Remote work models with Microsoft’s Researcher Mary L. Gray

Mary L. Gray is a Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, an Associate Professor at Indiana University and the co-author of the book of “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass”. She’s also a Fellow at Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Her book, “Ghost Work”, explores the lives of people who are paid to train artificial intelligence and, increasingly, serve as “humans in the loop” delivering on-demand services.

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Luis:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the DistantJob podcast, the podcast that’s all about building and leading awesome remote teams. I’m your host, Luis, and my guest today is Mary L. Gray. She is the co-author of a new book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass. She is a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and a senior researcher at Microsoft Research. She has a faculty position at School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, with affiliations in Anthropology, Gender Studies and the Media School at Indiana University. She studies how technology accesses material conditions, and everyday uses of tech transforms people’s lives. And that’s about all. So, welcome Mary.

Mary:

Thank you, Luis. At some point I need to have you redo my title, it changed.

Luis:

Oh, okay. That’s fine.

Mary:

Sorry about that.

Luis:

Well, I’m happy for you to read it as soon as we transition into that part of the conversation, which I will do momentarily. So, I want to talk about this book, but I want to warn the listeners beforehand that this is, as I say at the beginning of podcast, about building and leading remote teams. And while the book might not seem to be specifically about that, there are some points of overlap that I think will be very useful to the podcast listeners. So, I will not exhaust the conversation about the book. This is a trend that I find worrying, as I talked to you off the record, that there’s this thing that is happening in the internet that book writers and authors go on tour and they do the podcasts and the TED Talks and the YouTube channels, and then people say, “Well, I’ve got the good stuff from the interviews, I don’t need to read the book.” And I think that’s, number one, misguided, but number two, it also deprives us of the opportunity to actually go into some more areas in more detail in conversation.

Luis:

So, I hope that the purpose of this podcast is to find the areas where your studies and your book overlaps with what we experience in remote management and leadership, and of course, incentivize people to actually go and read the book, which I personally found super readable. It’s not a small book. At least my digital version clocked at something like 280 pages, and I usually take about a week to read that kind of book, and I read through it in two days and a half, something like that. It’s a very nice. So, I guess, congratulations.

Mary:

Thank you. We worked hard to make it as easy as possible for the reader.

Luis:

Yeah. So, let’s start. Where did the title change?

Mary:

So, I’m a senior principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and I’m a fellow at the EJ Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, and a faculty affiliate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

Luis:

Got it, got it. So, this book, the title has a critical stance, a bit of a critical stance. But the book, I found, is actually quite even-handed inside, when it comes to actually saying how this kind of work needs tweaking, but can definitely be beneficial for people in different countries with different demands on their time and social restrictions and stuff like that. So, I found it an interesting read throughout, and it definitely… It paints a picture of a new kind of work that’s been developing in the shadows, so to say, and some of parts of the book lead me to feel that we’re starting to become a bit of a dystopian Matrix-like society, where actually the machines aren’t using as batteries but kind of as gears in their systems.

Luis:

On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of potential, so I kind of want to start with, why did you feel the necessity to write this book now with your colleague?

Mary:

So, when my co-author, Siddharth Suri and I set out to look at the lives of people who are often part of a contract relationship to train artificial intelligence, they’re really a necessary component to model artificial intelligence, to clean the training data that we all generate when we’re coasting around online, we realized that we also wanted to capture not just their work experiences doing that contingent work but also this world of services that are building up among startups that want to effectively build out a business model where people are serving as a human in a loop for a moment of customer service. And the goal isn’t to replace them in the short-term at all. It’s really to see the value of having somebody who’s available on demand in the moment.

Mary:

So, the book is really meant to be a hopeful warning, to say we’re at the very beginning of building out these new forms of work that aren’t niche jobs that go away with automation. They’re actually new forms of employment that restructure our relationship to work, and billow out from the growth of artificial intelligence. And the warning lights around Ghost Work are to say, those are the work conditions when we fail to recognize that people are at work, and that we’re seeing companies that intentionally or unintentionally suggest that people aren’t as valuable as the software. As soon as we go down that road, we’re losing an opportunity to really value what people bring as a collective, as a kind of shared abundance, to other businesses and to consumers. It’s meant to be a cautionary but optimistic take on what is this new world of work, and how inspiring it was to us to see workers navigate this world that’s today not organized to serve them at all.

Luis:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So, I actually feel that there’s a common trend that I’m seeing more and more, and I’d like to believe the recruiting business that I’m part of, DistantJob, helps bring a bit of awareness to that. We are living, still, in a capitalistic society, and I have nothing against capitalist, I believe it’s a great, value-generating system. But it does have its blind spots, and we need to be vigilant against the blind spots that tend to reduce the individual based on their capacity to produce, and we should assign intrinsic value to the individual. That’s something that we learned during the Renaissance.

Mary:

Exactly.

Luis:

So, I’m sitting here in my cozy room. I like to call this the video game room because my Macbook decided to have a last-minute malfunction. And all of this, the comfort with which we lead our lives today, it is possible by that value-generated system, but we do need to care for the people. And you were going to say something? Please.

Mary:

Well, no, exactly. I think if we realize how many of the systems we put in place to make our work lives sustainable, everything from the way we organize retirement to in most cases how we think about funding healthcare, job readiness, unemployment, you name it. It’s all organized around a very, I’d argue, old-fashioned model of productivity, which is that a person has a shift, they go into a factory, they build a thing, and they exit the factory. And that’s an abstraction, that’s in some ways a goal that was set internationally hundreds of years, that in many ways, in many corners of the world, that’s not what organizes people, people’s economic activity and productivity. It’s organized through relationships, through offering a very specific service to meet a need that’s an immediate need. So, this way of working that we are describing, and the book, I can’t do justice to the first-hand accounts that we capture in the book. There’s so many of them.

Luis:

Oh yeah, they have some great stories.

Mary:

Yeah. I mean, it’s driven by those stories, and then empirically built out with a lot of quantitative data about, what do we know about the routines and the rhythms of people doing this work? We kept circling back to this reality that, for many people, the current organization of formal employment, of an office job, it neither meets their needs, which are often about setting their schedules, about being able to make choices about the projects they work on, about being able to make choices around who they collaborate with and how they enjoy those social work relationships. None of those needs are readily met with the kinds of service sector employment that is for the most part where we see job growth. I think we’ve all been in kind of deep denial that the kinds of jobs that you coordinate, they are the way of the future. They’ve really been the current state of affairs, and have dominated our economy for a good two decades.

Luis:

Oh yeah, yeah, for sure. And even more… Look, what happened was that, it used to be that a barber lived on the first floor of his workplace, and then got down to the ground floor where the shop was located. Same with the people who made the perfumes, same with the dentists, same with the blacksmiths. And then the industrial revolution happened, and everyone was driven, because with the industrial revolution came a huge upgrade in what could be achieved in work, but it came with a lot of physical costs. You needed machinery, you needed instruments that were not affordable to the individual, so people needed to band. And that necessity for people to band meant that they had to move their job from their home and their daily lives into… The work was integrated with their daily lives, and they needed to move it into a location where the job was integrated with the work, with the jobs of other people. But that was a long time ago.

Luis:

Now we’re moving into a society that’s not so much about physical apparatus but more about bits and bytes. Because everything that’s physical is being infinitely more affordable, but we’re having a hard time letting go of the mentality that we still need to leave the house. We need to be getting back to the house.

Mary:

I mean, the hardest part about letting go of that reality is that most of what we have socially and politically organized to make that reality sustainable doesn’t fit this new world of work. And that is the biggest challenge, and again, the biggest opportunity facing all of us is that we have the chance to rewrite the social contact that goes along with what it means to work today. And most of what we have written was written for mass production, for factories, as you noted, and often in places in the Global North that meant there was a concentration of who was going to get factory jobs, how those were protected.

Mary:

The greatest intervention didn’t come from a market solution. It was workers collectively saying, “Hey, we can’t work from dawn until dusk,” for example, seven days a week, or six days a week. So, all of the energy that went into making the everyday work life of somebody on a factory line inhabitable, livable, is now something we need to rethink for exactly what we were talking about, this knowledge economy that we’re in now. Most of what we sell is service, it’s information. What we exchange are experiences. And we really don’t have economic models, and we definitely don’t have a kind of bundle of social benefits to recognize the value of people contributing to those economies.

Luis:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. That’s something that we’re trying to practice here, which is we don’t see remote work as project-based on in and out. We want to help people develop full-time careers. That’s our goal here. So, I was super interested, something that you mention in chapter two I believe is that workers aren’t doing this just to meet their basic needs. They’re doing this because, well, in some cases because this kind of on-demand work and flexibility adapts better to their lifestyles. But also because sometimes, some take it as a relief from pressures and [inaudible 00:14:45] on the typical day jobs. So, I want to go a bit deeper into this, because I know you’ve studied, you saw a lot of data, but you actually interviewed a lot of people. How do people find meaning in this kind of work? Because what I get a lot is that people tell me that they tend to have a harder time finding meaning in work they do at the computer from home, than finding meaning when they go into the office and have the social component there. So, what’s the trick, the mindset that these people are using to find meaning in their work?

Mary:

That’s a great question. And you know, this book is built on thousands of surveys of workers, hundreds of multi-hour interviews with people who let us into their lives, and we spent almost two years with sets of workers across four different business models, four different platforms, two countries. So I can say, everything that’s in the book, and I’m talking about that’s coming out of the book is really grounded in this pretty deep set of empirical studies that tell us people make meaning out of their work. So, chapter four I think is the chapter you’re referencing, where we talk with people about, what did you value beyond the money? And a lot of times, when we’re talking about on-demand economies or project-based work, and careers and freelancing in on-demand work, the assumption is it’s about choosing flexibility. And I want to poke at that a bit, I want to complicate that. Because what we found were people who, whether they were coming at this work from formal employment or other opportunities, they were looking for ways to organize their work around their lives. They found work meaningful because they could participate in defining it, versus having someone tell them what they were going to work on, and most critically when they were going to work.

Mary:

So, I think it’s really important for us all to really challenge the language of flexibility, and I think it’s a false choice here. We don’t need to choose between whether there’s lots of opportunities out there or no opportunities. It’s rather, when people are looking at the job opportunities in front of them, what are they evaluating? What’s their cost risk benefits analysis here? And for many people, it is the constraints of a schedule set by someone else, and the constraints of projects that don’t match what interests them and where they know they can bring a lot of passion and interest and engagement.

Mary:

I think we sell short how important it is for people to connect with what they do. If you look at the day-to-day of people doing this work, yeah, sometimes it can be really mundane work. But what makes it meaningful is that they have a very clear sense of what brought them to the job that’s right in front of them, to the task at hand. That’s, to me, when we’re thinking about, whether it’s the stay-at-home parents we talked with who found value in this work because it meant that they could care for their loved ones, often children and their older family members, and still feel that they were not just contributing economically to their families but balancing their schedules in ways that felt fulfilling, that gave them their life back. Or, meeting individuals who, frankly, felt marginalized by formal employment. So, the jobs that are in front of them, they didn’t fit office culture. We had women who talked about feeling uncomfortable in the kind of environments where sexual harassment was not checked, and that this was a way of moving out of those situations.

Mary:

So, this is both a way of looking at what is it that people can get from work when they have more control over those elements of how they structure their jobs, but also it tells us what’s not working in formal employment, places where we’re still failing working people. So, it can serve as a bellwether for both those paths in thinking about, what do we do to make career paths in formal employment attractive and effective? But also, to be able to see how many people are making their own paths, and why that’s productive for all of society.

Luis:

Oh yeah, absolutely. I totally understand the part that sometimes the meaning in work is already in the work, and what people struggle is to find the conditions on which they can do that work while still handling other stuff that’s important, and that’s where I come from, from the flexibility part. Flexibility in itself seems pretty useless if you’re not doing something that you enjoy doing, right?

Mary:

Exactly.

Luis:

But I was really drawn to a part on the book. It was small, it was maybe two paragraphs, but where you illustrate the plight of women who have been told, and have maybe been pushing towards wanting it all. A career, but also a family life and caring for their kids, and et cetera. And this is actually a place where I’m noticing a lot of movement in the remote world. Someone told me on the podcast, actually, just a few weeks ago, that he thinks that the greatest untapped working pool of the next two years is the mothers in tech, the mothers in technology. Because these are people who love their work, who really want to have a career, but at the same time also want to have that family.

Luis:

And now, we as a society, it’s currently, we can do better to value the work that people do in the home, to value the work that people do as caregivers. But the reality is that the day only has 24 hours, and offering this possibility to these people that are passionate about their work, to actually do it from home and maybe have a different schedule that’s tailored to their life instead of imposing their life, that’s a huge step. That’s actually a huge step. It feels from the book that you agree, but although I’d come from this from a full-time employment perspective, where it’s full-time, although the scheduling works in the person’s favor, it seems that a lot of people, from your interviews… You use the ghost work as a negative but then you use another term as a positive, on-demand work, I believe.

Mary:

Yes.

Luis:

Yeah, examining this kind of on-demand work to fill that niche. So, how do you see these people… Let’s take the specific case of the stay-at-home mothers who want to build their careers. Do you think that the optimal future would be for these people to transition into full-time but flexible employment? Or do you think that it’s good to have this dip in, dip out kind of work, but with the bigger safety net and social benefits?

Mary:

Yeah, this to me is the crux of the question. In some ways, it’s on us to create a situation where those are both possibilities. So, I think the biggest mistake we make is that we keep trying to fit this reorganization of work into old models. So, either it’s going to be full-time, or it’s going to be something contingent. And what we found in our research was actually, most of these on-demand economies, where the real value is not just in that moment of service, in making one’s capacities available to a business or a consumer, but literally being able to have the aggregation, the abundance, what we used to in capitalism call surplus. What we really have are an abundance of people who are standing at the ready, and the value to the consumer, business, is an array of availability.

Mary:

So, it’s both valuing that moment of exchange where I’ve done something for you, but it’s also valuing this collective availability, this abundance. Those are the kind of two missions of Ghost Work, to value on-demand work. And if we think about it that way, what the research tells us is that we’ve got a real distribution of participation that cuts across all of these labor platforms. We found this in every single situation where platforms organize opportunities for employment. You’ve got about 10% of people who have really committed at this moment in their life, they’re always on, and they’ve turned this into their main income stream. They’re often working for more than one platform to find employment opportunities.

Mary:

But then you’ve got this really important core group of regulars. And if I had to pick who’s in the group of regulars, it is often stay-at-home parents, who are at a point in their lives where they have two or three hours that they can give, and they’re picking when those two or three hours happen. They might [inaudible 00:25:10] a week, they might do them in a day. They might do more than those hours as their month ebbs and flows. And then you have a long tail of people who are experimenting, a long tail of people who are experimenting, coming on to a platform, checking out, doing one or two projects, trying to see, is this a fit for them? And for a range of reasons, they decide no, that they’re going to move on to other kinds of work that are formal employment work opportunities.

Mary:

And guess what? For DistantJob listeners this is probably no surprise. Depending on where you are in your career and in your life, and who you need to care for, you might occupy any one of those three profiles. So, there’s not one kind of worker coming to this form of employment, of being on demand. But what was constant was that these platforms depend on the variation of participation. That’s what makes these on-demand markets work, is that you don’t have just a steady core who are set for a shift. And this is the paradox here, is that if you did that, you’re pretty much recreating full-time employment.

Mary:

The need for people to be able to step in and out, and the interest people have in trying different opportunities with different platforms, is this really potentially fruitful mix that means individual workers can meet their interests, and consumers and businesses that really are reliant have built their services on contingency, on people being able to be there on a moment’s notice, and that they aren’t trying to retain them as a full-time employee for 20 years. Which, now, when you say out loud… Whenever I talk with young people about, “Do you picture joining a company and staying there for 20 years?” No. Most people coming into the workforce are not thinking of that as what defines their opportunity. So, it’s a really interesting moment of looking, how these labor platforms offer a point of reflection for all of us about, what is that mix of business need, consumer need and worker interest, that best meets everybody’s needs?

Luis:

Well, so there are a couple of threads that I want to pull on here. I want to talk a bit about career and personal development, so let’s plant a flag there. But first, you did mention surplus. So, here’s the thing about surplus. I used to work in dental clinics. In one dental clinic in particular I was helping the owner, and the reason he wouldn’t have more dental cabinets for dentists to work on, when he had people waiting in the waiting room almost constantly. And what he told me is, “Look, if I have an empty dental office, that surplus is costing the company money. The people waiting in the waiting room don’t cost me any money at all.” Now, if he had had that surplus, that dental office, the onus of the cost wouldn’t be on the dentists working there, it would be on the business, which was bad for him, but generally in society I think it’s better overall.

Luis:

What happens in these platforms with the surplus is that the onus is on the worker. The onus is on the worker that is really on stand-by and not getting any benefit out for it. So, how do we shift, part at least? I mean, obviously I want businesses to have money and be successful because that’s how more labor is created and everyone benefits. But at the same time, we need to shift a bit of the burden of the surplus that’s currently almost 100% on the worker that’s available to the company. How do we go about doing that?

Mary:

Yeah. So, the conclusion of the book is one stop-shopping for a list of fixes that are really grounded in us asking workers, “What’s working for you, and what is getting in your way, to being more productive, being able to contribute more?” So, there are some good details there. But I think most importantly is all of us redefining and shifting to thinking about abundance rather than surplus. Because the model you gave really depends on one work site, you’ve got foot traffic coming in a pretty narrow door. And in many ways, we haven’t imagined what it means to be able to have really a kind of boundless, at least a permeable boundary to business being able to offer services to customers and businesses who are their clients, that meets those ebbs and flows of demand, but also recognize the value of the people who are riding that ebb and flow.

Mary:

So, to your point, right now all of that cost is shifted to workers if they’re working on a contract. I think what we all have to remember is that the only thing that’s ever adjusted those cost-benefits and the costs moving from a business to a worker unduly, it’s not a market solution. It’s where we collectively, socially say, “This is the new bargain. I’m going to make myself available to a business or consumer, and in exchange, I get X.” We haven’t defined the new set, the bundle of rights and obligations and benefits that come with stepping into situations where there is no guarantee that you’re going to put to service and therefore you’re going to get paid. So, what can we do about that?

Mary:

One thing we could do is start thinking in terms of portable benefits. So, for everybody who’s extracting value, literally making money of off somebody’s labor, what is it that they’re putting on the table in that exchange that isn’t just about, “I’m paying you for the service you did just now,” but is literally saying, “And I need to underwrite you coming back.” And I’m actually not underwriting you coming back, I’m underwriting somebody like you coming back. That’s why I think this is an abundance. I no longer have to invest in a single employee and hope it works out and hope they stay interested.

Mary:

I literally can say, for every project, and that project can be somebody getting their teeth cleaned, that project can be somebody who needs a web design, that project can be data labeling to train artificial intelligence. But if I approach it as every project’s going to have a new set, you definitely get this, your listeners get this, a new set of teammates who are coming to that task and they’re going to execute, and what they’re doing is giving it their all. They’re doing what they can, we’re trusting that that’s what they’re doing, and when they execute on a project and the new project comes along, the funding that’s there to make it possible so that the person who’s been participating is given a break, because right now we only give breaks to people who are full-time. But literally what makes that possible is that there’s an agreement that says along that value chain, anybody who’s made money, extracted value from somebody’s labor, they’re kicking in to pay, to underwrite that person coming back. And that includes the person coming back.

Mary:

The idea, in fact I was having this conversation with an economist a couple of weeks ago. The idea that somehow if you’re working as a contractor, freelancer, that you’re somehow choosing to take on more risk, and therefore you should pay more for taking on that risk. That’s absurd.

Luis:

Yeah, it is. I can sympathize with a lot, because when I started my writing career, I started actually on these kinds of websites, where you take on writing assignments. And it became very obvious to me… I mean, you give some good recommendations of good websites that people can actually go and that actually treat the workers well. But in my case, what I found out was that it really was a race to the bottom. I quickly had to figure it out that I need to learn some self-marketing and transition into a freelance business as quickly as possible, because this kind of work was going to require an overwhelming amount of effort for increasingly reduced reward. And then I went into freelance, which, it paid better, but again, the burden of the risk was on me. So, I’m totally onboard.

Luis:

Now, there’s different answers to that. My answer was to start being an advocate for full-time remote work with different rules than the usual full-time work, because it doesn’t make sense to have remote and just be remote as you’re at your home instead of the office. There should be different rules, different boundaries, different ways to measure productivity and all of that. But you also posit an interesting different way of handling that in the solutions chapter of the book.

Luis:

Hey there, it’s Luis, welcome to the intermission of the DistantJob podcast. If you’re listening to this podcast, there’s a very big chance that you’re interested in building a great remote team. And to build a great remote team, you need great remote employees. That’s where DistantJob comes in. So, here’s how it works. You tell us the kind of position that you need to fill. We talk to you, we try to figure out not only what are the exact requirements that that person should have, but also we try to figure out who would be a perfect fit for your company culture, because we really believe that that matters. Then, once we have an exact picture of what we’re looking for, we’re off to the races.

Luis:

Our recruiters tap into their global network, and we filter people very well so that you don’t waste your time interviewing people that are never going to be of interest to you. We make sure, because we are techies, and our recruiters are techies are well. So, when people get to you, they are already pre-selected, and you just have to decide between the cream of the crop. And once you make your selection, we handle all the paperwork, we handle HR for you, we handle payments. And you get a full-time remote employee that’s among the best in the world, and managed entirely by you, by your processes, and following your culture. If this sounds good, visit us at www.distantjob.com. And without further adieu, let’s get back with the show. Thank you for listening.

Luis:

Now, as we dive into this, and you talked a bit about collaboration. And in the book, you also say that some of the most valuable ingredients of the digital economy is the capacity for people to be kind to others online, on groups and forums and collaborating with people, and that the platforms actually seem to raise this. Now, you also refer very in passing in the book Warcraft, World of Warcraft, which is where I actually got my first experience team-working with people from many different countries.

Mary:

That’s good training.

Luis:

Yeah, it’s great training. I actually mention that all the time on the podcast, that what happens is that, what that game does and games like it have done since, is it gathers people from several countries in groups of up to 40, that are ostensibly on their leisure time, and they choose to use their leisure time to do repetitive tasks for up to 40 hours a week, for no pay at all. For nothing but the satisfaction of reaching an endgame. They work for most of their week to get their characters to a level where they can participate in peak difficult activities that give the best rewards in the game with other people. Now, how these games motivate people through a constant [inaudible 00:38:28] of rewards, and to, again, a challenge at the end that requires them to work towards it.

Luis:

I see in people working from home that some of this drive is missing. You hint at it when you say that most ghost work platforms seem determined to delete this spirit of collaboration. I can tell you, once I opted out of that endgame in World of Warcraft, of the super-hard activities that involved 40 people, and just played my character, I immediately lost interest, because I was just doing repetitive tasks with no visible end goal in sight. It was just a grind. How do you feel that we can tap into this source of motivation that comes from feeling part of a larger community?

Mary:

So, this is going to be one of the most challenging transitions, is that, whether it’s full-time or not, when we’re talking about shifting to work that’s oriented around a project. Often that means that I’m not necessarily, or by definition, bringing my professional identity to a project. I’m bringing a set of experiences, capacities, we can call them skills if we want, to take on a task. And in this world, the kind of information service we’re talking about, the knowledge work, the office work we’re describing, that as we’re moving into a world where there aren’t really sharp professional identities that come with those activities. So, if I’m an influencer, for example, if I’m on Twitch and I do influencing. Whether it’s around a specific brand or a particular kind of activity, I can’t use as a kind of a backdrop or a backboard my professional identity to connect with somebody else who identifies the way I identify.

Mary:

So, what does that mean? In practical terms, that means that our capacity as co-workers, as peers, as collaborators, it’s going to be through our connection, through kind of a facilitated collegiality towards something that’s going to help us glue through a project. That’s where we’re going to learn from each other. It’s not going to be through a really obvious masterclass, it’s literally going to be through our experiences teaching each other how to advance, what we need to know.

Mary:

In the chapter you mention on collaboration, we noticed that people were turning to each other, and I’m going to come back to this point, whether the platform would allow them to or not. They were moving into other spaces to collaborate with each other. Not just to learn how to do a specific task, but literally how to, more broadly, live in this world of freelancing. There’s not a basic course that teaches the financial literacy, the self-management, the branding, as you mentioned. That’s not readily available. I mean, it will hopefully become more available, but people were turning to each other to get that. They were freely mentoring each other, because we get something when we help each other learn. They were getting the experience of that mentoring, and often they were also getting just the social recognition that they had done a good job. So, the difference it makes when you can turn to a peer down the hall and say, “Does this look right? Will you take a look at this paragraph and tell me what you think?” And having someone say, “Yeah, that looks great.”

Mary:

They don’t have what is now the luxury of a work site that readily supports that kind of exchange. But guess what? This is the generation, and we’re in a moment, where people can do that whether they’re in a physical office environment or not. To your point, though, there’s a learning curve here, and people have to have the connections to each other facilitated, the introduction to say, “Okay, how would we make this a team effort so that there isn’t one person who’s dominating,” for example. To be able to make sure we’re not reproducing all of the social biases that we all bring with us into a workplace, or at least have those checked in some way, so that we are blending and really building on the real potential here for diversity and inclusion in all the best senses, not in the kind of jingoistic ways, but literally you’re taking advantage of some opportunity to work with somebody, as you said, who comes from the other side of the planet and has an entirely different perspective on what they’re doing, and that creative friction that can come from the pause where you say, “Wow, they do things really differently than I do.”

Luis:

Yeah, and just quality. What are the odds that all of the best software developers happen to be within 50 miles of San Francisco, right?

Mary:

Exactly. It’s like, we know that doesn’t make any mathematical sense. So, we have a chance to be able to truly benefit from that abundance that I was talking about earlier. But it doesn’t just naturally happen, and in fact, I think the history chapter in the book is probably my favorite, because there are these unfortunate consequences of how we’ve decided to write labor law, that mean that companies often offering these tasks have no incentive and in fact are disincented from helping people on those platforms connect with each other. It can register as a legal liability to facilitate peers connecting with each other, directing them to more skilling or educational training. So, it’s this odd, and mots people don’t realize, it’s this tragedy that companies at this point are given less, rather than more, incentive to help people connect.

Mary:

So, that point where you made earlier, where it feels like a race to the bottom, I would argue it’s pressure to stay pressed to the ground and to feel like we’re competition rather than collaborators, and that chapter is all about pointing out how much businesses are losing out. When they are not seeing that they could get something out of workers collaborating, they are literally taking all that we’ve said we’ve learned from formal employment, which is about bringing mixture and a lot of depth and richness to your team, and throwing it out the door, when they’re thinking about, “How do I organize remote work?” Now thankfully, workers themselves absolutely get, “The most productive thing I can do is connect with my peers.” So, in our studies, the workers who found their way to peer groups ended up getting more jobs, higher rates, were able to move further in developing their careers, because they were connecting with colleagues. That’s what we’re missing out on right now. That’s not facilitated.

Luis:

Oh yeah, yeah. So, I think that these services and these companies could learn a big deal, I mean not necessarily from gamification, but again, people invest in games like World of Warcraft hundreds of hours without any pay, and it’s mostly a consequence of the way the activities in the game are structured, not even really about how interesting they are. Because let me tell you, World of Warcraft is interesting for about two hours. And then…

Mary:

I mean, you’ve put your finger on it. When you’re playing with a group of people and you’re all rooting each other on, that can make the most mundane task manageable.

Luis:

Exactly. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there’s actually a book that’s called Reality Is Broken from Jane McGonigal that goes actually in a huge extent to exploring how even outside of games that don’t specifically provide community like World of Warcraft, communities actually form around certain video games and build huge, huge projects out of essentially nothing but the shared interest around the topic, around the video game, around something like that. So, there’s definitely a wide berth of possibilities here for people to tap into. But we’re all kind of still blindly flailing around this space because no, I don’t feel that anyone has gotten it perfectly. The massive multiplayer games, I think, have gotten it better. But there’s kind of a structure there where there’s a huge end goal in sight that isn’t as easy to fit into what usually amounts to the secession of work that someone gets on an on-demand service, if it makes sense.

Mary:

So, I want to go back to the point we were talking about earlier about, there really isn’t one type of worker here. And in fact, these systems are eco-systems, they’re commons. And what gaming has figured out is that you really need folks who are really intensely focused on a win, and you’ve got folks who are toiling away doing the little bits of mundane maintenance and communication work that’s absolutely fundamental to keeping a team together. And you’ve got to have folks who are willing to kind of try something out, and then they try it out, they get out of the way when they’re not interested, and that leaves room for somebody else who’s testing things, testing the waters. It might be one of the most important folks who comes to the team.

Mary:

That’s true in work too, and the reality is that we’ve not cleared the way. We’ve literally created barriers to work environments that could thrive in the same way that our best social environments thrive, literally by saying, “You know, I’m going to value you whether you’re spending two hours or 20 hours here, because you’re playing this really important role right now, and it’s part of a set.” It literally just puts the lie to the idea that the kind of gold star superstars deserve everything, as opposed to… Only a schmuck would ever say, “I achieved everything on my own.” Team sports make it really obvious that that’s never true. And the toughest thing is that we don’t know how to socially value the collective contributions of everyone on a team. We start making decisions… We know how to do that in game environments, because everybody is effectively championed as a valuable part of a team. We are literally early days in figuring out, how do we distribute that value and recognition?

Luis:

Yeah, but I would say partly due to the system, because the system treats every player as a valuable player. Now, if you go into things like guilds or a group of players, hierarchy tends to form. But the reason that hierarchy doesn’t devolve into just an ego game is because there’s an underlying game system that ensures that every participant has that unalienable intrinsic value.

Mary:

And, I mean, I think this is what I love about these kind of systems. It’s not just a technical fix here, it’s a social reality, that when people enter game settings, they’re primed to say, “Okay, what’s our collective goal? How can I contribute? I’m not the best at this particular function but I kill at this other function. Let me just toil away at that function,” and the game systems usually allow me to experiment with other roles I could play. But that’s when we get the most out of every individual, is when we don’t confine them to a specific role, but literally say, “Do what you’re good at for as long as you can. Contribute what’s possible here.” And it’s not that I want to gamify work by any means. It’s that I want to take all that we’ve learned about what makes a game setting socially and technically run at its highest level. It is literally seeing, “Oh, everybody in this setting is differently but equally valuable.” And we’ve never brought that to arguments.

Mary:

I’d argue, guess what? We are literally at the front door of being able to say, “I’m organizing around projects.” And I wanted to take up what you said earlier, like, yes, we can build careers as individuals. But we are always when we’re working on projects, coming to projects as part of a team. And that might sound trite, but if we just look empirically at what do most people do on a project, they’re doing a piece of a project. Somebody is often helping them, and they’re helping somebody else. So, it’s what that looks like, to be able to say, “Okay, how do we compensate everybody fairly, equitably,” recognizing you need all players here. You can’t actually run what you’re doing with one person, but you literally need a team.

Luis:

Yeah. Okay, absolutely. So, I want to get into the career part a bit, because I actually had a very funny, somewhat funny conversation with the VP of a company that’s fully remote that I deal with. He was telling me, “You know, the problem in this remote work setup is that I really don’t feel that I’m building a career here. If I want to get out of this company and get a job at another company, what do I have to show, besides having been at my house working for five years?” And this illustrates a challenge that’s [inaudible 00:53:22] to me often about career development. People that are working from their home seem to be less visible. Remote companies have a challenge with this, especially on hybrid companies where some people work from the company and other people work from their home. But even in remote companies, even though everyone is remote, it just feels that career progression ends up being a bit slower for everyone, right? It’s not that some are promoted before others, but it seems like it’s globally slow.

Luis:

So, you talk a bit about how people build reputations within these systems, within these platforms, and they take justifiable pride on their ratings and reputations. But it still boxes into those systems. It’s not like you can say, “Okay, I have a reputation of 5 star rating on this system,” and put that in my CV. That’s not going to take you super far. So how do we handle career progression in this new age?

Mary:

There’s something technically that we have to really take on, which is effectively decoupling people’s reputations, their portfolios, you could think of it as the resume of the 21st century, from a specific platform. Let me give you an example that we talk about in the book. When Elance and oDesk, which were two knowledge work platforms, merged to form a fairly good-sized, well-known company, Upwork, they didn’t think through what would happen to the reputation system, literally the technologies that had captured the portfolios of people who worked on either of those two platforms. When they merged, people lost their track record. It deleted their reputations.

Luis:

That’s not cool.

Mary:

Not cool. And in fact, we have to note how that will most likely, with the pattern of mergers and acquisitions that’s part of the world in which knowledge economics and certainly business to business services run, that’s going to accelerate unless we literally say, okay, legally, and I think it does come down to law, legally a worker has a right to retain their portfolio. Let’s start calling it portfolio instead of reputation, and let’s think about what it means to be able to have perhaps a third party, I’ve written about this elsewhere, as kind of the Better Business Bureau for the future, where we would imagine there’s a third party entity that’s just in the business of holding on to people’s credentials and their portfolios, so that a worker does not have to worry about losing that track record. And that, again, benefits everyone.

Mary:

Instead of a platform being able to capture and hold on to workers because they’ve already invested so much in building up a reputation on a platform, which, not cool, and also not so legal if we think about how we define independent contract work and freelancing. But I’d say very questionable if you’re somebody who’s remote and is an employee, and that employer effectively keeps the record of your productivity hidden behind APIs, that workers should demand a right to be able to have a record of the work they’ve done. Negotiated with limits, so that, of course, is not exposing what might be intellectual property that a firm owns. But for anybody to develop their career, that’s going to be a critical intervention we all need to advocate for, which is our ability to hold on to our records.

Mary:

So, that’s the technical part. Socially, I want to go back to this notion of career, because the hardest thing is we have to reset all of our benchmarks, all of our points of reference for what it means to have a meaningful work life. So, if we no longer have, reliably, a stable sense of professional identity attached to what we do, then we have to think, what are the ways that we’re going to give credit and recognize the value of other people’s productivity and creative contributions to our economy and to our world? And I don’t say that lightly. We literally have been relying from the 18th century until now on careers and job titles that somebody else set for us. So, whether you were a machinist or an auto factory worker or a lawyer or a doctor, it’s fine to have those identities make their ways into the 21st century, but we’re also going to need to make room for what it looks like for somebody to define their career path by their creative contributions, that might look different project to project.

Mary:

For more and more people, the opportunity to both be able to do, say, creative writing, video production and some form of data analytics and visualization, how would I describe the career path, or the career of a person who does all three of those things? What are we going to call ourselves?

Luis:

Yeah, it’s complicated. That’s why I maintain three different CVs.

Mary:

Well, and I think this is the goal, would be… The reason, I think we end up maintaining those different CVs is because we know we have to market ourselves for different projects. And so, what would it look like if we didn’t have to think about turning that into one single career professional identity, but literally could talk about the range of portfolios that we all carry, and all of the different projects we can contribute to? That’s within our reach if we imagine a more sophisticated version of a portfolio that’s portable, that manages our ability to flip through the pages and say, “Sounds like you’re interested in somebody who’s able to do this kind of work. I’ve done this kind of work, or I have these kinds of interests that are going to make my contributions to that kind of work really valuable.” That’s a good use of artificial intelligence, is to get me to page five of my portfolio quickly.

Luis:

You know Mary, I think this is a blockchain startup waiting to happen. Get this to people at Microsoft and let’s make it happen, let’s get it.

Mary:

Main value of blockchain. We should all let go of it being cryptocurrency, and we should really focus on it being something to maintain our portfolios, and our identity, our credentials.

Luis:

Exactly, exactly.

Mary:

That sounds really great.

Luis:

Okay, so our robot overlords are making me increasingly mindful of our time, of your time, so I want to do a couple of rapid fire questions to wind down. And these are rapid fire questions, but you don’t need to have rapid fire answers. Feel free to expand as much as you like, or be brief if you prefer. So, if you could buy a tool in bulk, and it can be a software tool or it can be a hardware tool, at the tune of $100 for everyone that was doing this kind of work, this kind of on-demand work, to make their lives easier or more productive. What tool would that be?

Mary:

Hands down it would be a fluid communication tool, where people could effectively have more public channels to private channels, to be able to match and connect with peers.

Luis:

Got it, got it. Good. So what about yourself? I don’t really know what your work setup is, but as a writer, you certainly work at least partly from home. So, what is the purchase in the last year to six months that has most improved your productivity, work-life balance, whatever it takes to give value to your work?

Mary:

Oh, that’s such an interesting question. That is such an interesting question. You know, I’ve really gone back to that place of a notebook. I have a notebook, I’ve always had journals. I now spend a good 20 minutes in the morning just writing down my to-do list instead of doing it online, and really getting back to paper, because it’s something that just helps me feel it in my bones, literally.

Luis:

Nice, nice. Have you tried at all using iPad or tablets with pens?

Mary:

No, I still really love… I mean, I don’t have a fountain pen. I just love a regular…

Luis:

You love imagining that it’s a fountain pen.

Mary:

No, I actually really love not being dependent on electricity. So, the thing that’s really making me happy right now is just being able to reach into my bag and have a pen and a piece of paper, and just the tangibility, the materiality of that, I absolutely love, yeah.

Luis:

Yeah, I can definitely dig that, though I will say that my terrible handwriting makes a good case for iPads and tablets.

Mary:

Understandable, understandable.

Luis:

Okay. So, what book or books have you gifted the most?

Mary:

Oh, Race After Technology by Ruha Benjamin. I can’t stop recommending that book. And Programmed Inequality by Virginia… Actually, let me double check the title on that, because I don’t want to give you the wrong title.

Luis:

That sounds like a good title, though.

Mary:

There’s two, there’s actually one called Programmed Inequality that’s by a historian named Mar Hicks, and the other book that I gift constantly… I’m going to double check this so I make sure I give you the right. Yeah, so Programmed Inequality is by Mar Hicks, who’s a historian who wrote about women and computing, it’s brilliant. And then Automated Inequality is this book by Virginia Eubanks that is harrowing in how much it details. It’s kind of an echo of Ghost Work. What happens when the AI gets something wrong, and the thing it’s trying to address is making sure foster children are in the right homes, or making sure people get their employment benefits. When those systems fail, and we have no backup, it gets ugly, and Ghost Work tells some of the algorithmic cruelty, is what we talk about in the book, when your workplace effectively operates like a bad customer service experience, but it’s even more painful when you see it in social services.

Luis:

Oh yeah, absolutely. Okay, so, final question. Let’s say that you manage to gather all the people responsible for these platforms and for the building of algorithms for dinner in a Chinese restaurant. And since you are the host, and it’s a Chinese restaurant, you get to choose the message that goes inside the fortune cookies.

Mary:

I love that.

Luis:

What is the message that these people are going to crack open at the end of dinner?

Mary:

Techs alone will not fix this problem. They have to intervene and value workers more than the software that they’re selling.

Luis:

Okay, that’s a good message. Thank you very much, Mary. So, Mary L. Gray, where can people find you to continue the conversation with you? Where can they find more about the book? Well, where can they purchase the book?

Mary:

So, you can read more about the book at www.ghostwork.info, and you can find me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @MaryLGray, that’s G-R-A-Y. And you can buy the book at your local booksellers. You can also download an Audible.com version of the book if you’re not a reader. And if you go to www.ghostwork.info, you’ll find a reader’s guide to give you the inside glimpse of what you can get to in the book if you buy the book.

Luis:

All right. So, I definitely recommend you check it out, it was an enjoyable read. So, thank you for that, and thank you for coming. This was a pleasure.

Mary:

Thank you, Luis. It was absolutely my pleasure, and I loved the questions.

Luis:

Thank you. See you around.

Mary:

Okay, sounds good.

Luis:

And so, we close another episode of the DistantJob podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please, you can help us out by sharing it on social media, that would be great. It’s how we reach more listeners, and the more listeners we have, the more awesome guests I can get in touch and convince to participate in these conversations that are a joy to have for me, and I hope they’re a joy for you to listen to as well. You can also help a lot leaving reviews on iTunes or your podcast syndication service of choice. Reviews are surprisingly helpful in helping the podcast get to more listeners.

Luis:

Now, another thing that you might want to do is go to distantjob.com/blog/podcasts, click on your favorite episode, any episode really, and subscribe. By subscribing, you will get a notification whenever a new episode is up, and whenever we get the transcripts of the episode up, so you can actually peruse the conversations in text form.

Luis:

And of course, if you need to find a great employee for your team, a great remote employee, you should take the whole world into consideration, and not just look to hire locally, not just look to hire in your country. Look around the whole world, because that’s the talent pool that contains the best talent. And to help you with that, again, distantjob.com is the perfect place to start. You will tell us who you need, and we will make sure that you get the best possible candidate, 40% faster than the industry standard. And with that, I bid you adieu. See you next week, on the next episode of DistantJob Podcast.

More ways to listen:

Want to know how to get social at work even if you’re in a remote team? Mary L Gray explains how the human workforce is in the middle of a software centered work culture and how remote workers can find a purpose in what they do.

In this episode, Luis Magalhaes and Mary L. Gray discuss how the social studies in her book “Ghost Work” overlap with the remote work experience. Their deep conversation goes through how our capitalist system dictates the productivity rhythm of job growth, the introduction, and transition to new work models such as remote work. She also shares how these new work models have an impact on the economy and society.

  Book recommendations:

  • “Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass” by Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri 
  • “Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing (History of Computing)” by Marie Hicks
  • “Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code” by Ruha Benjamin
  • “Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor” by Virginia Eubanks