Saturday, November 18, 2006

Wanted: Full-time employees to work from home 4 hours a day

Again the news is full of stories of global warming. The answer is never actually to do with making the planet greener, it's about taking the green from us, Joe Public, and giving it to the tax man. Sure there are many things you and I can do to make the planet greener, and actually save ourselves money too, but is there a way the government and business in general could be helping?

The big gripe about us not wanting to use public transport might have more to do with the chaos of getting to and from work than the actual means we use to do so. If you could take longer to get to work and the commute didn't mean squashing your nose up against some poor guy's sweaty armpit - would you then consider public transport? If the experience was pleasant, would you?

This is only a blog so I'm not going to delve to far back in history other than point out some obvious facts. When there was little transport we worked close close to our homes. We worked on farms or in shops in the local community. Sure, there are stories much like the Monty Python 3 Yorkshiremen sketch where someone would have to wake up before they went to bed to start to walk to the first of their four jobs to make ends meet. The reality is - over the many centuries we've worked to help our community and to stay alive.

The pace has changed over the years and in doing so we've latched on to some arcane ways of thinking and none of us have ever had the bottle to challenge it. I don't profess to have the answer, but I do profess to have the bottle.

Some questions which could help in solving this riddle - then maybe some hypotheses about why the answers to these could help with global warming, getting us back on topic.
  • Why is it that we consider full time employment as something you start and end at the same time every weekday ensuring it tots up to 40-hours or more?
  • Why is it that we have masses of property, designed to our individual comforts, that go empty for 8/9 hours a day and other masses of property, not nearly as accommodating, that equally go empty for the other 15/16 hours of the day?
9 to 5
That's what we work is it not? There or thereabouts. Who decided this and how did it become so wide spread in Western culture? Can someone be truly productive for a full 8 hours in a day? Does anyone take in to consideration one person who fulfills their quota in just 1-hour where another equally qualified colleague takes 12-hours to do the same work?

Parkinson's law suggests that however long you give someone to do a job, they'll take that long to do it. If you give somebody an hour - they'll do it in an hour. If you give them all week, they'll take all week.

Some very underpaid people in white lab coats have determined that we all have a different 'chronotype'. A type of internal clock. The closer our bedside alarm clock wakes us up to our inner alarm clock, the less likely we are to smoke (An article I read in the New Scientist a few months back). OK. Smoking probably has less to do with my current point, but what this is demonstrating is that we are all very different and that difference implies that we cannot all be expected to be alert and in charge at the same time as everyone else.

We are also all different in our abilities. Sure - that's why we all do different jobs, but what I'm actually saying here is that we are all different in our abilities even between people of the same job. That's why some people are seen as promotion material and others are not.

Lots of empty buildings
When you farm a field, you have to go to the field, the field isn't going to wake up at 6, brush it's teeth and travel down the M25 to get to you. Fair enough. Leaving your home to plow a field is extremely logical. There are a number of industries where this need for people to gravitate towards 'it' is mandatory for business. There are however a number of support industries that don't.

Corporates have large buildings stuffed full of paperclips, photocopiers and water coolers. These large properties are used to house hundreds of people to do their jobs. To capture data, analyze data, to regurgitate data and drink coffee. That's about it. The data is a little more flexible that a field.

The information age does not require us to go to the data, it will come to us. It will travel along wires, it will fly through the air and it will punch through walls just to get to us.

Let there be light
The reason for 9-5 is mostly to do with the number of hours it is light. Thank God we don't live on Venus. A day on Venus lasts more than 5,832 hours to our measly 24.

So the aim of the employer is to see how many hours of daylight they can use up. That's very nice of them. I'd rather work a little longer in the dark and make the most of the light, thanks. After all, I'm not dependent on the sun's natural light to see my computer for if I was, there would be more windows at my office.

So what does an employer get for their 8-hours? I suspect on average they get, at the most, around 2-3 hours of true productivity per day. Why do I claim that? I believe the work environment to be more of a social meeting place than a work place. But a social meeting place that everyone is dying to get away from. Go figure!

For the first hour of a morning, much is spent about getting ourselves 'awake'. Routine work. Stuff that we could do whilst sleeping. Check our email (no wonder people never remember receiving those all important announcements - they were still asleep when they read them). That's what we do first, we wake up. - That leaves us with 7-hours.

There is also the end of day wind down. This is where we think: "OK, I'll leave that for tomorrow, no point starting it now..." and discussions about what are you doing tonight ensues. 6-hours. Then there is that time before and after lunch. Once to discuss what we're doing for lunch and getting ready for it, then afterwards to discuss what we did at lunch before settling back down to 'work'. 5-hours

We'll have a few coffee breaks, a trip or 2 to the toilets, some milling about at the printer or wandering around aimlessly looking for a meeting room and then there are the times that we exchange friendly banter with our colleagues. 4-hours! We're now dangerously running out of time in our 8-hour working day.

The problem is that we tend to be so wrapped up with the idea that work is laborious, repetitive and mundane, that we actually make it more laborious than it needs to be. We don't think of efficiencies. We've got 4-hours to do our bit of work, we'll do it in 4, but really we could do it in less time than that - 2 or 3 hours maybe?

How lavish do you think I am being with my timings? Am I being too frivolous awarding such large volumes of time to seemingly incidental office pleasantries? Really? You should study people like I do.

What's worse is that even though there are only those 4-hours of productivity, I hear way to often how people are 'bored' or 'don't feel challenged enough' or 'don't see the point'... Hence why I believe my blog gets so many hits. Morale is low. Crickey - I wonder how when it is 4-hours of intense social interaction... but there you have it. Humans are never happy.

Bricks and mortar
The reason for office blocks? This is a bit of what techies like to call 'legacy'. Because that's how we've always done it. It's only more recently that we've truly been able to work from home, or from decentralized office spaces - 'satellite offices'. The biggest challenge has been less to do with 'how we could get data to you to do your job?', it's more to do with 'how do we keep that data secure on its journey?' or should I say 'how do we ensure that you don't go and show everyone our highly secret data to all your friends?'

The struggle thereafter is 'how do we manage your time?'. Considering that by my theory you are only getting the best part of 2-3 hours from your employee in a day, you're not doing too well at managing them now.

Green Employment
So how does this relate to helping the planet? One is that not everyone needs to start work, nor finish at the same time every day, therefore reducing the congestion so warmly criticized for it's contribution to the planets destruction. Reducing the time that one actually needs to work would encourage employees to take more 'casual' routes to work - maybe even try out that empty park and ride that's so cheap and planet friendly.

Empowering staff to work from home would also mean less cars on the road. Less need for cars at all. Sure, that means more power consumption at home, but in reverse, it should mean less power used at the office. And less need for offices means that there is less need to build more, returning property back to accommodation, meaning even less need to build homes, and with people living more centrally, meaning there is more opportunity for people to work for the benefit of their community and less need for travel.

I'm obviously trying to fit in a whole thesis in to a brief snippy blog and it just won't do. I realize I am leaving out thousands of occupations where being on site is essential or at the very least 'effective'. However I hope that someone reads these words and feels enough passion to investigate this line of thought further.

Happy debating during your 4-hours socializing at work tomorrow.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chaos Theory

There are 3 types of business:
  1. Businesses in Chaos
  2. Businesses Managing the Chaos
  3. Businesses not in Chaos
Which business would you like to be a part of? If you answered '3', then I would worry. In order for there to be chaos there needs to be motion. Something has to be propelling forward. A business that is not in chaos, is a business that is not propelling forward. A business that is quietly milling about in an almost static state.

Answering '1' is not good either. Chaos is not necessarily something we wish for, it's simply a natural entity. To resolve chaos you need to be in control of every angle that impacts your business. The chances are, even if you have perfect control over every minute little thing (doubtful at best), your business will still be reliant on at least one factor that you cannot control... your customer's freedom of choice maybe?

'2' is where a business should be. There should be an expectation of chaos because it is moving forward. Expecting it means we can prepare for it. Preparation means we can manage the randomness of the potential outcome chaos can bring to a business.

For employees however this fact is clear. Therefore an employee who finds themself in chaos will demand the support they need to reduce the effect on them. Possibly a good thing... providing the chaos is felt by all. i.e. The business is in chaos, and not the person themself.

An employee who is not in chaos: pretends! Pretending that they are in chaos deflects the attention of their managers on the fact that the business is not going forward.

Heres a test for the workplace. Take a book. A blank sheet of paper will do just as well. Now walk about the office with a distant concerned look on your face. Don't look at anybody directly - just look very hurried and busy. See how long it takes someone to question you.

You might want to set a limit to how long you try this test as it's probably not healthy to continue it forever. However, this is just one of many simple, trivial things that an everyday employee of a lacking direction business will do to look 'busy'. To look like they are contributing to 'managing the chaos'. Chaos that just is not there!

I've heard managers detail exactly how busy their department's staff are and how they simply cannot take on any more work, when I've sat in that manager's exact same department and listen to how everyone is bored, with nothing to do, trying to look busy.

Chaos is neither good nor bad, however chaos is required for a business to exist. For a manager, make sure that that chaos is because of direction, because of something you can quantify and see moving forward, not simply because employees are bored and need to find something to justify their salaries.