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Outsourcing for Academics: Is it Worth it?

Posted by Dr Joanna Griffith on 29 June 2017

Outsourcing for Academics: Is it Worth it?

‘It’s 8.15 pm. I’m in bed, exhausted, with pain in all my joints and my ribs. I haven’t been this tired since 26 hours of active labour four years ago. In the last 48 hours, I’ve submitted a grant and a paper, reviewed three manuscripts, and travelled interstate for a day of meetings. I am truly shattered. I think I might need to check into some kind of academic detox program to recover … My little boy is so excited that tomorrow is Saturday when mama stays home. How do we keep this up? I think I’m falling down.’

Sound familiar? This exhausted Australian academic just cannot find enough hours in her day to keep up with work, let alone anything else she might like to do, need to do, or feel compelled to do.

Academic work is unrelenting and exhausting, whether you are an undergraduate student, a postgraduate, postdoc, sessional academic or a tenured professor. It seems particularly hard to compartmentalise this work: keeping it within working hours and preventing it bleeding into family or personal time in the evenings, weekends or holidays is just about impossible.

If you are a student, the pressure of assessment is always there, whether it is studying for exams, or writing your thesis, the monkey is on your back until you graduate. As an academic, there are dozens of competing demands on your time: teaching, marking, supervising research students, administration, reviewing manuscripts, writing papers, grant applications, research work, and on and on and on …

Along with the pressures of academic work, there are undoubtedly pressures from home. Full-time working women spend an average of 25 hours a week doing housework on top of their average of 36.4 hours a week in paid employment, while full-time working men, who work 40 hours a week in paid labour spend an average of 15 hours a week on household work (Ruppanner 2016).

But, let’s not forget academics do more than the average workers: 90% of full time academics work over 40 hours a week, and 51% work between 50 and 80 hours a week (Strachan et al. 2012). Is it any wonder academics and students often feel stressed and pushed for time?

Can You Outsource that Task?

Although theoretically, we can outsource just about anything—Henry the VII famously outsourced his most intimate ablutions to the aptly named ‘Groom of the Stool’—we have to think carefully about a number of aspects of outsourcing.

One of the least favourite parts of my job is marking: there is nothing more tedious, mind numbing and sometimes disappointing as marking 140 exams; however, it is an important part of my current teaching duties. Although I’d love to outsource it, this would not be acceptable to my employer: it is important that the person who delivered the material marks the students’ examinations to ensure fairness and quality control. This is not something I can outsource.

However, in the past I have been contracted by other academics to mark assignments. As I was under-employed at that time, having just completed my PhD, it was welcome work. In the right circumstances, outsourcing some of your academic responsibilities can provide welcome relief.

Make a List

Making a list of everything you could outsource is the first task. Start with what is easiest for you to outsource. At the end of this article, we will list commonly outsourced tasks at home, and in the academic workplace. Although you can be quite comprehensive (although perhaps not as much as a medieval monarch), for practical reasons, you should only include things that you can see yourself outsourcing.

Establishing Your Base Line

If you were being very scientific about outsourcing, you would document what you do over a typical work week. There are even time-tracking apps that can help you do this. How much time each week do you spend on tasks that can be outsourced? It might surprise you.

Do You Want to Outsource the Task?

These days not many of us want to outsource our bottom wiping, but we might like to outsource the bottom wiping of our children (at least some of the time!).

Repetitive, relatively dull tasks such as house cleaning are commonly outsourced, but perhaps you find something meditative about vacuuming or ironing. For me, housework is one of the few times I can zone out with podcasts, so I don’t mind it so much, but supermarket shopping is something I absolutely hate.

Perhaps there is already a good division of labour in your household, meaning tasks you find tedious are less so for other household members. For some inexplicable, but very welcome reason, my partner enjoys cooking and laundry (winner!).

Letting Go

If you outsource something, you will have to come to terms with the fact that it isn’t going to be done exactly the way you would do it. You will need to relinquish control, and accept the outcome. This can be hard to do, particularly for the perfectionists among us.

When deciding what to outsource, you will commonly need to accept that ‘near enough is good enough’. Now, this might not matter for your supermarket shopping, but is likely to matter when giving a lecture, writing an application for promotion, or raising your children to the age of 18!

You may also have to compromise your principles. Contractors may need to do things differently to save time or money, or to provide goods in hygienic ways. For example, when outsourcing shopping, food may be relatively over-packaged or be less nutritious than you would have prepared (outsourced cooking) or offend your ethics (non-environmentally friendly cleaning products used by housecleaners is an example).

A Better Job

It can be hard to admit this, but in some areas, you may not have the skills to do as good a job as a contractor. In these cases, it is far better to outsource the job, even if the financial cost is significant. In my case, sad to say, my skills in statistics are not as strong as they could be. I know that employing a statistician to help me when planning research and analysing data is something I simply have to do, no matter what the charge.

Is it Time Effective to Outsource This Task?

Outsourcing tasks can take time as you will need to train your employee or contractor—sometimes it can take as long to explain how you want a task done as simply doing it yourself.

But the advantage is, the more frequently you work with the person you hire, the more time efficient this process will become as they get to know how you like things to be done.

This is the great advantage that personal and executive assistants have after working closely with the same person for some time. Similarly, sessional academics, research assistants, grant writing assistants or editing services will be better able to tailor their work to suit your expectations and styles the more often you use them.

Are You Missing a Learning Opportunity by Outsourcing a Task?

A disadvantage of outsourcing some tasks is that you may never get good at them. While this probably doesn’t matter for vacuuming, it might be relevant for other areas.

In my case, I admit my statistics are currently weaker than they should be. If I spent more time learning statistics, I could improve my understanding of this area and be a better student, researcher and teacher. I would also be more employable in the future. Although I could outsource this in the short term, perhaps it is better that I invest the time and learn the skills. Remember, practice makes perfect, so make sure you factor in the personal costs in outsourcing a learning opportunity.

Is it Cost Effective to Outsource this Task?

A very quick estimate would be based on an hourly rate. Compare what you earn per hour after tax, with the cost of outsourcing the task per hour. However, this quick calculation does not consider that you are already working to capacity. If you are doing work that you could outsource at a reasonable hourly rate, you are effectively choosing to do another part-time job. Is this something you would choose? Or something you’d encourage in someone else?

But it’s not quite that simple …

The Boredom Factor

A simple hourly cost comparison also does not consider the boredom factor. And this is important.

In my case, editing is something I’ve outsourced. Sometimes I’ve been through material I’ve written so many times, that I just cannot bring myself to read it one more time:  a pair of ‘fresh eyes’ from an editing service reading my PhD thesis, teaching materials, or manuscripts for publication have definitely been worth every cent.

Your Civic Duty

Spending money on services is actually an important part of the economy. Rather than buying more goods, which might not be very good for the environment, buying services helps provide employment, which improves economic growth, without creating more ‘stuff’ that is often bad for the environment, particularly in a ‘throw- away society’. Isn’t it your civic duty to get some help?

Your Legal Responsibilities in Employing People*

It’s important that you are aware of your legal responsibilities in hiring people.

In Australia, it is usually much simpler to hire people as contractors rather than employees, as contractors pay their own superannuation and tax, have no leave entitlements and usually organise their own insurance.

In Australia, an employer has responsibilities to pay superannuation for employees and withhold pay as you go (PAYG) tax from employees. Hiring people as contractors simplifies your role as an employer. The Australian Taxation Office has an online tool to work out if you are employing someone as an employee or a contractor.

Most of the time, outsourced workers will be employed as casual rather than part-time workers. Under Australian law, casual workers are entitled to higher hourly rates than full-time or part-time equivalents, and have some entitlements for carer’s, compassionate and community service leave. If you employ someone working regular hours or the same days each week, they become ‘long-term casuals’ and have further rights, such as the right to parental leave and flexible working arrangements. It is worth becoming acquainted with these rights if you intend to hire someone on a regular basis.

You might also check out the minimum daily hours for casuals and overtime rates.

It is also important to ensure that you are paying at least the minimum hourly rate under the legal award covering the work. The Fairwork Ombudsman website has a handy online pay and conditions tool that will help you ensure you are meeting your legal obligations under the award for each job you outsource. This may be particularly the case for websites such as www.airtasker.com, where you post a job for a fixed amount and prospective workers bid for the job.

Finally, it is very important that you ensure anyone who is working for you is covered by appropriate liability insurance. Contractors normally will provide their own liability insurance, and you should ask to see this. If you are an employer and your worker is regarded as an employee under the law, you are generally obliged to provide insurance.

Your own home insurance policy may not cover your legal liability to people working for you (like cleaners or childcare workers) so you should contact your insurer and check your policy regarding this. Be aware that the rules about insurance concerning this vary from state to state, and you should check the relevant government websites regarding this. Links are available here.

What is Commonly Outsourced?

Housecleaning

A tip here is to get the housecleaning done in smaller blocks but more frequently, to help relieve the monotonous daily tasks. Expect to pay upwards of $30 an hour, and in large cities this can cost up to $60 an hour (2017).

Housekeeper

Pay a little more and employ someone who will also tidy up, do laundry and prepare meals.

Menu planning and shopping

A number of services have popped up recently. Recipe cards, together with measured amounts of ingredients are provided. Great for indifferent or inexperienced cooks, but tend to be packaging heavy.  Expect to pay approximately $12 per person per meal.

Childcare

Apart from family day care, long day care or nannies, consider au pairs. Advantages include reduced rates of illness, bonding, one-on-one care, and it can be cheaper in some respects. It can also be a wonderful cultural exchange, and perhaps expose your children to a new language.

The disadvantages include: someone living in your house on full board, poor regulation and lack of quality control if you aren’t hiring through an agency, lack of supervision and on-the-job training junior carers would have by senior carers in childcare centres, and, as they are often teenagers from overseas, they may require parenting themselves!

Expect to pay upwards of $250 a week pocket money plus full board for 32 hours’ childcare. Be particularly aware of your legal and insurance obligations when employing au pairs. More experienced carers may charge a premium.

Children’s Birthday Parties

Don’t feel shy in outsourcing the hassle and mess of children’s birthday parties to professional organisations that provide this service. There is a plethora of choices these days. Depending on the package and age of the child, expect to pay upwards of $10 per head. And don’t forget to outsource the birthday cake too!

Dog Walking and Pet Care

You can outsource pet care such as dog walking (expect to pay upwards of $20 per dog walk) and washing (expect to pay upwards of $25 for a home dog wash service).

Gardening and Home Maintenance

All aspects of gardening and basic home maintenance can be outsourced. Expect to pay upwards of $23 for someone unqualified requiring some supervision and upwards of $25 for a gardener who has completed a horticultural qualification and has some experience. Home maintenance (‘handymen’) will cost anything from $40 to $90 per hour depending on the type of job. In large cities, you may have to pay substantially more for either service.

Shopping

Online supermarket shopping allows you the convenience of shopping from your home at a convenient time avoiding chaos at supermarkets. It can also reduce impulse buying.

Disadvantages include only certain supermarkets providing the service, being unable to choose your own fresh produce, which sometimes has variable quality, having to be home within a ‘window’ to receive the shopping, and usually an approximately 24-hour delay. The cost is usually delivery only and starts at approximately $11 per delivery.

A personal clothing stylist gets to know your style, and selects clothing for you that you can decide whether to buy or not. Expect to pay approximately $150 per hour for a two-hour session plus clothing (which may be discounted to your stylist).

An alternative might be an online style adviser. You discuss your needs with an online stylist, clothes are delivered, you select those you like and return those you don’t. This is certainly a service useful for those who are time poor, uncertain about styling and shy. Disadvantages might include excessive buying of clothing, and inability to avoid sweat shop clothing brands.

Academic Work—Marking, Editing, Research Work

Outsourcing editing work has the advantage of allowing fresh and professional editorial eyes to be cast over your work. This can allow perspective as to whether your writing actually makes sense to its audience. Professional editors are aware of the more obscure rules of grammar, and can help you comply with detailed manuscript submission requirements. Prices will differ based on the word length of your document and the turnaround time you require.

Beware of wasting money on cheap services though. They often are not any more helpful than asking a colleague to help you, since the work may be outsourced to un- or under-qualified editors overseas, who are unfamiliar with Australian higher education standards.

Casual academic work is often outsourced through your own contacts. A good source of will be postgraduate students, postdocs or sessional academics. You should contact your faculty’s human resources department for exact pay rates under your institution’s enterprise agreement. As a rough guide, expect to pay approximately $50 per hour for routine marking and demonstrating by casual sessional academics without a PhD; $58 with a PhD. A higher rate (approximately $67) is required where there is a significant exercise of academic judgement.

Research work can also be outsourced, often on a contract basis. Sources are as above. Expect to pay upwards of $41 an hour depending on skill levels.

Everything Else—Concierge

A number of concierge services now exist. These advertise their ability to work essentially as personal assistants dealing with anything on your to-do list. Services can be provided by the minute (approximately $1.75 per minute) or as a subscription service with unlimited requests (approximately $100 a week). Specialist services exist, such as those for new parents.

You may also find a professional organiser, someone who helps you create order in your life, both physically and mentally, helpful. Prices vary depending on the task, expect to pay $30-$80 per hour. Learn more here and find one at the Australasian Association of Professional Organisers.

Alternatives might be to reach out through our own networks to find someone interested in providing such a service privately (but beware of your employer obligations such as hourly rates, and that such people are unlikely to have their own insurance).

Another way of commissioning someone to do more unusual jobs is to place an advertisement on a service such as airtasker.com. On this website, you post your task and how much you are prepared to pay. Workers will bid for the work. You review their offers and accept the one suitable. You should be aware of your obligations to pay a fair wage to these workers. Workers are covered by insurance providing the job is contracted through airtasker.com

Note: Prices current as of 2017

Phew! How Much Time Have You Saved?

When it comes to some of the more mundane household and academic chores, we really shouldn’t be reluctant to outsource them. It’s not possible to find more hours in the week without seriously impacting your health and your quality of life. Where possible, you should consider outsourcing at least some of them.

Remember, one of the top five regrets of the dying, as recorded by a palliative care nurse is ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ (Ware 2012).

References

Ruppanner, Leah. 2016. "We can we reduce gender inequality in housework – here’s how." Accessed 16/03/2017. https://theconversation.com/we-can-we-reduce-gender-inequality-in-housework-heres-how-58130.

Strachan, G. , C.  Troup, D.  Peetz, G.  Whitehouse, K. Broadbent, and J.  Bailey. 2012. Work and Careers in Australian Universities: Report on Employee Survey. . Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing, Griffith University.

Ware, Bronnie. 2012. The top five regrets of the dying: A life transformed by the dearly departing: Hay House, Inc.

Disclaimer

*Please note this blog post should not be taken as legal advice. Instead you should direct your queries to your relevant government bodies such as those concerning fair employment conditions and taxation.

No royalties, commissions or benefits were received from companies mentioned in this blog article. This blog does not specifically endorse the mentioned companies, which are provided simply as examples.

Dr Joanna Griffith

BVSc (Hons), BAniSc, PhD

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Outsourcing for Academics: Is it Worth it?