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Posts Tagged ‘work

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I normally share the views of Seth Godin. But I disagree with his thoughts on workplace chores.

He started by describing how household chores are “essential” and ignoring them results in a stinky house. Then he reached too far by declaring that workplace chores while “essential… may not be important”.

In his mind, doing chores is not the same as doing “real work”. I disagree because by ignoring household chores, you allow dust, dirt, and rust to build up. In the workplace, this might be equivalent to inertia, bad habits, and apathy.

Working actively on chores can provide opportunities to spot problems and solve them. Chores are an opportunity to do the “real work” that Godin defines. 

The chore-like routine work might be reduced with the advent of more capable and context-aware artificial intelligence (AI). This might allow workers to focus on higher order work and skills. But I challenge any worker, manager, or leader to ignore chores and let the gunk build up. The work will grind to a halt.

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I agree with the overall premise of the tweeted article [original NYT article]— ChatGPT might end boring work — but I disagree with the statement:

The digital era has made a lot of everyday work more complicated and less efficient than it was 30 years ago.

The examples the writer cited as inefficiencies were filling PDF forms and sending fruitless emails back and forth. The problem was not the technology, it was the thoughtless use of it.

The filling of a PDF version of the same form on paper is a replacement of medium but not the method. It is bound to take more time if the form is a simple scanned copy without designated text fields. The method must change with the medium. An alternative form is one that is online or in-app and auto-populated with information in your web browser or central database. The information is authorised after user authentication or biometrics.

Communicating asynchronously via email instead of using a synchronous tool for a time-sensitive task is ludicrous. But people still do it because they have not thought about the mode of work. The alternative and logical mode for such work is to cooperate in real time with tools like Slack, Zoom, or even WhatsApp.

You cannot describe such work as taking place in “the digital era” when the attitudes and behaviours are so analogue.

Despite these errors, I read on. The writer focused on how past, present, and future technologies would let workers tap on the power of automation. The writer’s thesis on ChatGPT for work was: 

Instead of eliminating many white-collar jobs altogether… it has the ability to do something much more powerful: to eliminate what is boring about those jobs, freeing us up to be more stimulated, more creative and more human in our work. In the process it can drastically increase productivity.

He then described examples of how ChatGPT could reduce mundane, repetitive, and tedious work in the form of “everyday automation”. Workers might then be freed up to do work that is more meaningful and rewarding, e.g., solving real problems. This is a repeated refrain from the edtech world.

I liked two parts of his article. The first was a summary of a study on the effectiveness of ChatGPT to help in workplace writing tasks.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently conducted an experiment, reported in a working paper, with 444 “college-educated professionals” who were given a “mid-level professional writing task” like drafting news releases or delicate e-mails. Half were provided with ChatGPT and half were not. The participants who were given ChatGPT took less time, wrote better, and reported enjoying the task more. Even more important, perhaps, ChatGPT helped “low-ability workers,” meaning that those with weaker writing skills – but perhaps with good ideas – could carry out the task effectively.

The second was his conclusion: 

Everyday automation, if it happens, will be the undoing of Henry Ford. His assembly-line production paid workers better but was dehumanising. It implied that the only way we could be more productive and make more money was to become more like machines. Everyday automation says the opposite: that the way to be more productive and earn more money is to use our technology to become more human again.

It was a forward-looking note to end on. No fear mongering or painting dystopia, just being better human workers thanks to better decision-making and behavioural changes around technology. 

I have an unpopular opinion: I do not think that we should celebrate Father’s Day. And I say this as a father. 

I did not realise that tomorrow is FD until I was reminded of that with an invitation to a family dinner. It is not that I do not appreciate the sentiment. It is partly that FD has been commercialised like most other days of note. 

If we celebrate FD, we should also have Toilet Cleaner’s Day (or Any Other Person Day whose work is taken for granted). 

Video source

The video above adds fuel to my fire. The work of the toilet cleaner is like that of some fathers (I know that not all fathers will agree). Our work is invisible and mundane. It can be difficult and unpleasant.

My invisible work is paying all the bills and various insurance premiums. These happen in the background and online so that even I would not know this is happening if not for email reminders.

As I work mostly from home, my invisible work also includes household chores and maintenance/repairs when no one else is around. I schedule a major chore for each work day (e.g., mopping Mondays). As our apartment ages, I take as much preventative action (e.g., regular clearing of pipes) as I can. You would only notice my work if something breaks down. 

Like some fathers, I do not need to be thanked with a special day that actually rewards someone else, e.g., a noisy restaurant with lousy food. The work we do is, frankly, thankless. So that is what I expect.

But if there is to be any show of appreciation, I would like to see effort. Effort that comes from not wasting resources like food, water, and electricity. Effort like cleaning up after yourself. These are small and invisible habits that add up to the best FD gift.

Not wanting to celebrate FD is probably an unpopular opinion. So how about having Invisible Day instead? This could be marked every day by appreciating the invisible tasks performed by invisible people. Perhaps that is too much — it is asking for Impossible Day. 

The two tweeted articles below send a message contrary to popular media.

Televised news, newspapers, and some gurus on social media might tell you that people long to return to their office cubicles for work.

The Pew research was an analysis of a sample of 2,767 working adults in the USA who had the option of working from home. This survey indicated that 74% of these workers were “fine with the amount of time they spend on video calls” while 26% were not. Their previous survey found that 63% of their respondents were fine with teleworking while 37% were worn out by video conferencing. Hence their tweet that effectively asked: What Zoom fatigue?

In Singapore, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) “polled more than 2,000 workers over nine months”. The summary finding seemed to be: 

From mid-July last year to April this year, between 41 and 52 per cent felt that flexible work arrangements should be the new norm for workplaces in Singapore.

In the same period, around 20 to 35 per cent felt that working from home on most days should be the new norm for workplaces.

But the same CNA article also cited other parts of the study that the desire for flexible work differed by gender: About 73% of female respondents wished for it while around 66% of males did. The reporting did not clarify how other genders caused these relatively high percentages to drop to the summary levels.

The article reported what might seem obvious without data — those wanting flexible work cited reasons with psychological well-being as the root cause. How serious were they about this? About 42% “would consider looking for another job if their employer required them to return to the office on most days”.

The jury might still be out on whether we will have kinder work arrangements, but the evidence is stacking up for those want more flexible arrangements. 

It only took a pandemic to bring this to the spotlight. I might say that this was painful but effective e-learning, if E stood for emergency and epidemic.

I have followed the writing of edtech historian and critic Audrey Watters for years. 

I enjoyed her regular collation and biting remarks on edtech news when she used to write them. She stopped doing that but still provides an important voice to balance the uncritical enthusiasm and loose ethics of some “edtech” providers. 

So I was glad to read the transcript of Watters’ keynote for Digifest 2022. But driven by her stance that “criticism is generative”, I highlight one flawed argument. Early in her speech, she declared:

I have watched the awfulness of pandemic education (and its digital components) unfold.

Given that much of “pandemic education” was technologically-enabled, I would question if the awfulness is technologically determined. It is, after all, teachers and students who are so set in their ways that they could not pivot to take advantage of the affordances of said technologies.

If Zoom fatigue was an example, I would lay blame not just on Zoom but on tired and old methods of chalk and talk applied to a context that does not favour it. Instead, Zoom also affords the creation of homogenous and heterogenous groupings that teachers could employ for student-centred work. Teachers could also design for asynchrony, reflection, self-evaluation, etc.

That said, I agree with Watters’ analysis of some folks in the edtech:

The tech industry’s historical amnesia — the inability to learn about, to recognize, to remember what has come before — is deeply intertwined with the idea of “disruption” and its firm belief that new technologies are necessarily innovative and are always “progress.”

She warned us not to forget that these folk “have done real, substantive damage to students, to teachers, to public education”. Is this hyperbole? Nope. Just think of how many people have been subject to the programmer and administrator designs of the ironically labelled LMS — they are not for learning. 

University IT departments seem to be hopelessly dependent on LMS and shiny “edtech” vines that vendors first dangle and then use to tie down. So what did Watters suggest we do about it?

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Hope. Not hope as an optimistic emotion but as disciplined practice. This means pushing back when you sense something wrong, putting the time and effort into finding or shaping better solutions, and striving to be a better educator by doing what is best for learners.

If this sounds a bit rebellious, then it is. I remember this line from a Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Rebellions big and small are built on hope. But not just on hope that is a strong feeling or belief. Hope takes work.

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The statistics claimed in this tweet and embedded video are stark. They seemed to indicate that there has been an acceptance of remote work (colloquially known as work from home or WFH here). The video interview also illustrated how much better WFH was.

Much of my work has been remote since going independent in 2014. I have been open with its pluses AND minuses. The video anecdote in the tweet only highlighted the best case of multiple revenue streams, flexible and efficient hours, and lifestyle alignment.

The tweeted narrative is selective because large swings grab eyeballs more than nuanced views. The statistic and anecdote provide an important story element, but it does not tell the whole story. A tweeted story does not have to, of course, but this stance misrepresents WFH.

That said, the statistic was remarkable (assuming it was accurate). It showed how an external pressure like the current pandemic pushes the levers of change. What might start as a necessity and evolved to be independent and effective work might eventually be adopted by employers as a norm.

Sadly, the same might not be said about online learning in school and universities. Why? I would argue that stakeholders still conflate emergency remote teaching with online learning. The tweet below highlights a general distinction between the two.

Emergency remote teaching is often a rushed and desperate attempt to recreate a physical classroom experience online. Well-designed online learning, on the other hand, factors in limitations and affordances of reduced social presence.

Neither the second tweet nor my short reflection tells the story of effective online learning. But every educator who has tried something online has a paragraph or chapter worth sharing. For example, I have shared my design plans with, use of, and reflections on Zoom.

These are stories of lessons from failures and successes during the pandemic pivot. The stories are worth telling not just because they are instructive, they also provide a counter narrative to the sensational swings presented by those making judgements from the outside.

This press piece began with this question.

Why is the question not: Why are some people less productive than others when working at work? It is not as if working outside of home automatically makes work better for everyone.

A similar and equally uncritical question could be asked of schooling and education: Why is home-based learning so difficult? We should instead pivot to the question about the difficulties of learning in the classroom.

One direct answer for avoiding the pivot is that refocusing on work and school highlights what we fail to do well and somehow keep ignoring. For example, it is easier to ignore how administrative needs at work or school might be placed higher than working or learning needs.

Another simple answer is that the home is not made for work or school. Often it is a place to get away from both, i.e., to rest, pursue an interest, spend time with family, etc. We can make adjustments to home just like a scuba diver dons a suit and air tank, but such adjustments are temporary. 

So, no, the tweeted question is not a good one. It is an attempt at clickbait. It is not an attempt to actually challenge or develop creative and critical thinking. 

A question that might actually create some dissonance might be: What can we learn from the online pivot at work/school and apply to the workplace/classroom when we return?

Martin Weller recently critiqued how we tend to do the same thing differently:

We decry the tendency to simply replicate lectures online, but then do the same with meetings. We call for educators to use technology to its advantage to realise new pedagogies, and then recreate face to face conferences in Zoom. We stress the need to rethink your teaching approach to ensure learners are not adversely affected and then conduct line management via Teams.

In short, we think almost exclusively inside the work/school box even when circumstances (pandemic) throw us firmly outside it.

Now that we have enforced experiments with telecommuting and remote teaching/learning, why not use these experiences to address the weaknesses of the office and classroom?

One of the very few things I have against working from home is neighbours’ renovation works. If I had to give the din a kind label, I might call it the Heartland Symphony.

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Here is a sample of the noise I experience even though I am seven floors below. Even my noise-cancelling earphones and headphones cannot shield me from that cacophony. The noise is enough to drive anyone mad.

The symphony has other movements like incessantly barking dogs, screaming children, practising karaoke artistes, etc. We are creative that way.

So when I saw a new installation of work pods at a nearby mall, I was intrigued. According to the information on the boxes, they were from a company called Switch (not sponsored).

My wife wondered who would want to study or work in a mall. I would, provided that the booth I saw was relatively sound-proof, private, and properly ventilated. 

I know many others would as well, given how many work and study in public places like libraries and coffee shops. We do this not to be seen, but to avoid the Heartland Symphony.

One underrated power of being a father is invisibility, i.e., doing the unseen work.

My invisible power is paying the utility bills, assorted fees, insurance premiums, and groceries. I clean the floors, windows, and fans when no one is home so no one gets in the way.

But this also means no one sees me do these things. I am invisible until I stop doing them. Then my lack of action becomes obvious and no good comes of it.

There is also much invisible educator work, e.g., lesson planning, keeping up with research, and preparing resources. This work is often invisible to an administrator or a client and remains unappreciated. But if we stop doing these things, this also becomes obvious and bad things happen.

Do the invisible work. No one (or very few) will thank you or pay you for it. It is the price to pay whether you are a parent or an educator.

This tweet is a reminder in case you missed the memo on the challenges of designing for (and actually facilitating) online learning.

Teaching in person is already a complex skill set that can take years to be competent at. You never master teaching because the sand shifts under your feet — content evolves, learner expectations shift, technology brings change.

But teaching does not always ensure learning. Teaching should be a means to the learning end, but it can sometimes be a barrier.

You can bypass traditional teaching by focusing on how people learn. People might learn in the presence of more informed others, but they can also learn by observing, problem-solving, tinkering, etc. These other ways are more challenging to design and prepare for.

Non-educators whose only reference of teaching is their early schooling or higher education cannot see what it is like on the other side of the table. At best, they can only imagine the work and passion it takes.

Parents who had to monitor or supervise their children during COVID-19’s home-based schooling might have gained a small insight on what a teacher does. But they still do not have the full picture.

Likewise, teachers and administrators who only know the world of conventional teaching do not relate to what online facilitators experience. In case you missed it (ICYMI) read the tweet again.


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