28 Feb

American Employees: All Work and No Play

Articles, Blog No Comments by Mary-Frances Winters

Ask any HR professional about their company’s commitment to providing a quality work-life balance, and they’ll likely recite some memorized talking point taken straight from the corporate handbook that says, “A happy employee is a more productive employee.”

Yet many Americans clock in significantly longer hours than other employees around the world. This paradox begs the question – If a happy employee is more productive, then what is an overworked employee?

The World Tourism Organization reports that workers in the United States take a yearly average of 13 paid vacation days, while employees in places like Italy, France, Germany and Brazil take anywhere from 34 to 42 paid days off in the year. Employees in the U.S. often forego their paid time off even if their employers make vacation time available. Even more puzzling, findings by the Families and Work Institute indicated that less than one-half of American employees take the full amount of vacation time given to them.

Some reports indicate that even the Japanese who are known for being workaholics take more vacation time than Americans.

What is it about the American culture that drives us to work 12-hour days still wishing we had even more time available to complete job assignments and all the while complaining we don’t spend enough time with family? During lunch, we hardly stay engaged in conversation with friends or coworkers because we can’t resist checking our blackberries. And at night, we even take our laptops to bed with us when we should be getting rest or otherwise engaged in something much more exhilarating and satisfying than finishing up a report that is due the next morning.

It is exactly this type of habitual behavior that creates a society of burned out workaholics who die early from stress-related illnesses. Not exactly the way to live, if you ask me. Striving for the corner office with the long job title and name plate on the door accompanied by the most grand gesture of them all – an approving pat on the back from the CEO –just may not be worth it.

Many countries with comparable economies and societal structures appear to know something the U.S. doesn’t. Maybe they are more committed to the notion that preventing employee burn out is better for business in the long run and that the correlation between a well-rested worker and a successful company is a positive one. Or do they just prefer a life of leisure, while we Americans are go-getters?! After all, we make things happen (things like heart attacks and going postal in the workplace).

While we’d like to believe that we are more naturally industrious, could it be true that other societies like Europe value time more than possessions? Is it America’s obsession with material things – luxury cars, extravagant homes, high tech gadgets and a closet full of shoes –that often drives us to overwork ourselves?

Perhaps that’s an individual question to be answered.

No one can deny the value of hard work. But none of us should underestimate the value of down time. Plus, you know what they say about all work and no play.

23 Feb

The American Dream of Entrepreneurship — Starting Small

Articles, Blog No Comments by Mary-Frances Winters

Make your own chocolate bars! Posing

The entrepreneurial spirit is a cornerstone of the American economic culture.  A variety of factors can motivate one to courageously swim out into the open waters of the business world and start his or her own small company.   The basic desire to escape corporate cubical hell and the antics of a demanding boss or the lofty aspiration of making a significant mark in this world propel many into becoming an entrepreneur – the ultimate American dream.

When this dream is realized, it can have a significant impact on the economy.  According to the Small Business Administration (SBA) small firms generated 65 percent of net new jobs over the past 17 years.

However, given the current issues within the economic landscape including consumers spending less and banks loaning less, many would-be entrepreneurs who are fearful of failure often forfeit the vision of having their own small business.  Perhaps it is with good reason they should be concerned.  The SBA reports only 44 percent of new businesses survive at least four years. While the longing to own a small business may frequently fade among American workers because of such statistics, new immigrants to this country still have faith in the American Dream.   So much faith in fact, they frequently risk all and work relentlessly to obtain the independence that comes with being your own boss.

According to a 2009 study from the Kauffman Foundation, more immigrants are launching their own businesses in the U.S. than natural born citizens.  The Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity Report found that an average of 0.32 percent of the U.S. adult population created a new business each month—representing approximately 530,000 new businesses per month—as compared to 0.30 percent in 2007.  Meanwhile the business startup rate increased sharply for immigrants in 2008—from 0.46 percent in 2007 to 0.53 percent in 2008—further widening the gap between immigrant and native-born rates.

The report also indicated that although the increase in entrepreneurship rates among immigrants was driven entirely by low- and medium-income-potential types of businesses, immigrants also are more likely than U.S. natives to start high-income-potential types of businesses.

You might ask why the entrepreneurial disparity between native-born citizens and the immigrant population? Why do people who migrate to this country have more willingness to take the risk of starting a business than natives?  Perhaps it is best explained by an aggressive entrepreneurial nature that is opportunity-focused on the sheer desire to live a better lifestyle— a lifestyle that was less obtainable within their own country.  It can be quite inspiring to see how driven someone becomes at pursuing their dreams when their life depends on it.

And maybe that same type of tenacious spirit and energy is exactly what others need to regain within themselves.  Understandably, the uncertainties of the economy can be stifling and consequently prevent one from living up to his or her full potential. But starting your own small business can be just that – small.  In fact, 52 percent of small companies are home-based according to the SBA.

So when launching your own business, there is no reason to bite off more than you can chew at once.  Here are a few simple and low-cost tips on how to get started:

  • Pursue your small business on a part-time basis.  No need to quit your job right way. You’ll need the income to invest in your own company.
  • Put serious thought into identifying a business idea in which you are skilled and enjoy doing.  You are more likely to succeed at it if you take this assessment.
  • Find a small business mentor who has successfully launched his or her own company.  Learn best practices from them.
  • Research the marketplace and identify your competitors and the need for your product or service.
  • Develop a support system.  Recruit volunteers who are willing to help you with administrative tasks at no charge or hire an unpaid college intern who is looking for work experience.
  • Become a member of your local Chamber of Commerce for support in marketing and networking.
  • Seek small business grants.  Free money is a good thing.
  • Utilize the power of social media networking sites life Facebook to announce your business’ products and services.
  • Avoid spending lots of money on expensive ads to promote the launch of your business. Try seeking editorial opportunities by identifying local business reporters who will profile your new company in a news story.
  • Consider partnering with other small businesses for cross promotion opportunities.

For groups like women and minorities who are frequently left out or passed over in the corporate world, they are now charting their own career course with the startup of small businesses.  In the years prior to the economic downturn, the amount of minority and female entrepreneurs sky rocketed, according to 2010 U.S. Census Report. By 2007, minorities owned one in five small U.S. businesses, and women owned almost one in three.

Good luck at pursuing your American dream.

22 Feb

Enhanced Employees: The Singular Office of 2020

Articles, Blog No Comments by Mary-Frances Winters

Ray Kurzweil

As early as 1959, Peter Drucker described a growing division of the workforce as “knowledge workers,” those employees who work mainly with information or develop and use knowledge in the workplace. In North America, these workers now outnumber their counterparts 4 to 1, according to a recent study.

At the same time, with the help of the Internet, many workers have moved into the “conceptual” realm in which creativity is valued over rote memorization, a trend which shows no sign of slowing down. According to Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future (2006), the conceptual age will require workers who can make meaning out of seemingly meaningless data and work with complexity and ambiguity. In other words, the “right-brained” people like graphic artists, writers and systems thinkers will be more in demand than accountants and lawyers.

THE SHIFT

How fast are we approaching a majority-conceptual workforce? Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist called “a visionary thinker” by Bill Gates, has predicted that by 2023 $1000 worth of computation will equal one human brain, and all human brains by 2050. This incredible amount of cheap computing would allow humans to reach science’s holy grail — “singularity”,  a point in which humans and computers are intertwined and interchangeable, allowing humans to live healthy lives beyond 100 years and think millions of times faster than today.

It sounds like a science fiction novel, but don’t judge too quickly. Anyone who follows technology is familiar with Moore’s Law, in which the price of new technology halves every 18 months. Kurzweil’s TED talk explains in depth how the law mirrors biological evolution in the technological world, allowing us to predict timelines of computational improvement.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

If Kurzweil is right, what will the workplace look like in a decade or two? What new challenges, tensions and dynamics will arise?

The Futurist, a magazine exploring how social, technological and economic developments are shaping the future, predicts that leaders will bear the brunt of the transition from  our current workplaces to mixed offices of “Norms” and ESIs—Enhanced Singular Individuals. ESIs could look like Sharon, a six-foot-tall woman with perfect musculature and an IQ in the 400s, or Kevin, glowing with health and charisma from the nanobots in his bloodstream that pump oxygen to his brain and monitor his vitamin and enzyme levels, instantly producing whatever he needs. But all ESIs will have one thing in common—the ability to take complex data and process it millions of times faster than a normal human.

Managers will have to resolve conflicts between the two groups, promote cohesion and communication, and adapt unique solutions to motivate everyone. Non-ESI l workers will have to play up qualities other than their intelligence in order to maintain their relevance. While ESIs will likely view Norms as inferior, if non-enhanced leaders demonstrate the importance of feeling, intuition and sociability in the workplace, Norms and ESIs may work side by side as complements. Perhaps Norms will provide unique solutions coming from their rich emotional experiences and pasts, showing that innovation is not reducible to decision-trees and complex analysis.

This new “mixed workforce is likely to create even more complex diversity issues beyond the ones we continue to wrestle with today among the non-enhanced workers. Just what we need…more complexity!