M-Theory: The case for viewing employees as subscribers

Written by: Melanie Baker | 09 June 2022 | M-Theory, Opinion

Recently I saw a “shower thought” from Reddit that said, basically, “Your salary is the subscription fee that the company you work for pays for you”. I think this statement does some really interesting framing on both sides of the employer/employee equation. Especially in times like now when the market for talent is competitive.

I admit I had to chew on it for a while, since, per that statement, workers are the subscription (e.g. Netflix), and employers are the consumer/subscriber. That analogy works, but because of that aforementioned market competition, I think it works better if flipped. Where companies are subscription/streaming services, and the talent is the consumer/subscriber.

I think it’s pretty healthy to think of employment like a subscription, rather than like a retail purchase. It’s not a one and done thing where, once everyone’s signed on the dotted line, that employee belongs to the company, under any and all conditions, for as long as the company wants the person. (Barring resignation, retirement, etc.)

Subscriptions are more flexible and prone to change over time. People are more likely to revisit them on a fairly regular basis to assess if they’re still being used and enjoyed and if they’re getting their money’s worth. If times get hard, you can cancel to help out your finances.

Not a bad way to think about your job. Consider it as something that should change over time and has to continue to meet your needs (which will also likely change over time). Especially if your job is costing you more than you’re getting out of it, e.g. overwork, underpay, stress, lack of opportunities, etc. You should regularly assess if you want to stick around or start the process of extricating yourself. What’s the risk/benefit analysis of those options for you?

Netflix reported losing 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2022. It was the first subscriber loss in over a decade. Their forecast had been an increase of 2.5 million subscribers. When you look at the reasons for the loss, the downturn is not terribly surprising.

Upon the invasion of Ukraine, Netflix suspended service to Russia, losing 700,000 subscribers. There’s also been increasing competition from other streaming services (which have some pretty desirable and exclusive content), inflation and various living costs have been ramping up, and some people have become disgruntled at the company’s price hikes and crackdowns on account-sharing.

As we’ve discussed here plenty of times, lots of people have changed jobs, or at least considered it, over the last two to three years. The pandemic created or exacerbated existing issues.

Frankly, the “end” of the pandemic (at least as far as some employers are concerned), is and will create or exacerbate them even more, and get people considering cancelling their services, so to speak. In some geographies and industries there has been increasing demand for talent, so there’ve been lower barriers to changing jobs, and better opportunities to “subscribe” to.

I wonder how many people started job hunting when they saw Elon Musk’s edict that SpaceX and Tesla office workers had to start spending at least 40 hours a week in the office. It kind of brings to mind that old frustration with cable packages, where you could never just pay for what you actually wanted to watch, and had to suck it up and pay for this and that as well just to get the good stuff. If your job starts to seem like that, and there’s too much of what you don’t like, and not enough to move you toward your goals, perhaps it’s time to consider cutting that cord.

If you are a company that hasn’t made efforts to make itself a great organization to work for – inflexible time and place of work policies, non-competitive compensation, toxic management, antagonistic policies, etc. – are you forgetting that subscriptions can be cancelled? I mean, most tech companies can’t just blame poor policy decisions and resulting personnel issues on “war in Ukraine.”

Smart companies focus on the long game, and on important things beyond profits. They listen to and invest in their people, and endlessly iterate on strategies to make themselves both stronger and more agile, today and down the road. So when it comes time for staff to assess their subscriptions, the company, as employer, remains valuable and attractive. Good price, great content, etc.

Sure, sometimes people move on for reasons that aren’t the company’s fault at all. They just want a new challenge, they’re moving to a new city, or the company just isn’t big enough or structured in a way to enable them to move up in a way they’re ready for. It happens. And there will always be other companies out there that seem sexier or will have the resources to make shinier offers. (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, etc. only come from one source now…)

But almost every company is going to have some degree of competition in the market and for talent. If you don’t, you might want to check if your company is tanking, or if you’ve become a terrible subscription option. Some real analysis and dedication to change is probably warranted, if it’s not too late. Good luck, it won’t be easy and it’ll probably be expensive to try and repair.

Also, the people/subscribers you still have? Might be a good idea to look at why they’re still there, what value they bring, and if you, the company, still want to subscribe to them. No company is going to grow, thrive and be an attractive prospect if its only offerings have 0% on Rotten Tomatoes… so to speak.

At some point a company will have to make changes that customers may not like. Like a streaming service removing favourite content or making changes to how/who can access accounts, or raising prices. There are better and worse ways to roll these things out.

Maybe it’s my customer-facing background, but I will never understand companies that seem to actively choose to do these things in ways that seem as jarring and punitive as possible. Like, people are paying you for your service; you’re not doing them favours. Absolutely, you cannot please all of the people all of the time. But you can plan things in ways that don’t seem like you have contempt for your customers.

Same thing in our workplaces. Staff are what make companies run. Why would you treat them contemptuously or with callous cluelessness? Maybe don’t demand that staff come back to work in the office around when you’re also announcing salary freezes while the CEO buggers off on their yacht with millions in bonus compensation. (There are less-flagrant bad examples, but you get the idea.)

It would be great if working was always like a really satisfying Netflix binge. But it won’t be. However, as the talent, it’s up to workers to be proactive about their careers and goals. Sometimes you’re OK to just let the metaphorical subscription roll on and re-watch The Office for the umpteenth time. At other times you gotta turn off the TV, pry your butt out of its dent on the couch and go for a walk. Or at least switch to something new and quirky on BritBox or something.

A subscription is not forever. It has to provide you with value, and it may even be negotiable to your benefit. And if it isn’t, there are plenty of other services that will happily take your money. All of this might not map precisely onto your career plan, but it ain’t a bad blueprint to follow. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Disney+, AppleTV+, and Amazon Prime to catch up on…

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.