Simple Productivity

There’s been an article on the BBC website that’s caught a bit of Twatter attention, with a few people saying “right on”, notably homeworkers and people working for themselves.

I can see their point, and some of the article’s point, but really, given the author’s credentials, I’d expect a bit better: as per usual for BBC Magazine articles, it’s an over-simplification, and a lot of puff, and air, and light on facts, analysis, or thought. Maybe that’s the problem; articles here are generally low on content, high on bollocks, and perhaps his recent book would make a better read, though a recent Guardian article is, IMO, similarly flawed, and making assumptions.

If I’m interpreting the articles correctly, one of the things they’re saying is that if you’re detached from the direct production environment, your job has become worthless: i.e: If you’re making something or directly providing a service, you’re valuable, if you’re backroom staff, you’re not: so a postman is valuable, the person that administrates his salary isn’t. This is both (a) wrong, and (b) a rather odd thing for an academic (who surely is a long way from a direct production process) to say.

Perhaps I have that wrong, but one very clear message from the article is that:

The average British worker spends 36 days a year answering work emails. London workers in particular receive close to 9,000 emails each year.

and the inference seems to be that that time is wasted.

This, along with the oft-predicted death of email is a fallacy. Yes, work email can overload and sink time; improperly used it can overwhelm, but it is still the best way to convey factual information to a small number of recipients. Facts, absolutes, and essential documentation is easily shared. Customer enquiries can be dealt with quickly, suppliers can be asked questions even if you can’t get through to them *right then*: they can answer when available. Importantly, there’s a record you can refer to: that obscure registry key or config file entry to fix something is documented, accessible, and searchable. That point where you told someone not to delete a file under any circumstances is recorded.

The one thing I feel he gets right in this is the expectation of emails being answered out-of-hours, immediately, rather than waiting for an opportunity, which IMO is a fundamental misuse of email- it is not instant messaging, and never was intended to be.

I can’t help but agree with thoughts on commuting:

And then there’s the commute. British workers waste 18 months of their lives commuting, which is often expensive and stressful.

but again it’s over-simplified. Some people have to commute. Service engineers. Cablers, drillers, specialists that have to touch things. Stuff has to be made, configured, adjusted, fixed, and delivered: I can do much of my job from a PC anywhere, but, critically, not all of it. I’d agree that the working day as a concept is outdated for some, but we should remember that interacting with other people (customers or colleagues) does probably need to be done during daytime for some, and also that not everyone works 9-5. There’s engineers reconfiguring equipment, drilling holes in the ground, and a myriad of other things all the time.

Also, there’s the suggestion that people working in an office are mucking about a large proportion of the time: this is both untrue and insulting: I’m sat at a desk 85-90% of my time- and I’m not paying bills, chatting, or mucking about. I’m supporting colleagues, looking after a biggish IT infrastructure, answering phones, and dealing with queries. Yes, I’m one of those people in the background, detached from end customers- because people like that are needed, once a business exceeds a certain size. Even relatively small businesses have backroom functions that they will either contract out or employ staff for- a key one being accountancy, for example.

I would, usually, agree with this one:

In this respect, entire occupations might be considered phoney – from life coaches to “atmosphere co-ordinators” (people hired to create a party vibe in bars) to “chief learning officers” in the corporate world. For those economists trying to figure out the present “productivity puzzle” in the UK, best start looking here.

but I would say also, that if these people can be shown to increase business, then surely they’re worthwhile? I have a healthy disklike of marketers, but recognise there is a need for businesses to promote themselves; it’s merely a question of how they do it.

In the Guardian article, he writes that

The revelation that London dog walkers are paid considerably higher (£32,356) than the national wage average (£22,044) tells us much about how employment functions today. Not only are dog walkers paid more, but they work only half the hours of the average employee.

It is clear that the relationship between jobs and pay is now governed by a new principle. The old days in which your pay was linked to the number of hours you clocked up, the skill required and the societal worth of the job are long over.

but surely, a job is worth what someone will pay for it? If there were no punters willing to pay the price the dog-walker charges, then they’d not make money….

Back to the BBC article:

Technical innovations are exponentially automating routine manual labour and now cognitive work too. Our work-centric society is swiftly becoming obsolete.

Which is more bollocks. The automation needs attention, programming, setup, knowledge. It needs service engineers, for example. Those engineers need admin support to pay them, order the spare parts, log their calls, administer their van’s servicing and insurance. The offices the admin staff work in need maintenance and cleaning- all this is overhead, detached from engineer, but it is still needed. Look what happened to Golgafricham when they got rid of the telephone sanitisers… The workplace is changing, but it’s incremental, and we can’t all drop into Starbucks and do our entire job over wifi (but if we could, we’d probably have to answer some email, huh?)

2 Responses to “Simple Productivity”

  1. Willenhall Lad Says:

    Indeed. One of the reasons we’re unproductive is because we have too many people doing jobs such as bid writing, contract management and license upkeep. You know where we are with this. Most of this is a result of EU and US legislation and also “modern” business methods to extract value out of a people.

  2. stymaster Says:

    Now with that one, the articles may be on the right track, but it’s a consequence of the world of outsourcing, and, in the public sector, the privatisation by stealth that means we get situations like your often-quoted 2K for a cat5 point in an NHS hospital: we have layers of managment, and each layer adds cost.