Monday, September 29, 2008

Working with Work

A couple blogs back I wrote about Untangling Hair Balls (Sept 23 entry), which was based on recent work I'd done with East Lake Commons (ELC) in Atlanta on the topic of Work/Participation. I got response froma reader that he'd like to hear more about what the starnds of that particular hair ball looked like. (I figure you gotta reward a person who leans into a hair ball for a closer look—mostly people just go "yuck!" and wonder why the cat couldn't have done that outdoors.)

Okey doke. Here's my sense of the key questions a group will have to address on the topic of Work/Participation. Note: while some of these questions are specific to residential communities, many are not, and the issue of Work/Participation can plague any group.

A. Should everyone in the group be expected to contribute to the well being and development of the group?
B. If yes, do you want to quantify that expectation (for example, hours/month)?
C. Do you want to record contributions? If so, how?
D. What is the point of this expectation? To get the work done, to build relationships among members, or both?
E. To what extent, if any, is it OK that dollars be substituted for hours? (Hint: the answer here will be highly dependent on how you answer Question D.)
F. Is it OK that one member donate hours to cover another who is working less? If so, are there any limits on this?
G. Can members "bank" hours (by working more than expected for one stretch, and then less in expected in another stretch)?
H. What flexibility will there be to take into account a person's limitations in their life, either permanent or temporary? (The diminished capacities of seniors, people who are infirm, perhaps a sick relative, economic pressure following loss of employment, etc.)
I. Do you want to establish a standing Work Committee whose job it would be to coordinate labor in the group? (Hint: for most groups. the right answer here is "yes." I'm talking about a committee who's job it would be to regulaly check in with folks, trying to figure out how best to match up needs with interests, skills, and availability; they would not be the Labor Police.)
J. If you have children in your group, are they expected to contribute? If so, in what ways?
K. In what ways, if at all, do expectations of contribution vary by membership category (renters, owners, non-resident owners, long-term guests, etc.)?
L. What work counts? Physical maintenance, governance, social organizing and enhancement, beautification, gardening, child care? Should some kinds of work count more than others?
M. How will you handle tensions arising in connection with Work/Participation (that is, the perception that there are martyrs or slackers in the group—and don't tell me that never happens)?

With respect to the hair ball of Work/Participation, the above list represents 13 strands of "hair." (There may be others, or some may not be interesting threads in your group, but you get the idea.) Next, following the plan I laid in my Sept 23 blog, you'd pick whichever of these questions seemed most potent and jump in, being disciplined enough to not talk about the other dozen until you'd finished work with the first one.

So what does this look like? Glad you asked. At ELC, the group selected Question A. Since that's fresh for me, I'll tell you what factors the group identified as elements that would need to be addressed by the community's position on this question (this may not be the complete list, but it's close, and representtative):

o Desire for flexibility about what's expected, taking into account people's physical limitations, skills, and life situations (
note the conection with Question H).
o Desire to be as encouraging as possible, and minimally punishing. Contributions should be made known and celebrated.
o Want contributing to the cmty to be fun.
o Need to get a certain amount of bottom-line work done (though it's yet to be determined what that is—note the conection with Question L).
o Some current residents don't seem to be in alignment with the community's common values; can the community create solid agreements about work expectations if there is not a firm foundation of common values?
o Desire that it be acceptable for members to do more than their share, to cover the shortage of others (
note the conection with Question F).
o Need equitable management (coordination) of projects and work areas.

After vetting this list (getting buy-in that everything was tied to a group common value), next came the heavy lifting—figuring out what responses would best balance these factors. While we didn't reach the finish line in Atlanta, we did get significant traction with the following statement, which wove togtether some of the factors into a unified statement:

"ELC intends to do everything it can to encourage members to contribute to the community's work and have a positive experience of developing and maintaining a vibrant cmty. At the same time, it needs a clear agreement about how to accomplish the work in the event that volunteerism is insufficient to get everything done that the community deems necessary."

The group liked this. It balanced two needs that otherwise might have been a tug of war: being positive and being responsible. While it was only a start, it was one solid step in the right direction, toward detente and away from acrimony. When repeat—over and over—that's the kind of thing that gets the job done, braiding a strong and resilient solution, one strand at a time.

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