Posts from employment

The Robot Tax And Basic Income

In my work to prepare for the Future of Labor conversation we had at NewCo Shift a few weeks ago, I talked to a number of experts who are studying job losses due to automation and thinking about what might be done about it. Two ideas that came up a number of times were the “robot tax” and the “basic income.”

The ideas are complementary and one might fund the other.

At its simplest, a “robot tax” is a tax on companies that choose to use automation to replace human jobs. There are obviously many variants of this idea and to my knowledge, no country or other taxing authority has implemented a robot tax yet.

A “basic income” is the idea that everyone receives enough money from the government to pay for their basic needs; housing, food, clothing so that as automation puts people out of work we don’t see millions of people being put out on the street.

What is interesting about these two ideas is that some of the biggest proponents of them are technology entrepreneurs and investors, the very people who are building and funding the automation technologies that have the potential to displace many jobs.

It is certainly true that we don’t know that automation will lead to a jobs crisis. Other technological revolutions like farming and factories produced as many new jobs as they wiped out and incomes increased from these changes. Automation could well do the same.

But smart people are wondering, both privately and publicly, if this time may be different. And so ideas like the robot tax and the basic income are getting traction and are being studied and promoted.

The latest proponent of a robot tax is Bill Gates who said this about it:

You ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed. That’s because the technology and business cases for replacing humans in a wide range of jobs are arriving simultaneously, and it’s important to be able to manage that displacement. You cross the threshold of job replacement of certain activities all sort of at once.

There is a lot of economic surplus that could come from automation. Let’s look at ride sharing. Today I pay something like $15 to go from my home to my office in the morning. Something like $10 of that ride is going to the driver. If the ride is automated, either the price goes to $5, saving me $10 a ride which then is surplus to me, or the profit that Uber is making goes up significantly, which is surplus to them. Some of both is likely to happen. This surplus could be taxed, either at the company level or the individual level, so that the cost of the ride doesn’t go down nearly as much and the driver can continue to compete with the robot or the driver can collect some basic income, funded by the robot tax, while they find a new line of work.

At least that is the idea.

I would not characterize myself as a proponent of a robot tax or a basic income. But I find these ideas interesting and worth studying, debating, discussing, and testing at a small scale to understand their impacts. We should absolutely be doing that.

From The Archives: Retaining Your Team

I picked up a bad head cold in SF this week. It’s rainy and cold there and that got the best of me. So I’m running a post from the archives and medicating myself instead of writing today.

Retaining Your Employees

I hate to see employees leave our portfolio companies for many reasons, among them the loss of continuity and camaraderie and the knowledge of how hard everyone will have to work to replace them. Many people see churn of employees in and out of companies as a given and build a recruiting machine to deal with this reality. While building a recruiting machine is necessary in any case, I prefer to see our portfolio companies focus on building retention into their mission and culture and reducing churn as much as humanly possible.

There isn’t one secret method to retain employees but there are a few things that make a big difference.

1) Communication – the single greatest contributor to low morale is lack of communication. Employees need to know where the company is headed, what they can do to help get there, and why. You cannot overcommunicate with your team. Best practices include frequent one on ones between the managers and their team members, regular (weekly?) all hands meetings, quick standup meetings on a regular basis for the teams to communicate with each other, and a CEO who is out and about and available and not stuck in his/her office.

2) Getting the hiring process right – a lot of churn results from bad hiring. The employee is asked to leave because they are not up to the job. Or the employee leaves on their own because they don’t enjoy the job. Either way, this was a screwup on the company’s part. They got the hiring process wrong. The last MBA Mondays post(two weeks ago) was about best hiring practices. Focus on getting those right and you will make less hiring mistakes and experience less churn.

3) Culture and Fit – Employees leave because they don’t feel like they fit in. Maybe they don’t. Or maybe they just don’t know that they do fit in. Another post in this series on People was about Culture and Fit. You must spend time working on culture, hiring for it, and creating an environment that people are happy working in. This is important stuff.

4) Promote from within. Create a career path for your most talented people. The best people are driven. They want to do more, develop, and earn more. If you are always hiring management from outside of the company, people will get the message that they need to leave to move up. Don’t make that mistake. Hire from within whenever possible. Take that chance on the talented person who you think is great but maybe not yet ready. Work with them to get them ready and then give them the opportunity and then help them succeed in the position. Go outside only when you truly cannot fill the position from within.

5) Assess yourself, your team, and your company. We have discussed various feedback approaches here before. There is a lot of discomfort with annual 360 feedback processes out there. There is a growing movement toward continuous feedback systems. Whatever the process you use, you must give your team the ability to deliver feedback in a safe way and get feedback that they can internalize and act upon. You must tie feedback to development goals. Feedback alone will not be enough. Build a culture where people are allowed to make mistakes, get feedback, and grow from them. I have seen this approach work many times. It helps build companies where churn rates are extremely low.

6) Pay your team well. The startup world is full of companies where the cash compensation levels are lower than market. This results from the view that the big equity grants people get when they join more than makes up for it. There are a few problems with this point of view. First, the big option grants are usually limited to the first five or ten employees and the big management positions. And second, people can’t use options to pay their rent/mortgage, send their kids to school, and go on a summer vacation with the family. Figure out what “market salaries” are for all the positions in your company and always be sure you are paying “market” or ideally above market for your employees. And review your team’s compensation regularly and give out raises regularly. This stuff matters a lot. Most everyone is financially motivated at some level and if you don’t show an interest in your team’s compensation, they won’t share an interest in yours (which is tied to the success of your company).

I believe these six things (communicate, hire well, culture matters, career paths, assessment, and compensation) are the key to retention. You must focus on all of them. Just doing one of them well will not help. Measure your employee churn and see if you can improve it over time. A healthy company doesn’t churn more than five or ten percent of their employees every year. And you need to be healthy to succeed over the long run.

The Future Of Labor

As I mentioned yesterday, I am moderating a panel this morning at NewCo Shift Forum on The Future Of Labor.

As I think about, there are three big megatrends impacting the future of labor/work.

The first has largely played itself out over the past thirty years and that is globalization and outsourcing. I believe we have seen most of the impact of that trend in the US as wages and the standard of living has risen dramatically around the world and has stagnated here in the US for the working class. We are not yet in balance with the rest of the developed/developing world, but we are getting close enough that it is a much harder decision now to move a job somewhere else.

The next two big megatrends are starting to happen and they will shape the next fifty years. They are the move to an on demand model for work and the automation of work.

And so, the two people that are joining me on stage this morning are people who can help us think about where all of this might be going.

Stephen DeWitt is the CEO of USV portfolio company Work Market. I wrote a bit about Work Market here a few months ago. Work Market’s software allows employers of all shapes and sizes to arrange the people they work with into labor clouds. These labor clouds include freelancers, contractors, and full time employees. When they need something done, they issue the work order to the labor cloud and someone picks up the work order and gets it done. If you think about many of the operational things companies do (provide customer service, install something, attend a marketing event, make a house call, etc), these labor clouds allow an employer to get the work done without thinking about the kind of relationship they have with the worker. This is the “on demand” model for work and I think we will see this model explode in the coming decades.

Maya Rockeymoore is the CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a think tank and advocacy organization that focuses on the needs of workers and their communities. She is an expert on the US Social Security System and has written extensively on it and other issues.

I talked to Maya last week in anticipation of this panel discussion and I wanted to get her take on what happens to all of the jobs we could lose to automation over the next few decades. She explained to that we may want to look at the safety net that we built with social security as a model. We will get into that in more detail this morning as that is an interesting idea to me.

I don’t think all the work opportunities will be gone in fifty years. But I do think the nature of work is changing quite dramatically in front of our very eyes. Some jobs will clearly be automated out of existence. We are already seeing that. And other jobs will go from being full time employment to on demand employment and that will require big adjustments from everyone, including policymakers.

I thought it was interesting in Henry Blodget’s talk at DLD, which I blogged this past weekend, that we have gained 30 hours a month in productivity over the past fifty years and that 28 hours of those gains have gone towards watching TV. We are going to gain even more hours in productivity over the next fifty years. And what we do with those hours will say a lot about who we are as people, what we value, and where we are headed as a society. It is very possible that jobs and work will matter less and other things will matter more, a concept my partner Albert has been considering in his book World After Capital.

We should be talking about these issues as a society instead of pretending that we are going to bring back all of the jobs lost to globalization and outsourcing over the past fifty years. Those jobs are more likely to be gone completely via automation than coming back to the US. So that’s what I plan to do with this panel today. It should be interesting.

Tapping Into The Global Job Market

Globalization is certainly a double edged sword for many people, but the truth is that over the past half century, the world has globalized enormously. We are now to the point that many employers around the world are looking outside their local or national talent pools for key hires.

Our portfolio company Jobbatical specializes in helping companies around the world hire from the global talent pool.

And it also helps people (maybe you are one of them) that want to think about working in a different country for a while.

Here are a few sample listings from Jobbatical’s explore page showing the diversity of job options that are available:

We think that the globalization of hiring is going to expand enormously over the next couple decades and we think Jobbatical has a fantastic opportunity in front of it. Hiring from the global talent pool has some unique challenges but that friction is what creates this opportunity.

If you are looking to hire someone from the global talent pool, list your job opportunity with Jobbatical.

And if you are looking to go work somewhere else for a while, explore the available jobs here.

Labor Clouds and Being Your Own Enterprise

My friend John Battelle published an interview with our portfolio company Work Market‘s CEO Stephen DeWitt yesterday.

There are a couple interesting ideas that are explained in that interview:

  • Labor clouds. It turns out that John’s new company NewCo is using Work Market to create and manage a labor cloud of writers and editors to create a new publication. Some of these writers and editors are full time employees, some are contractors, some are true freelancers. In the “labor cloud” model, you manage all of the labor you need to get something done in a single platform instead of three (or four, or five, or six).
  • My favorite line from the piece, and the one I tweeted out, is this “”By 2040, I’m pretty confident that every skilled worker will have their own signpost. You will be your own enterprise” I like the idea that people are going to have more agency over their work life, their careers, and the way they want to work. I think that leads us to a better place, for both employers and employees.

This vision for the enterprise is more than the “uberization of work” although many people will simply see it as that. It is a recognition that enterprises should not manage workers in silos based on how they pay them but instead they should manage their workers in a cloud which allows everyone to be paid and managed the way they want. That’s a transformative vision for the future of work.

Whither Labor?

It is Labor Day in the US, a day where we celebrate the organized labor movement. Though it wasn’t until 1894 that Labor Day became an official federal holiday, the concept of Labor Day goes back to the middle of the 19th century, when the labor movement really took off in the US.

The labor movement and the industrial economy go hand in hand. One begat the other.

But as globalization has caused the industrial economy to move to lower cost parts of the world, the role of labor in the US economy has declined.

And with automation on the horizon, it begs the issue of where the entire concept of labor is headed.

I don’t have any great answers to this question to be honest. But it is something I think about a lot. And so I will think about it a little bit more today.

Update: My partner has a longer and more thoughtful post on this topic on his blog today.

The “Losing Jobs To China” Discussion

I am bothered by the ongoing discussion about how the US has allowed China (and other lower cost countries) take our manufacturing jobs. That is true, of course. But it does not address the larger context which is that manufacturing is becoming more and more automated and many of these jobs will not exist at all anywhere in a few more decades.

We are now well into a transition from an industrial economy to an information economy. It seems to me that part of that transition was the move of industrial jobs to lower and lower cost regions in an ongoing march to reduce costs. But that march may end with massive automation and very little labor in the manufacturing process. That means that these low cost regions that “stole our jobs” will also lose these jobs eventually.

The US and a number of other countries around the world are building new information based economies. That is the long term winning strategy.

So while we can critique our leaders (business and political) for giving up on the manufacturing sector a bit too early, I think the US has largely played this game correctly and will be much better off than the parts of the world that have taken the low cost manufacturing jobs from us.

But we don’t hear any of our political leaders explaining this. I wish they would.

The Freelance Economy

I was on the phone last night with Stephen DeWitt, the CEO of our portfolio company Work Market. He was talking about a specific community of people and I asked him how many of them were likely to be freelancers. He said “well the statistics say that 3 to 4 out of every ten people these days are freelancers.”

I thought that sounded high but after reading Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, in which she says that “34 percent of the work force in the United States, 53 million people, now consider themselves independent contractors, short-term hires or other kinds of freelancers”, I think Stephen has it exactly right.

Look around you on the subway, the baseball park, the movie theater, 3 to 4 out of every ten people are freelancers. That’s a big number. And its growing pretty rapidly. Younger people are more inclined to be freelancers. Older people turn to freelancing for flexibility or economic necessity. And employers are more inclined to hire freelancers as technology makes the management and compliance requirements around freelancers easier to handle.

The biggest section of Mary’s report, some twenty or thirty slides if I recall, was on freelancers and the “on demand” economy. Technology, the Internet, mobile devices, and the communications and financial systems that have been built across all of these technologies is making freelance work easier and easier to issue and easier and easier to do.

When I got home last night for dinner, my son and his friend were checking out jobs on care.com. When I was their age, finding work was a manual process. Now you just pull out your phone, scan your feed, and get some work.

It’s a new era we are living in and the nature of work is changing and changing fast. There are tons of opportunities in and around this trend and we are invested in some of them. It’s one of the big megatrends of this century.