Tuesday, 23 April 2013

In praise of telecommuting: The slacker work ethic

When I worked in an office, I got nothing done.  I mean, literally nothing.  I viewed the hours I was stuck there, rather than any work I might produce, as the price of my paycheque & benefits.  Physically being in my cubicle, at my desk, from X am to X pm, was my job.  I had to answer the phone if it rang, go to meetings, deal with requests from bosses, but only at a bare minimum.  It was mainly clock-watching.  Before the Internet, it was harder to kill the time and look busy.   But for nearly 20 years now, both work and slacking off have involved staring at a computer screen.  My day revolved around deciding what I would have for lunch & snacks.  I never ate breakfast before work (not even once in all my years of working in an office, no exaggeration) as eating it at my desk gave me something fun to do whilst waiting to get lunch.  As you would expect, on the rare occasions when the job was busy & I was actually working, the time flew by much faster than on the days when I was staring at the clock, reading Fark, or trying to sneak a book on my lap under the desk.  When I had freelance work, I would try to do it at my day job.  Since I was trapped there for X number of hours, might as well use that time to get it done rather than my precious free time.

When I segued from cubicle dronedom to freelancing full-time, my work habits changed drastically.  When working from home, I was trapped at my desk only as long as it took to get the work done.  I didn’t have to sit there until 5:00pm if I finished.  I could do a million other projects, whether chores or hobbies.  I could reach a certain point in an assignment, go out for a run, and come back to it, refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage.  If I wanted to shop when the supermarket was less crowded or hit the gym when it was least busy, I could go in the middle of a weekday & work in the evenings or weekends.  The key difference was that I was no longer merely putting in time: I was rewarded for productivity, not being in a certain place for X number of hours each week.  I was compensated based on the quality and quantity of my work, not whether I was 15 minutes late or took an extra vacation day.  The biggest incentive to get work done was that I was free when it was finished and not a moment sooner or later.

So, you can imagine my reaction to the recent corporate trend to bring telecommuters back to the office.  Obviously, I think it is a huge mistake.  You want people to be productive, you don’t put them in a cubicle, you let them work sitting next to a swimming pool.  You can bet they will get that assignment finished so their butt can be in that pool as soon as humanly possible.  Put that same person in a cubicle and tell them they cannot leave until 5:30pm, and I will show you a person reading Amazon reviews and web comics all day long.  I’ve noticed that I barely have time to skim the headlines of the papers since I began telecommuting.  I really have to think an article is worth my treasured time to read the whole thing.  When I worked in an office, I read the paper cover-to-cover every day.  Remember when games like Tetris came with a panic button that switched the screen to a spreadsheet if someone walked by?  And when corporations started blocking websites to prevent their employees from checking their personal email and doing online shopping on "company time"?  You won't find a virtual worker slacking off because they are paid for results, not time.

To be fair, one of the reasons put forth for ending telecommuting is that face-to-face contact is useful for brainstorming and innovation.  I will grant you that the idea-generation and problem-solving stages of a project can benefit from group brainstorming sessions.  But that is what meetings are for, whether in person, or over Skype.  I have no objection to the theory that innovation needs collaboration but that necessity does not translate into a blanket ban on telecommuting.  Making people come into the office, in person or virtually, for facetime is reasonable.  But the high-handed command at Yahoo! to come back into the office full-time or quit was extreme, and will end up being counterproductive.  There is also a certain irony to a technology company banning working over the Internet.  It also does not help their image that the CEO is filthy rich.  A lower-paid employee could never afford the childcare arrangements she has made that enable her to put in long hours at the office despite being a new mother.  At best, she suffers from a lack of empathy.  I expect she has no clue how the little people beneath her live, and cares less.

Telecommuting is cheaper for employers, and it is a necessity in a society that does not provide paid parental leave.  It has become increasingly viable due to new technology, and it will continue to become practical in more industries.  It will never be an option in hands-on service industries (imagine a virtual firefighter or hair dresser) but the people who enter those professions know what they are getting into.  Trying to roll back time and turn people back into clock-watching cubicle zombies will lower productivity, not raise it.  I can vouch for that.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Location, Location, Location

Today’s Sunday Magazine cover story, “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?”, includes the line, “Studies show you shouldn’t move for location, since what you do is more important than where you do it.”  I’d like to know what studies these are, and who the respondents were, because I take issue with this supposed result.  Where I live is much more important to me than what I do for a living.  That clearly is not true for everyone but I can’t believe that the majority tend to the other extreme.

Work should take up, (for the sort of people who would be facing this job vs. location dilemma, i.e. mid-to-upper-level white collar), as few hours of one’s life as possible —40 hours per week, maybe more in busy periods with overtime.  Most of one’s life is lived outside of work.  Work provides the money to do the things we love—play sports, pursue hobbies, own property, raise a family, travel, etc.  Most people, if they won the lottery, would quit their jobs and move–to the coast, to the mountains, to whatever aesthetic environment appeals to them.  I know a guy who works in finance, for example, who lives to snowboard.  He has an MBA and a 6-figure salary, so you’d think he’d be about as career-oriented as anyone, but his main criterion for location is that fresh powder is within commuting distance.  This is not someone who would be happy with a great job in Florida. 

Speaking of Florida, I have known several people who moved there for jobs and found that, yes, Florida was just as tacky as they feared it would be.  They have all moved at the first opportunity, work not being enough to hold them in a location without any redeeming qualities, (okay, except TWWOHP, but you can't go there every day), not to mention cockroaches the size of Volkswagons.

I realise that some people would take any job to get as far away as possible from their families, and with good reason, but just as many others would be miserable living too far from their close-knit clans.  No job would make up for that.

Speaking of family, people with children tend to prioritise good schools and safe neighbourhoods.  Of course, they have to make a living to support their families, which often means moving for jobs, but location is still particularly important to them.  Most people I know wouldn’t consider raising a child south of the Mason-Dixon line, nor in any red state, with good reason.  When jobs take parents to an undesirable location they often endure unreasonable commutes for the sake of living in a better area for their children.  These long commutes can be both miserable and unhealthy.  Are they worth it for the job?  Almost never.

For myself, I am aesthetically married to New England.  I love the four distinct seasons and I live for fall foliage.  No job could be worth living in the South or PNW and missing out on the seasons each year.  I love the flora and fauna of New England, the historic architecture, the colonial history, the traditions and foods of the area.  I wouldn’t exchange maple syrup and pumpkins and cider and colonial farms and lilacs and autumn leaves for the foods and architecture and traditions of another region that don't resonate with me.

And I haven’t even mentioned politics. What job could be worth living in a red state?  What career move could outweigh being stuck in a place without organic food and coffeehouses?  There are still places in America where they’ll scratch their heads and offer you fish when you tell them you are a vegetarian, where they think that Fair Trade coffee means you want to barter for your cuppa.  I can see visiting such places (provided you are not contributing money to bigots by patronising their businesses) and coming home with some scary stories about how backward, sexist, racist, and ignorant they are, but living there?  Putting down roots and buying property and raising your children there?  What job could be worth that kind of sacrifice?

One of the (many) reasons I haven’t found a job in my field is because I am not willing to move to Outerbumblefuck, Kansas.  I know myself; I know that aesthetics are the most important thing in the world to me.  I don’t live to work, I work to live.  The things I love to do are not lucrative so I just want to make as much money as possible in as few hours as possible so I can devote as much time as possible to doing the things I love.  Giving up everything I love in life for a stupid job sounds like the worst trade-off in the world, especially given how insecure employment is.  If somebody told me that, if I could suck it up & live somewhere I didn't like for 10 years, I could earn enough to buy the farm of my dreams back in New England, of course I’d do it.  The short-term sacrifice, with the guaranteed pay-off, would be well worth it.  It would be an adventure.  But packing up my farm & leaving everything I love for a job that could end in a year, leaving me with no money, no farm, no roots, no money (worth mentioning twice), just adrift in a place I hate and no way to get a situation as good as the one I left?  That would be idiotic.  Moving for a job is a huge risk because nothing today is more unstable than the job market.  You move alone, away from family and friends and support networks and then you get laid off in 6 months and wind up homeless.  Yeah, job over location, smart move.

Within reason, figure out where you want to live, where you would be happiest, and then find a job there.  If you are in a highly specialized field, you don’t have that option, but this survey was clearly not aimed at such people.  Someone who wants to be an actor has to live in LA or NYC; someone who wants to be an astronaut has to live near NASA in Houston.  But I can’t imagine anyone that career-focused cares much where they live, and such driven folk are a tiny minority.  Also, if you are at the top of your profession, you can maintain two homes: one near work, one wherever you want to live.  But that lucky scenario doesn’t apply to most people.  For most people, their company transfers them to Cleveland and they either move or they lose their job.  They are not choosing job over location; they are stuck.

Another common situation would be this:  Let’s say you studied all your life to be a trumpet player.  After you graduate from Julliard, you audition for orchestras.  There are only so many with openings at a given time, so you cannot be choosy about location if you want a job in your field.  You get hired by the Seattle Symphony, but you hate rain.  Does having your dream job, one you literally worked since childhood to achieve, trump living in a place that depresses you?  I cannot imagine that it does but then I cannot imagine having a “career” rather than a “job.”  I cannot imagine caring more about what I do during working hours than what I do outside of them.  I wish I could get inside the head of someone who lives to work, just for a day, to experience that kind of drive and singlemindedness and energy.  I’ve never felt it and cannot fathom it.  I have goals about which I am passionate, but when it comes to making sacrifices or taking risks or working hard to achieve them, they take a backseat to comfort in the present.  That's why location is so important to me:  I cannot imagine being so engaged by a job that I could ignore living in an ugly, tacky, aesthetically-repugnant place.