There’s an interesting extract in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, concerning discretionary effort: what could your employees do if they were properly motivated? I’m fascinated by this concept because of its open-ended character. Once one begins to think like this, it’s always possible to imagine your employees doing more. The full actualisation of discretionary effort is a vanishing point and this creates a space in which bullshit thrives: lionising managers for successfully robbing you of a life outside work, as well as all manner of motivational idiocy with little discernible relation to outcomes. From loc 2498:

Kalanick simply directed his team to work harder. “Never ask the question ‘Can it be done?’ ” he was fond of saying at the time, recalls one employee. “Only question how it can be done.” Kalanick left for LeWeb but stayed in touch from his hotel room over Skype video chat, his disembodied head still a loud, demanding presence in the office. Everyone was working around the clock, on little sleep and ebbing patience. “Someone turn Travis off!” yelled the new chief of product, a former Google manager named Mina Radhakrishnan, when Kalanick berated them for not having the service ready in Paris on time. Conrad Whelan, the company’s first engineer, recalls spending every day in the office, from 7: 30 a.m. to midnight, including weekends, for three weeks straight before the Paris launch. “This is the biggest thing I will say about Travis,” he told me years later. “He came to us and said, ‘Look, we are internationalizing and launching in Paris,’ and every single engineer was saying, ‘That is not possible, there is so much work, we will never be able to do it.’ But we got it done. It wasn’t perfect. But that was one of those moments where I was like, ‘This Travis guy, he is really showing us what is possible.’ ”

Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 3012-3032:

Slaving over computers and shouting about them can be thirsty work. Gates eventually instructed Miriam Lubow to keep Microsoft supplied with Coca-Cola. When a six-pack disappeared inside of five minutes, Bill explained that he was thinking more in terms of a case. “I had no idea that a company would give employees free drinks,” Lubow said, but she began ordering directly from Coca-Cola anyway. Thus was instituted Microsoft’s free Coke policy, a cornerstone of corporate culture that evolved over the years to include virtually any soft drink short of labor-intensive espresso. Instead of running out of the office or hunting up change for vending machines, employees with a powerful thirst could hit the fridge with no more than a minor derailment of their train of thought. Soft-drink consumption kept escalating, but ironically, Miriam Lubow herself was unable to take advantage of the policy. After developing a mysterious skin rash, she received medical orders to cease her Coke-a-day habit.

This policy evolved over time, eventually becoming something that resembled the staff perks for which Google are so renowned, but with a harder utilitarian edge. From Gates, loc 7253:

Hard-working adolescents: Although they eventually gained an eclectic collection of artwork, the buildings were sleek, no-nonsense steel and glass with industrial carpeting and subdued lighting. The walls lacked clocks, a disincentive to the timecard mentality. The long narrow hallways were flanked by offices on both sides, with easily accessible copy-and-supply rooms, plus canteens stocked with what had by now become a full range of free soft drinks, from sparkling water to natural fruit juices, one cooler from the Pepsi distributor, the other from Coke. Candy and snacks were available cheap. To discourage unproductive loitering, the canteens had room to stand and read the bulletin board but nowhere to sit.

As buildings were added—by the time of the move into the first four, work was already underway on building five—new cafeterias sprang up dispensing low-cost fare from around the Marriott institutional food globe—Mexican, Thai, Italian, vegetarian, hardcore carnivore. No need to waste valuable time going off campus for lunch: Everything you need is right on campus—except, often, a place to sit. As one former employee pointed out, “I don’t know if this is by design, but the seating areas are real small. So you go in and you buy your food and there’s nowhere to sit. So where do you go? You’re not going to put the food back; you paid for it. You go back to your office.”

Since first encountering the notion of discretionary effort, I’ve been fascinated by it. This is a definition I found on page one of Google:

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required. Many organizations manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement).

What renders discretionary effort so problematic is how difficult it is to verify the amount of effort people could give if they wanted to. Particularly if employees are conceived as rationally seeking to minimise their effort, it can license all sorts of performance related interventions in order to mine discretionary effort: heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest, in the pithy phrase used by Will Davies which I’ve been obsessed by since coming across it.

But things looks rather different is arenas where passion dominates occupational self-understanding. This is something I’ve blogged about a lot before but it’s been on my mind recently since I interviewed the team behind The Sociological Review’s excellent Gender and Creative Labour monograph (podcast coming soon on @thesocreview). The invocation of passion offers an entirely new way to mine discretionary effort, one that is perhaps more congruent with the day-to-day necessitaties of knowledge work orientated towards creative production. This is how a programmer described the experience of being a new hire in the early days of Microsoft, a place renowned for the expectations of long working hours that were perceived to dominate the employment culture of the firm. Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 2993:

Fresh from academe, he loved the challenge. “It wasn’t like there was pressure to work twelve-hour days. It’s like you were an astronaut or something. You just kind of loved working so much.”
Loc 2993

HT to Marcus Gilroy-Ware for telling me about this disturbing concept. This description by Arlie Hochschild is quoted in Bauman’s Consuming Life on pg 9:

Since 1997, a new term – ‘zero drag’ – has begun quietly circulating in Silicon Valley, the heartland of the computer revolution in America. Originally it meant the frictionless movement of a physical object like a skate or bicycle. Then it was applied to employees who, regardless of financial incentives, easily gave up one job for another. More recently, it has come to mean ‘unattached’ or ‘unobligated’. A employer might comment approvingly of an employee, ‘He’s zero drag’, meaning that he’s available to take on extra assignments, respond to emergency calls, or relocate any time. According to Po Bronson, a researcher of Silicon Valley culture, ‘Zero drag is optimal. For a while, new applicants would jokingly be asked about their ‘drag coefficient’.

I guess one’s drag coefficient is a way of making sense of constraints upon ‘discretionary effort’.