Tuesday, August 01, 2006


After reading how easy it was to move to wordpress from Landismom, and complaints from Tjilpi about how he hates commenting on blogger, I've decided to move. So the new site is:



See you over there!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Flexible working

I've been pondering, after my last post, just how feasible it is to have a workplace with different attitudes to working hours.

It's a horrible time of year right now, which exaggerates the problem, but I'm working in a workplace which has (at one extreme) someone who sent me emails at 1.30 am and 3.30 am on different days this week, and who was in at 9 the next morning both times, and someone who works for me who works in the office two days a week and from home one other day. I'm in the middle; I almost always leave the office by 5.30, but work at home in the evenings a fair bit.

I used to be someone who worked long hours when necessary (my personal record was six hours between leaving the office at night and arriving the next morning), although I've never been the most extreme anywhere I've worked. I used to get paid for it, too; I worked in a place where the bonus system did reward the hard workers, with reasonably good ways of checking that the hours were productive. But I used to really resent those people in the same office who declined to work long hours; that meant that the flexible people had to pick up the slack; always. What I wanted at the time was for the shorter people to still work longer if we had too much to do; what usually happened was that I worked twice as hard, and they usually worked their shorter hours, as they had carved out the right.

Can you only make flexible hours work if everyone works short hours? What if you have a few people who are willing to work slavish hours? Can you make it work if you pay them for it? Or is the only way to get flexible hours for the (substantial) minority who want them, make sure that nobody works stupid hours? Or, to put it another way, are we destined to have two kinds of companies - the family friendly and the not family friendly, with two quite different kinds of workers?


When I was the person working somewhat stupid hours, I didn't mind them that much because I loved my work, I worked with friends, and E was also working stupid hours, so I was often going home to an empty house (no kids at that stage). Not to say that I always enjoyed them, but I think it's important to acknowledge in this kind of debate that some people really do enjoy their work, and quite like the hours it entails.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fathers and children

The ABS released a study (as part of their annual social trends review) of fathers and how much they are working these days. In previous posts, I've trawled through various ABS products to find out how many stay-at-home dads there are. This study answers the question - 3.4% of families with children under 15 had a father not working while the mother worked full or part-time. A further 6.3% had neither parent working.

The ABS didn't analyse how many families had a mother full-time and father part-time (our arrangement) but about 7% of fathers in total are employed part-time, and that's an increase from 4% in just over 10 years. I think that's the big story. I'm on an email list for mothers who work with the dad at home, and I'd say about half of the dads in that group actually have some paid work. So looking just at stay-at-home dads who don't do any paid work is going to miss lots of families where the dad is the primary carer (a very popular pattern with the genders reversed).

But for fathers and mothers working full time, the use of overtime has increased in the last few years. So the world of work is polarising even more into part-time and very full-time jobs. My personal preference for how we would manage our family would be for us both to have serious part-time jobs. But employers would much much rather have one very full time person than two good part time people.

David Maister had a great post on this topic, in which his view (as a consultant to professional services firms, rather than the whole world of work) is that the whole organisation has have the same view about "intensity" (I think he means willingness to drop everything and work), or it won't work, the organisation is in conflict. And from an organisation's view, if you have an unlimited pool of people that you can choose from, I'm not sure that I disagree. But the world isn't like that; if you're trying to choose great people for your organisation, sometimes you have to compromise, and I think I'd rather compromise on intensity than some other things like the ability to talk to people.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


There's been a fascinating discussion at Slate (via 11D) about whether Wal-Mart is good or bad for the US. Go and read it, but my take is that at least some of the argument boils down to:

1 Wal-mart reduces prices by driving a hard bargain everywhere, but particularly on one of their biggest costs, wages. That makes some people better off (by a little bit) as they pay less for the things they buy.
2 It also pays badly and has horrible conditions - they should pay more to their employees and either charge higher prices (reducing item 1) or make lower profits - thereby benefiting fewer people at the expense of the many.
3 The government should have better benefits for those people who have horrible Wal-mart type jobs, so that there isn't as much income inequality

It reminded me of the shock to my system I got when I was chatting to my New Zealand cousins about their cars. One of them had a Mazda MX5 (a car I have always admired - if I really cared about cars, I would probably have owned one by now). It had cost him, a couple of years old, about half as much as exactly the same car would have cost here in Australia. That's because New Zealand opened up their second hand car market to imports about 10 years ago, and gets all of Japan's cast offs (Japan also having right hand drive, like us, and having very strict road rules about old cars). And they have absolutely no tariffs on new cars either.

Of course, that means that they have no car industry, and the workers who used to make cars in New Zealand don't have jobs. New Zealand doesn't have much industry any more, so unskilled jobs aren't exactly easy to come by.

So which is better? A few people not having jobs and being miserable, and the rest of the country having cheaper cars and a better standard of living? Or more jobs for unskilled workers at the expense of more expensive cars for everyone (and over a reasonable period, a car can be a major expense of a household budget, particularly for poorer people).

I don't actually think there's an easy answer, but I do think that most arguments you see (from either side) tend to ignore one side of the argument. Either they tend to ignore the costs to the rest of society from higher prices by tariffs and increased wage costs, or they tend to pretend that the human cost from unemployment and wages that aren't really enough to live on isn't really worth considering if there's a profit to be made somewhere.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Stylish geekdom

My cousin's in the International Maths Olympiad, which is currently on in Slovenia. It's a competition for those who are under 20, haven't been to university yet, and with those conditions, are the top mathematicians in their countries, and hence the world. Six contestents per country.

After we found the picture of my cousin, my parents and I amused ourselves by seeing if we could find the country with the most stylish contestents. You wouldn't expect the mugshots from an International Maths Olympiad to exude style, and they don't. But after a random sample through the countries, we decided that the Italians were the most stylish geeks on the planet (and they even have a girl in their team, for extra style points!).

Depends on what you mean by style of course. The Saudis looked suitably exotic, while the Austrians wore matching sweatshirts (which exuded geekiness). I was quite disappointed by the Finns, who I expected to exude scandinavian cool.

Actually, this entire post is probably jealousy from my lack of mathematical talent. I'll be haunting that website to see how my cousin does!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Tipping Points

After my gloomy posts on global warming, I had to link to RealClimate's recent post on tipping points - a superb summary of all the various things that might tip the planet into a new (probably unpleasant) climatic stage.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Idealism rebounds

My employer has recently introduced a new policy for all sorts of family friendly stuff - among them, a "breastfeeding friendly workplace". I work in the CBD. We have employees spread across a few different buildings. They have put aside one room in one building for expressing breastmilk. Completely useless to anyone in any other building.

A bit of background - I have expressed in the workplace for six months with both of my children - first child mostly part time, second child full time working. It was important to me - I liked breastfeeding, and it was the one thing nobody else could do for them.

My belief is that the Australian Breastfeeding Association has such idealised requirements for a "breastfeeding-friendly workplace", that what ends up happening is a fairly useless lip-service.

Their requirement is for (among other things) "A clean, private room with a power point, lockable door, comfortable chair, refrigerator, hand washing facilities and breastpump storage area." This tends to reduce, rather than improve the availability of breastfeeding facilities in the workplace.

At my former employer they spent six months refurbishing the old first aid room on a single floor. For me, the six months delay, plus the fact that the floor wasn't my own (and every five minutes counts, when you're trying not to miss the evening feed that night) meant that I just made my own arrangements without any workplace support on my own floor.

In my experience, all you need is:
- a private lockable room (i.e. nobody can see in from the outside of the room)
- a powerpoint in the room
- a chair and table in the room which is reachable from the powerpoint
- a fridge on the same floor
- toilets on the same floor (so you can wash your hands)
- the room is guaranteed bookable for a set period each day

For most white-collar workplaces, even in these days of open plan offices, all that's needed to make that work is to make sure that you can't see into one of the meeting rooms, and that anyone (even the junior employees) can book that one.

If that was the ABA requirement, then it would be much easier for employers to comply, they wouldn't spend six months figuring out how to do it (find a new room that was never used for anything else, buy a new fridge, install a sink), and there would be more rooms available.

For me, I arranged that for myself (I was senior enough to be able to demand the refurbishment of our floor was slightly changed to make one meeting room's glass door not transparent) and the fact that I could go quickly and express, meant that I was more likely to do it twice a day, rather than once, and I kept my supply up for longer (both times supply failures was what made me stop).

I'm sure whoever is responsible at the ABA thinks they're doing the right thing by asking for perfection. I think what that means, though, is employers think it's all too hard. The employees who are senior enough, and/or feisty enough to figure it out for themselves, and ask for something reasonable, manage to work through it. The others get ground down with the hassle, and end up giving up earlier than they would like.