Sunday 26 February 2017

How tech firms are changing everyone else's working life

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Phil Libin, chief executive officer of Evernote
Phil Libin, chief executive officer of Evernote

Say what you will about the technology industry. But it is unrivalled at providing a preview of how the rest of us will soon be working. When it comes to work practices, employment conditions and work-life balance, tech firms give us a glimpse of the near-future in ordinary offices around the country. Here are a few examples.

1 De-unionisation

Unions and tech companies aren't renowned bedfellows. But there are some signs that the wider private sector may be following suit. According to the Central Statistics Office, trade union participation in Ireland was 44pc in 1994. 10 years later, that had fallen to 35pc. The economic crash from 2008 on should have seen a fillip for union membership. But the last recorded figure, taken in 2012 before any real shoots of recovery were underway, showed the union participation number had fallen even further, to 31pc. And it seems unlikely that as the economy grows and unemployment falls, that figure will rise. One could try to blame Irish unions' relative disregard of the private sector and their focus on the public sector (where membership still stands at a whopping 68pc compared to 28pc for private industry). But another explanation is that Irish workers are taking the tech-centric view that unions can't do as much for them in the 'new' economy as in the 'old' one. (I write as a longstanding union ratepayer.)

2 Work-life balance

HR and lifestyle gurus constantly talk about trying to achieve a 'work-life balance'. But the tech industry is starting to flip the basic notion on its head. The mantra is not so much 'all work and no play' as 'your work is your play'. Increasingly, we're 'always on'.

"It's someone like me, who constantly strives for work-life integration," the chief executive of Evernote, Phil Libin, told me last year. "The main idea is that your job should be the main thing that you identify with. It's your life's work, if you look at it that way. We want people for whom their work is their main mission."

As a boss, one could see the attractions of promulgating this philosophy. And it also has its merits for workers, too; isn't it better to enjoy your work and pick something you like in the first place? But that's only half the story. Ultimately, this notion favours a start-up work ethic. In other words, 70- or 80-hour weeks with no genuine detachment at any point. For some, this is exciting. But it helps if what you're working on is something to get excited about. Many HR bosses are greedily eyeing the philosophy of the tech workplace and trying to introduce it to their goods-receivable departments. It is now common to hear on-message SME managers spout cheesy, pumped-up jargon about 'missions' and 'game-changing processes' in a bid to eke out extra hours from staff. "Hey, this will be like working for a start-up," is fast becoming a hackneyed phrase around Dublin in very non-tech firms.

3 How you're hired

It's not just the concept of time off that tech companies are changing. The way that you're hired and the legal basis on which you're employed are all being redefined by tech firms here. For example, recruitment processes are becoming more and more like aptitude tests. It is not unusual for candidates at some of Dublin's international tech firms to be called back to interviews several times and asked to undergo what are, to all intents, algorithmic tests. It's hard to escape the feeling that large tech companies are striving ever-harder to find 'zero-defect' candidates in the best engineering fashion. Interview 'trials' are also becoming more common. Tripadvisor, for example, asks people to solve a technical problem at the interview stage. This is actually quite a practical approach.

4 Language

We joke a lot about jargon creeping into our everyday workplace language. But language is important. And tech terminology is now penetrating more than most. From scaling our bandwidth to spamming to making the firm's services plug-and-play, digital speak is quickly updating processes we may already have had but bore no tags for. Phrases such as being 'plugged in' or 'multitasking' are long part of the furniture. But we now talk about 'huge pipes' into something or being 'cached out' (jaded).

Why is all of this happening? Whether we know it or not, it may simply be a manifestation of a barely-articulated economic fact: that we have to be more productive to keep up with rising Asian economies, especially India and China. American tech firms have had to squeeze more skills and productivity out of their work processes because it's the only way they can compete. We're now facing the same reality, which is that there are 50 million Indians who speak and write better than us, are more educated than us and are more productive than us. Despite being paid less than us, these highly-developed professionals rise to higher positions in academia and industry than we do. From almost any industrialist's perspective, they're a better bet. That is still something that we have not yet grasped. Yet perhaps the seeping tech culture in wider Irish industry is a sign that we are starting to come to terms with it, even without fully knowing it,

In short, if you're wondering what your working week may look like in five years, go to any emerging tech company now and you'll get a good idea.

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