Tag: work (page 1 of 4)

Insidious Instagram influencers?

There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.

This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:

Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.

Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:

The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.

There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be

Sources: Basecamp / Quartz at Work / The New York Times / The Guardian

 

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

(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

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

Busyness and value creation

I subscribe to both Seth Godin’s blog and his podcast, Akimbo. The man’s a genius as far as I’m concerned.

One of his most recent posts is about productivity:

Now, more than ever, you’re likely to be running a team, managing a project or deciding on your own agenda as a free agent. Time is just about all you’ve got to spend.

And yet, we hardly talk about productivity.

Productivity is the amount of useful output created for every hour of work we do.

You can measure that output in money if you want to (it makes the math easier) but in fact, it’s everything from lives changed to knowledge shared. What matters is the answer to a simple question: did I spend my day producing enough benefit for all the time invested?

So far, standard stuff. What I like is the way he applies it to our current situation in 2018:

The internet has opened the door for more people to organize and plan their day than ever before. And we’re bad at it.

Because we associate busyness with business with productivity.

In my twenties, when I worked in schools, I worked 12+ hours every day. Now I work half that. Why? Because I work from home and can manage my own time. I’m rarely just waiting around or kicking my heels:

Imagine two buildings under construction. Both have 25 well-trained, well-paid, hard-working construction workers. One building, though, was built in half the time of the other. What happened? It turns out that construction almost always slows down because people are waiting. Waiting for the waterproofing to get done (while they wait for the specialist) or waiting for parts or waiting for another part of the project. The internet is the home of the connection economy, which means that this challenge is multiplied by 100. What are you waiting for? When you’re waiting, what are you doing to create value?

It’s a useful read, particularly if you feel that you’re at a crossroads in your career. You should always go towards that which gives you more agency. That way, you get more of a say in how productive you can be in any given day.

Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.

Source: Seth Godin

LinkedIn: the game?

Just like Facebook, I’ve deleted my LinkedIn account a couple of times. The difference is that I keep coming back to LinkedIn for some reason, while I’m a very happy non-user of Facebook.

This article imagines LinkedIn as a ‘game’ that you can win or lose. The framing is both hilarious and insightful, with the subtitle reading, “A strategy guide for using a semi-pointless social network in all the wrong ways.”

For those unfamiliar, LinkedIn is a 2D, turn-based MMORPG that sets itself apart from its competitors by placing players not in a fantasy world of orcs and goblins, but in the treacherous world of business. Players can choose from dozens of character classes (e.g., Entrepreneurs, Social Media Mavens, Finance Wizards) each with their own skill sets and special moves (Power Lunch; Signal Boost; Invoice Dodge). They gain “experience” by networking, obtaining endorsements from other users, and posting inspirational quotes from Elon Musk.

The general goal of LinkedIn (the game) is to find and connect with as many people on LinkedIn (the website) as possible, in order to secure vaguely defined social capital and potentially further one’s career, which allows the player to purchase consumer goods of gradually increasing quality. Like many games, it has dubious real-life utility. The site’s popularity and success, like that of many social networks, depends heavily on obfuscating this fact. This illusion of importance creates a sense of naive trust among its users. This makes it easy to exploit.

Yep, LinkedIn makes its money in a similar way to Facebook: allow users to create contacts on a platform completely owned by one company (which is now Microsoft). Then, charge them to beat the algorithm you created.

Some people I know pay for LinkedIn Premium. I’ve never understood why when it’s effectively the front end for an address book. Instead, I pay for FullContact, which is a much better deal, long-term.

Nevertheless, if you’re playing the LinkedIn game, here’s what to do:

Spend a few hours each day connecting with people. Start by searching for employees at powerful corporations like Google and Facebook. As users within various spheres of influence accept your connection requests, you will begin to gain legitimacy. At first a few people might decline your request, but eventually, once your network grows, important people will see that others they know are already connected with you, and accept your invitation without suspicion. Work your way through the corporate food chain like an intestinal parasite at a gratis conference buffet.

As the author notes with a wink and a nod, there are multiple ways of gaming the system, including:

Because there’s no limit to the number of jobs one can have simultaneously, it’s incredibly easy to spam people with superfluous work anniversaries. All you have to do is create 12 active jobs, each with a different starting month. (As far as I can tell, LinkedIn only sends one work anniversary email per user per month, so it’s not worth the trouble to input more than 12.)

I honestly don’t know why I continue to use LinkedIn. People message me on their occasionally, and I send (some of) my blog posts there. Other than that, it seems like people farming, just like a business version of Facebook.

Source: The Outline

Problems with the present and future of work are of our own making

This is a long essay in which the RSA announces that, along with its partners (one of which, inevitably, is Google) it’s launching the Future Work Centre. I’ve only selected quotations from the first section here.

From autonomous vehicles to cancer-detecting algorithms, and from picking and packing machines to robo-advisory tools used in financial services, every corner of the economy has begun to feel the heat of a new machine age. The RSA uses the term ‘radical technologies’ to describe these innovations, which stretch from the shiny and much talked about, including artificial intelligence and robotics, to the prosaic but equally consequential, such as smartphones and digital platforms.

I highly recommend reading Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life, if you haven’t already. Greenfield isn’t beholden to corporate partners, and lets rip.

What is certain is that the world of work will evolve as a direct consequence of the invention and adoption of radical technologies — and in more ways than we might imagine. Alongside eliminating and creating jobs, these innovations will alter how workers are recruited, monitored, organised and paid. Companies like HireVue (video interviewing), Percolata (schedule setting) and Veriato (performance monitoring) are eager to reinvent all aspects of the workplace.

Indeed, and a lot of what’s going on is compliance and surveillance of workers smuggled in through the back door while people focus on ‘innovation’.

The main problems outlined with the current economy which is being ‘disrupted’ by technology are:

  1. Declining wages (in real terms)
  2. Economic insecurity (gig economy, etc.)
  3. Working conditions
  4. Bullshit jobs
  5. Work-life balance

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a dysfunctional labour market — a world of work that offers little in the way of material security, let alone satisfaction. But that may be going too far. Overall, most workers enjoy what they do and relish the careers they have established. The British Social Attitudes survey found that twice as many people in 2015 as in 1989 strongly agreed they would enjoy having a job even if their financial circumstances did not require it.

The problem is not with work per se but rather with how it is orchestrated in the modern economy, and how rewards are meted out. As a society we have a vision of what work could and should look like — well paid, protective, meaningful, engaging — but the reality too often falls short.

I doubt the RSA would ever say it without huge caveats, but the problem is neoliberalism. It’s all very well looking to the past for examples of technological disruption, but that was qualitatively different from what’s going on now. Organisations can run on a skeleton staff and make obscene profits for a very few people.

I feel like warnings such as ‘the robots are coming’ and ‘be careful not to choose an easily-automated occupation!’ are a smokescreen for decisions that people are making about the kind of society they want to live in. It seems like that’s one where most of us (the ‘have nots’) are expendable, while the 0.01% (the ‘haves’) live in historically-unparalleled luxury.

In summary, the lives of workers will be shaped by more technologies than AI and robotics, and in more ways than through the loss of jobs.

Fears surrounding automaton should be taken seriously. Yet anxiety over job losses should not distract us from the subtler impacts of radical technologies, including on recruitment practices, employee monitoring and people’s work-life balance. Nor should we become so fixated on AI and robotics that we lose sight of the conventional technologies bringing about change in the present moment.

Exactly. Let’s fix 2018 before we start thinking about 2040, eh?

Source: The RSA

On ‘unique’ organisational cultures

This article on Recode, which accompanies one of their podcast episodes, features some thoughts from Adam Grant, psychologist and management expert. A couple of things he says chime with my experience of going into a lot of organisations as a consultant, too:

“Almost every company I’ve gone into, what I hear is, ‘Our culture is unique!’” Grant said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “And then I ask, ‘How is it unique?’ and the answers are all the same.”

Exactly. There’s only so many ways you can slice and dice hierarchy, so people do exercises around corporate values and mission statements.

“I hear, ‘People really believe in our values and they think that we’re a cause, so we’re so passionate about the mission!’” he added. “Great. So is pretty much every other company. I hear, ‘We give employees unusual flexibility,’ ‘We have all sorts of benefits that no other company offers,’ and ‘We live with integrity in ways that no other company does.’ It’s just the same platitudes over and over.”

If organisations really want to be innovative, they should empower their employees in ways beyond mere words. Perhaps by allowing them to be co-owners of the business, or by devolving power (and budget) to smaller, cross-functional teams?

Another thing that Grant complains about is the idea of ‘cultural fit’. I can see why organisations do this as, after all, you do have to get on and work with the people you’re hiring. However, as he explains, it’s a self-defeating approach:

Startups with a disruptive idea can use “culture fit” to hire a lot of people who all feel passionately about the mission of these potentially world-changing companies, Grant said. But then those people hire even more people who are like them.

“You end up attracting the same kinds of people because culture fit is a proxy for, ‘Are you similar to me? Do I want to hang out with you?’” he said. “So you end up with this nice, homogeneous group of people who fall into groupthink and then it’s easier for them to get disrupted from the outside, and they have trouble innovating and changing.”

I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but the short article is solid stuff.

Recode (via Stowe Boyd)