being under-appreciated or under-utilized.   It is probably more accurate to claim I quit when I observe my skills over-appreciated and over-utilized.  The rationale is a topic for another post, but for now I just want to admit that I’m a quitter who objects to advice about quitting a discomforting job.

There are two positive actions for the worker who is unhappy with his job.   He can seek a new job through a new employer or a transfer.   Or, he can seek consultation to learn to cope with the job he has.  I rarely see the second advice on career sites.   If a person has valuable yet under-utilized talents, then recommending a change of job seems good and non-controversial advice.   My suggestion to seek help to cope with the unhappy job would be more controversial and probably won’t gain me any credibility within career sites.

Yet, I am thinking there is a benefit to sticking out with a unhappy job where the employer shows some appreciation for continued employment through periodic raises or bonuses, even if they are minimal in magnitude.   For clarification, I am referring specifically to knowledge-workers or white-collar office jobs that I’m familiar with.   For a thought experiment, I replay any of the past jobs I left with an alternative reality where I was bored and under-challenged.  What is the benefit for staying on such a job?

Given a better opportunity for more interesting and challenging work elsewhere, what kind of benefit would there be in staying in the boring job?   To answer this question, I ask why does the employer continue to value the work being done.  In many of these cases, the day-to-day job does not resemble the original job description.   The job description probably demanded certain qualifications.   The employee wouldn’t have the job if he didn’t have those qualifications.  Yet, the job does not appear to demand the qualifications.   The situation presents little opportunity to demonstrate or to build the qualifications for future advancement.

While the contrary may be likely, allow me to presume that the employer was justified in requiring the specified qualifications.  It seems to me to be a bad business choice to demand unnecessary qualifications but I recognize that this does happen.   The qualifications are sometimes used as a filter when there would be too many candidates.  I’ve also seen cases where the qualifications are for book-keeping purposes to justify a certain rate of pay.   For this discussion, I assume the employer has justification for demanding certain qualifications even though the day-to-day job doesn’t really require those qualifications.

The justification is that the employer recognizes that occasionally and often without notice he will need immediate access to these qualifications.    This may happen only a few times a year or for an aggregate for just a few hours a year.  The need may even occur less frequently.  When the opportunity comes up, he wants to benefit by having immediate access to the appropriate qualifications to get through a crisis situation.  Having immediate access to the right talent to get through the crisis can may success or failure of the company.   For a stable business, these crises do not occur very frequently.

I contrast the opportunity of being available during a crisis where one’s qualifications offer real benefits from the opportunities of a job that has more continuous demand of those qualifications.  This is the contrast of staying in an unhappy job or choosing to quit to find a job that is more compatible with the qualifications.

There are obvious benefits of accepting a job that has more continuous demands for certain qualifications.   The steady flow of challenging work allows the worker to practice his skills and develop those skills to the next level.   Such an opportunity may be in challenging circumstances such as working under tight schedules or attempting some goal with a high risk of failing.   Such a demanding job appears better than staying in the less demanding job.   The person builds a stronger resume for future work.

I observe that such good fit of a job to the person’s qualifications usually involves a corporate mission that is closely aligned with the qualifications.   Usually such jobs are part of large teams of peers so that when the project succeeds the recognition of the success is diluted over the team.   The worker may still benefit from bonuses that result from the success.   He will also benefit from the gained experience of applying his skills to the project.   The dilution of recognition is minor and ideally the good team-player wouldn’t even notice this.   Yet, I emphasize that a job that heavily utilizes a particular qualification is likely to be part of a larger team of complementary qualifications that assure the success of the project.

In contrast, the boring job is under-utilizing the person’s talents.   In effect, the worker is waiting for the rare crisis where his qualifications will be needed.  In the interim, the employer hands out make-work tasks to justify the pay.    In my last job, this took the form of a ritual known as weekly bullets: a list of activities done during a week that suggests the employer’s return on the employment for that week.   Even if the employer acknowledges that the rationale for continued employment of a qualification is the insurance policy for the eventual crisis, he often has no choice but to show some form of work-product for the hours worked.

I want to focus on the eventual crisis.  There are two types of crises: the expected and the unexpected.

An example of the expected crises is a proposal effort to win a new contract.   For the proposal effort, the employer needs additional qualifications to produce a result that can win new work.   Once the proposal is won, the work may resume its less stressful pace.  On the other hand, if the proposal is lost, then the employer may be forced to lay off staff or even go out of business.   Such events offer a different opportunity for recognition that is unavailable in the scenario where the qualifications are needed for routine work.   If the section of the proposal resulted in a competitive advantage, the author of that section is easy to recognize.   The opportunity for the author to contribute was his being available when the proposal was written.   There are many similar expected crisis scenarios such as those involving quarterly or annual reporting or publications.   They share a feature of drawing upon available staff to support the crisis.  In effect, the employment is a retainer agreement to be available when the crisis comes.

The bigger opportunity comes with the unexpected crisis such as a disaster recovery scenario.   Unlike the expected crisis, there is no way to plan for staffing for the unexpected.   Both are crises in the sense that either could decide the fate of the business.   The unexpected crisis provides more opportunities because it is more likely to challenge the qualifications of the available staff.   The unexpected crisis presents unique opportunities to do things that one would otherwise not be available.   The inescapable reality is that the solution much come from the staff available at the time of the crisis.

In context of building a recognition within a career, crises are opportunities worth the wait.  From the employer’s perspective, the employment is at least implicitly a preparation for handling crises.  Perhaps most of the time the expectation of working through crises is implicit so that the employer will burden his staff with make-work projects to justify the daily or hourly pay.  However, when crises do occur, the employer expects the employees will deliver what is necessary to resolve the problem.

In effect, the full time employment agreement is a retainer agreement.  In exchange for the employer’s prior commitment of compensation, the employee agrees to be available when critical work is needed.   In the case of salaried or managerial (exempt from labor law) positions, the agreement is to be available at any time.   In order to comply with labor law regulations, the agreement may be vague so as to not explicitly state the agreement, but when a crisis scenarios appears the employee will understand the priority to work on the problem until the crisis is over.

We do not often think of employment in terms of a retainer agreement of being available when the need arises.   Popular culture and politics encourages a productivity view of work where each hour of pay matches a measurable delivered product.   While this view has some merit, it needs some balanced.   If the only rationale for employment is hourly productivity or return on compensation, then there is no distinction from employment and from contract work.

The recent rise in popularity of the sharing economy provides a fully viable alternative to employment when the only point of employment is to match a unit of work with a unit of pay.   In my opinion, the sharing economy is a far more efficient way to accomplish this goal.   The sharing economy frees the employer from addressing idle time of his staff, and frees the worker from the boredom or the make-work assignments that are inherently degrading in terms of the worker’s potential.

In parallel with the sharing economy is the frequent advice to quit an job that is no providing fulfilling opportunities in favor of seeking a more appropriate job.  This is another solution to the problem of matching a unit of work with a unit of compensation.   If the argument for quitting is valid, then a sharing economy offers more efficiency than job hopping.

The sharing economy matches people desiring the completion of certain tasks with competent people who desire doing those tasks.    Once the task is complete, the contract is complete and both parties go their separate ways.  For the worker, there is no need to quit a no-longer relevant job.  For the employer, there is no need to justify a no longer productive employee.  The contract ends with the exchange of the unit of work with the unit of compensation.

When there is a sufficient pool of qualified workers to meet demand, the sharing economy is the better answer to the problem of productivity.   Employment has inherent inefficiency.

Our focus and emphasis on productivity and on optimizing happiness in matching tasks to workers leads us to support the sharing economy.  I admit that at a macro-economic point of view, the sharing economy may offer macro benefits of leveling income distributions by distributing tasks to different individuals through separate competition.  I also recognize benefits at the micro-economic scale: the sharing economy matches workers who want to do the task that the client needs performed.

My observation is in the long term benefits for the micro economy of particular employers and employees.   An employment contract that specifically retains employees offers benefits that the sharing economy can not address.  The benefits of such retainer agreements occur during crises.   With an employment contract in place, the employer has immediate access to workers who are available to participate when a crisis occurs.  Sharing economy is ill-equipped to deliver workers in crises scenarios.  The car-sharing service Uber illustrates this problem with their surge pricing:  despite the large pool of workers willing to perform the tasks, there are times when there are not enough cars on the road.   Sharing economies are ill-equipped to handle surge scenarios.   For a business, a business crisis is a surge scenario.

Business crises provide unique opportunities for the employed worker by being conscripted into a task he may otherwise never have the opportunity to do.  The employer may assign the task explicitly to the worker simply because the worker is on the employment roster.  Alternatively, the employer will readily accept volunteered offers to help during a crisis.  In either case, the business has immediate ability to staff up for the crisis and make progress toward its resolution.

A sharing economy (or its relative of the “I’ll quit if the job isn’t satisfying” culture) cannot provide this surge capability.  In these cases, the business crisis is just another task to offer to the marketplace.  The marketplace does not recognize any priority between tasks except through premium or surge pricing.   Although such surge pricing may benefit the worker, it is not very effective at rapidly expanding the pool of workers to satisfy the new aggregate demand.   During surges in a sharing economy, there will be tasks that will be left unfulfilled.   In a crisis scenario, an unfulfilled task will cost the company perhaps to the point of failure.

The unfulfilled task also represents a cost to the capable but not qualified worker.  In an employment scenario, such a worker will have the opportunity to prove his otherwise unexpected capabilities.  Through the opportunity of participating in the crisis task, the employee may discover an unexpected capability.   Successful completion of the task will result in recognition of this capability both by the employer and within the larger market place.

This newfound recognition would not be possible in a sharing economy.  If the unemployed (or quit) worker has no prior qualifications for the task, he is not going to be hired on the spot either through a sharing economy or through the company’s employment system.   In both cases, there is a high barrier of entry to be able to participate.   The barrier hurts both the worker and the employer.   The worker loses the opportunity to prove his capabilities.   The employer loses his ability to appropriately staff a crisis scenario.

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