Building Community

Changing Feelings about Workshare

Notes from 2021 CohoUS Zoom conference, Cohousing Over Time. Presentation about Workshare by Sharon Villines

To download PDF: Cohousing Over Time, Workshare

This document is a summary of my insights about workshare and responses to questions posted in the Chat that we didn’t have time to discuss. Sorry that it is delayed in being posted but the advantage is that while procrastinating I also clarified my thinking and found a better way of describing how taking responsibility is different from counting hours.

A disclaimer for my own self-preservation: This is not a description of the “Takoma Village Cohousing Method.” It reflects my own experience and opinions based on living at Takoma Village for 20 years but also my understanding from studying and researching how the commons can govern itself. The Takoma Village Cohousing Workshare Policy is appended at the end.

Workshare was my first concern

When considering moving into a cohousing community, workshare was my first concern. I had had too much experience working myself to exhaustion in volunteer organizations when others claimed to be too busy. So when I did decide to join, I arrived determined that work would be shared as equally as possible. To me in 2000, that meant counting hours. Accountability. On paper. Numbers. Hard facts.

I devoted many, many hours to setting up and attempting to set up systems for defining, measuring, and tracking tasks. These included:

  • Posting signup lists for completing tasks and recording hours.
  • Assigning or encouraging people to join teams and workgroups.
  • Building a database of defined tasks so everyone knew what needed to be done and how many hours a task would take. It was also a recording method that could be adjusted as necessary so we knew how many hours we needed.
  • Having teams define tasks within their mandate and find the volunteers themselves.
  • Having a separate workshare team that managed the distribution and recording of hours so teams would only have to tell the workshare team what they needed. Part of the rationale for this was that a workshare team would know who was already responsible for many tasks and who had none.
  • Having people record and post on the bulletin board a list of the jobs and hours they had worked each month so others could see what was required and how much others were working.

None of these things worked. At least none of them worked well enough to produce any significant change or to justify the work required to implement them. Each one helped here and there for varying periods of time for some tasks but none addressed the fundamental problem of more work than people willing to do it.

What I learned, or think I have learned, is that in cohousing communities counting hours is not the right approach. While there are some tasks that can be counted in hours and many people like having a well-defined task with boxes to check off, many tasks cannot be measured in time. And many people don’t agree on how time should be counted. Do slow workers receive more hours because it takes them longer? Or are tasks assigned an estimated number of hours?

Crucial tasks like research and planning, for example, are exhausting and all but invisible. They also can’t be defined in advance. They are open-ended assignments with no right answers, such as “Figure out what we need to do about the mailboxes,” or “Why do the washers keep breaking down?” Or “What is our liability for the hot tub and what do we do about it?” Some people don’t consider this as work at all because it isn’t physical labor.

Another approach was to work on motivation

How do we motivate others? Motivation depends on the task or how the task is defined. Hourly workers are motivated by increased benefits, like free lemonade and cookies or more holidays. Come to workday and have a free lunch!

But creative workers often find this distracting and a bit patronizing. Creative workers are motivated by tasks that relate to their personal sense of purpose. Work over which they have control and can develop mastery. If you ask your most dedicated workers why they work so much, the responses will most likely be related to how important they feel the task to the community, to cohousing as an example of responsible living, to the health of the planet, or to their learning a skill. They won’t say it’s because it means my hours are higher than everyone else’s because it usually isn’t.

Motivating others, like recording hours, is also work. It creates work.

Allow people to take responsibility and give them permission to become masters

After years of studying hours and finding motivations for others, I realized that the most important thing was not the number of hours people worked. And it wasn’t my job to motivate others. They moved in motivated or not. What I was most grateful for were those who took on a task and did it well for a long period of time. I didn’t even know how many hours some of the tasks actually required. I felt secure without having to check to see if it had been done or needed to be done again. It was like magic.

Maintaining safe lighting, for example, was not just replacing burned-out lightbulbs for an hour once a month. A person had to find the best sources for all the kinds of bulbs we needed, keep them in stock, monitor the lighting, change bulbs, recycle the burnouts, and reorder. Those tasks could have been assumed by different people and recorded in hours for each one. But there would have been slippage in the communications required between them. And more frequent recruitment and training for tasks done once or twice or every workday by a different person.

Instead, before most of us realized the need, one person decided to research what kind of lamps (lightbulbs to the rest of us) we needed, where to obtain them, and where to recycle them. She then designed a work process and executed it. Because one person took the responsibility, no one else had to even think about lighting for years—literally years. Instead of dividing the task into small pieces and listing them for workdays, she took responsibility for ensuring that our lighting was working, everywhere. When she needed help with a 14’ ladder, she asked for it. When she wasn’t able to execute specific tasks for a time it was easy for someone else to pick them up because she had clearly defined them and had all the tools and supplies in place. And it was also easy for her to pass on the whole job to another person years later when she wanted to move on to another task. She had mastered that one.

Because she took responsibility at this level, no one had to be anxious about whether there would be enough lighting on the stairs or in the parking lot. I didn’t have to carry a flashlight just in case. And I didn’t have to read emails going back and forth about burned-out bulbs with no replacement available or how many hours one person spent changing them compared to another, etc. Or listen to repeated complaints about bulbs still not being replaced because no one ordered new bulbs or even knew which bulbs were required. And no one had to check worksheets each week to be sure someone had checked off each of the tasks.

There are many other areas in which one person or a cluster of two or three have taken on responsibilities because they were committed to the importance of the task and they were allowed to do it as well as it needed to be done.

This is why the rotation of jobs doesn’t work well. Not everyone has or wants the same skills. No one should be prohibited from learning a job just because they don’t already know it, certainly. Equal access is important.

But a sense of purpose and being able to work semi-autonomously enables people to contribute at a level higher than marking off hours.

Q & A

1. Have you tried just putting a list of jobs next to the mailboxes and having people record the hours they spent on them?

We have posted lists, usually on email but also on bulletin boards and walls. For workdays, we have very specific lists and people sign up for tasks that fit the day’s schedule. Aside from workdays, the problem with tracking hours is that people don’t like doing it. It’s work. It adds a whole separate task—the tracking and recording—to the actual work done. It makes work rather than completes it.

2. How does a community address someone who doesn’t do anything?

Conversations have worked wonders. Generally, everyone believes they are doing as much as they can. But if you have members who are good at figuring out who might be the best person for a task and can approach them without being judgmental or reproving it would be wonderful. Not all of us are good at that. Asking people what they think needs doing—perhaps they would like to do something that isn’t on the task list because no one thought of it.

A person who has a role in the community that gives them a sense of purpose and pride will also be more likely to appear to put in two hours just painting the fence.

Most important and surprising to me is that some truly believe they don’t know how to do anything. They are just waiting to be asked or perhaps to be taken under someone’s wing.

Diversity has many faces. In the beginning, a major task for cohousing communities was to sell all the units, especially the last two. We needed each of the buyers regardless of whether we actually thought they would be contributing members or not. We needed each of them equally. It was all or none.

Even in mature communities, we need people in every unit. Empty units are like empty holes in the ground. So each person in a community is fulfilling a need.

Workshare is important but the community is not just about workshare.

3. Does it make a difference if people have a long commute or small children or a hard job? Do you make exceptions?

Basically no, but also yes. Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day and has chosen how to spend that time. If you move into a community that requires participation then you have chosen to do that and should. But people may participate less or more in different seasons or in different years. One of our members works constantly recycling everything from metal, paper, glass, computer disks, batteries, cardboard, nuts and bolts, plastic bags, furniture, cooler packs, etc. He finds places to recycle everything and sorts the materials. He is always busy. But during national elections, he disappears completely. He’s out campaigning for someone like Bernie Sanders.

Illnesses, of course, cannot always be controlled. And people at different stages of their lives will be more engaged than others.

But there are many, many things people can do even with many pressures on their lives. Our webmaster who had chronic fatigue syndrome worked on our website during her lunch hour and arranged a community meal once a month at a later time that worked for her. A mother of two toddlers worked in the garden while they played on the green. A person who couldn’t do the physical yard work on a workday took charge of the list of tasks, explaining to people as they arrived what was needed, and directing people to the person in charge of that task. It was a very important job and encouraged people to take on new things.

We have a person who coordinates the meals for households with new babies or illnesses. She works full-time and has a new baby but she can work online. One arranges workday lunches by calling people and suggesting menus. Others like making phone calls or knocking on doors. When I tried to find a substitute for one of our members who was having a bad episode of an autoimmune disease, she said “No. Keeping busy helps me forget my problems.”

People work for all kinds of reasons—if you can find the right job. And if you allow what is important to them to be considered work.

4. Do you keep a list or lists of tasks and who does them? Not tracking hours but just who is assigned to what job?

On our website, we list the “point person” for various tasks. Each team or work group has a point person. Each room of the common house has a point person. We have a Workday Point person. So we can find out fairly easily who is responsible if not for a specific instance of a task for the general area. We can also send an email to our internal list and ask.

The list also acknowledges who has taken on responsibilities that others may not know about. No one may be aware, for example, that the mailboxes get dirty and are polished once a month.

5. Can you describe the workshare agreement that your community has now? What works about it and what doesn’t?

We do have a policy and I included it at the end of this document, but truthfully, it hasn’t been discussed since it was revised in 2010. We do give it to new members and discuss it in the orientations. Everyone is expected to take responsibility for an ongoing task, join a team or working group, and/or attend workdays. And attend membership meetings. Most people do several.

The hourly expectation is 6 hours a month, but that is a totally fabricated number. Some regularly spend 20 hours a week all year long on governance, weeding, sweeping floors, etc.

Scheduling workdays, so people could just show up, made a huge difference. Workdays were also helpful because everyone could see a task getting done quickly when several people were working on it.

What has worked best is setting clear expectations before people move in so they choose to live here with full understanding. One of our members explained it as “this is like owning your own house, not living in an apartment” even though we are one building of attached units.

6. Relationships are key in communities. A monthly rotating buddy system that encourages people to get to know one another by working with them seems reasonable. Have you tried it?

Rotations would require assigning tasks and would probably not work because it is important that people feel invested in their responsibilities. It is helpful when a new resident gets connected to a team right away which happens when they have a strong interest in the team’s work—finances, gardening, meals, etc. We do assign buddies for new residents but not specifically “workshare buddies.” Some of our teams are very aggressive at recruiting new residents.

7. How did you collect data in the beginning? It sounds like you used rounds and people just volunteered for jobs they wanted to do. Was there a master list at all?

We met almost weekly for at least a year before move-in so there had been much discussion of what the facilities would require though not so much about who would do what. Teams were already meeting and working on policies. But we didn’t have a list of tasks. The first time we did a round on who would like to do what, each person was starting from scratch. There was no list.

In 2000, it would have been impossible to describe tasks before we moved in. Partly because we were too unrealistic about what we could actually manage and cohousing itself was too new. We all had different ideas about how the community could or should work. The majority of our members had not read anything about cohousing specifically although most were active in many other kinds of community-building and social-action organizations.

It took time for us to learn how to take care of the facilities and to decide how we wanted to use them. What we needed to do ourselves and what we had to hire professionals to do. It required a lot of decisions with no models. It was 10-15 years after move-in that I would say we had a comprehensive and shared sense of what had to be done and what our limits were. Many policy decisions had been made by then so there were also fewer meetings.

But still today some people feel overburdened and are anxious about some things not getting done. And a detailed list of all the things that need to be done including what we wish would be done would be an encyclopedia. The User Manual we started writing a year before we moved in, is still a work sort of in progress.

8. Do you have a required number of work hours for every member who are able? Do they have to pay money if they don’t work? How do you keep track if you do this?

We do say 6 hours and some people have voluntarily made donations when they can’t work. But we don’t have a way of charging people. I think the Ecovillage of Loudoun County still charges people for 4 hours a month at the average unskilled worker rate. The problem is that someone has to track all those hours. You need a record of all those who worked in order to charge those who didn’t. So it would mean tracking at least the minimum hours for each person— 60+ adults.

The real challenge is that the work is not 9-5. Much of it isn’t measurable in hours and when something is wrong it often has to be fixed immediately. If the elevator is out someone has to call for service, arrange access, confirm when it is or is not fixed, etc. If there is a flood in the Common House from a broken pipe, everyone has to come and mop up the water. We can’t leave things undone just because everyone has already put in 6 hours that month.

Much of the work takes devotion, dedication, and commitment. That can only be developed by creating a shared sense of purpose and responsibility.

9. Some members would prefer to pay money than work. Have you tried that?

Some people do voluntarily make work contributions when they are busy elsewhere. If they are on vacation, they might pay their cleaning service to clean the common house instead. Or make a lump sum donation at the end of the year because they know they haven’t been much help. The money has been very helpful and has not created one class of members who pay and another that does the work. Donations haven’t affected the donors’ commitment to the community.

But even though yard work, for example, could be hired out it would not be done as well as we do it. And the meal program, writing policies, revising the bylaws, and coordinating events can’t be hired out so money is not a substitute.

I mentioned Loudoun County where they do charge for 4 hours a month if a member doesn’t record 4 hours. They also do a labor budget at the beginning of the year so they determine how many hours they need and if people won’t pledge that many, they cut back on time-consuming projects. Starting a new garden would require this many labor hours so people have to pledge those hours or the project won’t be approved.

10. We’re having an increasing number of members who have and live in second homes, absent from the community for 2-6 months. How do they do work?

I think it is safe to say this would not fly although there are no rules against it. I think everyone understands that we can’t assume responsibility for empty units. If it were to become the norm for even one unit, I think there would be a decision to charge a fee for owners not in residence for more than 4-6 weeks a year. For a variety of reasons, some related to the pandemic, we have had four empty units for over a year. It means we are missing 4-6 people who are not helping set up for BBQs or turning the compost or trudging downtown to sort out a tax bill. It has been hard.

11. I’d like your ideas in general about different levels of contribution but I confess that I’m bothered by the people who do very little. What has worked for you to make participation fairer?

Having such inequities is not pleasant and is discouraging. As much as we say cohousing is about diversity, we aren’t actually all that supportive of it. I think the most that can be done is to try to integrate people into community life, let them know that there are expectations, and create a plan for ensuring that the next household that moves in understands this.

I have found ways to appreciate (almost) everyone and their level of involvement because they are all so different. Some are just nice to have around. Some do a lot of work sometimes and very little the rest of the time. Some do nothing in terms of governance but are always there to weed.

Life is neither fair nor equally unfair. There are a few days I have spent thinking about what will happen to a particularly disengaged person in their next life, but they are usually a very small speck in the whole of community life.

12. Do you have a Workshare policy at all? It sounds like you depend on communication and relations to get the work done – and it works for you which sounds wonderful.

I don’t want to infer that everyone has accepted that what we are doing is working—there are still frustrations over some people feeling the need to do more work than is desired and others doing little. But there will always be inequities in the eyes of one person or another. The only thing you can do is accept that that is how things are, or find ways for more engaged workers to feel more compensated. Those who do participate, for example, will have a stronger voice in the community. They will have more opportunities to present their arguments and will be trusted by more members.

Recognizing tasks that are not physical labor will also balance the scales a bit. When the fence needs attention, it may take hours to consult experts and get bids and the fence still won’t be fixed. The planning and research will bring out the creatives if that work is recognized.

13. Is it more important that all jobs get done or that everybody is not stressed about all the jobs not getting done?

I think it comes down to being realistic about how much work something will require and who is available to do it. And remember that whatever happens, it is unlikely to be the end of the world. Not attending to maintenance will be expensive but this is work you can hire out.

Cohousing is one of those utopian ideas in the name of which we ratchet up our standards and expectations without checking first to see if we have the people committed to the work. We think that because there are so many people, it will be easier.

Doing rounds in membership meetings on how people feel about whatever they are experiencing — exhaustion from working more than desired, unhappiness over the state of the gardens, confusion over what needs to be done, feeling less guilt over not being able to do as much as others, not wanting to “live in an apartment” not “own a house”— can clarify how people are feeling and will also bring up ideas for change.

The best reason to analyze jobs in terms of how much labor they require will reduce overscheduling. A three-course meal and an evening of music is probably 50% too much work no matter how many people are available to cook and clean and set up chairs. The game room may need to be locked until someone makes a commitment to keeping the games in order.

Some people won’t value the work that others find necessary so it is important to share feelings so everyone understands and respects what others value. People only work for what they themselves value as part of the community.

14. Do you have any appreciation or recognition events related to work?

Other than informal appreciation, formal recognition can backfire because it may create or highlight inequalities. Are people recognized because they are cute or because they really went out of their way to accomplish more than was expected? Was everyone happy with what was done?

Are some recognized because their close friends are the kind of people who like to praise others? And other people have no close friends or have friends who don’t think praise can be done equitably.

Praising work that others resent or not praising everyone equally may create divisions.

That said, we have a whiteboard in the front hall with the week’s events listed and a place to say thank you to anyone whom someone would like to thank. At the annual meeting, all the teams and working groups present what they have accomplished during the year. People will send out an email when they are particularly moved or grateful for someone’s work. Something that was above and beyond the call of duty. A secret admirer is known to hang a bag with a donut on doorknobs anonymously. So there is plenty of appreciation but not an institutionalized recognition process.

Continuing the Conversation for Cohousing Communities

The very best way to continue the conversation about how people do things is to join the email discussion list:

You will find the fastest and most informed responses from people who have been living in cohousing for over 30 years and others who are struggling to find land. And 30 years of archived messages.

Takoma Village Cohousing Workshare Policy (2010)

1. Purpose

To accomplish the work of the community, and do so in the spirit of cohousing.

2. Overview

a. Cohousing is distinguished from other housing alternatives by its explicit and implicit expectations of participation in the community by all members and residents. This participation includes workshare, in which the care of the property and the community is accomplished by the community. The entire community does what a condo manager (among others) usually does: we cooperatively manage our property and community.
b. We organize ourselves into affinity groups for this purpose. An affinity group is a group of people coming together to accomplish a particular kind of work. At TVC, affinity groups are teams, the Board, pods, task forces, and small working groups (SWG).
c. Work is defined as that which contributes to the safety, security, property value, appearance and/or social health of the community. This includes some tasks that would need to be outsourced if a member did not do them.

3. Guiding Principles

a. Our mission, “TVC is an urban community that fosters mutual support and cooperation while respecting privacy,” encourages us to foster cooperation in this endeavor.
b. Work by members is an integral element of cohousing, which distinguishes cohousing from typical condos or other forms of group living. We, the community, expect teams and pods and individuals to perform quality work for the community.
c. We want workshare to come out of and support the social health of the community. Recognition and celebration of our work encourage and strengthen our community.
d. We promote accountability for work by (1) having people work in small groups to which they are responsible; and (2) having a Pod Squad to help people find work, and affinity groups to find people.
e. We choose not to use shame or punishment or guilt. We will not track hours worked; affinity groups will track the completion of their tasks. We will state expectations, encourage interpersonal connections, and celebrate all that is done.

4. Affinity Groups

a. Affinity groups accomplish the work of the community. Working in a cohesive, committed group fosters loyalty and commitment, makes the work itself more enjoyable and rewarding, and helps build the community by allowing us an easy avenue to get to know each other better while we work. Indeed, including social aspects in a group’s activities can strengthen the group. This, in turn, supports the goals of care of the physical plant, preservation of property values, and affordability.
b. Each group has full responsibility and resources to perform its work. Pods, SWGs and task forces report to a team or the Board.
c. Each team’s budget, which includes pods’ budgets, is proposed and approved as part of the overall budget each year.
d. Any group can put its backlog, seasonal work, or special project work of a physical nature on the task list for a workday.
e. Group members can share the work among themselves in any way that suits them. Each group makes its own decision about fair distribution of work among its members, how to achieve that, and how to deal with low-participating members.
f. New groups or reconfigurations of existing ones can be suggested and created as needed.

5. Personal Responsibilities

a. Workshare participants are members (owners who reside here and associate members) and residents (those who reside here but are not members). Members join and participate in at least one group by attending meetings and/or working on that group’s tasks. Residents are encouraged to participate in the same way in consideration of their use of and access to common facilities.
b. Workshare participants (members and residents) talk with the Pod Squad (see below) regarding their workshare-related skills, interests, concerns, and availability.
c. All members and residents are encouraged to participate in workdays, whether or not their groups have projects on the task lists. This is a welcome opportunity to enjoy different kinds of work, to socialize with different neighbors, and to contribute to community life and physical upkeep.
d. Although the goal of workshare is completion of tasks with neighbors rather than putting in and counting hours, six hours of work per person per month, in addition to attendance at membership meetings, is a benchmark for the amount of work expected.
e. Knowing the explicit and implicit expectations of work in cohousing, and the need for individuals to contribute, some may still choose not to work, or be unable to work as fully as appropriate. TVC encourages voluntary payment in lieu of work, at the suggested rate of $20 per hour.

6. Pod Squad (a new affinity group)

a. The Pod Squad helps workshare participants find satisfying work in the community, and helps affinity groups find the people they need. It reports to the Board.
b. Using information from the groups, the pod maintains a current list of all groups, along with relevant information that would help workshare participants find their work. This would include information such as a description of the groups’ focus of work, perhaps a sample of their tasks, their level of need for new participants, and names of current participants.
c. The Pod Squad members divide up the list of all workshare participants among themselves. Each Pod Squad member has the responsibility for helping those workshare participants on his/her squad list to match their available skills, interests, and time to the community’s needs. Creating individual squad lists with participants from a wide range of affinity groups allows each Pod Squad member to stay aware of a wide swath of community work.

d. Members are encouraged to join this pod only when they feel they can fully embrace the guiding principles of this policy (above) and the tenor of the conversation outlined in the following item.
e. A Pod Squad member meets privately with each participant at least annually to ask if she/he is finding ways to contribute to the community that are enriching and satisfying to her/his life at TVC.
(1) If a participant needs some help finding satisfying work, or wants a change, the Pod Squad member can go over the list of groups and any emerging community needs with him/her.
(2) If a participant sees a community need that is not being met, and is not in the purview of an existing group, s/he may explore forming a new group with the appropriate team.
(3) If that person feels s/he is doing too much work, the Pod Squad member is there to help find a way to reduce his/her workload to a satisfactory level.
f. A Pod Squad member meets with members and residents new to the community within a month of their arrival to answer any questions about workshare, and to help them find a place to begin work within a couple of months.
g. This pod can help surface and constructively work through tensions and concerns over workshare.
h. This pod is strongly encouraged to plan and carry out regular (suggest quarterly) celebrations, recognition, or other forms of appreciation for work accomplished and workshare efforts made. They are encouraged to include a report about how well labor needs are being met and how well the system is working.

7. Workshare Task Force

Submit an annual assessment of workshare to the community. This will include, among other things, an assessment of the balance of contributions, tensions among people relating to participation, whether necessary work is getting done, what is working well, and other concerns. It may also include suggestions for further refinement of the policy.

Notes: Wording changes adopted at the meeting were distributed to the members list on 13 Dec 2010. TVCHA Board confirmed membership consensus at their meeting on 20 Dec 2010. The point person of the task force approved minor changes in capitalization for consistency.

Adopted by consensus in the Membership Meeting of 12 December 2010. Replaces Workshare Policy of 2007.

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