No, not the blind Greek poet or Bart Simpson’s dad. Homers are, according to a study by Harvard Business School professor Michel Anteby (Homers: Secrets on the Factory Floor — HBS Working Knowledge), those things that skilled workers make at the shop for personal use:
A factory worker uses company time and materials to fashion a lamp he will take home for personal use—an artifact called a “homer.” The practice is probably illegal and clearly against written company policy. If discovered, the worker could be fired on the spot for his action.
The consequences of homer making seem cut and dried. But not so fast, says Harvard Business School assistant professor Michel Anteby. In interviews with retirees of the French Pierreville aeronautics plant, Anteby found, perhaps not surprisingly, a veil of secrecy around the practice—but also a quiet complicity between workers and management.
Perhaps most surprising of all, Anteby argues, is that the practice may help some organizations be more effective. Homer making keeps teams together and skills sharp during idle times in the highly cyclic aeronautics business, for example. Also, someone’s well-crafted homer can be a source of pride when fellow workers take note. Says Anteby: “If employers are able to tap into these drivers, and remain within the legal boundary, then they might be in a better position to allow their employees to blossom.”
As Anteby admits, homers are not just an industrial phenomena. Lisa Takeuchi Cullen amplifies on that point in her blog yesterday — I thought Homer was Bart’s dad – Work in Progress – Worklife – Workplace – TIME:
Hmm. I don’t work in a factory, and can make nothing of use with my bare hands (I can fashion a Play-Doh pony for my kid to enjoy smooshing, but, again, I said of use). But I’m sure I’ve used company resources and company time for personal needs.
Like when I was a writer at Money magazine, I used my skills and resources as a personal finance reporter to research estate planning implications for expat Americans. In fact, I did pitch and write a story on the subject—but only because I needed to apply the information to my father’s situation. I bet you I’m not alone; plenty of reporters work on stories merely to satisfy a personal need to know how it turns out. And don’t get me started on my friends at consumer magazines. The editor needs new curtains? A fall feature on draperies it is!
Anteby looks at the homer phenomena with somewhat of an industrial eye: the production keeps skills in tune during stack time. But with work and personal time blurring, the balancing act for both employees and employers has become more difficult. Working out that balance is important to the smooth operation of the new networked organization of production that is a hallmark of the I-Cubed Economy. Use of “company time” for personal activities — or, more common using company time to benefit both company and personal needs, as in the Cullen example — is a needed way of maintaining that balance.
After all, part of the I-Cubed Economy is also the “Always On” Economy. And if you are always on, you need to find some time to be off.