Essay: Lauren Carroll Harrison work

Subject line: The Storyteller

The email arrived on the day that rent was due. Subject line: The Storyteller, from a man whose job title was ‘digital recruitment consultant’. ‘Friday tomorrow, happy days!’ wrote Caleb. He’d found me on LinkedIn, and said he could connect me to some potential short-term contract work, if I was open to it.

I was open to it. Surviving as a freelancer is like chasing a sheet of sand. After the end of my PhD scholarship – really, a form of writer’s welfare – one job offer evaporated after the other. I was headhunted for what was ostensibly a dream job – in actuality, a succession of two short contracts at a failing magazine. A high-paying job at a media organisation was informally offered. A contract was promised but never appeared. I ran the treadmill of casual academia, attending the two-hour lectures without pay in order to tick my students off on the roll. My flatmate moved out and I became an AirBnb slumlord to pay the remainder of the rent. I picked up casual marking work at other universities and speed-marked assignments at a rate of three essays per hour.

Underemployment is stupid-making, costly and time consuming. Each day I woke up with the goal of earning $150. I should have been working shifts at the local bar. Instead, I was turning around arts stories within a day for $140. I was the equivalent of an Uber driver for freelance-dependent media organisations – available and on-call for the smallest bite of work, bringing my own infrastructure and capital (laptop, internet connection, phone) to the outsourced workplace of my home office. I invoiced supposedly liberal outlets for poverty pay. I invoiced the public broadcaster for joke money. In the gig economy, this intricate piecemeal hustle — what Jan Breman has called the work of ‘wage hunters and gatherers’ — is celebrated by many as entrepreneurial gusto. The same people would argue that the only thing worse than working is not working. Or, in my case, not working enough at the right things. Without a boss, I was what philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls a self-exploiter: a journalistic auto-bot toiling for my own failing enterprise.

‘My client was voted in the Top 5 of Australia’s Best Companies to Work for in 2017, need I say more? Either way I will…’ wrote Caleb. ‘This will be 2/3 days per week over a 4-6 week period and is paying around $350 per day, so it could be a nice little earner on the side for you. I’m looking for somebody who loves and has a flair for Storytelling, an eye for detail and the ability to sift through copious amounts of info!’

I called Caleb to thank him for this great opportunity. ‘Happy Thursday!’ he said. I pictured a white guy leaning back in his office chair, hands stretched behind his head, talking via Bluetooth. The job sounded sweet: over ten days, I would prepare the client company’s submission document for its formal recognition as one of the Best Places to Work in Australia. Great Place to Work®, I was told, is a vibrant industry leader and a global authority in workplace culture that compiles a yearly list of Best Places to Work. To attract the best and brightest talent, the local branch of a transnational IT company wanted a place on that list. They needed a researcher to collate policy information, staff testimonies and workplace successes in a neat and tidy story of employee satisfaction.

I was introduced via videolink to Anya, my future manager. Though she was based in the communications department of the company’s Bangalore office, she was making a brief trip to Sydney that would coincide with my first days. She sure was looking forward to partnering with me on the project.

The document I was to produce would comprise ten chapters responding to the Great Places to Work criteria – recruitment, workplace culture, philanthropy and other actionable insights. Anya suggested a starting point. I should meet with the SMEs. What is an SME, I asked via email. ‘Subject matter experts,’ came the one-sentence reply. ‘Sent from my iPhone.’

HR showed me to my desk. Ian, a user-interface designer seated next to me, put out his hand to shake mine. ‘You’re a new team member?!’ he asked. ‘Oh no,’ I jovially adopted my most enthusiastically ironic tone. ‘I’m just here short-term. I’m an intruder!’

His double-take made me realise the error of my approach to throwaway office banter. A social imperative was already exerting itself, one more conducive to dull inquisitions about weekend activities than ironic quips. ‘I’m working on the “Great Places to Work” project for a couple of weeks.’ Ian’s face relaxed into an expression of understanding. Ah, yes. Language that could be comprehended. By the end of my time here, I came to understand what this narrowly salvaged interaction meant: I wasn’t a good cultural fit.

I began to schedule interviews with the SMEs. I listened, and transcribed their experiences of working at the company, what drew them to the company, how they felt about their aspirations, their experience being ‘onboarded’, whether they felt they were being developed and valued. A set of familiar phrases began to recur in the transcripts. We’re a family here. We’re a thirty-year-old start-up. We’re for the little guy. We bring our entire selves to work. I put my journalistic training into gear and tried to find the local angle, rephrasing questions to trigger responses that I hadn’t already heard. It was no good. There was no cutting through the company line. We’re powering prosperity! We’re all about giving back. Philanthropy is who we are.

Anya’s idea of what made the company great to work for was imitation Nespresso coffee pods and foosball battles in the office. Parental leave, even if your child is adopted. A relatable, approachable leadership team that exemplified the company’s friendly flexibility. The fact that one of the Sydney executives lived not in the bourgeois Eastern suburbs but in the more bohemian Inner West. She left the office at 3pm each day in time for school pick-up, and resumed working from home after 7.30pm once her children were in bed. What time did she finish work, I wondered? Once a year, she would rough it overnight in the CBD in a sleeping bag as part of the CEO Sleepout. She put her money where her mouth was and struck the ideal work/life balance. Work/life balance was important to the company, which was made of team members, not staff or employees.

On my second day, a message from Anya menaced my eye in Slack, the great interrupter. She said there was a ‘town hall’ – companyspeak for staff meeting – at 1.30pm. It would truly be a great opportunity for me to see the company’s great team dynamics and transparent leadership style in action. I made my way downstairs to find that most of the seats were already taken. I edged in and found an empty seat next to a young-ish guy with a glossy, beautified beard. I could see Anya in the row in front, a few seats to my left. There was some small, funny, foreign object bearing the company logo on my seat, and I absentmindedly put it on the floor beneath me. The crowd of a hundred or so team members was watching a stadium-style address streamed from the company’s headquarters in California. On the screen, an executive was maniacally roaming a stage, equipped with a headset microphone, his forehead glowing with sweat. He was gearing up, he said, to let us in on a big announcement, but first he had to reinforce something. He paused and put a finger in the air. ‘We are laser focused on our customers. We live and breathe innovation, and champion those who dare to dream.’ The bearded guy next to me leant back just a tiny bit, blinked, slackened his mouth and nodded slowly with comprehension and admiration at this moment. The executive continued. ‘And now, before I let you in on this secret, you gotta promise – nobody tweet this! Nobody tweet what I’m about to say! This is legit confidential, okay, you got it?!’ I treated myself to a sneaky glance at Anya, who was smiling and looking over at her colleague next to her with a gasping expression of astonishment at the Twitter joke.

‘Here it is, folks. We’ve just hit one…million…customers!’ The screen cut to a screaming headline, ONE MILLION CUSTOMERS. Clip-art confetti fell for a few seconds. The team members around me jumped up from their seats, trembling with corporate lifeforce. They cried out in joy and rapture. I became aware of a most peculiar, most stressful sound of the type that cannot be produced by a human body. I looked around, to realise that the implement I had removed from my chair and placed on the ground was a mini hand clapper – three plastic hands, imprinted with the company logo, that smacked together to produce an unnaturally loud form of applause. Anya was wildly flinging her clapper back and forth, her arm and chin held high, her eyes shining demonically with pride and shared achievement.

Capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living,’ wrote Michael Denning in his essay Wageless Life. You don’t have to be working for Deliveroo to be a gig economy worker. More than ever, for those of us locked out of permanent jobs, work is not the way to wealth. It keeps us in poverty. Work is increasingly about sending and receiving emails, or worse, Slack messages. Few political parties speak seriously of the idea of full employment, the cornerstone of the Australian government’s economic policy from World War II until 1975. Anybody who wished for a full-time job could find one. Full employment is a decision; providing employment is a governmental obligation. Now, the employment contract has melted. Unemployment – and underemployment, my scrambling fate – is a failure of the economy.

During my commutes home from the company, I began to notice an old school friend pop up in my Instagram feed. I remembered her as my birthday twin. She had moved to Texas at the beginning of high school for her dad’s new job. Her photos now revealed the life of a Texan homemaker who had taken her husband’s surname. One picture showed the sign to her residence in an estate called ‘The Colony.’ She was pregnant with her second child, and taking a steady stream of shots of her craft projects and family meal plans. ‘Finally put together a bow holder!’ enthused a typical post, with a picture of a repurposed photo frame that displayed her daughter’s hair ribbons. ‘Such an easy DIY with a frame, ribbon and hot glue #diy’. The world had spun us into different continents, different lives — evidently different value systems — and yet we were both spending our days drawn into useless, underpaid or unpaid busy work.

Women’s domestic labour, work in the arts, caring for those with illnesses and disabilities; scratching life, wasted worried workless dispossessed life. There I was, a drifting leaf in the metropole, floating across the categories of employed, self-employed and unemployed. I pictured myself as a leaf often. On the bus to the city, I would think, ‘Who would want to be a person in this scene? I’d rather be a stone, or a bee, or a leaf.’ This slipperiness of identity is something I’ve come to embrace. Identity categories are my terror. I’m a blurry person, able to adapt to many scenarios (well, except a lifetime of office culture), and that’s enough for me. My own identity, and knowing what that is, is less important than being known by a few people who are important to me.

But back then, nobody knew me, and I didn’t feel cared for. I imagined that everyone around me at the company had something to earn money for: doing a little job and living a little life to serve a mortgage, a growing family, a partner, some kind of honourable purpose for sacrifice and money-making in an economy of belonging. I was alone, unit-less, and learning that partnering and inheritance was how individuals build wealth in this society. Gig life is the new master trope of my generation.

So I sent Anya a first draft of the submission. ‘A few red flags,’ she replied from Bangalore, along with the marked-up document. By this stage, I had worked for free on the project’s preparation ahead of being in the office, and was working longer days. I wasn’t scheduled to work more that week, but Anya asked me to go into the office the following afternoon to revise one of the sections. Pathetically, obediently, I complied.

The red flags that Anya spoke of were, namely, that the document needed a greater focus on the company’s core values. I went back into the trove of internal documents to see what those core beliefs were and how I might better represent them. One of the tenets, I learned, was a heady devotion to customer satisfaction. ‘We fall in love with our customers’ problems,’ I wrote as a subheading above an employee’s reflection on selling the correct software to a client who teaches dance classes in the suburbs. ‘We deliver unrivalled customer benefits to power their prosperity. We sweat every detail of the experience to deliver excellence.’ I found another core value I had not adequately reflected in my prose: ‘We Care And Give Back.’ ‘We are stewards of the future,’ I wrote in a new subheading, reworking the Corporate Responsibility report from the previous financial year. ‘We strengthen the communities around us. We strive to give everyone the opportunity to prosper.’ But surely these milquetoast mantras weren’t what the Great Places to Work assessors were really looking for.

Early the following week, I completed my timesheet. More than half the allotted days of the contract had passed. Not long after, Anya queried why I had logged the impromptu afternoon from the previous week in my timesheet. ‘Oh, when you asked me to go into the office? Those are the hours I worked,’ I emailed back.

I went downstairs to the food court, found a seat in the corner and waited for Lex, a friend who was also working in the city, albeit on a much more lucrative contract writing copy for a company that sold lavish overseas holiday packages in exotic locales to wealthy baby boomers. Our lunches and post-work meet-ups were mutually miserable. ‘It sounds like your daily rate is a scam,’ said Lex, almost completely without affect. ‘If they were paying you an hourly rate, you’d be earning almost twice as much.’

We were in one of the newer, space-aged food courts, fitted with high windows, grass-fed burger franchises, poke bowl vendors and millennial-friendly climbing plants of the kind that are popular on Instagram. I should sell out completely instead of doing this halfway bullshit, I thought. Looking around at men in business shirts slurping laksas and gesticulating to one another, I realised: these people are on a track. They have jobs in sales and marketing. They have mortgages. They get promotions and bonuses. They hit their monthly targets. They have furniture loans. They have car loans. They go to Friday afternoon drinks. They evade the missus and then placate her with flowers and chocolates. They are on a path, I realised. They are Part of Society. Only apparitional me lived and thrived among them.

The daily rate is a scam, I thought.

There were early signs in my life that I was less than equipped for the corporate world. At age 15, I found myself in need of something more than pocket money. A friend was a manager at KFC in the city. The trouble started on training day, when my manager friend passed around tiny lapel buttons with a 2D blocky person, rendered in a red and blue colour scheme. A small but assertive speech bubble escaped the valiant worker’s mouth: ‘YES!’ At KFC, my manager friend explained, we were yes people. On my first shift, a customer came up to me while I was mopping the floor and asked me if this was my first day on the job. I lasted four days. Weeks later, my paycheck arrived: $77.

Fifteen years later, and ten years after the Great Recession, as the GFC is called overseas, the gig economy was booming. Work was everywhere! But the very notion of a job, with a workplace, employer, union, salary and benefits had disintegrated. This time, when the chance to join corporate society came sliding into my emails, I thought, ‘I’m adaptable, I’m a 21st Century person.’ But still I was not a yes person. I was a sullen, shocked teenager again, thrown into pure Freudian regression by the gig economy’s latest insult to my low-rent dignity. God forbid I die in Australia, I kept thinking, at my temporary desk at the company.

I opened a new Slack window and explained to Anya that we would need to rethink the timeline, as there was no way that all ten, thousand-word chapters of the Great Places to Work submission could be completed within the ten-day timeframe. Was there any possibility to extend the contract?

I watched the ellipsis as Anya typed, and I waited, and I played it cool. ‘That’s all the time we have Lauren. And we’ve to do the best we can,’ she replied in the chat window. ‘It may not be absolutely perfect but we need to be able to close this. I know you are used to interviewing celebrities. How can I help you to work faster?’

She was a robot. I was ‘in the churn all day’ in Lex’s words: working ten or eleven-hour days, typing mercilessly, running to the bathroom when absolutely necessary, skipping coffee breaks. I didn’t have the smarts or savvy to come up with a suitable answer in mystical companyspeak to Anya’s question. This is a confronting thing for an intelligent person to learn about themselves: that they don’t have the presence of mind to respond in the way that is needed to a given situation. And I was in a situation. I simply wasn’t ready to combat whatever deeply transactional, passive-aggressive managerial techniques that Anya had weaponised. That night, I Googled ‘management techniques how can I help you to work faster’ and found a story on Harvard Business Review on how to get employees to work faster. The post was tagged ‘developing employees’.

I emailed HR and asked for a meeting. ‘It’s become apparent to me,’ I explained to Jane, the HR officer, ‘that the timeline and the workload don’t seem to have much to do with one another. Now I’ve gotten a handle on the role, it seems to be more of a twenty day task than a ten day contract.’ I told Jane about how Anya had admonished me for logging all my work hours, and the fateful half-day that she had tried to extract from me, a non-employee, as a freebie.

Jane was great at performing empathy, and therefore, great at her job. She listened the hell out of me. From her, I picked up a new term: ‘capacity,’ as in, ‘I’m at capacity,’ which I was. Jane told me the duration of the contract had been decided according to the budget that was available; ten days of payment were all that the relevant department wanted to account for in the budget. There was a reason, I came to understand, why the company’s marketing staff hadn’t been assigned the Great Places to Work submission; everyone needs skilled writers, but nobody wants to pay properly for them. I was learning in real time that writers’ abilities are indispensable. To analyse, to conceptualise, to quantify, to qualify, to describe, to enliven, to narrativise — these are not necessarily the tasks of marketing and communications staff, nor could they be performed, for this role, by the tech company’s software engineers, programmers and designers. They are the skills of a writer.

However, Jane said, carefully and nonspecifically, no contractor is expected to work more than seven hours and forty minutes per day. Afterwards, I dopily realised nothing had been promised or acted upon, and nothing was communicated between HR and Anya. I also realised that the document I was preparing, and the internal reports I had been drawing statistics and information from, spoke only of the company’s benefits for full-time permanent employees, and said nothing of the engagements or provisions of contractors. Nothing people, untethered, uncounted. No superannuation, no workplace entitlements.

Caleb called, zealous, upbeat. ‘Hey hey Lauren, happy hump day! Just a quick call to see how the job’s going, as your contract is approaching its end!’ I explained to him what I explained to HR. ‘Ah, I see, I see,’ he hummed and mmm-ed. I explained that Anya had objected to the way in which I had been correctly logging my hours. By this stage, she was emailing me at 4am Bangalore time, broadcasting the kind of ostentatiously inappropriate hours of a manager who wants her underlings to know how hard she’s working and expects the same. Caleb sent me a follow-up email: ‘Just try to do what you can in the time you have left and don’t worry too much about it for now.’ Smiley face.

You may think I’m being hyperbolic. Maybe I am, I don’t know anymore. Is it melodramatic to say that the gig economy doesn’t care if you live or die?

What is it to earn a living? What would it mean for your contribution to be valued? How would it feel to be certain of your worth? And of the jobs available, how many advance your prospects, and how many are useful to society?

I emailed Anya that I had prepared the document to the best of my ability within the timeframe. The chapters were in a perfectly decent form. Shaped, edited, copy-edited and proofed, punctuated with photos I’d sourced of team members delivering food to the poor as part of charity programs – but not highly polished. I would be available to respond to further edits and feedback if the budget was there to support that, and I would be leaving at 5pm. Anya did not reply.

I lay down for a while, preparing to slink back to my freelance journalism efforts, and delayed getting a bartending job once again. I began to stop striving. Started floating. The next year, the company was listed as a Great Place to Work.

An earlier version of this essay was shortlisted for the 2020 Horne Prize.