Celebrating ordinary work in a hymn

I know wading into opinions of hymns, worship songs, and other church music can be thorny. But, here on Labor Day, I am reminded of verse 4 of the hymn “Earth and All Stars”:

The hymn presents different aspects of Creation and the fourth verse specifically addresses workers, particularly those devoted to building. There are not too many church songs I know of that address how work can be part of worship and devotion. Indeed, many songs could give the impression that Christian activity should primarily consist of sacred duties. Of course, there is a long history of Christians wrestling with work and how ordinary tasks contribute or connect to faith. Adding more music that highlights work, something that occupies many hours and engages the minds, bodies, and talents of many, could go a long way to connecting laboring and faith.

(As a musician and educator, I also notice verse three and five and the ways they connect these activities to religious expression. And in what other setting can you sing about “loud boiling test tubes”? At the same time, there is room in this song to celebrate other forms of work and labor.)

Separate places for home and work – even when you are working from home

The geographic and social distancing of home and work is a feature of modern, urbanized society. And it even matters when working from home:

Where you actually set up shop is entirely up to you. Maybe you have a dedicated office space with a desktop and a view. Sounds nice. If you don’t, that’s also fine; I usually work on my laptop at a kitchen counter. The point here is to clearly define the part of your house where work happens. That makes it more likely that you’ll actually get things done when you’re there, but just as importantly might help you disconnect when you’re not. Remember that when you work from home you’re always at home—but you’re also always at work. At all costs, you should avoid turning your entire house or apartment into an amorphous space where you’re always on the clock but also kind of not. It’s no way to live. (Full-time remote workers take note: You can also write off a few hundred square feet of in-home office space on your tax return.)…

Every few days I spend at least a few hours at a coffee shop. It’s a change of scenery, a good excuse to get some fresh air, and provides a tiny bit of human interaction that Slack conversations and Zoom meetings do not. Should that no longer be feasible for coronavirus reasons, at the very least see if you can walk around the block a couple of times a day. There’s no water cooler when you work from home, no snack table, no meetings down the block. It’s easy to stay locked in position all day. Don’t do it! Sitting is terrible for your health, and mind-numbing when you’re staring at the same wall or window all day…

I think what I miss the most about working in an office is the commute (I realize this may sound unhinged). Yes, traffic is terrible and subways are crowded and the weather is unpredictable. But it seems nice to have a clear separation between when you’re at work and when you’re not, and some time to decompress in between. That doesn’t exist when you work from home. It’s all on the same continuum.

I don’t have a great solution for this. Quitting out of Slack—or whatever your workplace uses—is probably a good start. People are less likely to ping you if your circle’s not green. Or maybe find a gym class or extracurricular that you have to leave the house for at a certain time every day and let that be your stopping point? In some ways it’s like figuring out how to ditch your shadow.

These tips hint at problems connected to the home-work divide Americans regularly encounter. A few examples from the paragraphs above:

  1. Creating a clear boundary between home and work is often seen as desirable or needed. This is harder to do when the same physical spaces do double duty.
  2. The need for interaction with coworkers or others is hard when working from home or even just with a clear work-home divide. There is a need for third places (and the coffee shop suggestion is a common, if problematic, solution). And with declining community life elsewhere, feeling disconnected from work might be a big loss.
  3. The Internet and other means that make it easier to connect to work or other workers from afar also threatens to pull people into never-ending work.
  4. Physical spaces actually matter for productivity, social interaction, and well-being. Simply being untethered from an office and the spaces there does not automatically lead to better outcomes. Single-family homes (or apartments, condos, townhomes, etc.) in the United States often emphasize private family space which may or may not be conducive to the kinds of work people do today.

All together, I am not convinced that people working from home or away from the office solves many of the problem of contemporary work places and social life. There are deeper issues at stake including how we design places (within buildings and across land uses), how we think about home and work (and additional places), and community and social life and what we desire for them to be.

Yea! The Internet enables American workers to work more

A working paper links the number of hours American white-collar employees put in and the Internet:

In a new working paper, the economists Edward E. Leamer, of UCLA, and J. Rodrigo Fuentes, of Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, studied data about working hours from the American Community Survey. They found that hours worked since 1980 increased nearly 10 percent for Americans with bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Leamer told me that he believes this is because computing has shifted much of the economy from manufacturing to neurofacturing, Leamer’s term for intellectually intensive white-collar labor that is often connected to the internet, such as software programming, marketing, advertising, consulting, and publishing.

Neurofacturing jobs lend themselves to long hours for several reasons, Leamer said. They’re less physically arduous, as it’s easier to sit and type than to assemble engine parts. What’s more, the internet makes every hour of the day a potential working hour…

As Leamer and Fuentes write in the paper, “The innovations in personal computing and internet-based communications have allowed individual workers the freedom to choose weekly work hours well in excess of the usual 40.”

The internet has also supercharged global competition and forced international firms to outwork rivals many thousands of miles away. This has created a winner-take-all dynamic that’s trickled down to the workforce. In their 2006 study, “Why High Earners Work Longer Hours,” the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano found that the premium paid for longer workweeks has increased since 1980 for educated workers, but not for less educated workers. Their theory is that at the most competitive firms, ambitious workers putting in super-long hours are sending a clear message to the boss: Promote me! And the boss isn’t just getting the message; he’s actively soliciting it. At many firms, insanely long hours are the skeleton key to the C-suite and the partner track. Thus, overwork becomes a kind of arms race among similarly talented workers, exacerbated by the ability to never stop working, even at home. It’s mutually assured exhaustion.

“Mutually assured exhaustion” is the result of zealous workers, managers asking more of employees, or the product of a unique work ethic in the United States?

This could lead to a basic question that I ask myself from time to time: has the Internet made life better? Is humanity thriving more, feeling better, doing more good, and experiencing a better life because of the Internet? The personal comparison is harder in that I was much younger when the Internet was not available but I can still imagine the comparisons. How might my academic work be different? My family life? My leisure time? And so on.

Additionally, the study also seems ripe for a comparison to other countries around the world that also have the Internet. Is the Internet the driver here or a tool that the American economic and social system utilizes to push a particular kind of work and approach to life? The Internet is not all powerful and cultural and social decisions in other societies seem to provide room for pushing against the possibility of working all day that the Internet allows.

Open office arrangements may not work for getting work done

An evaluation of the implosion of The We Company highlights the importance of physical space for accomplishing tasks in the workplace:

Much will be written in the coming weeks about how WeWork failed investors and employees. But I want to spotlight another constituency. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram as many people as possible into swank, high-dollar office space, and then shower them with snacks and foosball-type perks so they overlook the distraction-carnival of their desks — fails office workers, too.

The model fails you even if you don’t work at a WeWork, because WeWork’s underlying idea has been an inspiration for a range of workplaces, possibly even your own. As urban rents crept up and the economy reached full employment over the last decade, American offices got more and more stuffed. On average, workers now get about 194 square feet of office space per person, down about 8 percent since 2009, according to a report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. WeWork has been accelerating the trend. At its newest offices, the company can more than double the density of most other offices, giving each worker less than 50 square feet of space

But after chatting with colleagues, I realized it’s not just me, and not just the Times: Modern offices aren’t designed for deep work…

The scourge of open offices is not a new subject for ranting. Open offices were sold to workers as a boon to collaboration — liberated from barriers, stuffed in like sardines, people would chat more and, supposedly, come up with lots of brilliant new ideas. Yet study after study has shown open offices to foster seclusion more than innovation; in order to combat noise, the loss of privacy and the sense of being watched, people in an open office put on headphones, talk less, and feel terrible.

This moment might just a tipping point in the evolution of office space. Cubed suggests office layouts do change over time. What seems to be next is a mixing of older models and the open model: different spaces that range from very private (think soundproof booths or offices away from activity, sound, and eyes) to very open (think couches and play areas for activity). How exactly the imperative to save money or be efficient remains to be seen.

Hinted at in this opinion piece is another interesting idea: could truly private spaces only be available to certain classes of workers or certain people? The office has long been symbol of more power and/or responsibility. Imagine a workforce or a public where the majority of people operate in common spaces that are semi-private, with privacy usually obtained though the actions of individuals (headphones, focus on screens, etc.). In contrast, those with power and resources have access to distraction-free spaces.

Another big issue could be this: how much work these days is truly distraction-free and are we moving toward less deep work? Again, this might different by field or role. But, the rise of smartphones and the Internet means people are highly distractable from work, even in very private settings. American adults on average are consuming 11 hours of media a day, some of this which must happen at work for many.

Utilizing productivity software to schedule family life

Organize your family with Slack, Google Calendar, and Trello (among other options):

Asana said it doesn’t collect data on the various “personal-use cases” its software is put toward. But Joshua Zerkel, the company’s head of global community, says that in talking with people about how they use the product, he hears many say it comes in handy for nonbusiness purposes, such as planning a wedding or a move. When asked how Asana might be designed differently if it were intended for personal use, he said, “I don’t know that that much would actually change.”

“We think of Trello as a tool you can use across work and life,” says Stella Garber, the company’s head of marketing. “The example we had on our homepage for a long time was a kitchen remodel. On our mobile app the example was a Hawaiian vacation. We know humans have a lot of things they need organized, not just what they have at work.” (Slack declined to share any information about how people use its software, and Atlassian, which owns Jira, did not respond to a similar request.)…

Mazmanian says that these programs might be of particular value to households with two working parents, an arrangement that more children grow up with now, compared with a few decades ago. Without one adult in charge of the professional domain and one in charge of the domestic domain, there’s more coordination of who’s in charge of what—which is something productivity tools can assist with.

Perhaps the desire to streamline home life is also a product of how much employers ask of today’s knowledge workers. “I see the use of business software within households as an effort to cope with feeling too stretched at work,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the forthcoming book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. She says that the “escalating demands” of many white-collar jobs leave workers (parents or not) increasingly frazzled and worn out—so the same tools that systematize their workdays might appeal as a way to cut down on the time they spend organizing life at home.

There are lots of potential trends converging here including changing labor conditions, changing family life, the rise of productivity software, and the ubiquity of smartphones.

On one hand, this does not seem like a problem at all. Humans have a tendency to use all sorts of mediums in distributed cognition where we can offload our individual responsibility to a helping device or person. Think of making a shopping list: instead of having to spend the energy memorizing a list in our own mind, we write down the items on a piece of paper that we can then trust to have a record of what we were thinking. This new software takes advantage of new efficiencies and new devices to do something humans are used to doing.

On the other hand, the article suggests this software could harm authentic or idealized family life by turning it more into a business or organization rather than a loving group. What happens when partners or parents and children primarily communicate through this software? What if family life only becomes a set of tasks to accomplish (with helpful or annoying reminders along the way)? Where does the blending of work and home life end?

I am surprised by two omissions in this article:

-The amount of experience children in school have with such software that schools and teachers may use to help organize homework, projects, and online learning.

-The lack of specific software/apps aimed at families that could cater more to some of the concerns expressed or provide features kids and parents like.

Americans labor/work in order to…

One day past Labor Day, some quick thoughts on why Americans work so much:

-We have the idea that hard work is a primary reason that people get ahead.

-We work because we need money. Many (not all) make enough to subsist even as the median income has been stagnant in recent years and working multiple low-wage jobs is seen as a badge of courage. Then, the money can be used to consume or buy the things we need to have to be up-to-date people (these days, a smartphone, flat-screen television, Internet access, etc.) or to assert our social standing. Or, we may buy things just because we like having a lot of things and we enjoy shopping and acquiring. Plus, much of our economy depends on consumer spending so people without jobs and money leads to some big issues for many economic sectors.

-We work because some like their jobs and want to use their skills and use their time doing something important or productive.

-We work to have an identity. No work = not being productive or not contributing to society. Either work or parenting (with a tentative guess that the first is ascending and the second descending) is the primary task of the adult life.

-We work to bank vacation days that we don’t use to the full extent.

Granted, I was thinking of this after teaching an Introduction to Sociology class the basics of Karl Marx’s observations about society. I paraphrased this quote from The German Ideology (pg. 12-13):

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

If we weren’t in this particular social economic system, how might work be organized differently to take advantage of people’s interest in creativity and production? How much of work today is freeing and leads to improvement of communities and the self?

7 PM liked by many college students in 20 countries

A recent multinational study finds that 7 PM may just be the most agreeable part of the day:

At 7 p.m., around the world, we all feel more or less the same about what we’re doing. That’s the finding from a massive study team, with 33 worldwide collaborators, led by psychologist Esther Guillaume of the University of California at Riverside. Sampling more than 5,400 individuals from 20 countries, the researchers found that people across countries (and within the same) made highly similar assessments of life at 7 p.m…

Across all 20 countries, participants gave very consistent RSQ ratings to life at 7 p.m. In general, people found whatever they were doing at that time to be “simple and clear-cut,” “social,” and “potentially enjoyable”; they also felt they were free to speak and feel a range of emotions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated descriptions made reference to abuse, physical or emotional threats, loss of freedom, or deception…

Obviously a study this vast will carry some caveats. The most glaring are that despite the high sample size, most study participants were college students, with a median age of 22 years old. The RSQ itself was developed by U.S. researchers, rather than a global research consortium, and this was its maiden cross-cultural voyage. Neuroskeptic has a smart take on the study’s limitations:

Overall this is a fascinating study and a rich dataset. But while the sample was drawn from five continents, the participants were not selected at random: all of them were students or ‘members of college communities’. What’s more, all of the participating nations were politically stable and at least middle-income. Is life so generally happy in Iraq, South Sudan, or Haiti?

It sounds like the study suffers from an sampling issue that many psychology face: they have WEIRD participants. That acronym stands for participants from “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.” Even if this finding may not be applicable worldwide, it is still interesting within this set of countries. What happens at this time of day?

1. It is around the end of the work day. Many of these societies separate home and work life so people are returning home and looking to relax after a full work day.

2. It is around dinner time (in some places more than others).

3. Depending on the time of year, it is not too long after getting dark or there is still some time for sunlight. Regardless, night is coming and this can be associated with entertainment or relaxation or sleep.

4. Television schedules and evening events start around this time.

In other words, people in these countries generally have more free time and can make choices for this themselves at this time of day.

Average full-time work week is 47 hours; median is around 40 hours

A number of headlines have screamed about a recent Gallup finding that the average American full-time worker works 47 hours a week. Yet, the median appears to conform to the typical 40-hour work week:

Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours.

Average Hours Worked by Full-Time U.S. Workers, Aged 18+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 40-hour workweek is widely regarded as the standard for full-time employment, and many federal employment laws — including the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” — use this threshold to define what a full-time employee is. However, barely four in 10 full-time workers in the U.S. indicate they work precisely this much. The hefty proportion who tell Gallup they typically log more than 40 hours each week push the average number of hours worked up to 47. Only 8% of full-time employees claim to work less than 40 hours.

These findings are based on data from Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey. The combined sample for 2013 and 2014 includes 1,271 adults, aged 18 and older, who are employed full time.

Is the average the best measure here? This is a classic case where the median and mean give you different conclusions. The median tells you that not much has changed from the standard: half of full-time workers work 40 hours or less. The average, on the other hand, is pulled up by those people working 50+ hours. As the Gallup analysis goes on, it notes that there is a difference between salaried and hourly employees with salaried workers working more of those 40+ hour weeks. These salaried workers are likely white-collar and professional workers, people who may be working more but likely have more credentials, are getting paid more, and have higher-status jobs.

So, perhaps the headlines might be more accurate by saying “Salaried full-time workers have higher [47? 50?] hour work week.”

“The ideal commute is not actually no commute” relies on the separation of home and work

Eric Jaffe looks at some evidence that suggests Americans want a bit of a commute to detox from work:

To want a longer trip to or from work may seem strange, if not pathologically self-loathing, when considering all that’s known about the stresses and health hazards of commuting. Still, I’m not entirely alone here. You might think the ideal commute is no commute, but when you actually ask commuters, that isn’t always what they say. In a memorable Washington Post piece from years back, tracking the affection some commuters have for their home-to-office-and-back trip, one man “cursed with a three-minute drive to his job” wished he had some “time to detox”…

A classic study from 2001, conducted by Lothlorien Redmond and Patricia Mokhtarian, asked roughly 1,300 workers in the San Francisco area to report both their “actual” and their “ideal” commute times. The researchers found that the average one-way ideal was actually 16 minutes. Nearly a third of the respondents reported an ideal one-way time of 20 minutes or more. Less than 2 percent reported an ideal under 4 minutes, and only 1.2 percent reported an ideal commute of zero commute...

Now, that’s the exception, not the rule. Redmond and Mokhtarian did find that most respondents, nearly 52 percent, preferred a commute at least 5 minutes shorter than their actual one (which, on average for these folks, was 40 minutes). But 87 people in the sample, or nearly 7 percent, had an ideal commute that was at least 5 minutes longer than their actual commute (which, in this case, was 10 minutes, on average). For the 42 percent of participants whose actual and ideal trips were more or less the same, the average commute was 15 minutes, one way. It seems a quarter hour is something like a preferred commuter constant…

More recent attempts to understand commuter desires have uncovered plenty of nuance. Mode obviously matters. Some work suggests that drivers find their commute more stressful than others, on account of traffic, unexpected delays, and the existence of other drivers. Transit riders can feel some stress, too, especially when the train or bus is delayed, and they also have to worry more about boredom (though that’s quickly becoming obsolete). Walkers and cyclists report the most relaxing and exciting trips.

The type of day you’ve had matters, too. One study, published late last year, recorded trip diaries of 76 commuters over a five-day period. When the demands of the work day were low, the detachment commuters felt during the trip home didn’t influence their anxiety levels once they got there (accounting for travel time). But on days with lots of stress at work, the opposite was true: more detachment on the commute meant less anxiety—and more serenity—upon getting home.

All of this makes some sense within the current system where many people work in a more corporate setting (don’t underestimate the connections between large social changes and the rise of the modern white-collar office) and live within more sprawling metropolitan regions.

Yet, this is based on a social system where work and home are typically separated. This hasn’t always been the case throughout human history. Centuries ago, many people lived and worked within the same building or property. In other words, this idea that you go somewhere to work didn’t really exist. In Crabgrass Frontier, historian Kenneth Jackson describes how even as late as 1815 49 out of 50 workers lived within a one mile walk of their place of employment. Home and work continued to get pulled apart during the Industrial Revolution as well as the urbanization that affected developing countries.

Talk of having no commute for most workers has existed for several decades due to the possibilities for telecommuting. (Granted, this option is more restricted for certain kinds of jobs, particularly in service and manual labor sectors.) Still, many businesses and workers continue to want to go to an office and so we’ll continue to participate in and analyze commutes.

Argument: The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math’

Two professors argue being good at math is about hard work, not about genetics:

We hear it all the time. And we’ve had enough. Because we believe that the idea of “math people” is the most self-destructive idea in America today. The truth is, you probably are a math person, and by thinking otherwise, you are possibly hamstringing your own career. Worse, you may be helping to perpetuate a pernicious myth that is harming underprivileged children—the myth of inborn genetic math ability…

Again and again, we have seen the following pattern repeat itself:

  1. Different kids with different levels of preparation come into a math class. Some of these kids have parents who have drilled them on math from a young age, while others never had that kind of parental input.
  2. On the first few tests, the well-prepared kids get perfect scores, while the unprepared kids get only what they could figure out by winging it—maybe 80 or 85%, a solid B.
  3. The unprepared kids, not realizing that the top scorers were well-prepared, assume that genetic ability was what determined the performance differences. Deciding that they “just aren’t math people,” they don’t try hard in future classes, and fall further behind.
  4. The well-prepared kids, not realizing that the B students were simply unprepared, assume that they are “math people,” and work hard in the future, cementing their advantage.

Thus, people’s belief that math ability can’t change becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interesting argument: if you believe you can’t do well at a subject, you probably won’t. The authors then go on to hint at broader social beliefs: Americans tend to believe in talent, other countries tend to emphasize the value of hard work.

This lines up with what I was recently reading about athletes in The Sports Gene. The author reviews a lot of research that suggests training and genetics both matter. But, genetics may not matter in the way people typically think they do – more often, it matters less that people are “naturally gifted” and more that some learn quick than others. So, the 10,000 hours to become an expert, an idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is the average time it takes one to become an expert. However, some people can do it much more quickly, some much more slowly due to their different rates of learning.