Breakouts: how to divide labor fairly in coliving houses

This is the original proposal for the Archive’s house meeting format, written September 1, 2020 by Jason Benn and ratified September 5, 2020.

We used to argue about money - and then we fixed it with the 6% vote

In less enlightened times, the Archive used to argue about money. We paid rent, we paid utilities, but we never fully agreed on what else we should share. We'd throw a party and Splitwise the costs, but people that were out of town would ask why they had to contribute. Building consensus for house improvements was nearly impossible: I bought the first patch of grass for the backyard myself, and Arram and Ben just cowboy'd our $5k sauna. There was broad agreement for some things, of course, but these expenses made the monthly cost of living here highly variable, which was stressful for our funemployed housemates and pre-Ramen profitable founders. It was tempting to feel that some members of the community just cared about it more than others. Every shared expense was a potential argument.

Then we learned about Cobudget from the Embassy, adopted it, and unanimously voted to raise our rent by 6% (now $111 per person). In the two years since, our finances have been predictable, fair, and incentives are aligned: to get your buckets funded, you have to actually get housemates excited about it. We have completely solved this problem. This puts us in rarefied company among Bay Area communities. Even the sauna is now 78% funded…! I thought I’d never see the day, honestly - I remember when there was talk of charging a small fee per use.

We currently argue about labor - but we can make a similar fix

Our financial situation of two years ago rhymes with our labor situation today. Building consensus to do extra work is so difficult that small groups will often heroically take on projects themselves. Chores are unevenly distributed. Monthly responsibilities are unpredictable and spikes in the community’s demand on our time breeds resentment. There are arguments. People spend hours writing (thoughtful!) messages on Slack, which has the secondary effect of making everyone else spend hours reading their messages. People get tired and burn out. In the same way that we lost several great housemates over financial disagreements, we have lost several great housemates over labor allocation disagreements, and we’ll continue to do so until we fix our systems.

I remember one house meeting a couple months ago that ended with four spontaneous breakout groups, each oriented around a single project. Energy was high; people were making immediate progress, housemates were enjoying learning what it was like to solve problems with each other, and everyone was working on something they were excited about. Frankly, it was fun and bonding. Importantly, the work was well scoped: it lasted about an hour and volunteering that night didn’t obligate anyone to do any homework. That experience was the inspiration behind this proposal.

The proposal: House Breakouts

Here’s a vision of a complete set of house responsibilities:

  1. Breakouts. Show up every Thursday from 7pm-8pm and spend an hour making progress in small groups on whatever house project excites you most that week. At the start of a Breakout, residents give 30-60 second pitches on whatever project they think needs attention most that week and how many volunteers it needs, like a hackathon. Projects could be anything: planning an event like Charchive, collaborating on a proposal to improve our chores allocation system, implementing a house improvement like selecting and buying a hot tub, doing a mini-Spring Cleaning on the Middle Kitchen, conducting recruiting outreach — whatever they think is best for the house.
  2. Chef rotation. Chefs wouldn’t have to participate in the overlapping Breakout, of course - they’re already contributing enough to house good feels.
  3. The Senate. You know the drill.

And that would be it — no unexpected meetings, no unbounded commitments to a working group, no mandatory homework, less Slack fatigue. It'd be simple, flexible, and predictable. With responsibilities bounded and expectations reset, I think labor allocation would cease to be a point of tension in this house.

The beauty of this system is its flexibility. If there are tensions to sort out, then it’ll be natural for everyone to focus on that that week. If there’s an event coming up, then it’ll be vastly easier to allocate effort to it. If you have an idea for a proposal, you’d pitch the seed of the idea and flesh it out collaboratively with 1-3 volunteers instead of spending hours writing it yourself and then hours on Slack debating it afterwards, as proposals written collaboratively are generally higher quality and longer lasting. Chris could pitch an improvement to the wifi and frictionlessly ask for 1-2 collaborators. If a proposal to start an internal podcast of resident’s life stories has been recently ratified (perhaps the proposal was written by a thoughtful group at last week’s Breakout), one of the authors could pitch that a small group start scheduling episodes and working out logistical details. People excited about the long-term future of the Archive could make progress on the Village. All of these activities would get “credit”, where currently they are done on a purely extracurricular basis by volunteers. I also suspect that removing the friction of coordinating with busy housemates will save us all a lot of time and unlock a ton of ideas.

I think 80%+ of the work that we put in to making this house great could be completed during Breakouts.