Autonomy vs. automation

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There’s a new article over on Harvard Business Review about making work meaningful for freelance employees. Since I am a freelance employee and oftentimes see situations where I get ignored (so long as the check cashes, this is less a hit to me) or told to update a bunch of meaningless spreadsheets, I clicked on it. It’s not a bad article. Some generic crap like any article. This part pops, however:

When we asked Jen, a U.S.-based expert in advertising and public relations, where she found meaning in her work she honed in on balance and autonomy: “First is balance. As a mom to three kids, having the flexibility to work during the hours that I am not with them, on the days that I want, is really important to me. But autonomy is a close second. I like to have control over my work schedule and actually find I work better at home with intermittent meetings. I want to be able to sink my teeth into a project, without dealing with office politics and the constant interruption of new projects that need immediate help. I want ownership of my work and my life.”

The whole reason we’re even seeing a rise in “The Gig Economy” is because people want that big A-word in there: autonomy. Most of us inherently understand that seat time is a relic. Most documents you need for a white-collar job are in the cloud, and most of the first world is WiFi-enabled. There’s no reason to sit in a specific place for X-amount of hours per week. The only reason it still exists is because managers are terrified of losing control. There is no other logical reason. Many of our discussions about the work week, however, are not logical.

Many of us have been employees and know what it’s like to work under a micro-manager. In short: it sucks, it’s soul-draining, and you feel like less of a person, or at most a totally incompetent idiot. Many of us want some degree of autonomy — a way to set up, work on, and think through projects on our own terms, so long as the deliverable outcomes are met.

That’s one autonomy. But that’s what employees want. Employers want a different kind.

That would be automation

It’s a form of autonomy, sure!

But it takes people out of the equation more and more — people are messy and emotional — and it saves money (you don’t have to spend some of your revenue paying machines to do things).

Most guys (predominantly still guys) running companies have no idea on any “strategy” aside from “cut costs more?” so any cost-cutting strategy will win out. Plus robots won’t bug you for a raise, so that’s a double W.

The intersection point

Many employees want higher-purpose (millennials!) work, or at least not slave-driving spreadsheet crap. They want to work on it in their way so long as they meet the specs.

Employers generally want more productivity and less cost, so their version of “autonomy” is more “autonomous,” i.e. automation.

At the intersection point a lot of dangerous stuff is poised to happen, including:

  • Dissolution of traditional safety nets
  • Complete re-thinking of what education (esp. higher education) is
  • Need for new ways to generate income
  • Need for new ways to generate self-worth
  • Re-training programs and opportunities
  • Is everyone going to become an independent contractor for 4–5 huge firms?

Not a lot of people are thinking about this stuff right now, in large part because we’ve all been trained that “business discussions” need to be short-term to the max. “What have you done for me lately?”

The (semi) good news is that bureaucracy is still exploding in terms of Fortune 500 hiring and all that, so many people can continue to bury their heads in the sand on what’s happening with employer-employee dynamics.

Why is it so hard for employers and employees to get on the same page?

They don’t want the same things — at all.

Here’s a quick primer.

We’re just now getting to the place where it all begins hitting the fan over a period of about 25–35 years.

Think on your plan as it evolves, because this intersection will change a lot of how people think on life.

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