Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 49;   December 2, 2020: Anticipating Absence: Why

Anticipating Absence: Why


Knowledge workers are scientists, engineers, physicians, attorneys, and any other professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the Coronavirus Pandemic, substituting someone else to carry on for them can be problematic, because skills and experience are not enough.
An empty office

An empty office. This is what many offices look like today. In some cases, everyone is working from home. In other cases, offices are empty because work has been temporarily suspended. In still others, the company is shut down.

The Coronavirus Pandemic is now officially frightening. It threatens us all, to varying degrees, with sickness and loss. Generally, the threat to knowledge workers — personally — isn't as acute as is the threat to, say, first responders, leisure industry workers, or those whose employers must close or curtail operations. Still, disruptions in knowledge work will likely have widespread and costly effects for years to come. And all of us will feel those effects.

A significant and yet manageable part of the problem arises from pandemic-induced absences of knowledge workers. Knowledge workers include engineers, scientists, designers, programmers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, accountants, attorneys, paralegals, academics, and any other workers who are required to "think for a living."

When knowledge workers fall ill, their work is interrupted. In some cases, that interruption can be very costly to society financially. But those interruptions can also degrade the Earth's environment, cause unnecessary injuries, and cost lives. We can limit these effects by anticipating absences, and modifying the way we conduct knowledge work during pandemics.

In this post I'll Interruptions in knowledge work can
have very serious effects on the
health of the planet, and the health
of people who depend on the products
knowledge workers produce
suggest how interruptions in knowledge work can have very serious effects on the health of the planet, and the health of people who depend on the products knowledge workers produce. And I'll survey some reasons why knowledge work is so difficult to defend against pandemic disruptions. In the next post I'll suggest a strategy for limiting these disruptions, and therefore limiting their effects.

The consequences of knowledge work disruptions

Consider items as critical as the computers found in modern automobile or truck engine compartments. These computers run software. And that software, like all software from time to time, has defects commonly called "bugs." Some bugs affect the vehicle's operating efficiency. And some bugs are much more critical, affecting, for example, the ability of the vehicle to stop without locking its brakes. Bugs that affect vehicle efficiency cause unnecessarily high fuel consumption, which can degrade the Earth's environment unnecessarily. Other bugs, though extremely rare, are acutely safety-critical, and present very real risk of injury or loss of life.

Repairing most bugs requires the attention of people — knowledge workers who might be software engineers, testers, or project managers, to name just a few. And in this pandemic, people get sick. Some of them recover quickly. Some might be unable to return to work for weeks or months. Some might not return at all. Some might not survive. We can anticipate these absences, not person-by-person, but statistically speaking. Absences will happen. And when absences happen, work is disrupted. Those disruptions delay the work of knowledge workers.

In our example of automotive control software, delaying the repair of bugs that limit efficiency causes a delay in reduction of fuel consumption. Delays in repair of a safety-critical defect can cost lives.

Repairing automotive control software is just one of many tasks knowledge workers perform. We can probably estimate the effects of, say, 5% of the knowledge workforce missing a month of work in the next year. I haven't done that, but the potential effects are frightening.

Why knowledge work is so vulnerable to disruption

In general, replacing workers who fall ill is often a matter of finding enough people with the necessary skills and experience. That task can become difficult when demand for qualified people is high. We're already seeing this in some occupations, such as nurses or respiratory therapists. Shortage of qualified people is a serious problem, and for knowledge workers, it's just the beginning of the trouble.

Knowledge workers are a bit different. When a new person takes over for a knowledge worker who has fallen ill, that new person must determine the current state of the work underway. Skill and experience do help, but they are not enough. Determining the current state of that work might be difficult indeed.

For example, suppose the work underway is a re-design of a troubled subsystem of our automotive software. And suppose that the person who has fallen ill is the lead architect of that effort. I'll call her Alicia. We might try to find a replacement for Alicia, but unless she has left behind copious notes about vision, intentions, and discarded approaches, her replacement might have difficulty replicating what Alicia had in mind. And if Alicia has been intubated and cannot speak, communicating with her will be slow and difficult.

In many of these situations, the wisest course is to just halt the effort until the absent individuals recover. Halts are indeed disruptive, but the alternative can be worse. If we don't halt the work, the risk is that Alicia's replacement might not be able to determine what Alicia had in mind. If he or she cannot do so, and pushes forward anyway, the end result might lack the coherence and elegance that are necessary for a reliable, maintainable, extensible product. The consequences can be severe and they can last for years.

Replacing a knowledge worker, even temporarily, is unlikely to go well unless the replacement as access to detailed knowledge of the state of the work. In my next post, I'll suggest a strategy and several tactics for capturing that knowledge.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Anticipating Absence: How  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Moving the goal postsAre You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?
When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.
Carl Philipp Gottfried von ClausewitzLong-Loop Conversations: Clearing the Fog
In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
The interior of an Apple store, location unknownPersonnel-Sensitive Risks: I
Some risks and the plans for managing them are personnel-sensitive in the sense that disclosure can harm the enterprise or its people. Since most risk management plans are available to a broad internal audience, personnel-sensitive risks cannot be managed in the customary way. Why not?
A Strangler Fig in AustraliaProjects as Proxy Targets: I
Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A blue peacock of IndiaComing October 4: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I
Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing a narcissist's sense of self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 4.
Men in conversation at an eventAnd on October 11: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II
Self-importance is one of four major themes of conversational narcissism. Knowing how to recognize the patterns of conversational narcissism is a fundamental skill needed for controlling it. Here are eight examples that emphasize self-importance. Available here and by RSS on October 11.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.