Archive for the ‘productivity’ Category

Flexibility in the Workplace?

What kind of workplace do you want? Should your workplace experience be determined by regulations, or instead be negotiated between you and your employer?

A recent survey sheds interesting light on what people love, and hate, about their workplaces. They survey, carried out by Wakefield Research for Citrix, produced lots of interesting tidbits. For example, among male workers, the part of office life they secretly hate most is office baby showers. 32 percent of workers would give up their lunch breaks in exchange for the chance to work at home just one day per week. Oh, and 7% of workers, when given the chance to work from home, prefer to work in their underwear or in the nude. And so on.

Citrix is an internet and cloud computing company, so naturally the take-away lesson they suggest has to do with the advantages of telecommuting, and in particular with the desirability of employers offering employees the flexibility to work, at least occasionally, from home.

But the question of flexibility arises at more that one level. It arises at the level of what employers offer employees — will they offer employees the flexibility to work from home occasionally if they choose? It also arises at the level of employers: should employers have the option to either offer such flexibility or not, or should all employers be required to offer the same kinds of flexibility? In other words, should there be a firm rule (entrenched in either law or regulation) requiring employers to offer such options?

More generally, what elements of work life ought to be regulated to the point of being standardized? And which elements ought to be up to employers and employees to sort out? The generic argument for uniformity is reasonably clear: people are people, and ought generally to be treated in similar ways regardless of where they work.

But there are also arguments for diversity in employment arrangements. Most obviously, there’s an argument based in the importance of freedom of choice. Why should everyone be forced to work under one set of circumstances? Shouldn’t the terms of the employment contract be a matter of free negotiation — within broad limits, perhaps defined in terms of fundamental human rights — between employer and employee?

But customization of workplace experience also holds the promise of better outcomes, at least in theory, because different workers likely want and value different things in a workplace. And there will always be tradeoffs. Some may prefer a workplace that rewards long hours with high pay. Others may prefer “good” pay in return for “reasonable” hours. Some may want to work in a close-knit team that works and plays together, while another may prefer a strict separation of work and pleasure. In this sense, a workplace is a product like any other, one that we “buy” with our labour. And, as with food or anything else, different people will want different things. If you can find ways to give more people what they want, you’ve done a good thing.

I find this a useful way of framing questions related to employment standards. For any given question, we should ask: is this something that we need to legislate into regularity, or something on which we need to allow diversity? If the former, then we’re faced with the hard challenge of figuring out what the single best standard is for all to follow. If the latter, then the challenge is to figure out how to make sure that the choices employees make are free and informed.

How can we decide which category a particular workplace issue falls into? That’s the hard part. It’s tempting, philosophically, to say that we just need to figure out whether the issue at hand is an issue with regard to which rational argumentation seems to lead to a single solution. But whether a single, clear answer is available is itself something over which people can disagree. Closer to the truth is that what we need to do is figure out whether the gains made by enforcing regularity are sufficient to outweigh the positive outcomes that come from a tailored workplace experience.

Surfing Porn at Work

As someone once said, ‘let he among you who has a free hand cast the first stone.’

Canadian Business recently reported that the head of Houston’s public transit agency has been suspended (for a week) for using the agency’s internet connection to look at porn.

This sort of conflict is likely to become increasingly common, since the only thing more ubiquitous in office settings than boredom are high-quality internet connections. And I suspect that under-prepared employers are likely to continue overreact, for no particularly good reason.

It seems to me that the point here should not be about porn; the point should be whether personal web-surfing at the office is allowed at all. There’s all kinds of deviant, transgressive, and socially controversial stuff on the web. Porn, per se, is far from the worst. So surfing the web for non-business purposes should either be allowed, or not. Either could well be a reasonable policy. A company can reasonably forbid use of company internet for personal purposes, just as most forbid use of corporate stationary or corporate premises by employees who are moonlighting. On the other hand, a company might reasonably allow a certain amount of personal usage as akin to making the occasional personal call on a company phone. But if employees are not allowed to use company internet for personal (including entertainment) purposes, that should be a clearly-stated policy.

There are of course a couple of circumstances in which an employer would have a legitimate interest in limiting the kind of stuff employees access online. One is size. If the employee is downloading large porn files (say, entire movies), that kind of thing could have an impact on the firm’s bandwidth usage, something that could cost money or just slow down internet access for employees engaged in legitimate work. Of course, the same would go for employees downloading the latest episode of Breaking Bad on iTunes. The second circumstance would be if there is a chance that the download would be visible and reflect badly on the company. If for some reason the fact that you’re surfing porn at work is liable to come to the attention of people outside the company, then, reactions to porn being as variable as they are, you should avoid drawing potentially unwanted attention to your company that way.

But in general, at least, the fact that it’s porn you’re looking at on your break, behind a closed office door, shouldn’t much matter to your employer.

None of this is to say, of course, that surfing porn at work is a good idea. It’s generally pretty dumb, especially if there’s any chance at all that co-workers are going to see and be offended. After all, we’re talking about the office, not your own living room. And so while employers have reason to allow their employees a certain amount of latitude, employees have reason to exercise a certain amount of discretion.

Workers vs Machines

A recent item in the NY Times dealt with the fact that many companies these days seem relatively reluctant to invest in new employees, but comparatively willing to invest in new machinery. The evidence for that is mostly anecdotal, but interesting none the less.

Here’s the story, by Catherine Rampell: Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers

Companies that are looking for a good deal aren’t seeing one in new workers.

Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people….

The story gives the distinct impression that the issue here is not just an issue of machines or people; it’s about machines versus people, and machines are clearly winning the hearts and minds of employers these days. On the face of it, that sounds bad. Workers — people — matter, from a moral point of view, and machines don’t. So, other things being equal, it is better to spend money on doing something good for people (e.g., providing someone with a job) than it is to spend money on mere machines.

But two perhaps-not-obvious points need to be made, here.

The first point is that even when employers choose to purchase machines instead of hiring employees, that needn’t be a bad thing socially, nor bad for labour as a group. Machinery tends to boost productivity, and boosting productivity boosts wealth, so from a social point of view (including from the point of view of blue-collar workers) it is good when companies invest in machinery. Even if machines displace workers in a given industry, that needn’t spell trouble for workers as a class. In the early 19th Century, Luddites destroyed mechanized looms in a vain attempt to forestall the effect of the industrial revolution on employment patterns in the textile industry. And yet, in the long run, the industrial revolution did nothing to worsen the lot of labourers. Indeed, it ushered in an era of prosperity that made the lot of labourers as a whole vastly better. To be sure, changes in technology result in unemployment in the particular sectors in which new technologies are introduced. But that tends to be a temporary problem. The standard Econ 101 example is transportation. The advent of the automobile surely resulted in some unemployment among those who had formerly worked in the horse-and-buggy industry. But, in the long run, those workers eventually found jobs in the auto industry, and were no worse off. And so on.

The second point is that, even if we focus on the employees of a particular organization, labour and machines are not always (and maybe not even often) in competition. Machines and tools can make employees’ lives better, and in those cases, certainly, spending money on machines and tools is a good thing. The most obvious case is when the equipment purchased is, say, safety equipment, or when the machines purchased are ones with additional safety features or features that make work less back-breaking.

But purchase of equipment can also be good in another way. Machines and tools of various kinds can make labour more productive, and more productive labour is more valuable. Not everyone realizes that the productivity of labour — the amount of goods that can be turned out per hour of a worker’s time — varies vastly across the globe. An hour of an American worker’s labour, for example, produces far more output than an hour of a Chinese worker’s labour. And the reason has little to nothing to do differences in work ethic or intelligence or talent. The difference lies in national differences in access to tools, and to differences in organizational and managerial strategies. So investing in better equipment can be a way of investing in the productivity of your workers.

Of course, past some threshold, when labour is more productive, employers may decide they need less of it. The most famous example of this is in farming, where one man with a big tractor now often does the work that a dozen men might have done in years gone by. But the devil is in the details. We should at least recognize that investment in machinery is not automatically contrary to the interests of labour.

Ethics of Inefficiency

The current way of thinking seems to imply that small-scale production is the way to go. Of course, for much of the 20th century, small-scale production was a sign of affluence: only the wealthy could afford to have a craftsman dedicate hours, perhaps days, to the task of custom-making an item just for them. Today, everyone from yuppies to hippies is clamoring for just that, in their rush to grab for things perceived as local and green and anti-commercial. We don’t want multinationals to get between us and the skilled hands that make our loafers, and we want no agrifood giants mediating our relationship with the farmer who lovingly raised the goats that gave the milk that made the cheese. We want our business small, and indie. We want our consumer goods “bespoke,” and “artisanal.”

And the reason for this seems to be some vague impression that those kinds of businesses, and those kinds of products, are somehow more ethical. And in some cases, along some ethical dimensions, that may be true. But if anyone thinks that products produced by a small, local artisan are likely to be environmentally superior, well excuse me for being just a tiny bit skeptical.

This vague association of the small with the ethical misses the fundamental truth that, when it comes to production methods, size brings efficiency. Mass production tends to be efficient in its use of energy, materials, and labour. There are of course tradeoffs and exceptions: it’s entirely possible for a factory mass-producing something to be highly efficient in the use of labour, but to be highly inefficient in the use of, say, water — especially if water is had at no cost. But generally, mass production is efficient; that’s its raison d’etre. Consider: a local tailor spending an entire day hand-stitching a jacket has to use, to begin with, an entire day’s worth of energy to light and heat his workshop. Alternatively, the same jacket could be made in a garment factory in a matter of minutes, using a few minutes’ worth, rather than an entire day’s worth, of energy.

Now that’s not a blanket endorsement of all mass production. It’s entirely possible for production processes to be set up so that they are highly efficient in their use of whatever resource is particularly costly, and highly inefficient in its use of whatever happens to be cheap, regardless of the ethics of doing so. Note also that mass-produced goods tend to cater to the lowest common denominator. It should also be noted that assembly lines may tend to result in repetitive strain injuries among workers — and, if you believe some critics, in feelings of alienation as the worker whose job is reduced to some trivial aspect of production is effectively cut off from any connection with the product as a whole.

But (generally) efficiency is good. Certainly no one is in favour of inefficiency, with the possible exception of those of us who revel in a well-earned “inefficient” weekend. At any rate, the very reason we engage in mass production is that it is efficient: it produces the most output per unit of input. And that’s a good thing. So while there may be reason to value the small, the local, the artisanal, we ought at least to be aware that such goods are liable, at least in general, to be the product of highly inefficient — and hence environmentally unfriendly — production methods.

Employment, Smokers, and Fundamental Ethical Conflicts

I’ve seen two interesting stories recently about smokers — of various kinds — facing trouble with their employers. Both stories raise difficult, perhaps intractable, ethical difficulties, because in both cases the objectives sought by employers are, on the face of things, entirely reasonable; and yet the freedoms sought by employees in these cases are also, I think, very reasonable ones to seek.

First, this piece by A.G. Sulzberger for the NY Times: Hospitals Shift Smoking Bans to Smoker Ban

…More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living….

I’ve blogged about this issue before. (See: “Smokers Need Not Apply”, from January of 2009.) My conclusion back then was that an employer, no matter how well-intentioned, has no right to tell employees what to do on their own time. They have a right to demand a certain level of performance on the job, and that might have implications for what employees do at home. But what employers have a right to is performance, rather than to a particular lifestyle in pursuit of that performance. Besides, there are lots (and lots and lots) of things employees can do at home that will limit their performance at work. I don’t see smoking as being unique among those, and letting employers screen for (and monitor?) all such behaviours would obviously constitute a massive invasion of privacy.

And then there’s this Reuters piece, reported by Clare Baldwin: Wal-Mart employee fired for medical pot loses case

A federal judge in Michigan on Friday upheld Wal-Mart Stores Inc’s dismissal of an employee for testing positive for marijuana, even though he was using the drug under the state’s medical marijuana law.

Former Wal-Mart employee Joseph Casias said he was using the marijuana to treat pain from an inoperable brain tumor and sinus cancer, and was doing so legally, with a medical marijuana registry card…

This one is trickier because the implications of marijuana — cannabis — for workplace performance are much clearer. Pot (even pot prescribed for very good reasons by a physician) is very likely to affect judgment. And the effects of smoking it can last 2-3 hours — so smoking just before work, or during a break, could reasonably be expected to have a negative impact on performance. But in the case above, the employee involved had what sound like very good reasons, if ever there were any. Wal-Mart is a company that is trying hard to polish its image, and firing people for trying to deal with the pain from their inoperable brain tumor seems inconsistent with that objective.

For me, this is one of those short news stories that immediately makes me wonder what’s really going on here. Is the employee one of “those” employees that a company looks for reasons to fire? Or was his manager an unsympathetic jerk? Or what? Because surely this is an issue that could have been sorted out among reasonable adults, without resorting to lawyers. Could the worker be moved to a position where the possible effects of at-home cannabis use would not be as problematic? Could the employee agree to limit the hours during which he would use cannabis, in return for an exemption from the company’s testing regimen? I don’t know the answer. But living and working together means that we find ways of getting along together, even when we cannot find ways of agreeing.

World Cup Fever and Employee Productivity

watching soccer at workThe FIFA World Cup is one of the few events capable of diverting the world’s attention from the BP oil spill. I’m sure for many it’s a relief not to have a world-class disaster as the focus of their attention during every waking moment. In that regard, even for non-soccer fans, the World Cup is a welcome diversion. Of course, for many, it’s much more than that. It’s an obsession. It’s also a month-long diversion from other obligations.

Here’s a story about how businesses are dealing with the ways in which World Cup fever is affecting employee productivity. By Susan Krashinsky and Iain Marlow, for the Globe & Mail: The World Cup in the workplace – no keeper can stop it

[A]t its call centre in Brampton, the Canadian telecommunications giant [Rogers Communications] has wheeled in four giant projection screens to allow employees to catch World Cup games.

In Brampton, Rogers has opted to face head-on the possibility of lost productivity during this global sports event. Almost all World Cup matches will take place during regular work hours in North America. Rather than pretend employees won’t be focused on the tournament, Rogers is supplying the screens – some playing silently for those taking calls, and one that will sit in the cafeteria, volume cranked up….

Two main ethical questions arise, here. One: what do employees owe their employers? The other: what do employers owe their employees? Alternatively, we can combine the two into the single question, ‘How should an important-but-time-consuming cultural event like the World Cup be integrated into the workplace? Obviously, cases will differ. In an Air Traffic Control tower, where distractions could be fatal, no one (hopefully) is going to make an argument for installing a big-screen TV to watch whatever game is on. On the other hand, if you happen to work in a sports bar, the question is again kind of trivial but for the opposite reasons.

Setting aside those extremes, what about your average, middle-of-the-road office environment? Clearly any sensible solution has to involve a formulation of shared expectations. Managers and employees need to come to an understanding about how (as opposed to “whether”) employees are going to check in on World Cup games. In principle, any mutually-agreeable solution is ethically acceptable. But I would think really wise managers would find ways to turn employees’ interest in the World Cup into a benefit, rather than a liability. The most obvious way is by using the World Cup as part of various morale-boosting activities. More subtly, companies might draw on sports analogies — analogies that should be particularly vivid during the World Cup — in order to create training activities, perhaps ones that provide lessons on teamwork and courage. Indeed, they could even draw on the world cup to create training activities that focus on ethics, building on the analogy between sports and business as two competitive domains that can and should be productive endeavours, but that are more likely to be so when played within the boundaries of a well-thought-out set of rules.

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