Paycheck Disconnect


This post was inspired by Future100: Design Students Rethink the Commons.


As I finished reading the above post, I reached the final section that was listing the architects who had been mentioned, and where they hailed from. At that moment, when I thought about life as a professor at a university (not that any of the people mentioned are professors, it’s just the idea as it occurred to me), I was thinking about how they feel about their salary.

I thought about it as a patronage system, similar to how the rich in ancient Rome would pay the expenses for poets or other artists, in order to provide them with a space to create their art. Not that this wasn’t without its own ulterior motives, as these patrons often coincidentally were either alluded to or directly mentioned within the artists' works, but I think it actually strengthens the analogy.

To the Point

This is a roundabout way of getting to what I see as a disconnect between getting paid for specific deliverables (i.e. I build you a chair, you give me $50) and getting paid a salary. Now, in the chair-building example, I would assume the final cost is some function of (item cost + time spent + craftsman demand), where you just sum the three and tell the customer. The customer isn’t going to pay because you bought the materials and started making the chair but for whatever reason it was never finished (materials couldn’t be sourced, a new more important project came in, e.g.).

On the other hand, as a salaried employee, I’ve regularly had priorities shifted, projects shelved, and ideas explored and then aborted. Regardless of my investment at any moment in time I get paid the same amount. Sure, in the long run I could get promotions or raises or whatever, but in my (limited) experience, the increase in effort required for more money is not commensurate with the effort expended (or inevitable disappointment if something you’ve invested time and effort in gets killed). An emotional investment in your work will result in pain, and the remuneration for such is arguably of little value (also worth noting is the fact that the additional work for a raise/promotion is done on faith, and there’s no requirement on the employer’s part to follow through).

All of this is to say: as a salaried employee, changes in effort/output haven’t historically resulted in a meaningful change to my circumstances, and even sets different expectations (“ah, ok, this is how much he works now”). As someone who gets paid for specific deliverables, there’s a direct translation of time and effort into money and the ability to scale up and down output temporarily.

Thought Experiment

What would happen in a hybrid salary/deliverable employment system?

In a freelancer situation, there are a lot of additional costs (admin, marketing, chasing payment), so there are benefits to the salary approach. What would happen if a deliverable pay structure were adopted for most people, similar to how salesmen earn commission? There’s a base salary, of course, but then a project has a price tag attached to it. Given the larger forces at work within a company, and their propensity for changing priorities, I don’t think this would really work. They would have to make some sort of upfront payment, or pay for different agreed-upon milestones within the project.

This would come with, again, additional costs and negotiations within a company, which would be a weird dynamic. For any small-to-medium sized company, it seems like it would end up creating more competition than compassion internally, and it wouldn’t be in the company’s interest. And, since the employees by and large have ceded their power to the company, it isn’t something they would take on of their own accord.


Realistically, I can’t think of a way to be internally employed by a company and bargain with them for projects. It sounds like being a consultant who also just gets a base salary. It also opens the employee up to abuse as, without a strong employee base, it would just result in the company driving payment down .. which would result in employees demanding a higher minimum payment, which asymptotically approaches the current salary situation.

Worth noting is an agreed-upon profit sharing scheme. There are openly known terms, trackable metrics, and clear success/failure conditions. I guess getting into a situation like that is the best case scenario.