Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Work versus time

I read the book Why Work Sucks and promptly tossed it aside with the thought that it sounded like a good idea but I didn’t think it would work for my particular profession. The book’s authors describe what they call ROWE, the Results-Only Work Environment, which is something they came up with and put into place at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters when they worked for Best Buy. The simplest description of ROWE is that you work wherever, whenever, and however, as long as the work gets done. The idea behind it is that companies have to stop watching the clock and hassling people about how long they’re at the office, because ultimately if you work a white-collar service-industry job, you’re being paid for your work, not your time. The more I started talking to Kellye about it, though, the more it started to make some sense. I then bought the book and reread it, and my head exploded. Between reading that, learning about Dzogchen meditation in a book by Lama Surya Das, and realizing that yin and yang forces in the Universe are really manifested in Gary Busey and Nick Nolte, I nearly passed out from having a spiritual revelation.

When I recovered and had some vanilla hazelnut coffee from Einstein’s (which will be the official beverage of my regime when the revolution comes and I rule the world), I turned over the concept of hourly versus salary in my head. Most architecture firms pay their people salary, but Design Associates pays interns and non-associate architects hourly while associates and partners are paid salary. DA also pays its design staff bonuses based on project profits, which is kinda unusual for an architecture firm. In the past, I’ve often told interns that being paid hourly is a good thing, as it prevents abuse—that is, your salary doesn’t suddenly become based on a 45-hour or 50-hour week, which happens a lot to interns. Also, being paid an hourly wage means you get overtime for anything over 40 hours. This was really nice when I was working 56- and 60-hour weeks for eight months on Wheatlands. Some of the cash I made doing that stuck around in my savings account, and I was able to use it on Maddy.

With work being slow, however, the hourly thing is killing me. I have to work my ass off to find something to do to fill 40 hours, and most weeks it’s more like finding 32-35 hours’ worth of stuff to fill 40 hours, which leaves me feeling a little guilty at the fact that I know I’m overbilling to a project a little. Now, on the one hand, I could just work 35 hours and bill 35 hours and have a short check. That action would only cleanse one portion of my conscience. The part of my conscience that would be furious is the one that knows that I, along with several of my colleagues, am very fast, efficient, thorough, and great at what I do. If I can finish an eight-hour task in six hours and with excellent quality, why must I be punished for my efficiency by having to find something else to do for two more hours?

When I posed this question to Guy, his response was, “There’s always something else you can do.” Well, number one, no there’s not. Not lately at my office. I’ve had days where I’ve sent out emails to at least a dozen managers in the office letting them know I’m available as of now to help, and I get no response. And then, number two, by Guy’s logic an employee should never leave work because there’s always something else to do. No one’s inbox is ever empty. At some point, you should be allowed to go take the cat to the vet,, take yourself to the doctor, go buy groceries, go rock climbing, go see your kid in his or her soccer game or school play, whatever, without guilt. Instead, you have to do all that stuff on your only two days off, which are the days you’re supposed to be resting. Frankly, we’re still applying Industrial Revolution-era concepts about time to the Information Age workplace, and it’s falling a little short.

On the one hand, motivated and interested employees will finish an eight-hour task in six hours and then look for more things to do, more ways to help, and so on. On the other hand, finishing an eight-hour task in six hours means the employee gets “rewarded” with more work. Myself, I’ve found in the months and years since Wheatlands that if I work less than eight hours of overtime, I’d rather take it as comp time, and I do. Even when I think about Wheatlands, I realize that I didn’t work all that overtime because of the money, but rather because the work was there and it needed to be done and I was the only one available to do it. And many of my colleagues—Derek, Kellye, Norman, Ingrid, and Elliot—are the same way. They’ll do the work because it needs to be done, not for the overtime, and they’d rather have time off than overtime cash.

I’m still turning all this over in my head. I realize that all this is probably more suited to Ms. Theologian’s blog than mine, but I think about it now and then. I don’t know that I’m ready to roil the waters at DA with this sort of talk, what with the economy being in the crapper and all, but I think it’s worth dissecting at some point.


BaxtersMum said...

hang in there.

I know! Lets have a meeting in October to discuss these things. Lets involve Alcohol! And Animals! And GIRLS ONLY!


ms. kitty said...

It's always the competent ones who get to do more because they are so quick at doing the work in front of them, while the less competent do less work less well. I've never found a satisfactory way of dealing with this either, Pixie. Good luck and let us all know when you find it!

Sorry, I realize my job is pastoral care here, not mutual bitching. (Switches tone of voice) Sounds like you're really irked about this, Pixie.

WG said...

A paycheck. That's a novel idea. Wonder if they need a greeter at W-mart.....

Xtine said...

You put this very succintly. Never heard of the book before; am going to look into it, and perhaps give it to my bf's boss.

I don't mind his hours, but at some point, enough is enough. He's now doing the work of two employees (trust me, he's not standing for this. There *will* be a talk, at an appropriate time), and would MUCH rather have extra time off. Will his company give it to him? Oh hell no they won't. Well, not right now.

I, on the other hand - the one with a collection of PT jobs - am lucky. My bosses all understand and embrace this. "Yeah, come in an hour late. No problem. We know you're good for the work!"

This is one of many things on my concepts-and-ideas-list-of-things-to-do-once-i'm-no-longer-an-underling

St. Blogwen said...

The theory is that when your boss sees what a wonderfully efficient and productive worker you are, he/she will reward you with higher pay and greater honor. In some cases it works out like that. But a lot (I won't say "most") of the time, it comes out as "O goodie, what great output we're getting out of that one! We'll give her even more to do at her same pay level, and keep costs down and maximize the profits!"

I don't feel too shiny about that last phrase, because when this was happening to me, I was working for a high-end residential design firm that didn't make any profit. But that attitude enabled my boss to keep underbidding jobs and underpaying yours truly because he didn't have the nerve to let our wealthy clients know that excellent custom design was worth paying for.

(Hey, my word verification password is "neieked"! Is that Lolcat for sumpthin out ov da Nawty Barn?)