Book review: Lab rats, by Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons was tech editor at Newsweek until its collapse in 2013, where he moved into marketing for an internet startup. His experience there led him to investigate the work culture of silicon valley, and the way it experiments freely with human behaviour in pursuit of profit. After the bestselling memoir Disrupted, that research has been brought together into the humorous but also deadly serious Lab Rats: Why modern work makes people miserable.

Silicon valley is exciting, and huge bloated fortunes have been made in a handful of companies. Their CEOs are often hailed as geniuses, and their management style gets copied and adapted in the hope that some of the magic can run off. Unfortunately, they are often deeply inhuman ways of working, warns Lyons. “My fear is that in their desire to imitate Silicon Valley tech companies, companies from other industries will adopt its methods and mores, including its new compact with labour and its high-stress, anti-worker philosophy.”

For example, there’s a theory that if you want excellence from your staff, they shouldn’t get too comfortable. Job security will make them complacent. Keep them hungry and motivated by making them compete, playing for their place on the starters bench. “We’re a team, not a family” is a stated policy in companies that pursue aggressive growth and productivity. Psychologically however, it means unmanageable stress levels, constant fear, burnout and high turnover. While every company has to observe physical health and safety standards, there is no such concern for psychological wellbeing.

Another problem is that the gurus of Silicon Valley are computer programmers. They started out writing code, and apply the same logic to managing people. “Think of yourself as a machine within a machine” says one. Management is often delegated to machines, from AI job interviews to constant surveillance. This dehumanises the workforce, often leading to unreasonable demands and no one to turn to. Neither is it a marginal concern – millions of people now work providing services for big tech companies. If you drive for Uber, you are managed by an app. You have no line manager, no human contact with the ‘machine’.

Many workers live with constant change. It might be new technologies or new management structures or philosophies – Lyons devotes chapters to dissing Agile and other scientific management techniques. Companies feel threatened and the pressure to grow and deliver profits never lets up, so they keep trying new things. That piles stress on staff, despite research showing that less than a third of change initiatives make any difference. You may well have some experience of this. I do, up to a point. And since work is where most people spend the majority of their working lives, workplaces that treat people well are absolutely at the heart of a fair economy.

The book looks into change, how office layouts affect wellbeing, how the internet has accelerated bad work culture, the Silicon Valley idolising of workaholism and much more. Lyons particularly enjoys writing about Silicon Valley gimmickry and the cult of particular business theorists, and those are funniest sections. But he’s not afraid to broach some difficult topics too, including inequality, the rise of shareholder capitalism and how wages have been eroded. He talks to the people involved, both ordinary employees and CEOs, burned out victims and venture capitalists.

My favourite chapters come at the end, where the author turns to companies doing things differently. I was particularly impressed with Basecamp, an internet business that proves that treating employees well is not at odds with turning a profit. It turns out that older ways of doing things are in many ways better: treating people as you want to be treated. Human dignity. Pride in your work, and a sense of belonging. It’s not rocket science, and a counter-movement of social entrepreneurs and impact investors is flourishing and growing in influence.

“We have an academic infrastructure, a generation of idealistic young people, and piles of money looking for a home” says Lyons. “These things are coming together just as the problems caused by shareholder capitalism are becoming so painful and so obvious that they can no longer be ignored.” This chimes with what we describe in my own book, The Economics of Arrival, and its sections on good work – there is hope for something more humane on the other side of our current culture of greed.

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