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The Future of Work: Paid to Play?

January 26th, 2010 by

Essay by CoyoteJack on Flickr

Boredom at work is a big problem. In fact it’s one of the main reasons people complain about their jobs. Imagine if work could be as entertaining as your favourite game and what this could mean for work satisfaction and productivity.

The Problem with Work
Many people believe that work is a boring but necessary requirement for enjoying ‘real life’ outside work. This belief is negative for both employees and employers. A worker who is bored wastes their time at work waiting for their “real life” to start. Meanwhile an employer with bored employees loses out on productivity. Let’s face it – an uninspired worker is more likely to check their Facebook a hundred times in between coffee breaks than someone who is stimulated by their work.

How Games Could Improve the Situation
If you’re even slightly into games you may have noticed the potential to develop them for purposes other than gaming in its traditional sense. For example, with a bit of creativity, games requiring players to perform actions or small tasks (such as MMORPGs or puzzle games) could be translated into products that could make a real impact.

Game designers use context, art direction and consistent design to develop compelling games. It is these aspects which make them far more appealing than your average Excel spreadsheet. Of course that’s why millions of people choose to spend their “real life” playing them. So how can we use the fundamentals of game design in the workplace?

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
A game released over a decade ago provides a good example of how this shift could occur. Here’s a bit of background on the game for those a little less nerdish. Back in 1998 SEGA published House of the Dead 2. The game first appeared on the dying arcade market as a light gun shooter and later ported on Dreamcast and PC. The game was a success. It used top notch graphics and transported players on a horror ride through a mansion swarming with zombies. Blasting them was not particularly scary but it required fast reflexes and was a lot of fun.

A year later a different version of the game was released in a surprising move from SEGA (a company not known for their wise business strategies). The second version was called Typing of the Dead and was similar to the original but instead of using plastic guns to ward off zombies, players were required to type words on a keyboard as fast and as accurately as they could. If the typing was accurate the player killed a walking corpse and if there were errors the zombies moved closer. As players progressed words and sentences became more complex and typing sentences such as “I’m dating the head cheerleader” while a zombie was trying to eat your brain added amusement.

Now, imagine a slightly tweaked version of this game using a real-time crowdsourcing system. Let’s say for example that instead of silly sentences the player is required to type reCAPTCHAs, or input sentences scanned from ancient manuscripts thus creating digital versions piece by piece. Wouldn’t that be a terrific way to have people wanting to work for you?

We will probably never be able to change a broken water pipe with a customized version of Super Mario, but there is definitely a recreational potential to work that is just waiting to meet a good game designer.

A Holiday From My Holiday

January 19th, 2010 by

One More Dive Tonight by wili_hybrid on Flickr

I value my time. And I value my hair. But some things in my life cause me a major net loss on both. One of those things is researching and planning holidays. You know, the legwork of a holiday: comparing prices and checking availability on accommodation, flights, insurance, and car rental etc etc. Now, of course, I love holidays. I don’t just take them so I can send my workmates jealousy-inducing pictures while I’m away, though that certainly adds to the joy. But hours and hours of trawling through websites are, well… just plain work.

After another Saturday morning’s travel research – perched over the laptop, occasionally emitting exaggerated sighs of frustration when my girlfriend was in earshot, to let her know that she really owed me for taking it upon myself to plan this holiday – I was greeted by this nonchalant suggestion: “If it bugs you that much, you know you can outsource that kind of stuff to a virtual assistant right?”
“Uh, of course I know that”, I lied; hastily searching the web to see if such services did indeed exist. A couple of seconds’ perusal confirmed she was right…again. And although I’d already done most of the planning legwork, the very idea of it intrigued me.

It turns out VAs can indeed take the grunt work out of just about any administrative task – travel research included. But something about the notion of using a VA for a non-work related task felt a little strange. I’d never questioned my sorry lot to occasionally be doomed to perform tiresome, frustrating administrative duties. Rather, I had always considered holiday planning/research like shaving – annoying but unavoidable. In reality, the only question was whether I placed a higher value on my time and avoiding aggravation (hair-retention, if you will) than the money it would cost to contract out the service. All told, in my (OK, I admit) slightly idiosyncratic case of travel-planning-aversion, it might just be worth it.

Generally, my experience of outsourcing has involved relaying the sorry story of my lost credit card to a very patient and sympathetic young man in India. But the fact that many VAs are locally based has also stretched my understanding of this phenomenon. The notion of “Home Shoring” – outsourcing to locally based VAs is becoming more common as enterprising people with time on their hands turn to this kind of work. So, if you take my girlfriend’s advice, it may be that the person that helps plan your trip to the Brittany, Berlin or Boston could well have been there last week and have a restaurant to recommend.

The Italian Job

January 14th, 2010 by

Mew Zuck by gwydionwilliams on Flickr

If you’ve ever holidayed in Italy, you might have noticed that many of the locals, even in popular tourist spots, struggle with English. There are probably a number of causes for this phenomenon, such as a rusty education system and the all southern conviction that “you don’t really need English anyway”, but perhaps the major reason why the Italians and other Southern European countries struggle is the habit of dubbing popular TV shows and movies into their native tongue.

Lost in Translation
Take for example the situation in Italy, which I am personally familiar with. The Italian Dubbers’ Union might pride itself as being the best in the world, but it seems clear that their expertise contributes to the linguistic shortcomings of their countrymen. Compare the average Italian’s English skills with the average person from Scandinavia for example – where programs and movies are aired with subtitles instead of dubbing – and the difference is marked.

While many Italians love their dubbed TV, a large number prefer subtitles in order to maintain a show’s original flavor and to help develop their English skills. Once upon a time these people would have had no alternative to an Italian speaking Homer Simpson. Perhaps they could have purchased expensive satellite systems to pick up foreign countries’ shows, but even then the shows would not be subtitled.

With the advent of high speed file sharing over the internet, opportunities for accessing subtitled media are now plentiful. Accurate subtitles are just a few clicks away, and today people from non-English speaking countries all over the world are making use of them.

One such website that is leading subtitling innovation is Italian Subs Addicted. The site hosts sets of subtitles for thousands of well known American TV and Japanese anime series. As an example of how efficient the Subs Addicted team is, high-quality captions for the last episode of Lost appeared online just six hours after the original was first broadcast in the United States. That means if an American show is on overnight, I can wake up in the morning and watch it complete with subtitles. (more…)

Africa Online

January 7th, 2010 by

MIT Media Lab's $100 Laptop for Third World Children by Quiplash! on Flickr

Speak to me of Africa and my mind fills with images of broad savannahs, teeming with wildlife. Dense, impenetrable jungles, also teeming with wildlife. Vast, inhospitable stretches of desert, not quite so teeming with wildlife. Warthog and Meerkat singing show tunes as they help a young Lion reclaim his rightful place as….The Lion King!

Okay, clearly I’ve seen too many Disney films. In reality things aren’t quite so peachy on what was once called the “Dark Continent”. For the animals, the circle of life, as the scientists at Disney have termed it, has been in action pretty much unchanged for millennia. Our young lion friend would have more likely known Meerkat and Warthog as appetizer and main course.

Sadly for humans, life in Africa bears little resemblance to the wonderful world of Disney. Homo Sapiens have been on the menu for an estimated 200,000 years. Historical records cover only a minute portion of that time. But they tell a story of famine, disease, attempted conquest, and inter-tribal warring that continues in some parts to this day.

The keen eyed amongst you will note that slow internet connection isn’t raised as an issue above. This is because a good broadband connection tends to take a backseat to sourcing clean water, and providing enough food and sufficient shelter for your family. However, in more developed parts of Africa, the information superhighway is opening for traffic. And Africans want a better set of wheels with which to cruise it. (more…)

If Your Job Stinks, Go With the Flow

January 5th, 2010 by

Original photo by lecercle on Flickr

Whether you’re currently at work or relaxing after a hard day in the office, if you’re reading this it probably means you’ve got a spare minute.

In this minute, try to imagine for a moment being born into someone else’s shoes. But this time, rather than dreaming that you’re bending it like Beckham (or buying it like Victoria Beckham), pretend that you are Rakesh.

Rakesh is not a footballer – or even famous – so it is unlikely you’ll have heard of him. He lives in Delhi, India. To imagine walking a mile in Rakesh’s shoes takes some effort, so you’ll need to concentrate.

The Worst Job in the World?
Born into the lowest level of Indian social hierarchy, the untouchables, Rakesh’s opportunities in life are severely limited. To feed his family, he works in what may just be the worst job in the world.

Wearing only loose underpants, it is his task to wander around in the dark, suffocating stench of Delhi’s overcrowded sewerage system, shoveling the rotting excrement of 16 million people.

“The first thing you notice is the unbearable smell,” explains his colleague Rajender Kumar. “Next are the cockroaches, and then the rats—big rats.” Amongst the obvious complaints, Rajender suffers from of skin rashes and sore eyes, respiratory and liver problems.

Admittedly, imagining walking a mile in Rakesh’s shoes is pretty tough. Most of us are lucky enough to have little concept of what it must be like for him and his 8,000 co-workers. Such working conditions simply do not exist in the Western world.

But of course, there are many crappy jobs in rich countries too. On the same shitty subject, imagine what it must be like for people working for private diaper cleaning companies in the USA. It is their job to feed handfuls of dirty diapers into a giant washing machine so that the parent clients don’t have to clean them (or feel bad about using disposables). The fact that your job is eco-friendly is probably little comfort when you are up to your armpits in the waste products of mummies and daddies’ precious treasures.

Go with the Flow
Ok, so it’s easy to see what makes the world’s worst jobs. But what makes a good job? Lots of zeros on the end of your pay check help, but it is well documented that money does not necessarily correlate with job satisfaction and enjoyment.

We all know those annoying people who seem to enjoy whatever it is they do. But if you take away that personal subjectivity, studies have shown that really good jobs have certain things in common.

Of course there are a huge number of studies and an equal number of theories, but one that appeals to me is as argued by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the book Flow. To cut a long, interesting story short, Csíkszentmihályi talks about a state of flow that people can achieve when their emotions are channelled in the performance of a task.

People are most likely to get into this flow when set a clear, challenging goal that requires concentration and the exercise of their skills and abilities. There should be direct feedback and also a sense of person control over the activity. Often the state of being is accompanied by a loss of both self consciousness and sense of time.

The most obvious activities which induce flow are games. If you’ve ever participated in a “good” game of sport, or a close chess match, then you know the feeling. If every job was as enjoyable as a good game, imagine how much happier the world would be.

If Your Job Stinks, Join the Crowd
Csíkszentmihályi discusses how even people with boring jobs can incorporate the essential components of the flow idea to make their jobs better. This is probably true to an extent, but for many people, making these elements a part of their daily job is easier said than done. Rakesh could time how long it takes him to fill his basket of faeces, every day trying to do it a little faster, but it is unlikely to make him enjoy his work.

The problem is people like Rakesh, who perform the worst jobs in society, are generally those with the fewest options (for example immigrants without legal work permits are considered “untouchable” by many companies). For such people perhaps the only way they can bring some flow into their work is by squeezing a new job into their schedule.

While in the past this meant working a night shift in a burger joint, the rise of crowdsourcing (where firms offer up tasks to the online community) now provides anyone with access to a computer the opportunity for greater satisfaction from work. They can do it in their regular job’s “down time” or instead of reading rambling blogs at night.

Unlike flipping burgers all night, people who join the “crowd” have control over what, when and how they work. This control is one of the reported reasons participants like crowdsourcing, presumably because it gives them the freedom to make the work more enjoyable.

Even with developments in computers and robotics, it seems likely that there will always be jobs in society that nobody wants to do. Whether this job is cleaning a sewer or washing dirty diapers, just because the unfortunate souls who get their hands dirty know what makes a job flow, it is probably impossible for them to make their tasks rewarding. For these people, spending a few minutes crowdsourcing every day may be one way they can make their work life stink a little less.

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