Books, life the universe

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Blizzard conditions today and books

Well that is a bit of an exaggeration but the wind is swirling the snow around the back garden and we have what looks like a lunar landscape in the making. There was more snow last night - though not very much - and it has been snowing today in short bursts. I managed to walk to the post office earlier but I would probably need to get out my wellies and dust them off if I wanted to venture out now. Next door's new dog will be starting to think that the world is always white as he has hardly known anything different.

I am currently reading Natasha Walters' The New Feminism. It was published in 1999 and actually presents a very much more relaxed attitude to many things which are a big issues now. For example she talks about surveys showing women are not bothered about what people think about their appearance - clothes, weight, hair etc. This is certainly not the case now with girls as young as 5 worried about their weight! Are we going backwards over such issues?

The author has some interesting things to say about the way working life is organised on the basis that the breadwinner is cut off from their domestic life on the assumption that someone will be at home to take care of it. If domestic responsibilities were more evenly spread between men and women then working arrangements would need to be more flexible. I've worked with men who have had to leave work at particular times to pick up children and no one bats an eyelid.

Flexibility and getting rid of the long hours culture are probably two of the keys to the problem. With ever changing technology more and more work can be done wherever it is convenient to do it. There is video and telephone conferencing for communication. I can't help feeling that much of the business travel undertaken these days says more about people's love of status and being seen to be important than about the necessity for a face to face meeting. When I was doing a job which involved travelling to apparently essential meetings I used to get fed up of the waste of time and effort some of my journeys were. Yes I liked the travelling but that didn't stop me feeling some it was a waste.


kcm said...

I agree with your comments on working life. Flexibility should be a "no brainer" for most employers. It is 1991 since I worked in the same office as my immediate line manager; well over 10 years since I had my own desk; and 5 years since I went in the office out of routine. On average over my last year working I think I went into an office (not even my base office) just once a month. I could do everything from home with a laptop, broadband, instant messaging, phone, and audio-conferencing phone number (we didn't even need video-conferencing!). In the rare instance I was sent hardcopy mail it was simply redirected to my home address; but 99.999% of everything (even payslips) was done electronically. And I was managing $5M projects with a team spread across the world - some of whom I never met face to face!

When you put the cost of the technology required against the cost of office space, employee morale (from increased flexibility), efficiencies, savings on travel (cost and time), etc. the payback is probably about 1 year, maybe less. Flexible and mobile/home working actually means you get more work done because people will do a bit extra here and there as long as they are trusted not to abuse the flexibility.

The killer is the long hours culture. And not just long hours in the office, but also people feeling that they have to work long hours at home too -- evenings and weekends because it is always there. I used to regularly work a 50 hour week; easily done by starting a bit early, taking little time for lunch and working a little late. I was fairly disciplined about the hours I would and did work - and was still reckoned to be one of the most efficient and achieving project managers in the team! Anyone who needs to work 70 or 80 hours a week (and many of my colleagues did) is either very inefficient (=ineffective) or is being abused by their management with way too much work.

OK, there are of course jobs you can't do remotely. Anything where objects, food, drink have to be handled (and that's everything from factories and farms to hospitals and pubs) you need warm bodies on site. But that still doesn't preclude flexible hours providing you can get the people scheduling right. But anything office based should be easily done from anywhere with current technology.

The challenge is the huge cultural change; let's not underestimate that. Management have to learn to trust their people to do the hours to get the job done. The company has to be prepared to invest up-front in the technology (and some support staff); that's an investment usually over several years but with significant paybacks in efficiency (not necessarily overall fewer jobs, just different ones). The people have to learn to do without the office; you have to find ways of allowing people to continue to have a virtual coffee together and gossip. People also have to learn to be trusted, which means not being closely supervised all the time and being a "self-starter".

Of course, as with anything else, there are people who cannot hack the cultural change; who need the office because (typically) home is too distracting. And this is no respecter of age, gender, role or seniority. I know secretaries who happily work from home and senior directors who have to work in the office; and vice versa.

How the working word has changed even in the time I've been working! And what was the prime cause of all this? Ultimately I suspect the PC.

Jilly said...

I suspect the PC has been the prime mover in this change. As ever it is just so difficult to change the culture but it will gradually happen. Both workers and employers need to realise that flexibility for workers can bring many benefits - both tangible and intangible - to the employer as well.