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    Entries in HR (427)

    Monday
    Feb122018

    Don't talk to me, don't even look at me - I'm busy over here

    Slapping on a pair of headphones or earbuds while you are work, especially in open plan offices, in order to help yourself to focus on your work, and probably more importantly, to send a 'do not bug me right now' signal to your co-workers has been a pretty common element of work for some time now.

    But what do you do when simply putting on headphones is not enough of a barrier between you and pesky co-workers, their questions, their comings and goings, and other kinds of interruptions or distractions? You could simply accede to your true nature and quit your job and take up permanent hermit status? But let's say you don't want to go that extreme, and simply want to find a way to have a little bit more privacy, focus, and send an even more aggressive 'do not bother me' message to the office?

    Enter the 'FocusCap' which has been described as a kind of 'horse blinder for people'. The idea of the Focus Cap is create a 'moble, distraction-proof fortress' so that a worker can 'fully concentrate on high demanding cognitive tasks'. That sounds pretty good to me. I may even need one of those here at HR Happy Hour HQ.

    Check out the videobelow, (email and RSS subscribers will need to click through).

    Pretty wild, right?

    Are office distractions, and the challenges that are presented by the lack of personal space and lack of privacy that modern, open plan offices generate really driving workers to try and build little personal cocoons to carve out some space and peace among the chaos? Maybe so. I have not worked in an open plan setting for quite some time, but I am pretty sure I would not enjoy it all that much. Maybe with a pair of headphones on and a pair of these horse blinders for people I could make it seem like I was in my own spacious (and private) office, or sitting on the sofa in my PJs. 

    And for the record, I have no relationship at all with the makers of the FocusCap. But I do think it is cool.

    Have a great week!

    Thursday
    Feb082018

    CHART OF THE DAY: There are too many open jobs, (or not enough people to fill them)

    A really quick shot for a busy Thursday - from the most recent JOLTS report (that's the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey and you should have this page on permanent bookmark), the most recent (as of December 2017) data on the ratio of Unemployed workers to job openings in the US.

    Here's the data...

        

    The actual chart on the BLS site is interactive if you want to play around with it, but I will save you the time and let you know that as of the end of December 2017 the ratio of unemployed workers to open jobs was down to 1.1. Basically, the US economy is closing in on having nearly the same number of unemployed workers, (about 6.3 million ) as there are job openings (about 5.8 million) as of the end of 2017. The ratio of 1.1 has been steady for most of 2017 and ties the all-time low in the this data series' history.

    I have not much else to add to this, beyond what you already know. The labor market continues to be at or near record levels of 'tightness'. It will be really interesting (and fun if you are a data geek like me), to see of the ratio goes below 1 at some point, a situation where even if every open job in the US was suddenly filled by an unemployed person, there still would be open jobs remaining. I guess then we will have to build more robots to fill those jobs.

    Have a great day!

    Wednesday
    Feb072018

    UPDATE: On striking for a 28-hour work week

    A few seeks ago I shared the story of the largest metal and steel worker's union in Germany whose members were threatening to strike for the right (among other things) for the ability to reduce their work week to 28 hours per week for up to two years at a time - mainly in times where a worker has increased child or elder care responsibilities. As a reminder, this is what the steel workers were trying to accomplish:

    Workers have downed tools at more than 80 companies across Germany as the country’s biggest union stepped up its campaign for a 28-hour working week to allow employees to improve their work-life balance.

    In what is shaping up to be the biggest industrial dispute in the metalwork sector in three decades, more than 15,000 employees took part in warning strikes at factories including those of the carmaker Porsche.

    The IG Metall union, which represents around 3.9 million workers, wants every employee in the metal and electrical sector to have the option to reduce their working hours for a total period of two years, with the automatic right to return to full-time employment afterwards.

    In mid-January I offered the take that we shouldn't look at these worker's demands as another example of the 'soft' or laissez-faire approach to work that we in the US like to think is common in Europe, and let ourselves believe that these kinds of increased worker calls for more benefits (including fewer hours potentially), could not become an issue here eventually. Workers in all kinds of industries likely have more power than they are currently exercising.

    Fast forward about three weeks - how did it turn out in Germany?

    UPDATE - German metal workers union secures right to 28-hour work week.

    From the piece in Business Insider:

    A German industrial union has won its workers the right to work just 28 hours per week in a deal that could eventually impact almost 4 million people in the country.

    IG Metall, the biggest trade union in Germany for metal and engineering workers struck the deal which will allow staff to go down from 35 hours to 28 hours per week for as long as two years, in instances where they need to care for children, elderly, or sick relatives.

    The agreement between the union and industry impacts some major, global manufacturers like Porsche, Airbus, and Mercedes, and also includes a 4.3% pay rise for the workers. It is a pretty major win for the workers, who seem to have gotten just about everything they were looking for in the deal.

    Why does this matter, especially to US readers, in a time where unions and labor rights movements in general have been declining for ages?

    I would say to think about this deal, and why the workers were looking for it, as less of a 'union' issue and more of a work/life issue. One of the major benefits of the so-called 'gig' economy is the schedule control that most gig workers have. There is a tremendous amount of flexibility and even power that comes with being able to self-determine how many hours you will or can work in a given day or week or month. Some times you want/need to work more, and other times fewer hours. Especially when dealing with child, elder, or other personal responsibilities.

    This effort by the metal workers union is really an attempt to try and marry some of the best features of the 'regular' employee (steady pay, benefits, some level of security, commitment to one company), with the 'gig' worker economy, (flexibility, work/life balance, control and freedom).

    Gig working is not for everyone. It can be uncertain, scary, can have pretty major fluctuations in compensation and benefits. And 'regular' work also has its downsides - lack of schedule control, long hours, stress about work/life. So what the German metal workers are really trying to do is find a kind of compromise between the two - by crafting a design where they are still 'regular' employees, but have more flexibility to determine when they need to reduce (or increase) their working hours based on personal and family circumstances.

    That is the way to think about this story if you are a business or HR leader in the US or anywhere really - this is not about the union or some kind of Euro-socialist approach to work.

    It is about workers trying to find the 'right' kind of work/life balance and arrangement that fits for them in the modern world. And it is about companies trying to find ways to ensure their goals can also be met, knowing that for most of them, these goals can only be met through the success and well-being of their workforces.

    Have a great day!

    Friday
    Feb022018

    New tech won't just replace workers, it will track them even more closely

    I won't do another run at the 'Robots are going to take all the jobs' gimmick today, there is plenty of that you can find pretty much everyday and everywhere. No, today I want to highlight two examples, from different perspectives and contexts, about how tech will not just replace some/most/all jobs one day, but along the way tech will continue to provide ways for employers to track/monitor/coach/guide/punish/reward employees even more closely.

    Example 1 - from our pals at Amazon (the most interesting company in the world) - Amazon could make a bracelet that tracks worker's movements and buzzes them if they move in the wrong direction.

    From the piece on Business Insider:

    Amazon may be looking to improve its workers' efficiency in new ways.

    As was spotted by Geekwire, the company was just awarded a patent for a device that would attach to its warehouse workers' wrists and track their movements using ultrasonic waves. In conjunction with a receiver unit, those ultrasonic waves could track where the worker's hand is in real time and guide it to pick out items, then pack them in boxes.

    If the worker's hand moves in the wrong direction, for example, a slight vibration in the wrist would let them know.

    The idea is to help reduce the time that Amazon warehouse workers spend looking for items, sorting through boxes and shelves, with the idea of helping them be more efficient at selecting the necessary items for a given order. But as the BI piece points out as well, this kind of technology could also be used to measure employee performance and improvement (or regression) down to the micro-level - the gesture.

    I had a summer job working in a perishable food distribution center a hundred years ago, and we were measured (back then), on one metric - how close we came each day to completing our orders in the estimated amount of time allotted for them. So if a given order was meant to be completed in 30 minutes, and it took me 40 minutes to actually turn in the order to the shipping dock, then I would be at 67% (10 minutes overage on a 30 minute order). Each week we had to be a certain percentage rate, (I think it was 85%) in order to stay in good standing. Too many weeks below 85% and you'd eventually get canned.

    Back then we thought that was a harsh, 'Big Brother' type monitoring system. But at least it did allow for some slack, for having a bad shift or two, and for a little bit of gamesmanship. It didn't take too long to find the gaps and wiggle room in the system, and find ways to beat it. And since we were provided a real-time update on our percent completion rate after every order, you could also determine come Friday just how much you had to hustle (or slide), in order to maintain the 85% for the week. Looking back on it now, it seems pretty reasonable overall, to both the company and the workers. But if we thought aggregated performance measurement and targets were 'Big Brother' back in the day, I can't imagine what we (or anyone), would think about performance monitoring and measurement at the gesture level. Wild.

    Example 2 - From the world of sports, taken from an analysis of NBA player John Wall, and his case for being included on the NBA All-Star team this season. Here's ESPN's Zach Lowe providing a bit of data about Wall's performance this season:

    Wall is shooting 42 percent, his lowest mark since he was a rookie, and he just hasn't played with enough vigor on either end of the floor. One measure of that: He has spent 76.57 percent of floor time either standing still or walking, the largest such share among all rotation players, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum.

    Ball-dominant stars need to conserve energy. Some guys shift from walking to turbo mode without spending much time in between.

    But regardless: Wall should not be freaking last. He too often stands around when he doesn't have the ball, or when a shot is the air and he might be able to help on the glass. He switches constantly on defense to avoid chasing his guy around picks.

    That professional athletes have their performance measured and monitored to a greater degree than most other professions is not that surprising - after all metrics and statistics like points scored, rebounds, and assists have been a part of NBA box scores for decades. But what is new('ish) is the technology advances in both video capture and motion analysis that provide data on every step that an NBA player takes during a game. So now instead of just looking at how many points a player scored in a game, and judging his effectiveness based on a combination of things we can count, (like point), and an 'eye test' judgement of their effort level and hustle, NBA teams now can analyze and examine exactly what a player did every second he was on the court.

    Look again at the statistic mentioned above - Wall has been walking or standing exactly 76.57% of the time he has been on court this season. His activity is being measured to hundredths of a percent for crying out loud. Can you imagine working in a job where your management had access to your effort down to that level? Every second you are supposed to be at work? Also wild.

    These two examples (and I am sure there are lots more), point out that the impact of new technology on work and workplaces is not limited to total or direct replacement of workers and human roles. Technology also has the effect (or at least can have the effect) or driving ever closer measurement and control over workers and work performance. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing - organizations and workers have to be able to understand their work, how to improve, and companies need to continue to get more efficient in order to compete. But, there needs to also be consideration of the balance between measurement, control, and workers' ability to exist as people, in a setting that may not be replacing them, can be seen as de-humanizing them. And until the robots are ready, your organization still needs these people.

    Have a great weekend!

    Wednesday
    Jan312018

    Creating a more human relationship with technology

    I have been thinking and writing about the early and potential future impact of voice-enabled digital assistant technologies (like Amazon's Alexa, Google Home, and others), pretty often in 2018, so much so that I had pretty much decided to lay off the topic for a bit, as it was getting kind of repetitive.

    But as keeps happening, over the weekend I read a really interesting article from the Think With Google team sharing some survey results on how people are using and perhaps more interestingly, feeling about their interactions, usage, and relationship with these digital assistants and platforms. There are two really interesting data points from the survey I wanted to share, as they both reveal something interesting and important as HR tech providers and HR practitioners and end users consider the development and application of voice enabled/driven assistants in workplace tech.

    One: People who own voice activated technologies like the Echo and the Google Home are quickly incorporating them into their daily lives and routines:

     

    Why that matters: Driving user adoption of workplace technologies has always been a challenge for technology developers and implementation teams. But these voice activated digital assistants are showing that new tech that is easy to access, provides value quickly and clearly, and provides a kind of fun and engaging experience while also providing value, will be readily adopted by most people.

     

    Two - The nature of the voice interface and activation is making the relationship between users and technology much more personal, even human. 

     

    Why that matters -  It seems like the nature of how these digital assistants are created, how we interact with them, (more or less conversationally), how they have names (Alexa, Siri), and how they even have some level of personality (ask Alexa to tell you a joke, or tell her 'I'm sorry' sometime), and the technology seems to become more a part of our overall way of experiencing the world, and not a separate thing or tool we have to learn how to use. The technology and capability continues to blend into the world and into the other kinds of tools and tech we use all the time - cars, thermostats, appliances, and computers. In the workplace, we need to start to think about making our HR and workplace tools and technologies ones that are just 'there' - embedded in other workplace systems, active in workplace settings like conference rooms, and accessible at all times with a simple voice command.

    I continue to find the entire voice activated / digital assistant space incredibly interesting. Hope you do as well. 

    The next project to work on is getting an HR Happy Hour Podcast skill/update on Alexa!