Tag Archives: work

Hate Work Email? Become a French Citizen

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Many non-French cultures admire the French. They live in a gorgeous country with a rich history, and, besides, its crammed with sumptuous food and wine. And, perhaps as a result, the French seem to have a very firm understanding of the so-called work-life balance. They’re often characterized as a people who work to live, rather than their earnest Anglo-Saxon cousins who generally live to work. While these may be over-generalized aphorisms a new French law highlights the gulf between employee rights of the French versus those of other more corporate-friendly nations.

Yes, as of January 1, 2017, an employee of a French company, having over 50 staff, has the legal right to ignore work-related emails, and other communications, outside of regular working hours.

Vive la France! More on this “right to disconnect” law here.

From the Guardian:

From Sunday [January 1, 2017], French companies will be required to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology as the country seeks to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking.

On 1 January, an employment law will enter into force that obliges organisations with more than 50 workers to start negotiations to define the rights of employees to ignore their smartphones.

Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness as well as relationship problems, with many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

The measure is intended to tackle the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime – while also giving employees flexibility to work outside the office.

“There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” said Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, as a new survey on the subject was published in October.

“At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them,” added Zunigo, who is an academic and director of research group Aristat.

The measure was introduced by labour minister Myriam El Khomri, who commissioned a report submitted in September 2015 which warned about the health impact of “info-obesity” which afflicts many workplaces.

Under the new law, companies will be obliged to negotiate with employees to agree on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Surplus Humans and the Death of Work

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It’s a simple equation: too many humans, not enough work. Low paying, physical jobs continue to disappear, replaced by mechanization. More cognitive work characterized by the need to think is increasingly likely to be automated and robotized. This has complex and dire consequences, and not just global economic ramifications, but moral ones. What are we to make of ourselves and of a culture that has intimately linked work with meaning when the work is outsourced or eliminated entirely?

A striking example comes from the richest country in the world — the United States. Recently and anomalously life-expectancy has shown a decrease among white people in economically depressed areas of the nation. Many economists suggest that the quest for ever-increasing productivity — usually delivered through automation — is chipping away at the very essence of what it means to be human: value purpose through work.

James Livingston professor of history at Rutgers University summarizes the existential dilemma, excerpted below, in his latest book No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea.

From aeon:

Work means everything to us Americans. For centuries – since, say, 1650 – we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labour, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve believed that, even if it sucks, a job gives meaning, purpose and structure to our everyday lives – at any rate, we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.

These beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.

These days, everybody from Left to Right – from the economist Dean Baker to the social scientist Arthur C Brooks, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – addresses this breakdown of the labour market by advocating ‘full employment’, as if having a job is self-evidently a good thing, no matter how dangerous, demanding or demeaning it is. But ‘full employment’ is not the way to restore our faith in hard work, or in playing by the rules, or in whatever else sounds good. The official unemployment rate in the United States is already below 6 per cent, which is pretty close to what economists used to call ‘full employment’, but income inequality hasn’t changed a bit. Shitty jobs for everyone won’t solve any social problems we now face.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the numbers. Already a fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty. Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (most of those who are eligible don’t apply). The market in labour has broken down, along with most others.

Those jobs that disappeared in the Great Recession just aren’t coming back, regardless of what the unemployment rate tells you – the net gain in jobs since 2000 still stands at zero – and if they do return from the dead, they’ll be zombies, those contingent, part-time or minimum-wage jobs where the bosses shuffle your shift from week to week: welcome to Wal-Mart, where food stamps are a benefit.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Detroit Industry North Wall, Diego Rivera. Courtesy: Detroit Institute of Arts. Wikipedia.

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Open-Office or Home-Based?

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Enough with the open office. Despite claims to democratize the workspace, improve employee camaraderie and boost interactions the open office layout reduces productivity.

Employers, here’s a better idea. Let your employees work from home. It really works: cuts corporate costs, increases productivity and morale, and reduces greenhouse emissions (from less commuting). Everybody wins — except, perhaps, for those who thrive on office gossip or require an in situ foosball table.

From the Washington Post:

A year ago, my boss announced that our large New York ad agency would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, I was forced to trade in my private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies.

Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life.  All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.  As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips.  At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York,  making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

Read the entire story here.

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The Ambition of Limited Access to Email

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Ubiquitous and constant connectivity has thoroughly reshaped our world over the last couple of decades. We are always reachable, personally and professionally — mobile phones, email and texting have seen to that. Yet, the automated out-of-office message still persists. You know, the email text goes something like this:

I’m currently out of the office and have limited access to email.

Yet, we all know that we can have unlimited access, all the time, and from almost anywhere on the planet. So, what do our automated messages of absence really mean? There are some suggestions that our absence from the connected world ranks as an indicator of status — the less reachable you are, the higher your status. Also, it’s quite possible that some of us use the rather lame excuse of communications service interruption as a smoke-screen for our inability to say no to the 24/7 demands of our work.

From the Guardian:

My favorite literary form of the summer of 2016 is the automatic email out-of-office message. When future scholars of literature reflect on the way that we wrote in this tumultuous, steaming-hot summer, what will they focus on? Perhaps it will be the way these utilitarian missives shifted towards a particular kind of magical thinking.
“I’m away,” these out-of-office messages say, dropping into my inbox one after another, “and I have limited access to email.”

Limited access wasn’t always our collective ambition. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was but a dream for the masses, I recall a television commercial that often aired during my father’s favorite basketball games. A tropical beach, a sleeves-rolled-up business executive kicking back with a clunky, black-box laptop. This was the exciting future of work: going somewhere beautiful but still being able to show everyone how important you were by bringing your 30lb ThinkPad, kicking back with a couple of spreadsheets and a piña colada.

Now, a generation later, with unprecedented portability, connection, we feel the urge to note our limitations, or the ones that we’d like to envision that we have. We are world-weary: with staring at screens, yes. But also with anticipation of how important we’ll feel when we look at our inbox after two, three hours away, note the stack of communiques at which we will sigh, with which we’ll reluctantly cope.

This is progress: the demonstration of status not through our ability to work wherever we go, but our inability to work. Our distance. Our ability to divide between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the sublimity of vacation. Our genuine and admirable devotion to personal time and space. Or at least our desire to have that devotion: our understanding that it is something to aim for. A wish.

“Limited access to email,” we write, wilfully overlooking the existence of smartphones, playacting as if every hotel in the world doesn’t place the Wi-Fi password in our sweaty palms along with our room key cards. We are aloof, too good to feel a thrill at the buzzing notification that our high school friend has posted a 20-year-old photo of the time that we all went to a water park.

Read the entire story here.

Image: No signal from here. Courtesy: the author.

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Poor Leadership and Destruction of Meaningful Work

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First, your boss may be a great leader but she or he has little or no sway over how you assess the meaningfulness of the work you do. Second, while there is no correlation between a boss and meaningful work, a bad boss can destroy any likelihood of meaningful effort.

That’s the recent finding, excerpted below, by researchers from the University of Sussex and the University of Greenwich in the UK.

Therein lies a valuable set of lessons for any business wishing to recruit, retain and motivate employees.

From University of Sussex:

Bosses play no role in fostering a sense of meaningfulness at work – but they do have the capacity to destroy it and should stay out of the way, new research shows.

Published in MIT Sloan Management Review, the research indicates that, rather than being similar to other work-related attitudes, such as engagement or commitment, meaningfulness at work tends to be intensely personal and individual, and is often revealed to employees as they reflect on their work.

Thus what managers can do to encourage meaningfulness is limited, though what they can do to introduce meaninglessness is unfortunately of far greater capacity.

The authors identified five qualities of meaningful work:

1. Self-Transcendent. Individuals tend to experience their work as meaningful when it matters to others more than just to themselves. In this way, meaningful work is self-transcendent.

2. Poignant. People often find their work to be full of meaning at moments associated with mixed, uncomfortable, or even painful thoughts and feelings, not just a sense of unalloyed joy and happiness.

 3. Episodic. A sense of meaningfulness arises in an episodic rather than a sustained way. It seems that no one can find their work consistently meaningful, but rather that an awareness that work is meaningful arises at peak times that are generative of strong experiences.

4. Reflective. Meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but rather in retrospect and on reflection when people are able to see their completed work and make connections between their achievements and a wider sense of life meaning.

5. Personal. Work that is meaningful is often understood by people not just in the context of their work but also in the wider context of their personal life experiences.

Read more here.

Image: Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 1942. Courtesy: United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Public Domain.

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Your Job is Killing You

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Many of us complain about the daily stresses from our jobs and our bosses, even our coworkers. We even bemoan the morning commute and the work we increasingly bring back home to complete in the evening. Many of us can be heard to say, “this job is killing me!”. Metaphorically, of course.

Well, researchers at Stanford and Harvard now find that in some cases your job is actually, quite literally, killing you. This may seem self-evident, but the data shows that workers with less education are significantly more likely to be employed in jobs that are more stressful and dangerous, and have less healthy workplace practices. This, in turn, leads to a significantly lower average life span than that for those with higher educational attainment. Researchers measured typical employment-related stressors such as: unemployment, layoffs, absence of employer subsidized health insurance, shift work, long working hours, job insecurity and work-family conflict. The less education a worker has, the more likely that she or he will suffer a greater burden from one or more of these stressors.

Looks like we’re gradually reverting to well-tested principles of Victorian worker exploitation. Check out more details from the study here.

From Washington Post:

People often like to groan about how their job is “killing” them. Tragically, for some groups of people in the U.S., that statement appears to be true.

A new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford has quantified just how much a stressful workplace may be shaving off of Americans’ life spans. It suggests that the amount of life lost to stress varies significantly for people of different races, educational levels and genders, and ranges up to nearly three years of life lost for some groups.

Past research has shown an incredible variation in life expectancy around the United States, depending on who you are and where you live. Mapping life expectancy around the nation by both county of residence and race, you can see that people in some parts of the U.S. live as many as 33 years longer on average than people in other parts of the country, the researchers say.

Those gaps appear to be getting worse, as the wealthy extend their life spans and other groups are stagnant. One study found that men and women with fewer than 12 years of education had life expectancies that were still on par with most adults in the 1950s and 1960s — suggesting the economic gains of the last few decades have gone mostly to more educated people. The financial crisis and subsequent recession, which put many people in economic jeopardy, may have worsened this effect.

There are lots of reasons that people with lower incomes and educations tend to have lower life expectancies: differences in access to health care, in exposure to air and water pollution, in nutrition and health care early in life, and in behaviors, such as smoking, exercise and diet. Past research has also shown that job insecurity, long hours, heavy demands at work and other stresses can also cut down on a worker’s life expectancy by taking a heavy toll on a worker’s health. (If you work in an office, here are some exercises you might try to prevent this.)

But researchers say this is the first study to look at the ways that a workplace’s influence on life expectancy specifically break down by racial and educational lines.

To do their analysis, they divided people into 18 different groups by race, education and sex. They then looked at 10 different workplace factors — including unemployment and layoffs, the absence of health insurance, shift work, long working hours, job insecurity and work-family conflict — and estimated the effect that each would have on annual mortality and life expectancy.

The data show that people with less education are much more likely to end up in jobs with more unhealthy workplace practices that cut down on one’s life span. People with the highest educational attainment were less affected by workplace stress than people with the least education, the study says.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Women mealtime at St Pancras workhouse, London. Courtesy: Peter Higginbothom. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

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You Could Be Galactic Viceroy

Many corporations, by necessity, are not the most innovative of human aggregations. Most are conservative by nature — making money today, based on what worked yesterday. So, to maintain some degree of creative spirit and keep workers loyal they allow (some) employees to adopt rather — by corporate standards — wacky, left-field titles.

My favorite of this bunch: Digital Prophet, which I much prefer over iCup Technician, Wizard of Lightbulb Moments, and Wet Leisure Attendant.

Read more oddball titles here.

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Aspirational or Inspirational?

Both of my parents came from a background of chronic poverty and limited educational opportunity. They eventually overcame these constraints through a combination of hard work, persistence and passion. They instilled these traits in me, and somehow they did so in a way that fostered a belief in a well-balanced life containing both work and leisure.

But to many, especially in the United States, the live-to-work ethic thrives. This condition is so acute and prevalent that most Americans caught in corporate jobs never take their full — and yet meager by global standards — allotment of annual vacation. Our culture is replete with tales of driven, aspirational parents — think dragon mom — who seem to have their kid’s lives mapped out from the crib.

I have to agree with columnist George Monbiot: while naked ambition may gain our children monetary riches and a higher rung on the corporate ladder it does not a life make.

From the Guardian:

Perhaps because the alternative is too hideous to contemplate, we persuade ourselves that those who wield power know what they are doing. The belief in a guiding intelligence is hard to shake.

We know that our conditions of life are deteriorating. Most young people have little prospect of owning a home, or even of renting a decent one. Interesting jobs are sliced up, through digital Taylorism, into portions of meaningless drudgery. The natural world, whose wonders enhance our lives, and upon which our survival depends, is being rubbed out with horrible speed. Those to whom we look for guardianship, in government and among the economic elite, do not arrest this decline, they accelerate it.

The political system that delivers these outcomes is sustained by aspiration: the faith that if we try hard enough we could join the elite, even as living standards decline and social immobility becomes set almost in stone. But to what are we aspiring? A life that is better than our own, or worse?

Last week a note from an analyst at Barclays’ Global Power and Utilities group in New York was leaked. It addressed students about to begin a summer internship, and offered a glimpse of the toxic culture into which they are inducted.

“I wanted to introduce you to the 10 Power Commandments … For nine weeks you will live and die by these … We expect you to be the last ones to leave every night, no matter what … I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … the internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … an intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk … Play time is over and it’s time to buckle up.”

Play time is over, but did it ever begin? If these students have the kind of parents featured in the Financial Times last month, perhaps not. The article marked a new form of employment: the nursery consultant. These people, who charge from £290 an hour, must find a nursery that will put their clients’ toddlers on the right track to an elite university.

They spoke of parents who had already decided that their six-month-old son would go to Cambridge then Deutsche Bank, or whose two-year-old daughter “had a tutor for two afternoons a week (to keep on top of maths and literacy) as well as weekly phonics and reading classes, drama, piano, beginner French and swimming. They were considering adding Mandarin and Spanish. ‘The little girl was so exhausted and on edge she was terrified of opening her mouth.’”

In New York, playdate coaches charging $450 an hour train small children in the social skills that might help secure their admission to the most prestigious private schools. They are taught to hide traits that could suggest they’re on the autistic spectrum, which might reduce their chances of selection.

From infancy to employment, this is a life-denying, love-denying mindset, informed not by joy or contentment, but by an ambition that is both desperate and pointless, for it cannot compensate for what it displaces: childhood, family life, the joys of summer, meaningful and productive work, a sense of arrival, living in the moment. For the sake of this toxic culture, the economy is repurposed, the social contract is rewritten, the elite is released from tax, regulation and the other restraints imposed by democracy.

Where the elite goes, we are induced to follow. As if the assessment regimes were too lax in UK primary schools, last year the education secretary announced a new test for four-year-olds. A primary school in Cambridge has just taken the obvious next step: it is now streaming four-year-olds into classes according to perceived ability. The education and adoption bill, announced in the Queen’s speech, will turn the screw even tighter. Will this help children, or hurt them?

Read the entire column here.

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Hard Work Versus Smart Work

If you work any kind of corporate job it’s highly likely that you’ll hear any of the following on an almost daily basis: “good job, all those extra hours you put in really paid off”, “I always eat lunch at my desk”, “yes… worked late again yesterday”, “… are you staying late too?”, “I know you must have worked so many long hours to get the project done”, “I’m really impressed at the hours you dedicate…”, “what a team, you all went over and above… working late, working weekends, sacrificing vacation…”, and so on.

The workaholic culture — particularly in the United States — serves to reinforce the notion that hard work is actually to be rewarded and reinforced. Many just seem to confuse long hours for persistence and resilience. On the surface it seems to be a great win for the employer: get more hours out of your employees, and it’s free. Of course, recent analyses of work-life balance show that pushing employees beyond a certain number of hours is thoroughly counterproductive — beyond the deleterious effects on employees the quality of the work suffers too. But it turns out that a not insignificant number of wily subordinates may actually be gaming the 80-hour workweek. And, don’t forget the other group of hard-workers — those who do endless hours of so-called “busy work” just to look hardworking.

What happened to just encouraging and incentivizing  employees, and bosses, for working smartly, rather than just hard? Reward long hours and there is no incentive for innovation or change; reward smartness and creativity thrives. The current mindset may take generations to alter — you’ll easily come across the word “hardworking” in the dictionary, but you’ll have no luck finding “smartworking“.

From the NYT:

Imagine an elite professional services firm with a high-performing, workaholic culture. Everyone is expected to turn on a dime to serve a client, travel at a moment’s notice, and be available pretty much every evening and weekend. It can make for a grueling work life, but at the highest levels of accounting, law, investment banking and consulting firms, it is just the way things are.

Except for one dirty little secret: Some of the people ostensibly turning in those 80- or 90-hour workweeks, particularly men, may just be faking it.

Many of them were, at least, at one elite consulting firm studied by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. It’s impossible to know if what she learned at that unidentified consulting firm applies across the world of work more broadly. But her research, publishedin the academic journal Organization Science, offers a way to understand how the professional world differs between men and women, and some of the ways a hard-charging culture that emphasizes long hours above all can make some companies worse off.

Ms. Reid interviewed more than 100 people in the American offices of a global consulting firm and had access to performance reviews and internal human resources documents. At the firm there was a strong culture around long hours and responding to clients promptly.

“When the client needs me to be somewhere, I just have to be there,” said one of the consultants Ms. Reid interviewed. “And if you can’t be there, it’s probably because you’ve got another client meeting at the same time. You know it’s tough to say I can’t be there because my son had a Cub Scout meeting.”

Some people fully embraced this culture and put in the long hours, and they tended to be top performers. Others openly pushed back against it, insisting upon lighter and more flexible work hours, or less travel; they were punished in their performance reviews.

The third group is most interesting. Some 31 percent of the men and 11 percent of the women whose records Ms. Reid examined managed to achieve the benefits of a more moderate work schedule without explicitly asking for it.

They made an effort to line up clients who were local, reducing the need for travel. When they skipped work to spend time with their children or spouse, they didn’t call attention to it. One team on which several members had small children agreed among themselves to cover for one another so that everyone could have more flexible hours.

A male junior manager described working to have repeat consulting engagements with a company near enough to his home that he could take care of it with day trips. “I try to head out by 5, get home at 5:30, have dinner, play with my daughter,” he said, adding that he generally kept weekend work down to two hours of catching up on email.

Despite the limited hours, he said: “I know what clients are expecting. So I deliver above that.” He received a high performance review and a promotion.

What is fascinating about the firm Ms. Reid studied is that these people, who in her terminology were “passing” as workaholics, received performance reviews that were as strong as their hyper-ambitious colleagues. For people who were good at faking it, there was no real damage done by their lighter workloads.

It calls to mind the episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza leaves his car in the parking lot at Yankee Stadium, where he works, and gets a promotion because his boss sees the car and thinks he is getting to work earlier and staying later than anyone else. (The strategy goes awry for him, and is not recommended for any aspiring partners in a consulting firm.)

Read the entire article here.

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Your Current Dystopian Nightmare: In Just One Click

Amazon was supposed to give you back precious time by making shopping and spending painlessly simple. Apps on your smartphone were supposed to do the same for all manner of re-tooled on-demand services. What wonderful time-saving inventions! So, now you can live in the moment and make use of all this extra free time. It’s your time now. You’ve won it back and no one can take it away.

And, what do you spend this newly earned free time doing? Well, you sit at home in your isolated cocoon, you shop for more things online, you download some more great apps that promise to bring even greater convenience, you interact less with real humans, and, best of all, you spend more time working. Welcome to your new dystopian nightmare, and it’s happening right now. Click.

From Medium:

Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of this imperial, 37-story tower. “Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters,” she says. “A lot of work-from-homers.”

And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they’re striding into the lobby at a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in fridge.

This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear: Lady, this is not that kind of building.

Back in the elevator in the 37-story tower, the messengers do talk, one tells me. They end up asking each other which apps they work for: Postmates. Seamless. EAT24. GrubHub. Safeway.com. A woman hauling two Whole Foods sacks reads the concierge an apartment number off her smartphone, along with the resident’s directions: “Please deliver to my door.”

“They have a nice kitchen up there,” Angel says. The apartments rent for as much as $5,000 a month for a one-bedroom. “But so much, so much food comes in. Between 4 and 8 o’clock, they’re on fire.”

I start to walk toward home. En route, I pass an EAT24 ad on a bus stop shelter, and a little further down the street, a Dungeons & Dragons–type dude opens the locked lobby door of yet another glass-box residential building for a Sprig deliveryman:

“You’re…”

“Jonathan?”

“Sweet,” Dungeons & Dragons says, grabbing the bag of food. The door clanks behind him.

And that’s when I realized: the on-demand world isn’t about sharing at all. It’s about being served. This is an economy of shut-ins.

In 1998, Carnegie Mellon researchers warned that the internet could make us into hermits. They released a study monitoring the social behavior of 169 people making their first forays online. The web-surfers started talking less with family and friends, and grew more isolated and depressed. “We were surprised to find that what is a social technology has such anti-social consequences,” said one of the researchers at the time. “And these are the same people who, when asked, describe the Internet as a positive thing.”

We’re now deep into the bombastic buildout of the on-demand economy— with investment in the apps, platforms and services surging exponentially. Right now Americans buy nearly eight percent of all their retail goods online, though that seems a wild underestimate in the most congested, wired, time-strapped urban centers.

Many services promote themselves as life-expanding?—?there to free up your time so you can spend it connecting with the people you care about, not standing at the post office with strangers. Rinse’s ad shows a couple chilling at a park, their laundry being washed by someone, somewhere beyond the picture’s frame. But plenty of the delivery companies are brutally honest that, actually, they never want you to leave home at all.

GrubHub’s advertising banks on us secretly never wanting to talk to a human again: “Everything great about eating, combined with everything great about not talking to people.” DoorDash, another food delivery service, goes for the all-caps, batshit extreme:

“NEVER LEAVE HOME AGAIN.”

Katherine van Ekert isn’t a shut-in, exactly, but there are only two things she ever has to run errands for any more: trash bags and saline solution. For those, she must leave her San Francisco apartment and walk two blocks to the drug store, “so woe is my life,” she tells me. (She realizes her dry humor about #firstworldproblems may not translate, and clarifies later: “Honestly, this is all tongue in cheek. We’re not spoiled brats.”) Everything else is done by app. Her husband’s office contracts with Washio. Groceries come from Instacart. “I live on Amazon,” she says, buying everything from curry leaves to a jogging suit for her dog, complete with hoodie.

She’s so partial to these services, in fact, that she’s running one of her own: A veterinarian by trade, she’s a co-founder of VetPronto, which sends an on-call vet to your house. It’s one of a half-dozen on-demand services in the current batch at Y Combinator, the startup factory, including a marijuana delivery app called Meadow (“You laugh, but they’re going to be rich,” she says). She took a look at her current clients?—?they skew late 20s to late 30s, and work in high-paying jobs: “The kinds of people who use a lot of on demand services and hang out on Yelp a lot ?”

Basically, people a lot like herself. That’s the common wisdom: the apps are created by the urban young for the needs of urban young. The potential of delivery with a swipe of the finger is exciting for van Ekert, who grew up without such services in Sydney and recently arrived in wired San Francisco. “I’m just milking this city for all it’s worth,” she says. “I was talking to my father on Skype the other day. He asked, ‘Don’t you miss a casual stroll to the shop?’ Everything we do now is time-limited, and you do everything with intention. There’s not time to stroll anywhere.”

Suddenly, for people like van Ekert, the end of chores is here. After hours, you’re free from dirty laundry and dishes. (TaskRabbit’s ad rolls by me on a bus: “Buy yourself time?—?literally.”)

So here’s the big question. What does she, or you, or any of us do with all this time we’re buying? Binge on Netflix shows? Go for a run? Van Ekert’s answer: “It’s more to dedicate more time to working.”

Read the entire story here.

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Household Chores for Kids Are Good

Google-kid-chores

Apparently household chores are becoming rather yesterday. Several recent surveys — no doubt commissioned by my children — show that shared duties in the home are a dying phenomenon. No, I here you cry. Not only do chores provide a necessary respite from the otherwise 24/7-videogame-texting addiction, they help establish a sense of responsibility and reinforce our increasingly imperiled altruistic tendencies. So, parents, get out the duster, vacuum, fresh sheets, laundry basket and put those (little) people to work before it’s too late. But first of all let’s rename “chores” to responsibilities.

From WSJ:

Today’s demands for measurable childhood success—from the Common Core to college placement—have chased household chores from the to-do lists of many young people. In a survey of 1,001 U.S. adults released last fall by Braun Research, 82% reported having regular chores growing up, but only 28% said that they require their own children to do them. With students under pressure to learn Mandarin, run the chess club or get a varsity letter, chores have fallen victim to the imperatives of resume-building—though it is hardly clear that such activities are a better use of their time.

“Parents today want their kids spending time on things that can bring them success, but ironically, we’ve stopped doing one thing that’s actually been a proven predictor of success—and that’s household chores,” says Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist in Paradise Valley, Ariz., and co-author of the forthcoming book “Raising Can-Do Kids.” Decades of studies show the benefits of chores—academically, emotionally and even professionally.

Giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance, according to research by Marty Rossmann, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. In 2002, Dr. Rossmann analyzed data from a longitudinal study that followed 84 children across four periods in their lives—in preschool, around ages 10 and 15, and in their mid-20s. She found that young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.

Chores also teach children how to be empathetic and responsive to others’ needs, notes psychologist Richard Weissbourd of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In research published last year, he and his team surveyed 10,000 middle- and high-school students and asked them to rank what they valued more: achievement, happiness or caring for others.

Almost 80% chose either achievement or happiness over caring for others. As he points out, however, research suggests that personal happiness comes most reliably not from high achievement but from strong relationships. “We’re out of balance,” says Dr. Weissbourd. A good way to start readjusting priorities, he suggests, is by learning to be kind and helpful at home.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

 

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Focus on Process, Not Perfect Grades

If you are a parent of a school-age child then it is highly likely that you have, on multiple occasions, chastised her or him and withheld privileges for poor grades. It’s also likely that you have rewarded the same child for being smart at math or having Picasso-like artistic talent. I have done this myself. But, there is a better way to nurture young minds, and it is through “telling stories about achievements that result from hard work.”

From Scientific American:

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon, all then at the University of Pennsylvania, had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can effect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many more problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easier problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

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Ugliness Behind the Beautiful Game

Google-map-QatarQatar hosts the World Cup in 2022. This gives the emirate another 8 years to finish construction of the various football venues, hotels and infrastructure required to support the world’s biggest single sporting event.

Perhaps, it will also give the emirate some time to clean up its appalling record of worker abuse and human rights violations. Numerous  laborers have died during the construction process, while others are paid minimal wages or not at all. And to top it off most employees live in atrocious conditions , cannot move freely, nor can they change jobs or even repatriate — many come from the Indian subcontinent or East Asia. You could be forgiven for labeling these people indentured servants rather than workers.

From the Guardian:

Migrant workers who built luxury offices used by Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup organisers have told the Guardian they have not been paid for more than a year and are now working illegally from cockroach-infested lodgings.

Officials in Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy have been using offices on the 38th and 39th floors of Doha’s landmark al-Bidda skyscraper – known as the Tower of Football – which were fitted out by men from Nepal, Sri Lanka and India who say they have not been paid for up to 13 months’ work.

The project, a Guardian investigation shows, was directly commissioned by the Qatar government and the workers’ plight is set to raise fresh doubts over the autocratic emirate’s commitment to labour rights as construction starts this year on five new stadiums for the World Cup.

The offices, which cost £2.5m to fit, feature expensive etched glass, handmade Italian furniture, and even a heated executive toilet, project sources said. Yet some of the workers have not been paid, despite complaining to the Qatari authorities months ago and being owed wages as modest as £6 a day.

By the end of this year, several hundred thousand extra migrant workers from some of the world’s poorest countries are scheduled to have travelled to Qatar to build World Cup facilities and infrastructure. The acceleration in the building programme comes amid international concern over a rising death toll among migrant workers and the use of forced labour.

“We don’t know how much they are spending on the World Cup, but we just need our salary,” said one worker who had lost a year’s pay on the project. “We were working, but not getting the salary. The government, the company: just provide the money.”

The migrants are squeezed seven to a room, sleeping on thin, dirty mattresses on the floor and on bunk beds, in breach of Qatar’s own labour standards. They live in constant fear of imprisonment because they have been left without paperwork after the contractor on the project, Lee Trading and Contracting, collapsed. They say they are now being exploited on wages as low as 50p an hour.

Their case was raised with Qatar’s prime minister by Amnesty International last November, but the workers have said 13 of them remain stranded in Qatar. Despite having done nothing wrong, five have even been arrested and imprisoned by Qatari police because they did not have ID papers. Legal claims lodged against the former employer at the labour court in November have proved fruitless. They are so poor they can no longer afford the taxi to court to pursue their cases, they say.

A 35-year-old Nepalese worker and father of three who ssaid he too had lost a year’s pay: “If I had money to buy a ticket, I would go home.”

Qatar’s World Cup organising committee confirmed that it had been granted use of temporary offices on the floors fitted out by the unpaid workers. It said it was “heavily dismayed to learn of the behaviour of Lee Trading with regard to the timely payment of its workers”. The committee stressed it did not commission the firm. “We strongly disapprove and will continue to press for a speedy and fair conclusion to all cases,” it said.

Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, said the revelation added to the pressure on the World Cup organising committee. “They work out of this building, but so far they can’t even deliver justice for the men who toiled at their own HQ,” he said.

Sharan Burrow, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the workers’ treatment was criminal. “It is an appalling abuse of fundamental rights, yet there is no concern from the Qatar government unless they are found out,” she said. “In any other country you could prosecute this behaviour.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Qatar. Courtesy of Google Maps.

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No Work Past 6pm. C’est La Vie

les-deux-magots

Many westerners either love or hate the French. But, you have to hand it to them: where American’s love to work; the French, well, just love to do other stuff.

Famous for its maximum 35-hour work week enacted in 1999, the country recently established another restriction on employer demands. It is now illegal for superiors to demand that their office employees check computers, tablets or smartphones after 6pm. So, while the Brits must be whining that their near neighbors have gained yet another enviable characteristic, Americans must be leaving the country in droves. After all, 6pm is merely a signal that the workday is only half over in the United States. Mind you, the French do seem to live longer. Sacre bleu.

From the Independent:

It’s an international version of the postcode lottery. The dateline lottery, if you like, which means that if you are born in Limoges rather than Lancaster, you’re likely to live longer. The 2013 list of life expectancy compiled by the World Health Organisation has France in 13th position and the United Kingdom way behind in 29th spot.

The average life expectancy for these two countries, separated only by 23 miles of waterway, is 82.3 years and 81 years respectively. While it may not seem much of a difference at this remove, it’s something those Britons who are approaching their 81st birthdays might not be feeling too cheerful about.

We are repeatedly told that it is to do with the French diet, all that olive oil and fresh fruit and a glass of red wine with meals, which wards off heart disease. Anyone who’s been to provincial France, however, and tried to buy something from a shop between noon and 3pm, or, depending on where you are, on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon, might have stumbled upon the real reason for the greater longevity of the French. This is a place that still believes in half-day closing and taking lunch breaks. This is a country that has a very different attitude towards work from some of its close Northern European neighbours. And the chances are that, if your work-life balance is tilted more towards life, you are going to live longer.

France is the only country in the world to have adopted a 35-hour working week and this is strictly enforced. So much so that, yesterday, an agreement was signed between bosses and unions representing more than a million white-collar employees that would strike the average British worker as an edict from Cloud Cuckoo Land. It is a legally enforceable deal that means workers should not be contacted once they have left the office. It is as if the smartphone had never been invented (and yes, I know, many of us might hanker for a return to those days).

It’s rather ironic that French businesses in the technology sector will not be allowed to urge their employees to check emails once they’ve done their day’s work, and the unions will from now on be measuring what they are neatly calling “digital working time”.

How quaint these ideas seem to us. Heaven only knows what the average British working week would be if digital hours were taken into consideration. No matter what time of the day or night, whatever we may be doing in our leisure hours, we are only a ping away from being back at a virtual desk. I rarely have dinner with anyone these days who isn’t attached to their smartphone, waiting for a pause in the conversation so they can check their emails. Not good for digestion, not good for quality of life.

Here’s the thing, too. French productivity levels outstrip those of Britain and Germany, and French satisfaction with their quality of life is above the OECD average. No wonder, we may say. We’d all like to take a couple of hours off for lunch, washed down with a nice glass of Côtes du Rhône, and then switch our phones off as soon as we leave work. It’s just that our bosses won’t let us.

Read the entire article here (before 6pm if you’re in France at a work computer).

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Tales From the Office: I Hate My Job

cubiclesIt is no coincidence that I post this article on a Monday. After all it’s the most loathsome day of the week according to most people this side of the galaxy. All because of the very human invention known as work.

Some present-day Bartleby (the Scrivener)’s are taking up arms and rising up against the man. A few human gears in the vast corporate machine are no longer content to suck up to the boss or accept every demand from the corner office — take the recent case of a Manhattan court stenographer.

From the Guardian:

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a wage slave typing: “I hate my job. I hate my job. I hate my job,” on a keyboard, for ever. That’s what a Manhattan court typist is accused of doing, having been fired from his post two years ago, after jeopardising upwards of 30 trials, according to the New York Post. Many of the court transcripts were “complete gibberish” as the stenographer was alledgedly suffering the effects of alcohol abuse, but the one that has caught public attention contains the phrase “I hate my job” over and over again. Officials are reportedly struggling to mitigate the damage, and the typist now says he’s in recovery, but it’s worth considering how long it took the court officials to realise he hadn’t been taking proper notes at all.

You can’t help but feel a small pang of joy at part of the story, though. Surely everyone, at some point, has longed, but perhaps not dared, to do the same. In a dreary Coventry bedsit in 2007, I read Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, the tale of a new employee who calmly refuses to do anything he is paid to do, to the complete bafflement of his boss, and found myself thinking in wonder: “This is the greatest story I have ever read.” No wonder it still resonates. Who hasn’t sat in their office, and felt like saying to their bosses: “I would prefer not to,” when asked to stuff envelopes or run to the post office?

For some bizarre reason, it’s still taboo to admit that most jobs are unspeakably dull. On application forms, it’s anathema to write: “Reason for leaving last job: hated it”, and “Reason for applying for this post: I like money.” The fact that so many people gleefully shared this story shows that many of us, deep down, harbour a suspicion that our jobs aren’t necessarily what we want to be doing for the rest of our lives. A lot of us aren’t always happy and fulfilled at work, and aren’t always completely productive.

Dreaming of turning to our boss and saying: “I would prefer not to,” or spending an afternoon typing “I hate my job. I hate my job. I hate my job” into Microsoft Word seems like a worthy way of spending the time. And, as with the court typist, maybe people wouldn’t even notice. In one of my workplaces, before a round of redundancies, on my last day my manager piled yet more work on to my desk and said yet again that she was far too busy to do her invoices. With nothing to lose, I pointed out that she had a large plate glass window behind her, so for the entire length of my temp job, I’d been able to see that she spent most of the day playing Spider Solitaire.

Howard Beale’s rant in Network, caricaturish as it is cathartic, strikes a nerve too: there’s something endlessly satisfying in fantasising about pushing your computer over, throwing your chair through the window and telling your most hated colleagues what you’ve always thought about them. But instead we keep it bottled up, go to the pub and grind our teeth. Still, here’s to the modern-day Bartlebys.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Office cubicles. Courtesy of Nomorecubes.

 

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The Spacetime Discontinuum

Einstein transformed our notions of the universe, teaching us, amongst other things, that time is relative to the velocity of the observer. While he had in mind no less than the entire cosmos when constructing his elegant theories, he failed to consider relativity in the home and workplace, and specifically how women and men experience time differently.

From the WSJ:

Several years ago, while observing a parenting group in Minnesota, I was struck by a confession one of the women made to her peers: She didn’t really care that her husband did the dishes after dinner. Sure, it was swell of him, and she had friends whose husbands did less. But what she really wanted, at that point in her day, was for her husband to volunteer to put the kids to bed. She would have been glad to sit in the kitchen on her own for a few minutes with the water running and her mind wandering. Another woman chimed in: “Totally. The dishes don’t talk back to you.”

According to the American Time Use Survey—which asks thousands of Americans annually to chronicle how they spend their days—men and women now work roughly the same number of hours a week (though men work more paid hours, and women more unpaid). Given this balanced ledger, one might guess that all would finally be quiet on the domestic front—that women would finally have stopped wondering how they, rather than their husbands, got suckered into such a heavy load. But they haven’t. The question is: Why?

Part of the problem is that averages treat all data as if they’re the same and therefore combinable, which often results in a kind of absurdity. On average, human beings have half an Adam’s apple, but no one thinks to lump men and women together this way. Similarly, we should not assume that men and women’s working hours are the same in kind. The fact is, men and women experience their time very differently.

For starters, not all work is created equal. An hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another. Take child care, a task to which mothers devote far more hours than dads. It creates much more stress in women than other forms of housework. In “Alone Together” (2007), a comprehensive look at the state of American marriage, the authors found that if women believe child care is unevenly divided in their homes, this imbalance is much more likely to affect their marital happiness than a perceived imbalance in, say, vacuuming.

Or consider night duty. Sustained sleep deprivation, as we know, consigns people to their own special league of misery. But it’s generally mothers, rather than fathers, who are halfway down the loonytown freeway to hysterical exhaustion, at least in the early years of parenting. According to the American Time Use Survey, women in dual-earner couples are three times more likely to report interrupted sleep if they have a child under the age of 1, and stay-at-home mothers are six times as likely to get up with their children as are stay-at-home fathers.

Funny: I once sat on a panel with Adam Mansbach, the author of the best-selling parody “Go the F— to Sleep.” At one point in the discussion, he conceded that his partner put his child to bed most nights. He may have written a book about the tyranny of toddlers at bedtime, but in his house, it was mainly Mom’s problem.

Complicating matters, mothers assume a disproportionate number of time-sensitive domestic tasks, whether it’s getting their toddlers dressed for school or their 12-year-olds off to swim practice. Their daily routine is speckled with what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call “pressure points,” or nonnegotiable demands that make their lives, as the authors put it, “more frenetic.”

These deadlines have unintended consequences. They force women to search for wormholes in the time-space continuum simply to accomplish all the things that they need to do. In 2011, the sociologists Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers spend, on average, 10 extra hours a week multitasking than do fathers “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.”

When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, it reduces their odds of multitasking by over 30%. Which may explain why, a few years ago, researchers from UCLA found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently” in their close study of 32 families at home. It may also explain why many fathers manage to finish the Sunday paper while their wives do not—they’re not constantly getting up to refill bowls of Cheerios.

Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.

Read the entire essay here.

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What About Telecleaning?

suitable-technologies

Telepresence devices and systems made some ripples in the vast oceans of new technology at the recent CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. Telepresence allows anyone armed with an internet-connected camera to beam themselves elsewhere with the aid of a remote controlled screen on wheels. Some clinics and workplaces have experimented with the technology, allowing medical staff and workers to be virtually present in one location while being physically remote. Now, a handful of innovators are experimenting with telepresence for the home market.

So, sick of being around the kids, or need to see grandma but can’t get away from the office? Or, even better, buy buy one for your office so you can replace yourself with a robot, work from home and never visit the workplace again. Well, a telepresence robot for a mere $1,000 may be a very sound investment.

Sounds great, but where is the robot that will tidy, clean, dust, cook, repair, mow, launder…

From Technology Review:

When Scott Hassan went to Las Vegas for the International Consumer Electronics Show last week, he was still able to get the kids up in the morning and help them make breakfast at his California home. Hassan used a remote-controlled screen on wheels to spend time with his family, and today his company, Suitable Technologies, started taking orders for Beam+, a version of the same telepresence technology aimed at home users. This summer, it will also be available via Amazon and other retailers.

Hassan thinks the Beam+, essentially a 10-inch screen and camera mounted on wheels, will be popular with other businesspeople who want to spend more time with their kids, or those with aging parents they’d like to check up on more often.

Hassan says a person “visiting” aging parents this way could check up on them less obtrusively than via phone, for example by walking around to look for signs they’d taken their medication rather than bluntly asking, or watching to check that they take their pills with their meal. “For people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, I think that being able to see and hear and walk around with a familiar face is a lot better than just a phone call,” he says. “You could also just Beam in and watch Jeopardy! with your grandmother on TV.”

The Beam+ is designed so that once installed in a home, anyone with the login credentials can bring it to life and start moving around. The operator’s interface shows the view from a camera over the screen, as well as a smaller view looking down toward the unit’s base to aid maneuvering. A user drives it by moving a mouse over their view and clicking where they want to go.

The first 1,000 units of the Beam+ can be preordered for $995, with later units expected to costs $1,995. Both prices include the charging dock to which the device must return every two hours. The exterior design of the Beam+ was created by Fred Bould, who designed the Nest thermostat, among other gadgets.

The Beam+ is a cheaper, smaller, and restyled version of the company’s first product, known as the Beam, which is aimed at corporate users (see “Beam Yourself to Work in a Remote-Controlled Body”).

Intel, IBM, and Square all use Beam’s original product to give employees an option somewhere between a conventional video chat and an in-person visit when working with colleagues in distant offices. Hassan says interest has come from more than just technology companies, though. In Vegas he sold two Beam devices to a restaurant owner planning to use them as street barkers; meanwhile, a real-estate agency in California’s Lake Tahoe has started using them to show people around luxury condos.

Several startups and large companies, such as iRobot, which created the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, have launched mobile telepresence devices in recent years. However, despite it being clear that many people wish they could travel more easily in their professional and personal lives, the devices have sometimes been clunky (see “The New, More Awkward You”) and remain relatively expensive.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Beam+. Courtesy of Suitable Technologies, inc.

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Time-Off for Being Productive

If you are an IT or knowledge-worker, computer engineer, software developer or just use a computer for the majority of your working day, keep the following in mind the next time you negotiate benefits with your supervisor.

In Greece, computer-using public sector employees get 6 extra days-off per year because they use a computer. But austerity is now taking its ugly toll as the Greek government works to scrap this privilege — it already eliminated benefits to workers who show up at the office on time.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Greek civil servants stand to lose the six extra days of paid vacation they get each year—just for using a computer—after the government moved Friday to rescind a privilege that has been around for more than two decades.

The bonus, known as “computer leave,” applied to workers whose job involved sitting in front of a computer for more than five hours a day—basically most of the staff working in ministries and public services.

“It belongs to another era,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the administrative reform minister, said. “Today, in the era of crisis, we cannot maintain anachronistic privileges.”

Doing away with this bonus, which dates to 1989, represents “a small, yet symbolic, step in modernizing public administration,” he said.

But the public-sector union Adedy said it would fight the decision in court.

“According to the European regulation, those using a computer should take a 15-minute break every two hours,” the general secretary Ermolaos Kasses said. “It is not easy to have all those breaks during the day, so it was decided back then that it should be given as a day off every two months.”

Inspectors from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are expected in Athens later this month to review Greece’s performance in meeting the terms of its second bailout.

Apart from shrinking the public sector, raising taxes and cutting wages and pensions, the government wants to show that it is moving forward with abolishing costly perks.

It has already limited the pensions that unmarried daughters are allowed to collect when their father dies, and scrapped a bonus for showing up to work on time. It has also extended the work week for teachers.

Read the entire article here.

Image: City of Oia, Santorini. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Managers, Who Needs ‘Em

If you work in a typical organization, whether it’s a for-profit or charitable enterprise, you are likely to have a manager. And, that manager will have a manager. What do all these layers of supervisors do and are they really necessary? Many small companies are starting to find that managers do not necessarily a successful company make, and are jettisoning typical hierarchical styles of governance for fluid, dynamic and managerless organizations. They are learning that managerless does not equal rudderless. Those of you in larger companies may only continue to dream — so in the meantime keep sending that status report to your manager.

From Wall Street Journal:

This spring the Chicago software firm 37signals took a big step: It appointed a manager.

The promotion wasn’t an entirely welcome one for Jason Zimdars, the veteran designer who was selected for the job. Rather than manage coworkers, he says, “I like to code and design and make things.”

Disdain for management sometimes seems as common as free snacks among tech startups and other small or young companies founded without layers of supervisors, fancy titles or a corporate ladder to climb. Leaders of these companies, including 37signals, say they are trying to balance the desire to free workers to create and the need for a decision maker to ensure projects run smoothly.

Management has traditionally been a worker’s best way to get ahead and increase earnings, but at startups, where speed and autonomy are prized above all else, managers are often dismissed as archaic, or worse, dead weight.

37signals, which got its start in 1999, keeps head count low and hires people capable of managing themselves.

Two-thirds of the 38 staffers, including Mr. Zimdars, work off site, and coding, designing and helping customers—not managing others—are the contributions that matter most.

“I want people here who are doing the work, not managing the work,” says Jason Fried, one of the company’s co-founders.

The trick for smaller companies, such as 37signals, is making sure decisions get made and tasks get done without evolving into a bureaucracy.

Mr. Fried previously oversaw the company’s main product, Basecamp, in addition to looking after other products and setting strategy. But he was stretched so thin that key decisions about the project-management software, which serves as a hub for workers to share messages, collaborate on documents and discuss ideas, were sometimes left hanging for weeks or months.

By this past April Mr. Fried realized it was time to hand the reins over to Mr. Zimdars, who had worked as a designer for the company for several years. As Basecamp’s product owner, Mr. Zimdars is now empowered to make decisions about the product and handles a team of five or so employees.

The 38-year-old father of two, who works from a stand-up desk in his Oklahoma City, Okla., home office, doesn’t see himself as a typical manager. He even avoids the language of management; for instance, he doesn’t refer to members of his team as “direct reports.”

When a co-worker recently presented Mr. Zimdars with an idea for a new feature, Mr. Fried suggested they come back with some alternative, bigger-picture ideas. After some back and forth, Mr. Zimdars decided to overrule his boss—though he thought twice about it—and went with his colleague’s original idea.

While Mr. Zimdars says he is glad product development now moves more quickly, he has reservations about his new assignment. “In my past experience, moving into more managerial roles has sort of been the exit out of other companies,” he says.

37signals tried out middle management a few years ago, when Mr. Fried hired someone to oversee the customer-service team. But the employee, who is no longer with the firm, did little besides overseeing others, he says.

Since then, the customer-support team has rotated some management duties, such as keeping track of group performance and ensuring goals are met. The manager-of-the-month also handles customer-support requests.

“If you are too far away from actually doing the work, you don’t really understand the work anymore and what goes into it,” says Mr. Fried.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google search “manager”.

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Worst Job in the World

Would you rather be a human automaton inside a Chinese factory making products for your peers or a banquet attendant in ancient Rome? Thanks to Lapham’s Quarterly for this disturbing infographic, which shows how times may not have changed as much as we would have believed for the average worker over the last 2,000 years.

Visit the original infographic here.

Infographic courtesy of Lapham’s Quarterly.

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Work as Punishment (and For the Sake of Leisure)

Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame reminds us that work is punishment for Adam’s sin, according to the Book of Genesis. No doubt, many who hold other faiths, as well as those who don’t, may tend to agree with this basic notion.

So, what on earth is work for?

Gutting goes on to remind us that Aristotle and Bertrand Russell had it right: that work is for the sake of leisure.

From the New York Times:

Is work good or bad?  A fatuous question, it may seem, with unemployment such a pressing national concern.  (Apart from the names of the two candidates, “jobs” was the politically relevant word most used by speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions.) Even apart from current worries, the goodness of work is deep in our culture. We applaud people for their work ethic, judge our economy by its productivity and even honor work with a national holiday.

But there’s an underlying ambivalence: we celebrate Labor Day by not working, the Book of Genesis says work is punishment for Adam’s sin, and many of us count the days to the next vacation and see a contented retirement as the only reason for working.

We’re ambivalent about work because in our capitalist system it means work-for-pay (wage-labor), not for its own sake.  It is what philosophers call an instrumental good, something valuable not in itself but for what we can use it to achieve.  For most of us, a paying job is still utterly essential — as masses of unemployed people know all too well.  But in our economic system, most of us inevitably see our work as a means to something else: it makes a living, but it doesn’t make a life.

What, then, is work for? Aristotle has a striking answer: “we work to have leisure, on which happiness depends.” This may at first seem absurd. How can we be happy just doing nothing, however sweetly (dolce far niente)?  Doesn’t idleness lead to boredom, the life-destroying ennui portrayed in so many novels, at least since “Madame Bovary”?

Everything depends on how we understand leisure. Is it mere idleness, simply doing nothing?  Then a life of leisure is at best boring (a lesson of Voltaire’s “Candide”), and at worst terrifying (leaving us, as Pascal says, with nothing to distract from the thought of death).  No, the leisure Aristotle has in mind is productive activity enjoyed for its own sake, while work is done for something else.

We can pass by for now the question of just what activities are truly enjoyable for their own sake — perhaps eating and drinking, sports, love, adventure, art, contemplation? The point is that engaging in such activities — and sharing them with others — is what makes a good life. Leisure, not work, should be our primary goal.

Bertrand Russell, in his classic essay “In Praise of Idleness,” agrees. ”A great deal of harm,” he says, “is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work.” Instead, “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.” Before the technological breakthroughs of the last two centuries, leisure could be only “the prerogative of small privileged classes,” supported by slave labor or a near equivalent. But this is no longer necessary: “The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Busyness As Chronic Illness

Apparently, being busy alleviates the human existential threat. So, if your roughly 16 hours, or more, of wakefulness each day is crammed with memos, driving, meetings, widgets, calls, charts, quotas, angry customers, school lunches, deciding, reports, bank statements, kids, budgets, bills, baking, making, fixing, cleaning and mad bosses, then your life must be meaningful, right?

Think again.

Author Tim Kreider muses below on this chronic state of affairs, and hits close to the nerve when he suggests that, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

From the New York Times:

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I  Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Entrepreneur.com.

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