Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Silliness of Work for Work's Sake

Back in the day, I used to work in a grocery store.  When I was a cashier, the boss would insist we keep busy.  To this end, she would assign us various duties such as dusting the candy, sweeping the floor, stocking the shelves at the front of the store, etc.  When we finished our assigned jobs, she would insist we restart them. We'd dust candy that was dusted three minutes ago.  It was my first taste of working for the sake of work.

Her logic was understandable... it made her look bad if the cashiers were just loitering around chatting.  If we were being paid, we'd better be working, damn it!  It didn't matter if the jobs were completely pointless or not. 

Unfortunately, the boss never considered the negative aspect of this "work for the sake of work" system- it killed many positive employee traits.  For example, we learned to work as slowly as possible.  After all, once we finished there was always another hole to dig then fill in. 

It also created a negative culture.  She never considered the fact that our few minutes of intermittent chatter greatly boosted morale.  She also didn't consider the ancillary benefit- we usually chatted about work.  Occasionally we'd talk about ways to improve the store.  We were developing better ways to do our jobs.  Instead, we plotted ways to make her life more difficult.  So goes human nature.

The store has since went out of business.  Appropriate.:-)

How often do we do this in the classroom?  There are some that insist kids "stay busy" for the entire duration of their class.   This idea of working for the sake of work just doesn't make sense.  It undermines a fundamental human trait- efficiency.

Many kids will work diligently to finish their work just to have a sliver of time to relax.  Those few idle minutes of chit-chat serve a useful social purpose- it allows kids to make meaningful connections by communicating.  It's a skill we sometime try to teach. 

Ironically, the best way to teach social communication may be to back off.  Simply giving kids the time to engage each other can be a wonderful social tool. 

Additionally, this idle chit-chat builds culture.  Smart businesses have capitalized on this idea.  Steelcase, a company based in Michigan, installed coffee bars throughout their corporate headquarters.  Why?  They realized giving employees a place to congregate and socialize dramatically improved morale, led to greater productivity when working on-task, and led to more creativity and innovation.  Wouldn't these characteristics be valued in the classroom? 

Senselessly filling your day with work is likely doing more harm that good.  Is that five minutes at the end of class really resulting in higher levels of learning, or could that time be better utilized to build culture?  Humans are social animals.  When that social hunger is fed, we bloom.  When we are socially-starved, we wither.  Which culture would you rather cultivate?

No comments:

Post a Comment