Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine flu and workplace presenteeism -- could companies have trouble keeping running?


I must admit that I miss the 1980s and the “Darwinian” workplace, for mainframe programmers, the way it evolved again.

My career as an “individual contributor” in financial or business systems (largely batch and old-fashioned but intricate in their own way) forced me to grow in a certain direction: how to “goof proof” and make the systems I would put into production absolutely perfect and reliable – within a finite amount of work time. I had no idea what was really expected when I started programming, actually in the 1960s with summer jobs. I learned. Certain practices – some of these I’ve discussed here, such as following elevation procedures precisely – make the work much “safer.” Medicine and surgery, we read, have to deal with the same issues – the safest way to do things for reliability. My own father’s dictum of “formation of proper habits”, which sounded at the time like a bid for authoritarian control – did make some sense after all. Later we would learn the importance or (COBOL) program structure, readability, and maintainability, and, yes, following standards really did make a difference in reliability.

Then there was the issue of being on call. In the 1980s, where I worked at a credit reporting company (Chilton Corporation) in Dallas, everyone was responsible for his own systems (mine were daily and monthly billing). From late 1981 (when I started) I never put anything into production until September 1985, but then had to deal with the responsibility until I left in the summer of 1988. But it turned out to be a non-issue. The batch system ran after midnight, but in actual practice calls were very rare (except for a couple days after a late 1987 major implementation). Still, in time, pressure increased, and management, indirectly threatened by the business climate of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers, put a lot of pressure on some individual employees. People were salaried, overtime was not paid, and expenses were not paid for extra weekend or night commutes (we hadn’t gotten to working from home yet). There was definitely a “fend for yourself” mentality to survive when times got tough. Sometimes that meant lowballing and working overtime for less or nothing.

Yet, personally, I was OK with this “Darwinian” world. I was single, and many aspects of my life were “simpler” and less risky (in terms of job performance effect) than for people with families. Employers knew it and took advantage of it. Before the days of formal gay rights, this was “parity”. Single people came at a discount, and then didn’t complain. The biggest issue was the possibility of a lost pre-paid airline ticket for a vacation or weekend – fortunately, that never happened to me (there was one close call).

There were a few workers with physical disabilities, and they were accommodated, but expected to perform. The ADA would be passed in 1990. In the 1990s, more responsibility for on-call was shared (we had lists) and sometimes family responsibility (or lack of it) turned into an issue; a few times I covered for other people and was not compensated. Gradually, the political and social climate would become less “Spencerian” than it had been before. I remember that Bill Clinton said, in his 1996 “state of the union address”, “we’re not going back to the days of fending for yourself”. Again, I kind of miss those days.

But we did have the issue of presenteeism. Particularly in the 1980s, employees could be penalized even for using sick leave. Coming to work when under the weather was seen as a virtue.

Times have changed. Medical technology and widespread information dissemination on the Web make people much more aware of hypothetical risks and unpredictability when faced with a problem like swine flu. There is a moral and philosophical question as to “am I my brother’s keeper” – I might recover OK from H1N1 but my neighbor may not. Public health officials have to way the idea of “social distancing” policies which could shut down and irreparably harm many kinds of businesses that are predicated on people congregating, but could conceivably even interfere with not just schools by ordinary workplaces (see my “Issues Blog” posting April 28). (What’s happened to shut down Mexico City, one of the world’s largest, is frightening; could the same happen to New York and Los Angeles – and Washington?) There are some theories that say that such policies could prevent a 1918-style deadly pandemic, and that everyone should sacrifice now to protect others in the future from unknowable threats. On the other hand, many people say that this kind of thinking reflects mere hysteria, and that generally most people get stronger by gradual exposure to ordinary (not STD) disease; new viruses are a fact of nature.

Companies – even utilities and telecommunications that we depend on to work from home – could have to struggle to keep running if the government goes crazy and flips 180% from previous values of encouraging people to go to work. Some presenteeism is necessary, even now, to keep everything – even this blog – going.

Picture: 100 Church St (Oct. 2004), New York City, where I worked for Bradford National Corporation on Medicaid MMIS 1977-1979.

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