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Monday, January 10, 2011

What It Takes to Get to Work

Please don't mistake this for a rant because it absolutely isn't. I have a bias for coming to work and I always, always do unless I'm so sick that I can't get out of bed. I have missed work because of road conditions a total of two days in the nearly 30 years that I've been working for companies. This doesn't mean as much as it used to; technology has changed the nature of work to the point that much of it can be done from anywhere. Missing a day here or there while working from home, especially if schools are closed and you are watching kids is sometimes the better part of valor.

But what if your work won't allow that? What if you have to work in order to get paid and pay your bills? I find that a lot of younger workers don't understand what that takes. Here are some things I've learned and where my "I always go to work" comes from.

I grew up in a rural community of 1,200 where almost every man did one of two things; worked on the farm or worked in a factory. A handful of people were shopkeepers like my pharmacist dad. Our family had a drug store and two farms and I grew up farming while my parents went to work in town. Our town had three sewing factories that employed almost all women so the men commuted to Bowling Green and Louisville, 30 and 90 minutes each way respectively.

What each of these three groups had in common was simple: nobody was on salary and if you didn't work you didn't get paid. We had no middle class; we didn't know we were all working class until we left and lived somewhere else. This fostered a culture where neighbor helped neighbor, but where everyone took responsibility for being able to get to work no matter what. Farmers' herds had to eat no matter what the weather, and indeed had to eat more during snow and cold. Factory workers had to punch in at 7:00 or 7:30 an hour-and-a-half away on good days; up to three hours or more in the snow. Shop keepers took in what they sold, and medical professionals like my Dad had to go in at all hours during the cold and flu season.

What I observed in that culture sticks with our family today. If you must be there instead of working from home, and/or you want to develop the reputation of being the person who is ultra-dependable and always there it starts with some fundamental and intentional decisions.

1. Where you live relative to work - Whenever we've moved we always check the route between that house and work and ask ourselves if we could get up that hill or back down that steep driveway. If we felt it inhibited our ability to get to work we passed on that house.

2. Own a front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel-drive vehicle - This doesn't have to be expensive. A small front-wheel-drive vehicle will get you to work almost any time unless you have a difficult hill or driveway (see 1 above). If you do, four-wheel-drive is essential. Buy an older model if expense is an issue and stick with common models where parts aren't overly expensive or difficult to find (Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Jeep, etc...).

3. Have a roadside emergency kit - You should always have a tow rope, small folding camp shovel, flashlight, blanket, jumper cables, rock salt or cat litter. These are indispensable if you or someone you come across ends up in a ditch. Store them in a truck box or a heavy plastic tote in the rear of your vehicle.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice - So many people don't get out on the roads because they are afraid. While the weather is icy, take your vehicle out to an empty parking lot and practice skidding and recovering. Most icy road accidents are caused when inexperienced or frightened drivers over-correct. Knowing your vehicle and how it steers and stops will keep you from being your own worst enemy.

5. Own snow boots and a heavy coat, and take them with you on the road - Dress to be on the side of the road even while taking steps to make sure you aren't. Every so often you may slide off anyway. Having the right clothes can be the difference between a bumpy ride and a threat to your health.

6. Keep your cell phone charged up - Being able to call for help keeps you from having to flag down help and hope for the best.

Remember that the keys to going no matter what start with where you live and what you drive. You also need to be prepared through practice and the right clothing and equipment. Is all this necessary to hold a job in today's world? Most likely not. Is it necessary to be that rare person who never, ever misses work and builds a reputation for incredible dependability? Absolutely! That, Gentle Reader, will take you farther in your career than people with more ability.


Jeremy said...

I used to agree with you… until I was the guy sitting on the side of the road after going into a ditch on the way into work due to snow-covered roads. But instead of an HR professional suggesting I get a four-wheel-drive, I was told the work we were doing was not worth getting into an accident or putting myself and others at risk. The inevitable “slide” you describe just might land you in the hospital or six feet under. Nothing my company does is worth that, and they agree.

Jim Thomason said...

If your route is treacherous and you feel endangered then by all means stay home! I'm not suggesting that anyone whose job isn't life or death (doctors, emergency workers, etc...) should risk serious injury or death by coming to work. But statistics show that most peoples' commutes are 15 - 20 miles at about 20 - 30 miles per hour. You can slow that by half and take 2/3 of the traffic off the road when it snows. Under that scenario your biggest danger is a fender-bender and not loss of life. That danger is significantly mitigated if you're well equipped and in good command of your vehicle.