Re: seeking information about how cohousing communities organize tasks to be done
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Tue, 10 Apr 2001 12:32:01 -0600 (MDT)
> We want to know how folks actually organize and schedule work ....

Good luck.  This is a thorny issue.  See the archives, it's been discussed

As background, Wasatch Commons has 25 households, 33 adults (mid-20s to
70ish), and 20 children (6 months to early 20s).

> What are the specifics of how you organize working on any joint meals?

Members sign up for the dates they want. Each meal has a cook, assistant,
and two clean-up crew.

We've struggled with two dining issues in particular: finding a simple
method, and getting enough people to sign up to cook/clean.

We tried meal coupons sold in booklets, which people lost or forgot to
bring, then we tried a charge account system with monthly balance
statements, which took too much bookkeeping (too much being any whatsoever).

Now we have meal cards, good for 20 meals, in different denominations (for
instance, $20 for 20 leftovers or 20 small child's meals), kept in
bookpockets on a piece of posterboard in the kitchen hall. The owner's name
is written on the card. (The resemblance to school lunch cards is not
coincidental -- a retired teacher set it up.)  This system has been in place
about two months and seems functional.

When common meals started, cooking was purely voluntary.  After a few months
the same half-dozen people found themselves cooking all the meals and
frequently doing their own clean-up.  The dining committee proposed
requiring all community members to sign up to be either cooks (primarily the
dining committee) or cleaners (everyone else) and work two or three meals a
month. When this met with opposition -- I objected to the permanent status
of the job categories; others protested that they never ate, why should they
work -- the committee made the jobs switchable and proposed making
participation dependent on cooking/cleaning. This likewise met with
opposition -- If common meals were as central to community life as the
committee was insisting, then everyone should be welcome to attend, and I
was still arguing that people should have a choice of responsibilities,
including other community work.  A couple of us on the landscape committee
in particular felt the hours we were already putting in were quite enough
without additional requirements.

So the committee proposed the present system.  If you cook/clean twice in a
month, the meals you cook/clean are free and others are $3.  If you don't,
meals are $5. (I gave up trying to get them to credit other community work.)
Children pay $1 or $2 depending on appetite; guests $5.  Low-income
households may request a reduced price (a couple do, others pointedly
don't), subsidized by donations.

The two-tiered system did get more people signing up to cook.  It's been in
place about a year.

The dining committee recently started "cook ahead" parties.  Attendance
counts as one cooking credit.  They make several meals and freeze them.
Cooks using these meals work without an assistant.

A couple of the young adults (thirteen-up) cook occasionally.

A serious drawback is that the different types of community work aren't
integrated; cooks & cleaners get a free meal and pay $3 the rest of the
time, but somebody who regularly spends just as many hours doing something
else pays $5. It becomes a values statement:  Cooking is valuable enough to
the community to be recognized and rewarded, grounds maintenance (for
instance) is not.

At least one member is bitter about this.  Her personal "cohousing dream"
was to spend all day working outside and then, as it started getting chilly
at sundown, to come in to a hot meal, ready and waiting -- but her fifteen
hours a week is classified as "voluntary work" and doesn't count for
anything, and $5 is too much, so she doesn't eat common meals.  (Nor do I
except on rare, special occasions -- my birthday, or the Sandelins' visit.)

> What are the specifics of how you organize working on cleaning the common
> house? How does it get done?

A monthly work team (4-5 people, on duty twice a year) cleans the common
house, shovels snow, and mows the common lawns.

There has never been a serious discussion about cleanliness standards; it's
left totally up to the work team.  Sometimes it's clean, sometimes your
shoes stick to the floor.

> What are the specifics of how you organize working on any joint
> landscaping and other grounds maintenance?

Most landscaping/grounds work (mowing being the exception) is done on a
purely volunteer basis with neither recognition, incentive, nor penalty for

For projects, the landscape committee calls a work party. There's an
official requirement of participation at two work parties a year, but nobody
takes roll, so again there's neither incentive nor penalty. I suspect some
people don't meet the requirement, paltry as it is; whereas, since almost
all the work parties are landscaping, a committee member has to be there to
supervise -- which in practice usually seems to mean me. (I loathe
supervising, but I seem to be the (un)happy medium between the gardeners
lacking people skills and the social people without gardening skills.)  I
quit counting after about my tenth work party the first year, quite apart
from all the impromptu "I got some horse manure, come help me shovel out the
pickup" events.  We held fewer the second year, partly because I was
resisting their even being scheduled.

The maximum length for a work party seems to be three hours.  During the
second hour workers showing up late balance the ones drifting away (I'm not
good at giving people new jobs when I catch them leaning on shovels, or
them with a cold fishy gaze when they say brightly they have to leave now),
but the drain accelerates after that, often leaving the landscape members to
finish the work by themselves.

We've found heavy promotion gets more people to show up -- schedule it a
week or two in advance, post notices, announce it in meetings and at meals,
and explain ahead of time just what the goals are.  People stick around
better if refreshments are provided -- assign someone to bring water and
juice, cups, cookies, chips, finger foods.

> What are the specifics of how you organize working on any joint management
> tasks? Are any or all of these things done by volunteer community members?

We have a management committee, elected at the "annual homeowners'
association meeting" (one community meeting in January is devoted to the
budget and election).  They recently hired a management company to take care
of financial stuff.

> Do you post requests for volunteers to do specific meals, or parts of
> meals, or specific landscaping tasks, etc.?

Posted lists of maintenance or landscaping jobs sometimes produce good
results, sometimes none. We have tentatively discussed a policy whereby any
job that stays on the maintenance list for more than a month would be turned
over to the management company to hire somebody.

> Do people volunteer beforehand to do tasks that are sure to come up?
Not usually.

> Are people simply on a list as having to take their turn doing a task and
> assigned specific tasks by committees or team leaders?

The monthly work team meets, decides on its duties, and divides them up.

When acting as work party supervisor, I explain the goals and suggest jobs,
sometimes with more takers than others.  (Rockpicking remains unpopular,
however often you explain that rocks block root growth and water
percolation; they tear the weed barrier if you leave them underneath; and
big rocks break the tiller blades and little rocks become projectiles.)

> Do you draw straws, or choose by some other chance method?

> Do you have a work credit system?  If so, how are the credits allocated?
For dining, as explained above.

> Is there a minimum amount of work each community member is expected to
> do? If there is, what is it?

1) Serve on monthly work team twice a year;
2) attend two work parties annually;
3) serve on one committee.

We have members who balk at any suggestion that more should be asked than
the above.  Many, perhaps most, members do more, in some cases much more,
but since nobody keeps track, everybody thinks they're the only one doing

> What are the best ways you have found to deal with accomplishing community
> work?
> What challenges have come up in accomplishing community work?  How have
> you solved them?

For nearly the first year there were no requirements whatsoever.  A handful
of people were cooking all the meals (and burning out).  A handful of people
were showing up for all the work parties (and burning out).  A handful were
cleaning the common house (and burning out).

The meal system is working successfully for those who participate; about a
third of the community doesn't at all, some for problematic reasons.  The
common house is better than it was at first, but simple maintenance jobs
sometimes wait months.  The more often we hold work parties the fewer people
show up.  Other landscaping work gets done very spottily.

We don't have adequate bulletin board space.  That may not seem like a
work-related problem, but if there's no place to post a job description and
request for volunteers, you don't get many.

> Do you think that the community work is shared fairly?

> Are there many voiced complaints about getting community work done?
A fair number of complaints about work that nobody regards as their

> Are you having any discussions about improvements in getting community
> work done which you think would be helpful for us to consider also?

We seem to be in a quiescent, elephant-ignoring phase right now (as in, "the
elephant in the living room," which nobody acknowledges).  The most recent
initiatives were the cook-ahead days and meal cards.  Landscaping started
meeting again this month after being dormant all winter.

> What processes have you found to be best for overcoming difficult
> situations?

If work isn't getting done, try a different approach.  If people are
reluctant to implement a system, tell them it's a trial run and promise to
reassess the issue in three months.

We don't have a good track record for recognizing the early signs of burn
out in individual members, and intervening before the crisis stage.

Kay Argyle
Wasatch Commons
Salt Lake City

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