Posts tagged “work”

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken

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The other day we went to JumpSpace for a JumpTalk by Chuck Darrah about the work featured in his (along with James M. Freeman and Jan English-Lueck) new book Busier Than Ever!: Why American Families Can’t Slow Down

Busier Than Ever! follows the daily activities of fourteen American families. It explores why they are busy and what the consequences are for their lives. Busyness is not just a matter of personal time management, but of the activities we participate in and how each of us creates “the good life.” While numerous books deal with efficiency and the difficulties of balancing work and family, Busier Than Ever! offers a fresh approach. Busyness is not a “problem” to be solved-it is who we are as Americans and it’s redefining American families.

Chuck gave a compellingly accessible talk peppered with stories from their in-depth fieldwork (like something about of Albert Brooks’ Real Life, they spent a huge amount of time with these families, becoming unavoidably involved with their lives. So different than doing “an interview” as is typical in consulting work).

He handed me a copy of the book, so I’ve got some reading to do, but some cool themes/behaviors he told us about (and this is my scribbly documentation and doesn’t necessarily fully represent their work)

  • Everything is work…but what is work? Some companies take 2 hours off to play Dungeons and Dragons, other folks go get a tan. There are stories as to why that is part of work for the people concerned. People define boundaries, proclaim that they don’t take home work with them, but when asked about the briefcase they are hauling out of the office, they explain what category of activity (i.e., reading HR memos) they will do at home that is not work.
  • People are taking on more stuff, by choice, but present busyness as an external force
  • Coping strategies have emerged (but I wonder if these are in fact the creators of the increased busyness?)
  • Planning and routinizing – time spent planning the day or working out processes for dealing with daily activities
  • Communicating – seemingly trite phone calls to check in about the plans already made
  • Anticipating – energy put into coming up with contingency plans – “what if this happens?” or “what if that happens?”
  • Adjusting – being flexible (with layers of power embedded in those negotiations), making last minute changes to the plans already developed and communicated
  • Protection – i.e., create a phantom meeting to keep blocks of time free for whatever purpose
  • Intelligence gathering – you don’t know what info will end up being relevant, so knowing what is going on with coworkers or family members becomes crucial
  • Simplifying – One father looked at every item in the house once per month and if he didn’t know what it was, it went to the dump or Goodwill immediately
  • Chunking – using interstitial times to accomplish tasks, i.e., moving items out of a meeting agenda into hallway conversations (although this isn’t always successful depending on the person and the task)

Ultimately, Chuck told us, it’s not about time, it’s about activities.

Meanwhile, a story that struck me a few weeks ago referred to a study (funded by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, as was the Darrah et. al work above) about convenience food.

the researchers saw that convenience foods weren’t used as a time-saving substitute for the same dish made from scratch. Instead packaged foods offered a way for families to eat more elaborate meals than they would normally have time to prepare.

When families did cook from scratch, they ate simpler fare — like one-pot meals or stir-fry. In the end, dinner took about a half-hour to an hour to prepare, whether it was made from scratch or with convenience foods.

The study showed that meals with little or no convenience foods took 26 to 93 minutes to prepare. Meals that used a lot of convenience foods took 25 to 73 minutes to prepare. While convenience foods were time-savers on very elaborate meals, overall, there was no statistically significant difference in total preparation time.

One difference that emerged was “hands on” time — the amount of time people spent slicing, dicing and stirring foods. Using convenience foods shaved about 10 minutes of hands-on time, but it didn’t make any difference in how quickly the food got to the table.

The study authors noted that the biggest time savings of convenience foods may be at the grocery store, where it’s faster to grab a frozen entree than to collect six separate ingredients to make the same dish from scratch. Grocery-shopping time wasn’t measured in the study. The average American spends about 22 minutes in the grocery store and shops about twice a week, according to the Food Marketing Institute.

Convenience foods also helped cooks offer a greater variety of dishes; cooks who made dinner from scratch offered three or fewer dishes. One family made a simple meal of sandwiches and edamame, using bread, cheese, greens and salmon and tomatoes. That meal took about a half-hour to prepare. Another family had a six-dish convenience-food meal of microwave barbecued ribs, macaroni and cheese, prebagged salad, bagged dinner rolls and a cookies and ice cream dessert. That meal also took a half-hour.

Upcoming talk on improv and ethnography

It’s won’t be until October, but I’ll be giving another talk about the overlaps and intersections between ethnography and improv at the CONNECTING’07: Icsid/IDSA World Design Congress. It’s here in San Francisco, from October 17-20. More info as it it’s available.

(Yes, my face and voice both are part of the website. Connecting!)
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Transparency

We’re located near the Pacific Ocean, where Highway 1 scoots along past small towns like ours, and then zips long a crazy road known as Devil’s Slide, with a mountain to the east and a cliff edge to the left. A tunnel is being built (after decades of controversy and planning) but most of the progress is hidden by the mountain itself. Not to mention that as you drive along at breakneck speed, it behooves you not to peer too closely at whatever is not the road itself.

So what are they building in there? Well, Caltrans, in a remarkable display of transparency, has photographers who document the work as it progresses. The pictures are really amazing, showing the people, the process, and the previously hidden environment. For some these are simply your usual construction photos, but for people who drive by there every day, waiting for the tunnel to open (2011 or something) and have little sense of the work behind the scenes, this is a really wonderful peek. There are tons and tons of pictures to browse, and I’ve nicked a few, below.

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Industrial-grade Smoothing



Orinda, BART, Late Night Originally uploaded by DCVoyager.



This SF Chron article describes a weird piece of behind-the-scenes infrastructure – the nightly grinding of the rails on the BART system (emphasis here is on reducing the squealing noise but presumably there are other safety and function reasons)

“But we don’t do that. We have to grind the rails.”

And that can be done only in the middle of the night, roughly between the hours of 1 and 4 a.m., when the passenger operation is shut down for the day to allow for track inspections and maintenance. It’s one of the reasons BART doesn’t operate on a 24-hour schedule.

Each night, crews smooth about 1 mile of track, just a sliver of the 104-mile system. It sometimes can take a dozen or more passes along one small section to get the track “just right,” said Dave Alves, who has worked the job for eight years.

On a recent night, Alves was the track man. Like a tailor judging a fine piece of fabric, he relies a lot on touch to determine how the track should be reshaped. He creates a grinding pattern based on the track’s marred surface and keys it into a computer that controls 20 grinding stones attached to the belly of a specially made railcar.

“Sometimes we may do 18 or 20 patterns on one piece of rail.”

They’ve got one car to do this task, and it’s a decade old. A new car takes more than a year to build (at a cost of $3M) since the BART rail size/width is non-standard.

Thought this was an interesting process story; the slow, non-automatic, manual nature of the task, and the analogous challenges in creating the tool for this task.

How do you think about your work?

At the interactive cities summit, I noticed a frequent reference to people working on projects. Many of the people who gave presentations or shared their examples seemed to be involved in projects, and in many cases, projects of their own choosing. They had an idea for something that would further the dialogue of technology and urbanism, and they built it, and set it up. This idea of project seemed to come from the world of art more than the world of work.

Projects were not something that were awarded or assigned, they were chosen.

This was a refreshing perspective for me. Of course, my time is spent on “projects” all the time (i.e., move my blog to a new host, put my India pictures up on flickr, etc.) but those are ancillary projects. My thing is my business, my gigs. Others, I’m sure, think about their job and their company. At some point, we think about our career. But do some of us ever think about these projects? Do we want to? Is it a choice, or a tendency?

It really challenged my whole notion of work and took me out of my comfort zone.

AAA relocating 200 IT positions to Arizona

AAA relocating 200 IT positions to Arizona

The California State Automobile Association is moving 200 of its information technology jobs to a new call center in Arizona but has delayed further plans to relocate its remaining 1,000 San Francisco workers.

Last autumn, the association, a branch of the AAA travel and insurance club, announced plans to relocate most of its IT department out of state and shift most of its administrative operations to other parts of the Bay Area. AAA officials said now the 200 IT positions will be relocated to a new call center in Glendale, Ariz., that will open early this summer and eventually be manned by up to 1,400 workers.

What do I know? I was telling someone recently how 10 years ago a friend temping at an Intuit call center in Palo Alto saw their office close while the work was sent to Santa Fe. I knowingly announced that there was no way that would be happening now, that this would all have gone overseas since that was soooo long ago. Looks like I was way off base – there’s still jobs in call centers (and no doubt other similar types of commodity work) that is being re-sourced within the US.

I stand corrected. Or at least more informed.

Sick Again

I managed to avoid this cold through months of work stress and travel. And it got me today, 5 days after getting off the plane from India.

If I didn’t work at home, I’d be staying home from work today.

Ben Stein? Beuller? Anyone? Stein?


Ben Stein writes in the NYT about fashion. Or culture. Or something. It’s a strange rant; reminds me of the outrage over shaggy Beatles-esque long haircuts in the 60s from stuffed-shirt establishment types who were frightened of the world changing without them and so frothed and stormed in disgust. Ben Stein is old, out of touch, and really really shallow.

TODAY’S business workplace is not a pretty sight. No, I’m not referring to wildly overinflated C.E.O. pay, although I could be. Nor am I referring to the empty desks caused by outsourcing, although I could be referring to that, too. I am not even referring to modern cubicles and their pitiful fiberboard walls. I am referring to the men (not the women) in those cubicles.

To put it as boldly as it needs to be put, men at work these days all too often dress like total slobs, and it hurts the eyes, the spirit and, I suspect, the bottom line.

Sometimes, I get a clue of this when I go to see my lawyer and am shocked to find that men who should be wearing suits – to keep up their propriety and their sense of dignity – are wearing casual jeans and short-sleeved shirts instead. I get a whiff of it when I appear on television and see employees of major networks dressed in casual slacks and sport shirts with no ties.

But the most stunning blow came a few weeks ago when I did an industrial film on a super-advanced videoconferencing system made by a very large, very successful high-tech company. The men who worked at the company’s campus in Oregon were uniformly smart and uniformly courteous, but they dressed like children at summer camp – cut-off jeans, shorts, T-shirts and sandals without socks. I asked if this was some special dress-down day and they all looked at me as if I were insane. “No,” they said. “This is how we dress.”

I see it in airports and on airplanes. I see it when young people come to me for interviews for a summer job dressed in baggies – gangsta-style long shorts with some of their butts showing – and have no idea that they are doing anything wrong.

I see it even at some brokerage firms, although one of the saving graces of investment banks is that the men who work at them do dress like grown-ups, and even dress beautifully in many cases.


When a man wears a nice suit of clothes, he feels like a grown-up. He is dressed like Gregory Peck or Clark Gable or Gary Cooper, so, naturally he’ll want to behave like a grown-up.

Besides, men at work in casual clothes simply lack authority. We clients really do not trust a man wearing J. Crew casual wear as much as we trust a man wearing a suit from J. Press or the venerable and much-adored Brooks Brothers.

In addition, if everyone is dressed for a game of dodgeball instead of a game of “let’s draw up a will,” how will we tell the bosses from the associates? How will we possibly feel as much confidence in a man who picks an exchange-traded fund if he appears at lunch in shorts instead of a suit?

A suit says discipline, maturity, style, respect for yourself and respect for the people you are meeting. Casual clothes say – well, the word “contempt” comes to mind, although maybe it’s too harsh. Maybe just “too cool for school” is what I mean.

There is a lesson here. Men look better if they dress for work in a uniform of a suit and a shirt and tie. They feel better about themselves, if I can judge from the moods of those marines at the hospital and at the reunion. Certainly, as a citizen, I felt better about the marines being dressed as if they honored their country and their mission. I can certainly recall that when I worked in a law firm and on Wall Street, I felt a lot better about myself and took myself and my work a lot more seriously when I dressed up like a mensch.

Maybe this is old-fashioned, but there is a lot of good sense in those old fashions.

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