Norway to the future
Sunday, March 28, 2004
Complaining Norwegians
Finn Bergesen dared say what oh so many here on the hill agree on. Norway is a nation of complainers he claimed, pointing out that while Norwegians are getting healthier every year, we become "sicker and sicker". Absentee rates are up; people are retiring at age 60 to 62 (the official age is 67, but various benefit programs allow people to retire early).

While one may disagree on NHO (Norway's largest employers' organization) on other issues, he hit the nail right on this time. Many people agree, but it is not common practice in Norway to pick on the sick. There is however a trend of coming up with a whole new pack of lifestyle-related sufferings, apparently because we work too much (Eurostat numbers show that Norwegians work the fewest hours per week in Europe)... A year ago, the focus was on burn-outs, now we are the victims of a "time pinch". While some of these sufferings might not have some basis in reality, the way the media plays them is really sad. The way we are portrayed as victims of our own lifestyle, victims of our aspirations to the perfect life, victims of the modern technological world does us no good. Time pinches may be real enough for a small number of professionals working late and trying to prioritize a cutting-edge job while having young kids. However, reading that 'everyone' is sick from this and that can make the average Norwegian rethink why he feels really tired, forgetting the fact that he was watching soaps until 2 in the morning, and blaming society instead. Self-fulfilling prophecies, thanks to the tabloids.

There is of course plenty of advice on how to avoid these problems: take regular breaks, learn to say no, carefully plan your time, get enopugh sleep, exercise and so on. I am however afraid that people trying to get out of a stressful situation by adopting a lot of habits that in themselves are time-consuming will not get results they want. If you have never used a day planner in your life, adding a PDA or Filofax to you daily routine may result in administration overload. Some people may find themselves even more stressed by such measures, when they could get better results by just not worrying too much. Ulcers come from stress, stress from worrying, and getting sick is definitely going to take a bite out of your available time and make you worry more, just like reading those articles about the time pinch will. Bad negative feedback loop.

One advice I have not seen, is that people should acquaint themselves with the technology which surrounds them at work, and learn how to use it efficiently. For the white-collars, this will most likely involve the computer that they spend all day in front of. Thinking a bit about how you work and trying to adopt new habits can be very effective. Most jobs involve tasks that are repeated at regular intervals, and the procedures to complete the tasks are often very similar, often only the input data varies (i.e. extracting data, preparing reports and so on). With only a small degree of planning and automation, the time needed can be reduced dramatically. A personal example:

In my first full time job, I was tracing missing invoices for import customs declarations for a logistics company. With a tremendous amount of open cases, most of the time was spent checking what papers had been requested and when. The rest of the time was used to send standard-text emails and sorting incoming paperwork from the fax. With just a minimum knowledge of programming, I used something as crude as a macro recorder (this was on NT 3.5) which only allowed me to do a series of mouse gestures, clicks and keyboard input, and then loop it. With a little tweaking and an Excel list with the information I needed for each case, I was able to automate the entire email sending procedure, freeing up about half my day. I could watch my computer send emails at a continuous (though not very fast) rate, while going over lists and improving the quality of the control. Now, while this may sound like more a case for the company to replace me with a computer program integrating the systems I was working on, such processes often take large amounts of time, and can be difficult to defend when budgeting.

My daily routine before automating did not allow me to look into any significant benefits of creating a few macros or even ad hoc tools, as all my time was needed to do the actual job. In the end, I used a few lunch breaks and a little unpaid overtime to develop my tools. I did this out of curiosity, but employers should appreciate that employees doing some serious meta-work might improve their actual work considerably. This takes skills and time, and should be assessed as a means to cut costs by increasing efficiency. However, everyone should not be required to hard-code VBA macros to improve their Excel/Word-based monthly report. A few templates go a long way, a few well-prepared and automated templates mad in cooperation between the user and an in-house developer may go even longer. Maybe there is room for internal consultants (part time?) who leverage their computer skills to help their coworkers work more efficiently?

So, go out there, try to make that machine your friend. Then tell your friends you made a new friend and teach them how to do it as well. Show it to your bosses. Enjoy clicking once, inputting a few numbers and getting that report out in five minutes instead of half a day...

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