In 2012, Dan Lyons was let go from his job at Newsweek, where he’d been serving as Technology Editor from their Boston office. Fifty two years old at the time, he found himself at something of a crossroads: seek out another job in journalism, or try his hand at something new. He went with the latter.
That decision eventually took him to HubSpot, a youthful tech start-up with a trendy office space (read: ping-pong tables) preparing to go public. Given the impressively nondescript title of ‘Marketing Fellow’, it seemed like a sweet gig. Only, Lyons quickly discovered, it really wasn’t.
His experience – one of psychopathic culture codes, cult-like practices and frat-house rules – led him to write Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, a memoir documenting his tumultuous spell at HubSpot. Hailed as “the best book about Silicon Valley”, it was a skewering of start-up culture’s most dystopian elements: from yoga-ball chairs to hair-trigger firings.
Following that, Lyons turned his attention to the wider world of work. His second book, Lab Rats: Why Modern Work Is Making Us Miserable shines a light on how the oppressive practices he witnessed at HubSpot have spilt out from the tech industry and into traditional companies across the globe. The result: we’re all miserable.
Here, he tells us how they did it – and whether there’s any way back.
To put it bluntly: why are people miserable at work?
Money is a big deal. The amount of money that has shifted out of wages – if you look at the overall GDP of the United States, for example – is tremendous. If things had stayed the same for 40 years, in terms of the percentage of GDP that goes to wages, it would be an extra two trillion dollars per year that workers would be getting. But slowly, over time, that money has been siphoned away. We have this feeling of being poor, or poorer, but we can’t quite put our finger on it.
Job security is also a big one. The feeling of constantly worrying that you might lose your job does bad things to your brain. Change is another one, too: people are facing these really massive changes – both physical and intellectual – in how they work, and where they work. These changes are coming at people really, really fast and overwhelming them, to the point where they can’t do good work.
And of course, you talk a lot about the idea of dehumanisation.
The biggest one is dehumanisation. The way we’ve integrated technology into the workplace has hurt the human beings who work alongside the technology. If you look at coverage of AI, robotics, automation, the story you see over and over is, ‘Will AI take your job? When? How many jobs will be lost?’ I did a Google search the other day where I typed in ‘Will Robots…’ and the first 10 results were ‘… Take my job? Take all the jobs? Kill our jobs?’
But I think there’s an interesting aspect to that: what about those of us who don’t lose our jobs, but find ourselves working alongside machine intelligence in various ways? Because that’s already happening, to the point where companies are using AI to make hiring decisions; firing decisions. In between, they monitor people, surveil them, and manage them using data and algorithms. I think it’s weird, what that does to us as a species. It has a really profound effect on people.
Where are you seeing this?
If you look at an Amazon shipping centre, the way people work there, they’re essentially told, ‘You are a stop-gap measure. Ultimately we’ll get rid of humans altogether, but we can’t right now. So we need you to do just the things that the machines can’t do, and we need you to be as much like a machine as possible. As close to a robot as we can get.’
Same thing with Uber drivers. Uber makes no secret of the fact it can’t wait to get rid of drivers. You know, ‘We’ll have self-driving taxis, and then we’ll make money.’ Until then, the drivers are sort of managed by an algorithm. They don’t have a boss, they don’t have a human. They might have a centre where they can go and talk to somebody, but basically you’re driving around, a cog in the transportation machine, and if your score falls below 4.7, 4.5 – whatever it is – the machine fires you. I think it’s hard on people.
You say that the biggest export from Silicon Valley isn’t the tech, but the business models…
Yeah. And it’s relatively new. Until 20 years ago, it was just chips, servers, routers, software. The average person didn’t know who the CEOs of those tech companies were. That changed in what I call the second Dot-Com Boom, beginning I guess with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Silicon Valley began to export ideas about how to manage people. As their wealth and influence and awareness grew, [businesses outside of tech] embraced in Silicon Valley a new way of doing business: one that was really anti-human.
Why was it so anti-human?
Silicon Valley had come up with a new business model where companies never made a profit. They ran for years and years and years and lost money, but were subsidised by venture capitalists. In that model, there really wasn’t any room for keeping employees well. There was no incentive to keep employees around for a long time. In fact, there was a disincentive to do that. There became this way of managing people in which human beings became expendable – a cost that you could find various ways to keep down. It was a dangerous combination of things.
What made these models of running a company so appealing?
I think it was driven by fear. They thought these new guys were going to destroy them. They saw this happen at Blockbuster Video, or bookstores – like what Amazon did to bookstores – and they said, ‘Boy, we have to become more like them!’ Imagine if you’re running Walmart and you see Amazon. What can you do to stave off this beast that’s coming to eat every industry? It’s a valid concern, but the way companies are responding is mostly driven by fear, and mostly taking it out on their employees.
Knowing what you know, what are the universal hallmarks of a bad job?
Stress is a big one. Stress, anxiety and depression. It’s one thing to come home from work exhausted, but people feel emotionally wrecked by work. The psychological damage, that’s one thing they all have in common.
On the flip-side, I did some reporting around what the good jobs have in common. It was all about human-to-human connection: feeling safe, feeling welcome, feeling like you mattered, feeling like the company would invest in you. People who don’t have that – who feel like the company doesn’t care about them, like they don’t really matter – are unhappy.
Over the years, we’ve effectively seen a transition when it comes to characterising bad work: from physical toil to a psychological one.
That’s what I think. The psychological harm is new and different. And it’s much more lasting. This is not scientific, but in the ’80s there were two big songs about work – ‘Take This Job and Shove It’ by Johnny Paycheck, and Dolly Parton’s ‘9 To 5’. They were both like, ‘I’m working so hard, I get up so early, my boss is a jerk, just waiting for Friday!’ It would be harder to make a song that says, ‘My job has destroyed my self-esteem, I’m a shell of a human, I want to die constantly.’
On the other hand, you spend the final third of Lab Rats spotlighting companies who are doing things well. With that in mind, is there any way back?
I do think so. I was really heartened by all these companies that were really pushing back against this, and really trying to build a company that’s trying to provide a good quality of life for its employees. To make the world a better place by making these 50, 100 people able to have a nice life and support themselves.
Things have swung so far in the direction of exploitation that now you’ve seen this wave in the States, where there’s a new Congress and you have people like AOC who are really giving a voice to this notion of workers and dignity. They’re pushing back against the Amazons of the world, simply by standing up and calling them out on what they do. I hope there’s going to be more of that.
But I think there are three pillars to this: companies, on their own, trying to become better employers; lawmakers trying to change laws to make it difficult for companies to exploit workers the way they have; and for unions to become stronger again and for workers to realise that they need to bargain collectively. I think those three things could bring things around, yeah. It doesn’t necessarily have to keep going on this slope.
Lab Rats is available now on Atlantic Books.
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