Category: Better ways of working (page 1 of 7)

Seven coaching questions

Eylan Ezekiel shared this article in the Slack channel we hang out in most days. It’s a useful set of questions for when you’re in a coaching situation — which could be in sports, at work, when teaching, or even parenting:

  1. “What’s on your mind?”
  2. “And what else?”
  3. “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
  4. “What do you want?”
  5. “How can I help?”
  6. “If you say yes to this, what must you say no to?”
  7. “What was most useful or most valuable here for you?”

Source: Huffington Post

Why desk jobs are exhausting

Sitting, apparently, is the new smoking. That’s one of the reasons I bought a standing desk, meaning that most days, I’m working while upright. Knowledge work, however, whether sitting or standing is tiring.

Why is that? This article reports on a study that may have an answer.

Here’s the topline result: There was no correlation between the amount of physical work the nurses did and their feelings of fatigue. “In some people, physical activity is fatiguing,” Derek Johnston, the Aberdeen University psychologist who led the study, says. “But in other people, it is energizing.” The study also found that the nurses’ subjective sense of how demanding their job was of them was not correlated with fatigue either.

Instead, they found this small correlation: The nurses who were least likely to feel fatigued from their work also felt the most in control of their work, and the most rewarded for it. These feelings may have boosted their motivation, which may have boosted their perception of having energy.

Source: Vox

Airbnb wants to give out shares to its superhosts

Note: I’m testing shorter, more to-the-point updates, alongside the regular ones. Let me know what you think in the comments!


Airbnb sent a letter to the SEC asking for the regulator to permit offering equity to hosts. Airbnb primarily supported changes to Securities Act Rule 701 that would allow offering shares to gig economy workers, not just investors and staff. CEO Brian Chesky characterized it as vital to rewarding the company’s supporters.

[…]

This isn’t the first time a gig-oriented online service has petitioned the SEC. Uber met with the Commission more than once to ask about the possibility. Airbnb is pushing for a direct policy change, however, where Uber was more interested in how it could offer shares under the existing framework.

Source: Engadget

(Educational) consulting for the uninitiated

Noah Geisel, who I know from the world of Open Badges, has written a great post on how to be an educational consultant. I’ve got some advice of my own to add to his, but I’ll let him set the scene:

I get several messages each month from people — usually teachers — reaching out for an informational interview to learn about what options exist to be an education consultant. I’ve had the conversation enough times now that I’m sharing out this quick primer of what normally gets discussed. Maybe it’ll save you the cup of coffee you were going to buy me or help you come prepared to our coffee with novel questions that really make me think.

In my experience, people in employment who have never been their own boss are always interested at the prospect of becoming a freelancer or consultant. This is particularly the case with jobs like teaching that are endless time and energy pits.

Like Noah, the first thing I’d do is try and get underneath the desire to do something different. Why is that? I think he does this brilliantly by asking whether potential consultants are running towards, or running away, from something:

Which way are you running? This is the most important question. Are you running to a new opportunity or are you running away from your current situation? The people I know who are successful and happy doing this work definitely ran to it. The work is just too hard to be anything other than what you want (or even NEED) to be doing. I can’t speak for others but my own experience is that this path is a calling, not an escape pod.

I can only speak about my own experience, but once the Open Badges work went outside of Mozilla, and I’d pretty much done all I could with the Web Literacy work, it was time for me to move into consultancy. It was the logical step, both because I was ready for it, but also because people were asking if I was available.

If no-one’s asking if you can help them out with something that you already specialise in, then it’s going to be long, hard struggle to be seen as an expert, get gigs, and pay your mortgage. However, if you do decide to make the leap, I like the way Noah demarcates the types of consultancy you can do:

  1. Join forces with a known legacy brand
  2. Apply for a posted position
  3. Independent Consultant: hometown hero variety
  4. Independent Consultant: free agent variety

The first two of these are employment by a different name. The third might go well for a few months, but you’re likely to quickly run out of clients, unless you lock them into a multi-year contract. Realistically, you need to go for the fourth option.

If you’ve been used to a job where you do lots of different things, such as teaching, the temptation is going to be to offer lots of different services. The trouble with that, of course, is that people find it difficult to know what you’re selling.

You are wise to avoid attempting to be all things to all people. Focus on a strength that gives you a competitive advantage and go hard; if you fail, you’ll want to know that wasn’t because you didn’t put enough into it.

One of the best things I’ve ever done is to set up a co-operative with friends and former colleagues. We have an associated Slack channel for both member discussions (private) and discourse with trusted colleagues and acquaintances. Meeting regularly, and doing work with these guys not only gives us flexibility, but access to a wider range of expertise than I could provide on my own.

As Noah says, it’s great to earn a bit of money on the side, but that’s very different to deciding that your going to rely on products you can sell and services you can provide for your income. I did it successfully for three years, before deciding to take my current four day per week position with Moodle, and work with the co-op on the side.

Finally, one thing that might help is to see your life as have ‘seasons’. I think too many people see their professional life as some kind of ladder which they need to climb. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s always nice to be well-paid (and I’ve never earned more than when I was consulting full-time) but there’s other things that are valuable in life: colleagues, security, and benefits such as a pension and healthcare, to name but a few.

Source: Verses

(Related: a post I wrote of my experiences after two years of full-time consultancy)

6 things that the best jobs have in common

Look at the following list and answer honestly the extent to which your current role, either as an employee or freelancer, matches up:

  1. Work that is engaging
  2. Work that benefits other people
  3. Work that you’re good at (and feel valued for)
  4. Flexibility in how and where you work
  5. A lack of major negatives (e.g. long commute, unpredictable working hours)
  6. The chance for meaningful collaboration

I would wager that very few people could claim to be enjoying all six. I’m pretty close in my current position, I reckon, but of course it’s easy to quickly forget how privileged I am.

It’s easier to see how remote positions fulfil points #4 and #5 than being employed in a particular place to work certain hours. On the other hand, the second part of #3 and #6 can be difficult remotely.

My advice? Focus on on #1 and #2 as they’re perhaps the most difficult to engineer. As an employee, look for interesting jobs with companies that have a pro-social mission. And if you’re a freelancer, once you’re financially secure, seek out gigs with similar.

Source: Fast Company


Image by WOCinTech Chat used under a CC BY license

Burnout-prevention rules

I’ve used quite a bit of Ben Werdmuller‘s software over the years. He co-founded Elgg, which I used for some of my postgraduate work, and Known, which a few of us experimented with for blogging a few years ago.

Ben’s always been an entrepreneur and is currently working on blockchain technologies after working for an early stage VC company. He’s a thoughtful human being and writes about technology and the humans who create it, and in this post bemoans the macho work culture endemic in tech:

It’s not normal. Eight years into working in America, I’m still getting used to the macho culture around vacations. I had previously lived in a country where 28 days per year is the minimum that employers can legally provide; taking time off is just considered a part of life. The US is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t guarantee any vacation at all (the others are Tonga, Palau, Nauru, Micronesia, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands). It’s telling that American workers often respond to this simple fact with disbelief. How does anything get done?! Well, it turns out that a lot gets done when people aren’t burned out or chained to their desks.

Ben comes up with some ‘rules’:

  1. Take a real lunch hour
  2. Take short breaks and get a change of scenery
  3. Go home
  4. Rotate being on call — and automate as much as possible
  5. Always know when your next vacation is
  6. Employers: provide Time Off In Lieu (or pay for overtime)
  7. Trust
  8. Track and impose norms with structure
  9. Take responsibility for each other’s well being

All solid ideas, but only nine rules? I feel like there’s a tenth one missing:

10. Connect with a wider purpose

After all, if you don’t know the point of what you’re working for, then you’ll be lacking motivation no matter how many (or few) hours you work.

Source: Ben Werdmuller

Dealing with the downsides of remote working

A colleague, who also works remotely, shared this article recently. Although I enjoy working remotely, it’s not without its downsides.

The author, Martin De Wulf, is a coder writing for an audience of software engineers. That’s not me, but I do work in the world of tech. The things that De Wulf says makes remote working stressful are:

  1. Dehumanisation: “communication tends to stick to structured channels”
  2. Interruptions and multitasking: “being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability”
  3. Overworking: “this all amounts for me to the question of trust: your employer trusted you a lot, allowing you to work on your own terms , and in exchange, I have always felt compelled to actually work a lot more than if I was in an office.”
  4. Being a stay at home dad: “When you spend a good part of your time at home, your family sees you as more available than they should.”
  5. Loneliness: “I do enjoy being alone quite a lot, but even for me, after two weeks of only seeing colleagues through my screen, and then my family at night, I end up feeling quite sad. I miss feeling integrated in a community of pairs.”
  6. Deciding where to work every day: “not knowing where I will be working everyday, and having to think about which hardware I need to take with me”
  7. You never leave ‘work’: “working at home does not leave you time to cool off while coming back home from work”
  8. Career risk: “working remotely makes you less visible in your company”

I’ve managed to deal with at least half of this list. Here’s some suggestions.

  • Video conference calls: they’re not a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but they’re a lot better than audio only or just relying on emails and text chats.
  • Home office: I have one separate to the house. Also, it sounds ridiculous but I’ve got a sign I bought on eBay that slides between ‘free’ (green) and ‘busy’ (red).
  • Travel: at every opportunity. Even though it takes me away from my wife and kids, I do see mine a lot more than the average office worker.
  • Realistic expectations: four hours of solid ‘knowledge work’ per day plus emails and admin tasks is enough.

Source: Hacker Noon

Natural light as an ‘office perk’

You may not be able to detect it, but fluorescent lights flicker. They trigger my migraines. In fact, they affect me to such an extent that, when I worked at the university, I was on the ‘disabled’ list and had to have adjustments made. These included making sure I sat near a window to maximise the amount of natural light in my workspace.

In this HBR article, written by a partner at a HR advisory and research firm, the author cites a survey which shows that all employees want access to natural light

In a research poll of 1,614 North American employees, we found that access to natural light and views of the outdoors are the number one attribute of the workplace environment, outranking stalwarts like onsite cafeterias, fitness centers, and premium perks including on-site childcare.

One of the best things about working remotely (‘from home’) is that you can go and sit somewhere that has good natural light. There’s a coffee shop near us that has two walls completely made of glass. It’s wonderful.

The study also found that the absence of natural light and outdoor views hurts the employee experience. Over a third of employees feel that they don’t get enough natural light in their workspace. 47% of employees admit they feel tired or very tired from the absence of natural light or a window at their office, and 43% report feeling gloomy because of the lack of light.

The next point is an important one about hierarchies:

Too often, organizations design workspaces for executives with large windows while lower level employees do not have access to light. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Airbnb has pushed the limits of designing its customer call center operation in Portland, Oregon. Rather than windowless work stations commonly found in call centers, the Airbnb Call Center is designed to be an open space with access to natural light and views of the surroundings while replacing desks and phones with long couches, standing desks and wireless technology. The benefits of these elements is is well recognized. In fact, some European Union countries mandate employee proximity to windows as part of their national building code! This is because they realize that an absence of natural light hurts overall employee experience, up and down the organization.

I’ve been reading Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers by Stephen Graham, which explores issues like these. Fascinating stuff.

Source: Harvard Business Review

The importance of marginalia

Austin Kleon makes a simple, but important point, about how to become a writer:

I believe that the first step towards becoming a writer is becoming a reader, but the next step is becoming a reader with a pencil. When you underline and circle and jot down your questions and argue in the margins, you’re existing in this interesting middle ground between reader and writer:

Kleon has previously recommended Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, which I bought last time he mentioned it. Ironically enough, it’s sitting on my bookshelf, unread. Anyway, he quotes Adler and Van Doren as saying:

Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it. Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author. Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author….Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements…It is the highest respect you can pay him.

I read a lot of non-fiction books on my e-reader*, so the equivalent of that for me is Thought Shrapnel, I guess…

Source: Austin Kleon

* Note: I left my old e-reader on the flight home from our holiday. I took the opportunity to upgrade to the bq Cervantes 4, which I bought from Amazon Spain.

Introverts, collaboration, and creativity

I work, for the most part, in my home office. Physically-speaking it’s a solitary existence as my office is separate to my house. However, I’m constantly talking to people via Telegram, Slack, and Mastodon. It doesn’t feel lonely at all.

So this article about collaboration, which I discovered via Stowe Boyd, is an interesting one:

If you’re looking to be brave and do something entirely new, involving more people at the wrong time could kill your idea.

Work at MIT found that collaboration—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

I’m leading a project at the moment which is scheduled to launch in January 2019. It’s potentially going to be used by hundreds of people in the MVP, and then thousands (and maybe hundreds of thousands) after that.

Yet, when I was asked recently whether I’d like more resources, I said “after the summer”. Why? Because every time you add someone new, it temporarily slows down your project. The same can be true when you’re coming up with ideas. You can go faster alone, but further together.

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

I think this article goes a little too far in discounting the value of collaboration. For example, here’s three types of facilitated thinking that I have experience with that work well for both introverts and extroverts:

  1. Thinkathons
  2. Note and vote
  3. Crazy eights

That being said, I do agree with the author when he says:

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

Design thinking has a bias towards action: it resists talking yourself out of trying something radical. Creating prototypes helps you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and get it to test before it gets dumbed down.

Chances are, that crazy idea you had will get toned down if you let too many people look at it. Protect the radical and push it hard!

Source: Paul Taylor (via Stowe Boyd)