Michael Bohmeyer started a crowd-funding project that gives people a basic income of $1,000 a month for a year to find out what would happen if you suddenly had a basic income. He has taken the experiment into his own workplace, hiring Meera as an Unconditional Intern, an intern that gets paid no matter what. Seriously she doesn’t have to do anything, is not assigned any tasks, and doesn’t even need to show up to work. So I asked Michael…
What the hell were you thinking?
MICHAEL: I was thinking if we are promoting the idea of Basic Income all the time. We should as well try it out ourselves and see what it really feels like. And having a real basic income might mean that a power breaks, power of bosses who can just tell their employees to do whatever they want to. And now I was in the position of being a boss. So I said okay, I’m willing to give up that power. So that’s what we did.
It’s not only that it’s unconditional. We decided for ourselves that we would also not give any tasks to the intern. So there were no tasks. No nothing. So Meera, how was that for you?
MEERA: It was very difficult because I was in a special situation. I just graduated from a master program this summer. And I moved to a new city, from London to Berlin. And I was really motivated to start working because I was really interested in the project. And I know it’s unconditional and I don’t have to work but I really want to. So I actually planned on just ignoring that fact of the internship. And they were not really prepared for this. They were like “Ok. Interesting. Fine.” But there was no predefined role for me because they did not employ me to do a certain kind of job. So it took me a long time to figure out what this role could be for me. That was kind of a challenge.
I can understand the appeal to an intern or an employee getting this unconditional money. But how bout for you Michael. What is the motivation for an employer to give up this power. Has it paid off? What are the benefits?
MICHAEL: As I said the motivation was curiosity. I wanted to do an experiment, and it really did pay off for me as an employer. Because what really surprised me after a week or 2 after Meera was there she criticized me a lot. Really strong criticism. She was correct. Everything she said was alright. But it was things she said that normal employees would not have said to me, and didn’t say to me. At first I was like “Wow, that’s a tough thing to say in front of everyone.” But then I realized she’s probably right and I was able to consider what she said. And I accepted her criticism and I started change things. I think it made me a better employer, a better boss. Bc there was someone who was able to be really free and be really honest and true because she was independent, paid unconditionally. So giving away power was actually better because she was able to criticize me.
So Meera, how did you criticize him? Would you have done so in a job with typical conditional pay?
MEERA: To be really honest I think it’s probably part of my personality (laughs). But the unconditional internship made me more free to do that. I think the first thing I really criticized was how people on the team talked a lot about flat hierarchies or non existent heirarchies and for me it was very very clear form the beginning that there are pretty hierarchies in this organization. And I was like this is bullshit. There are hierarchies. We need to talk about this. Just sayin their are no heirarchies does just dissolve them you know. And the other I can’t remember. Do you remember, [Michael]?
MICHAEL: Ya once I made a joke about something you said was inappropriate. (laughs)
MEERA: It really wasn’t! (laughs)
Can we hear this joke Michael?
MICHAEL: I don’t remember. You know I’ve changed after the criticism.
Did you guys have anything else you wanted to say about this experience?
MICHAEL: Ya I think the most impressive thing was one day when we had a really busy and stressful day at the office, Meera said to me and said, “Hey Michael, I’m not coming in to the office tomorrow.” In a classical boss/employee situation, I would have said, “You’re crazy, I’m paying you a lot of money and you’re not sick so why the heck are you not coming?” But as I knew she was an unconditional intern I sat down with her and asked her “Okay, what needs to change so that you would like to come tomorrow?” And we talked for half an hour and it turned out she wanted to be responsible for a project and needed to clarify some things about her role. It was a really good conversation and in the end she said “Okay I’m actually going to come tomorrow.”
And when she showed up at the office the next morning I was really happy because I knew she was not just coming because she has to but because she really wants to and I can be sure she’s here because that’s what she wants. That made me feel really good and I think in the long term that’s the way it should be, right? I mean I could’ve just played the boss and said “You’re coming tomorrow no matter what. I don’t care.” And this may have worked too. But in the long term I think it’s much better to have motivated people who love what they do. And to have an unconditional basic income might be a way for many people to achieve just that.
MEERA: …For me the most interesting insight from the internship, first of all was it worked. I worked. I enjoyed working. And I think that’s because the job was right for me and I was right for the job. I enjoyed the working conditions, I liked the team. I liked what I had to do, I believed in the cause.
In the basic income debate, the idea of of paid labor is often limited to the connection of work and getting paid. All the other aspects related to work, the sense of belonging and the appreciation of work, are often disregarded. But these are the actually things that motivate people. And I think they motivate people much much more than the money aspect.
I think it’s pretty clear the only way to tell if an employee really is passionate is if they have a choice to say “No.”
Well it seems like this was a success for you two. Michael, have you considered paying all your employees like this?
MICHAEL: I try not not to be the boss so we have to decide this all together. You know we try to have low hierarchies or in a perfect case no hierarchies. But yeah I really want to do this. I want all our employees to have a basic income. And additionally pay them when they work. I want our employees to have the disconnection between work and income. But yeah, we don’t have it yet but we have one day a month and we’re going to be discussing it soon I think.
Well if you ever need another unconditional intern, you got somebody in the US! Nice talking to you guys.
Michael and Meera’s company Mein Grundekomen has given 25 people a basic income and are about to fund a 26th thanks to the donations of over 30,ooo people. There is an english project My Basic Income currently crowd-funding to do the same in America.
To help support more articles and interviews like this please consider becoming a patron on Patreon.