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You Pay For Slack Either Way
Upfront costs now, or sickness and chaos later
Back in December, I posted about how disruptive sick children and the need for childcare are to the operations of “normal” jobs. Shortly thereafter, my house entered the Time of Ear Infections (me included) and, as I write this, we heard that the heat broke at school and we need to pick up our eldest.
Resiliency in the face of unexpected sick days and minor emergencies requires redundancy, and redundancy costs money. Building up slack looks wasteful until the day it’s needed.
I asked you for your thoughts on these two questions:
Have you ever worked somewhere that deliberately tried to build up slack, rather than use everything to full capacity?
What’s the best way you’ve seen a business (or a volunteer organization) cover for unplanned absences?
Kevin pointed out that budgeting for slack is normal… as long as it’s for machines, not people:
I'm an engineer, and in heavy industry most machines and infrastructure are generously overdesigned in order to handle unforeseen stresses. From a bean-counting point of view, this is "wasteful," but it's common practice. It's a shame that workforces can't be put together in the same way, with an intentional "overhire factor" on top of the theoretical bare minimum staff headcount. (We should treat employees at least as well as we treat our machines!)
This puts me in mind of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Hymn of the Breaking Strain,” excerpted below:
The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
'The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend—
'What traffic wrecks macadam—
What concrete should endure—
but we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure!
As Mary pointed out, part of the work SAHMs (and Ds) do is being flexible and adaptable. Being a homemaker and a caregiver is a lot of work, but it’s work where the parent has a little more ability to adjust as needed.
Many of my local friends are stay at home moms and, except for nap time, tend to have a lot of flexibility when they can bring their kids. One of them has my toddler and her own son at the local park right now. Another took my toddler and her toddler to the library a week ago so I could go to the hospital to see my son (who is, we think, fine now). I work/study part time and because of that I end up declining requests for help more often than I would like. Being part of the SAHM help economy is a wonderful thing (largely because it's informal and unregulated) and I wish I could contribute to it more.
A neighborhood with a critical mass of SAHPs is closer to being able to sustain what O. Carter Sneed calls “the network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving that must exist for any human being to survive and flourish.” At any given moment, someone needs, and someone can give.
Back in the conventional work work, let me share a medley of comments on part-time work. First, from Amy:
My father owned a small business in a tourist town when I was growing up, and he hired teenagers as summer help (including eventually all of his kids, though this was not required of us). Our standard workweek was 30ish hours, usually 4 8s or 5 7s. I think this was for a lot of reasons, but one of the outcomes was slack in the system; if someone wanted to make more money that week or that month there was usually a shift to pick up while someone was at football camp or on vacation or whatnot.
Rita explained how her part-time law work makes her life and her practice’s smoother:
This exact argument has been my pitch for why I should be valuable to my law firm even though I want a reduced schedule. My practice area is periodically very busy, and when my normal workweek is 32 hours, I can pick up 10-12 additional hours much more easily than someone who is already working 50 hours, and then I am happy to be "slow" in the slow periods and not bill unnecessarily just to keep my hours up. Or I can work full time for a quarter to help cover for someone on maternity leave, and then I'm happy to hand off the work when they come back.
[…] Notably, my ability to be the slack in the system at work is made possible by redundancy at home as well. My husband is primarily a stay-at-home dad (with some very part-time/self-employed work when he wants), and we also have a part-time nanny. So I have lots of backup when I'm very busy at work, and when I'm home more, it's "extra" time to spend with my kids, do projects, etc. over and above the day-to-day housework and parenting.
Finally, let me close with this comment from Melissa:
All of this puts me in mind of Marilynne Robinson's essay on the sabbath as a form of inefficiency. She points out that in a world of mostly subsistence living, giving all your workers a sabbath day meant paying them 7 days worth of food for only 6 days of labor.