Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Lab Rats: corporate work culture and how to fix it

The argument that worsening workers’ rights has its roots in Silicon Valley is a convincing one, believes Kate Dearden

‘We have a new work culture that celebrates overwork, exhaustion and stress.’ In Lab Rats, Dan Lyons explores the modern working culture that has left so many workers miserable.

Lyons’ expertise comes from the world of the venture capitalists and tech start-ups of Silicon Valley. The author blames these increasingly powerful companies for unprecedented worker unhappiness, driven by an obsessive demand for rapid growth and investment that works to the detriment of almost all their employees. This increasingly anti-worker worldview is embraced by household names like Amazon, Facebook, and Uber, who Lyons argues have exported their damaging business culture into wider politics and society.

Lyons identifies four key factors that contribute to toxic cultures and worker unhappiness: a lack of fair pay, job insecurity, rapidly changing environments, and dehumanisation. These factors are shared across many of the big tech companies who believe their extreme version of shareholder capitalism will guarantee startling riches for themselves at the top and keep the stream of recruits coming in at the bottom, whatever the conditions.

Lyons’ first-hand experience of the industry runs through his book. It is useful to have a guide so acquainted with this new corporate culture – but his experience is far from unique. Whether it is the firing of workers who support unionisation, or sexual harassment and racist behaviour in the workplace, the stories Lyons has gathered on the exploitation of other workers make for grim reading. More examples show how workers are subject to constant surveillance, performance monitoring software, job interviews by machines, and many more dehumanising practices that are becoming common.

By concluding with positive stories of successful, ethical and responsible companies, Lyons offers a vision of a way forward we can look at with optimism. There are emerging companies that are redefining what it means to be successful in the modern world. These companies are placing workers’ rights, along socially responsible trading and a healthy rather than all-consuming focus on profit. It is vital that we support them.

Lyons’ passionate critique of the brutal workplace culture born in Silicon Valley is important for the long-term vision of the future of work. The tech companies that are laboratories for shareholders, like all big businesses, have a responsibility to treat their employees with the dignity, security, and respect they deserve, and need to understand that profit does not have to come at the expense of employee wellbeing.

This is a worthwhile read for anyone looking to explore the brutal reality of many of today’s workplaces, and crucially, for those of us passionate about finding a way to make our workplaces ensure employees are happier, healthier, and treated with the dignity we all deserve.

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Kate Dearden is research and campaigns officer at Community

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Kate Dearden

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