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You Can Never Hide From Your Boss

What Microsoft's purchase of LinkedIn heralds for the future of work.


When the news broke on Monday that Microsoft had purchased LinkedIn for $26.2 billion, most people likely read or heard about it on their way to work, checking their phones or sitting in front of a laptop with their morning coffee. It’s likely, too, that many were keeping up with emails at the same time, maybe getting a head start on a spreadsheet, or perhaps dipping into Slack or Yammer to see what coworkers were talking about. Work, of course, no longer happens only at work.

But if the acquisition itself produced a slew of jokes—most of them about how uniting the creator of Clippy and the purveyor of nagging emails might create the world’s most annoying organization—the implications of the move were bound up in exactly how and where people work today. After all, Microsoft didn’t purchase LinkedIn because it wants to get in on the job recruitment business. Rather, it wants to create the social connective tissue for the office, hoping to do to work life what Facebook did to our socializing: creating a persistent network in which to share, collaborate, perform—and, of course, to be tracked. If one consequence of Facebook was FOMO, a fear of missing out, then a “Facebook for work” may encourage something more like FONW: a fear of not working.

Large acquisitions are often disasters—witness Microsoft’s own $7.6 billion mistake in buying Nokia in 2014. But they can also augur the tech industry’s future. That same year, when Facebook bought WhatsApp for $22 billion, some questioned spending so much for a free app used for chatting with friends and family. Now, because apps occupy so much of people’s attention, messaging is becoming a platform unto itself—a way to not just communicate, but also to send people money, read the news, or order a ride. Facebook saw that messaging was the next wave of mobile computing, and so swallowed up a potential competitor with hundreds of millions of users around the world.

Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn is a similar herald. The acquisition was made for a variety of reasons, not least because, unlike Facebook, LinkedIn tracks both employment and skills—information that can be used to analyze everything from industry-wide trends to where a company is surreptitiously moving resources. Noted tech analyst Ben Thompson called it “the most valuable data in the world.” But more generally Microsoft is in search of a “social graph” for work—a base layer of connection that not only links a worker into all of a company’s applications, but also follows that worker around wherever they go. Microsoft wants to offer its enterprise clients the solution for connecting its entire workplace for the digital era.

The imagined scenarios are admittedly intriguing: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella envisions being able to call up a coworker from within an Office document in order to bring their specific skills to a project, or have LinkedIn’s news feed serve you articles related to the work you are currently doing. Meanwhile, programmer and New Republic contributing editor Paul Ford sees an array of possible changes, from replacing email with a persistent messaging service, or turning LinkedIn into an internal way to share ideas, or simply having a company directory based on skills rather than an alphabetical list of names.

In short, the primary change envisioned is that instead of LinkedIn being where you look for another job, it becomes the way to centralize activity in the job you have now, becoming your professional identity technically as much as practically.

Consider what a day might look like under this new scenario. You wake up in the morning, check and respond to messages on your phone, and perhaps on the way to work you jump into a collaborative document to offer direction on input from the office in Bangalore. Over the course of the day, you continue working, updating your status on the company LinkedIn network, while at lunch you continue chatting via app with peers. In the evening, you tally up your day’s work and make another status update, respond to requests from far-flung coworkers for your specialized help, and then, exhausted, go to sleep, only to repeat the pattern the next day.

It’s not that, individually, each of these things is new. The persistence—or indeed, perniciousness—of work throughout the day is something fostered first by email, then the smartphone, and now by chat and collaboration apps like Slack. Rather, it’s that Microsoft’s desire to produce a social graph for work aims to unify those disparate elements under a single technological umbrella, tied to a single work identity—one that becomes that much harder to escape. While Microsoft alone cannot singlehandedly transform work culture, there are 1.2 billion users of Microsoft Office, and soon they will start to see a much deeper integration with LinkedIn. What, exactly, will these people be linked to: tools for getting work done more effectively, or a culture of work that one is ever quite free from?

After all, in a persistently linked workplace, work will be more accessible and theoretically more efficient, but also more easily tracked. This is where the phrase “Facebook for work” fails to convey the true implications of the era of the social office. Yes, your coworkers and superiors will track your work life on LinkedIn, just as your friends track your social and intellectual life on Facebook. And LinkedIn, like Facebook, will prioritize performance. Silence is not an effective tactic on any social network, and a social network for work will foster an even greater need to speak and be seen. The difference is that you can log off of Facebook for days or even weeks at a time, and few people, if any, will notice. Not so in this (admittedly dystopian) vision of the LinkedIn workplace. And with that will come the draining psychological effect of behaving as if you’re always being watched—because in large part, you will be.