Changing the Workforce Rules

SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - There are rules, and there are rules that work. The first may be found in the employee handbook or posted on the company's intranet. These rules and company policies really have little or nothing to do with how we think about or behave at work. What really packs a wallop are the rules we don't even acknowledge as rules: the values about work we learned in kindergarten and elementary school.

It's about as hard for most people to let go of these rules as it is for Microsoft to release the source code for Windows. Never mind that the rules don't work anymore, if they ever did. They were designed for another time and place. The Internet economy imposes new conditions and requires a new set of rules. For instance, consider these five old but familiar rules of work, remembering that sometimes the most important thing you have to do is to decide what you should forget. Let's examine why these deeply respected and entrenched rules of the Old Economy no longer apply in an Internet economy.

1. There's no room for fun at work

Our teachers were our first models for people at work. Our parents also modeled attitudes toward work, but most children didn't actually see their parents working. In any case, many of us learned that there is work and there is time off and that there is no room for fun at work.

I went to public school in New York. Perhaps teachers there had a clause in their employment contract forbidding any fun at work. I doubt it, but that's the way most teachers behaved. Sometime in the distant past, people must have had at least a little fun at work. But at some point fun was mostly banished from the workplace. Most of the rigidity of the command-control, hierarchical organization was installed to eliminate the possibility that some workers, someplace, were actually enjoying their job.

One of the happier outcomes of the Internet economy is that work can be fun again. To be sure, long hours at Web startups can be brutal. But when people work as long and as hard as they do in today's competitive companies, when the line between huge financial success and total economic failure is paper-thin, there's only one thing that can keep the energy in a workplace flowing: fun.

Very simply, if the work isn't enjoyable, the company won't attract the best talent. The lesson is so obvious that it's easily forgotten: Friendship and camaraderie are basic adhesives of the human spirit.

Fun has grown up. Many Web workplaces resemble playgrounds or arcades, with pingpong tables, karaoke, video games, constant supplies of free pizza and caffeinated soft drinks, even sleeping rooms if you need to crash for a few hours between another furious round of coding and volleyball. It's less the case that business is fun; in the Internet economy, fun is business. Many companies even have a leader focused on creating more purposeful fun for the organization. These companies have learned that play can have a purpose. Adults who have lost the ability to play have lost an essential element of their creativity. By helping their employees reclaim their ability to play, these companies unleash a torrent of new energy and creativity.

2. Workers are worms. Get used to it

My teachers believed in the golden rule: Those that have the gold make the rules. Employees, in this philosophy, were powerless and without voices, unable to protect themselves. Their best strategy for survival was to shut up, do what they were told, and keep a low profile.

This is a prescription for disaster for any job candidate in the Internet economy. Success now goes to people who claim their power, believe they can make a difference, and act on that belief for the benefit of the customer.

The Internet economy shifts the balance of power from employers to employees, just as it shifts power from sellers to buyers. Increasingly, employees are calling the shots, from telling employers what they are worth to dictating the compensation packages they expect. Most companies appreciate this can-do, hyperaggressive attitude. They will want you to link your compensation to outcomes. You have your power? Good. They want it. Show them what you can do!

3. You can be replaced easily

Another lesson I learned is that workers, like students, are interchangeable cogs in a big machine; if you don't toe the line, someone more qualified than you is just around the corner waiting to take your place.

The truth is that in the Internet economy you can't be replaced easily. Net employers know it and they know job candidates know they know it. With unemployment in technical specialties at all-time lows, companies are forced to respect employees in ways that our teachers never considered. The point today is employee retention and recruitment. The result? Signing bonuses, stock options, sports cars, sabbaticals. E-businesses understand that they are fueled by one thing and one thing only: creative, talented people. E-business leaders know that their most valuable assets ride the elevator out of the building every day, which means that their biggest challenge isn't the competition for products, it's the competition for human resources. The No. 1 competency for the companies voted Forbes' Best Places to Work is recruitment and retention.

Are you a talented, creative person? Guess what? The balance of power has shifted to your side. You may not know it, but it's a fact. You get to exercise a degree of personal autonomy in your job search and career that is absolutely unprecedented. Let's assume you have the right combination of talent, competencies, and attitude. In a seller's market for talent, you get to shop for the right boss, the right colleagues, and the right environment. In the Old Economy, it was a buyer's market: Enterprises had more people than slots, and the question they asked was "Why should we hire you?" In the Internet economy, there are more opportunities needing talented people and there are no slots anymore. Now the question is, "What else can we tell you so that you will lend us your allegiance?"

4. Don't talk about money

My sixth-grade guidance counselor sometimes led the class through some role-playing for job interviews. The section on negotiating a salary always went like this:

Interviewer: The job pays US$65 per week.

Candidate: I'll take it.

My guidance counselor's sense of negotiation was generally stunted, but when it came to discussing money, she had all the agility of sludge. In this, she was a product of her time. Money always has been important to employees and business.

Yet in the traditional economy, there was a stupefying level of pretense about money. Even though it was the first thing on the mind of the candidates ("How much money can I get?"), and it was the first thing on the minds of the managers doing the hiring ("How much money will I have to pay?"), money was the absolute last item on the agenda.

The Internet economy, happily, is dismantling this pretense. Critics call the new generation of workers greedy and selfish, only interested in what they can get. That's absolutely true, just as it always has been. Only now we have the decency to acknowledge it. The irony is, the more we acknowledge it, the less it is true. It turns out that once we have a frank conversation about money, get what we are worth, and get it out of the way, other things begin to take on as much or more importance: learning opportunities, more training, cool people to work with, personal autonomy. All these can and do become more important than money.

So in the Internet economy, the conversation about money comes first. And for talented people with Web savvy, what a conversation it is. Money talks and it's on speaking terms with Web talent. The Internet economy is simply, or perhaps not so simply, awash in money. All of this money lubricates the job market. For some people, its very availability has given some people permission to show how important it is to them. For others, all that cash has relaxed them to focus on different issues in the job search. The good news is that for talented and competent candidates, there is more money available today than ever before.

Freshly minted Web designers with a couple of decent Web sites under their belts command premium salaries and extras such as stock options. Signing bonuses and first-year salaries can run higher than $100,000.

5. Climb the career ladder

My guidance counselor drew a diagram of a ladder on the blackboard. It was my first glimpse of an organization chart. At the bottom was the mail room, where new employees invariably started. Then at roughly three-or four-year periods you climbed up the rungs, making the steps from clerk to junior analyst to department head to vice president to company president, with intermediate stops in widely separated geographic locations along the way. She called this climbing the career ladder. Later, in English class, I learned that these kinds of fables are what they called fiction.

The least lamented casualty of the Internet economy is the traditional career ladder. The Net flattened the corporate hierarchy, systematically stripping most of the rungs out of the ladder. That's good. For Web wanna-bes, the career ladder was a disaster, a component of a reward system that calibrated corporate success in just two dimensions: higher and bigger -- loftier titles, bigger offices, more direct reports. The trouble is, fewer and fewer Web players are motivated by such extrinsic rewards.

Web people by and large derive job satisfaction from the intrinsic qualities of the job: elegantly solving a problem, working with the latest tools, understanding a new concept. For Web professionals today, the path ahead may not necessarily be higher, wider, or bigger. Careers have become a series of assignments. In today's flattened, distributed enterprises, progress may mean going sideways, staying level, or even -- for a compelling long-term advantage -- going down. Skill sets and frontline experience are the coin of this new realm. Titles are meaningless. Job descriptions a relic of yesterday. The size of your office? You're never there anyway. Seniority, the gold ring of the traditional career ladder, may actually be a handicap. The traditional career ladder is as obsolete as the keys to the executive washroom.

The old career-ladder paradigm took outstanding technical people at the peak of their creative years and more or less forced them into administration and management positions, adding responsibilities for which, by temperament and training, few were prepared. The momentum for this perverse strategy was the rigid compensation structures of companies. Most companies had ceilings for how much money technical people could make because it was unacceptable for a technician to be making more than his or her manager.

Not all the rules we learned in kindergarten are wrong, of course. It still pays to take turns, clean up the messes you make, put back the things you took out, and hold hands crossing the street. But there is a whole class of unexamined lessons about the nature of work, money, labor, and jobs that bears scrutiny. Try to scrutinize what you were taught. Hold these lessons up to the light of the new work environment. Some continue to have value. Hang on to these. Other rules are entirely irrelevant or, worse, destructive. Let them go.

The challenge is to consider what you value and to select the rules that help create the conditions that give you what you want.

John Kador, the author of Internet Jobs: The Complete Guide to Finding the Hottest Internet Jobs (McGraw-Hill, 2000), is thriving in the Internet economy despite some questionable advice he received from his sixth-grade guidance counselor. He can be reached at www.jkador.com.

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