White Paper - Maximizing Income in a Task-Based Work Environment ( Draft 1.0)

Table of Contents
The Basic Equation
Maximizing the Payment
Optimizing Task Requirements
Reducing Hours Worked
Reducing Overhead
Reducing Time Wasted
   The Basic Equation

Working from home comes with the expected benefits of commuting in our slippers, of regaining command of much of our time, of filling our lives with meaningful work, and of joining the virtual workforce, a community with the best labor prospects in the world. What is unexpected and often unwelcome is how it also makes us responsible for our time, with demoralizing penalties for mismanagement. Chief among those penalties, and the most common I hear managing task-based workers over the years, is how much less their income is compared to their expectations.

Here we will examine the misconceptions causing that and the steps to improvement. To begin, we summarize the mission more exactly with an equation that defines a worker's personal productivity in a task-based environment. Maximizing this productivity is the precise goal of a worker seeking a higher income:

personal productivity    =     payment to meet task requirements
(hours on task) + (related overhead hours) + (wasted time)

We're used to viewing labor productivity from the eyes of old-world, effort-based employees focused only on the denominator, that is, working as fast and as smart as possible during their 9-5 work shift. Important for results-based task workers is that the numerator is under their control as well.

   Maximizing the Payment

Starting with the "payment" part of the productivity equation's numerator, this is largely dependant on the number of task hours authorized. When a task is proposed, it is often by an employer under the same delusion we optimists all feel. How often do we assume we can do some household chore in an hour, only to still be working several hours later? The task-based worker is usually the only one with the experience to point out such a disconnect with reality. That is one reason all tasks arrive to the worker with Status = Proposed.

If the experienced worker fails to point out an estimate that doesn't include the time to test, for example, who will? An employer may estimate hours low to try to control costs, but this should never be allowed on the basis that workers are to donate their time by discounting the time needed to complete the task. That is a prescription for failure. Either the quality of the work product will suffer, or the worker will eventually find work elsewhere.

Even the best work estimators will be faced with a task that exceeds their hourly expectations, and the question will be how to respond. This is the point where we introduce the concept of the "reasonable man" (or woman). We must ask if the reasonable man should have anticipated the extra hours when originally accepting the task. If working the task is the only way that anyone could have learned of a surprise that needed extra time to resolve, the reasonable man would ask for the extra time. If the employer assigning the task changes the requirement after the worker accepts it, any reasonable man would expect additional authorized hours to cover the additional requirement. If the surprise is that the worker doesn't know how to do the work of the task description, however, the reasonable man would assume that worker should learn to do his job on his own time without requesting additional hours.

All that said, a task will eventually take longer than the worker expected. Nothing unusual happened that a reasonable man could claim justified additional hours. In that case, the worker needs to ascribe the extra hours to his self-financed education because a worker needs to know more than to do his job. He needs to be able to estimate how long his job will take. But that education means that the worker can use that experience to estimate accurately in the future.

The last concept to understand regarding estimating hours is the "effective hour". The best way to understand that is to pose two hypothetical situations. If you accept a task for 4 hours, but it takes you 6 hours because your cousin stopped by to chat sports for 2 hours, how many hours do you put in the hours worked? If in another situation, you complete the same 4-hour task in 3 hours because it was just like a previous task and you had built yourself a tool to do it faster, how many hours do you put in that task's hours worked? Everyone says 4 hours for the first situation, but most folks are conflicted about the second situation. The correct answer in both situations is 4 hours because the task was accepted to be done in 4 effective hours. This is fair because the worker bid 4 hours to do the work and the employer accepted it for the same 4 hours. If workers have a self-inflicted productivity problem, those workers must overcome that at their own expense. If they increase their productivity through an investment in themselves and their productivity, they are like independent businessmen investing in their company. An effective hour is the simplest way workers give themselves a raise. Workers bidding 4 hours to do a task they know they can do in 2 hours are effectively giving themselves a 100% raise.

All the above explanations provide the reasons to increase the hours a worker should accept to do a task, but there remains only one reason not to. The employer who receives the response that a worker would accept a task only for increased hours retains the option to not authorize the task. The employer can feel, justified or not, that the task should be done for less hours, or that the task is no longer worth doing at all at the increased cost.

   Optimizing Task Requirements

Moving to "requirements", the next significant word in the numerator, the worker can control one of the other common reasons to reduce their income. The task description summarizes the work requirements. If that task description summarizes the requirement poorly, perhaps with assumptions causing the worker to believe that some of the work will be done by others, the worker will feel pressured to complete the task regardless and to absorb the additional effort. Even worse, if the work product doesn't meet the expectation of the employer because his expectation was based on an ambiguous task description, the worker may feel compelled to redo the work product to make the employer happy.

Pop-Up Help for Task Description

The Task Description contains the details of what the task is designed to accomplish. Be brief by not describing in detail how a task is to be done, but do make clear what the measurable result is to be. Making it measurable is the key. Don't say "Add online help", which can be interpreted and satisfied in many ways, but say something as specific as "Add help links to each field on New Invoice Form".

Break a task into two parts. In the first part, summarize any essential background and what the task is to accomplish, that is, give the "why" of the task. Separated by a paragraph break, begin the second part with the words, "By this task," and focus entirely on instructions to the implementer, that is, give the "what to do" of the task. For both sections, refer to entries in the Ref field below the task description rather than retype information available elsewhere. Allowed, even recommended, is to put nothing more in the second part than "By this task, implement paragraphs 2 to 4 in section 3.1 of the referenced Functional Description", for example, if such a document exists.

After writing a Task Description, ask yourself, "How will I be able to know that this task has been completed to my satisfaction?"

A handy way to remember the essentials of a good task description is the SMART acronym as defined below:
Aligned (with the overall project goals)

Note that when a task goes into the testing phase after development, an independent tester often has nothing more than the Task Definition to test against.

Do not change an existing Task Description unless absolutely necessary - use the Notes section to add information, expand on a topic, etc. Changing the Task Description will automatically place a copy of the old task description in the notes section (making it unnecessarily long if you keep doing this) with your user ID as part of our task traceability process.

Remember that the Task Description is a type of contract between the Assigned By and the Assigned To people - you can't pull the rug out from under someone working on the task by changing your requirements without repercussions.

The problem is that employers are routinely untalented at writing effective task descriptions. They often subscribe to management philosophies that involve walking around, talking to workers about their work, and having regular "status" meetings where they revise requirements as they better understand what it is that they want. This iterative approach doesn't match the rules of task-based work. A person assigning a task agrees to a key condition when authorizing a task. They agree that a task description that can be interpreted in more than one way can be interpreted by the worker.

This means the employer has the responsibility to write a task description that presents the requirements clearly, unambiguously, and objectively, and if they don't, employers are the ones to suffer. To the right is displayed the pop-up help employers can see when entering a task description. Workers can and should hold them to the condition that demands an effective task description. Suffering the consequences is how employers become better managers and better task writers.

   Reducing Hours Worked

With that, we have completed the important aspects of the numerator that are under the worker's control to increase his/her income. In the following sections, I will outline how to decrease the denominator of the same equation. In some ways, this is the same as for conventional workers who do not telecommute, but I will focus on areas of particular relevance to teleworkers.

Reducing the hours spent completing the task, which is the first term in the denominator, requires both high proficiency and high enthusiasm. Proficiency depends on
experience, and
and that works the same for everyone, whether conventional worker or teleworker. What teleworkers often lack are tools. They sometimes come from a corporate environment where the company made investments in tools, because they were aware of the payback, and then made the tools available to their workers. Leaving that behind, teleworkers often forget to replace it with a mindset that they must invest in themselves. They must keep the previous concept of an effective hour in mind when they look at the return on investment for tools. A software developer, for example, can develop code only to the minimum requirements of a task, or she can put in the extra effort to make it easy to replicate for similar tasks and put that in her reusable library if she feels she can secure such additional tasks.

Enthusiasm depends on the worker's individual answer to the question, "What work would you find so satisfying that you would pay someone to let you do it?" Of course we're not talking about actually paying someone to let you work, but rather to find work you want to do that much. In fact, you will end up being paid more to do what you do with passion than what you do for money. This is because everyone does best what they want to do most.

Contrary to popular wisdom, enthusiasm is a more powerful contributor to the productivity equation because it can magnify proficiency. A worker inspired by his work will seek out training to gain proficiency in it and then can't be stopped from getting valuable experience in it. Telework provides a significantly greater opportunity to pursue work that inspires an individual when compared to a conventional job. Whereas conventional jobs are usually full-time 40 hrs/week jobs, teleworking tasks can start out as small part-time assignments. This means a teleworker need not accept a full-time job with a compromise of some inspiring work along with some (large amount of) drudgery. The internet allows teleworkers to cast a wide net, essentially covering the entire globe, to find the work that motivates them the best. Teleworkers have few excuses for accepting large numbers of tasks that do not inspire them.

   Reducing Overhead

The second term in the denominator of the productivity equation seeks to reduce the overhead hours associated with performing a task. For a programmer, for example, this means every minute not spent writing code. Everything from getting ready to work, such as organizing a work space, getting a reliable internet connection, finding an inexpensive way to receive work payments, getting responsive tech support, etc. The best way to get a handle on this is to look in the mirror and see an entrepreneur, someone running a company with one worker. Consider the core business of that small business whatever directly (not indirectly) produces your income. Everything else is overhead and needs to be automated, delegated, outsourced, or minimized.

Whereas that basic statement above is sound, it is not actionable, that is, it remains theoretical, not practical. To resolve it in practice, a task-based worker need only consider why an employer has chosen them as their worker, because task-based assignments make sense. Once a worker considers himself an entrepreneur, the solution becomes self-evident. The automation, delegation, outsourcing, or minimizing of overhead must be captured into tasks, assigned by the worker, often to himself, to improve the efficiency of his company of 1.

In practice, a worker who finds himself engaged in an overhead activity forms the habit of asking if that activity can be automated, delegated, outsourced, or minimized. If so, he immediately writes a task to do so, and usually gets back to working his billable task, with its overhead. In short order, such a teleworker collects tasks, not from employers, but from himself. These tasks are then remembered, prioritized, and completed, converting his home operation into an efficient, well designed business.

   Reducing Time Wasted

Turning our attention to the last term in the productivity equation's denominator, we come to the need to reduce wasted time. Of course this is worth doing in all endeavors, but I will focus only on the aspects with direct impact to teleworkers.

Many years ago when I worked as a conventional engineer, I had a joke sign in my cubicle, "The boss is coming. Look busy." The good news for teleworkers is that the boss is not coming. The bad news is that the boss is not coming. Everything depends on teleworkers promoting themselves to become their bosses. This boils down to time management and work focus. Following are specific suggestions for achieving that.

  1. Find a place that you and all family members consider your work space. Once you go there, even if it is 3 steps, you are at work and no longer mom or dad, or son or daughter. You have gone to work and no longer available for household chores. Let me provide an example from my conventional working days. I was an unusual engineer who could spell. So naturally a voice would often come over my cubicle walls, "Hey Peter, how do you spell...?" To resolve the interruptions, I started to say I didn't know. After some kept asking me to spell their words, I started to misspell their words. Guard your work perimeter even to the point that if you can't get out of an interruption, get up, walk out of your work perimeter, and then deal with the insistent family member. This makes clear that their interruption is real and reinforces the notion that your work territory may not be invaded for joint uses.

  2. Set your working hours, tell family and friends, and stick to those hours. Get used to saying that you will take care of personal requests "after work".

  3. Set your time to span large blocks of time when your family is asleep. This can be before they awake or after they go to sleep, depending on when you are most alert. A common arrangement for night owls is to have two work blocks, for example, 12:00 to 17:00, and then 21:00 to 01:00, with 17:00 to 21:00 in between reserved for fun and family. The key is to find large blocks of undisturbed time, not just a few minutes snatched here and there. Because I am an early riser, I work 05:00 to 08:00 and then 10:00 to 17:00. My undisturbed time is 05:00 to 08:00, and that is when I accomplish most anything important. My 10:00 to 17:00 time is largely reactive, responding to questions and problems in small bursts. Most days, I barely remember what happened between 10:00 and 17:00.

  4. Designate break times when sitting down to work, both time and duration. Don't leave it to "as soon as I finish ...". . Take the break you promised yourself so you learn to trust yourself. Use the break to exercise.

  5. Establish a work phone number and a personal phone. When you are working, let the personal line go to voicemail.

  6. Do the same with email, that is, establish a personal email address and a work email. Both types can collect in the same in-basket mailbox (using aliases), as long as you can immediately tell by inspection which are personal messages. Respond to personal email only after your work hours.

  7. If you can afford two computers, one for business and one for personal, you can take a step to control the most notorious time waster afflicting teleworkers, the call of social networks. Whether checking Facebook, getting tweets, or reviewing a friend's YouTube link referral, these social networks are designed with every trick known to man to interrupt you. Every revenue model they employ depends on grabbing your attention and compelling you to do something on their behalf immediately. If separate computers are not an option for you, learn quick ways to disable the postings from such social networks. Tools like iMacros are handy for quickly turning off and on such interruptions. Working with an open communication channel to social networks is like dieting with a box of doughnuts on your desk.

  8. Friends who see your car in the driveway naturally assume you're home and available for socializing. If they don't learn to respect your work times, here's a trick I sometimes use. I keep the eTaskBoard's chat software open on my desktop during work hours, mostly in case someone has a question. When an uninvited guest decides to socialize during my work hours, I open a chat with one of my workmates. Often it is just to see how they are doing on their tasks. I then show my uninvited visitor that I have a chat conversation in progress and can't talk to them.

  9. If you find yourself chasing the UPS driver to talk sports, you may be suffering from social alienation, a common ailment among teleworkers. When we become teleworkers, we give up more than we suspect. As humans, we crave the gossip around the office water cooler and the friendly interactions at the company picnic. Left unaddressed, this social alienation can become a significant time drain as you try to overcome it. The solution is simple; you must break out of your isolation. Make friends and get away from your home when not working. Join clubs. Force yourself to walk away from your computer instead of making it both your work and fun destination.

  10. Learn the difference between what is important and what is merely urgent. Important is what you plan to do, while urgent is what others would like you to do for them instead.

In summary, a task-based work environment comes with challenges to make a reasonable income, but they also come with techniques to overcome the problems. In the final analysis, a task-based work environment is often the only way an employer can manage a virtual workforce short of trying to police remote attendance and effort with childish tricks like digicams and keyboard monitors. The techniques above will increase a task-based worker's income at the same time that their employers purchase work products closer to their expectations.

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