Tag: work (page 2 of 4)

Owners need to invest in employees to have them feel invested in their work

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, writes:

As the nature of work changes, the factors keeping people invested in and motivated by that work are changing, too. What’s clear is that our conventional strategies for cultivating engagement may no longer work. We need to rethink our approach.

I think it’s great that forward-thinking organisations are trying to find ways to make work more fulfilling, and be part of a more holistic approach to life.

Current research suggests that extrinsic rewards (like bonuses or promotions) are great at motivating people to perform routine tasks—but are actually counterproductive when we use them to motivate creative problem-solving or innovation. That means that the value of intrinsic motivation is rising, which is why cultivating employee engagement is such an important topic right now.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that people no longer want to be paid for their work. But a paycheck alone is no longer enough to maintain engagement. As work becomes more difficult to specify and observe, managers have to ensure excellent performance via methods other than prescription, observation, and inspection. Micromanaging complex work is impossible.

Whitehurst suggests that there are three things organisations can do. I’d support all of these:

  1. Connect to a mission and purpose
  2. Reconsider your view of failure
  3. Cultivate a sense of ownership

However, what I think is startlingly missing from almost every vision from people 40+ is that they should be thinking about actual employee ownership — not just cultivating a ‘sense’ of it.

Don’t get me wrong, forming a co-op doesn’t automatically guarantee worker satisfaction, but it’s a whole lot more motivating when you know you’re not just working to make someone else rich.

Source: opensource.com

Work-life balance is actually a circle, according to Jeff Bezos

Whatever your thoughts about Amazon, it’s hard to disagree that they’ve changed the world. Their CEO, Jeff Bezos, has some thoughts about what’s usually termed ‘work-life balance’:

This work-life harmony thing is what I try to teach young employees and actually senior executives at Amazon too. But especially the people coming in. I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that’s a debilitating phrase because it implies there’s a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy.

Of course, if you work from home (as I do) being happy at home is crucial to being happy at work.

I like his metaphor of a circle, about it not being a trade-off or ‘balance’:

It actually is a circle; it’s not a balance. And I think that is worth everybody paying attention to it. You never want to be that guy — and we all have a coworker who’s that person — who as soon as they come into a meeting they drain all the energy out of the room. You can just feel the energy go whoosh! You don’t want to be that guy. You want to come into the office and give everyone a kick in their step.

All of the most awesome people I know have nothing like a work-life ‘balance’. Instead, they work hard, play hard, and tie that to a mission bigger than themselves.

Whether that’s true for the staff on targets in Amazon warehouses is a different matter, of course. But for knowledge workers, I think it’s spot-on.

Source: Chicago Tribune

The virtue of rest

This article in The Washington Post is, inevitably, focused on American work culture. However, I think it’s more widely applicable, even if we are a bit more chilled out in Europe.

Many victories of the labor movement were premised on the precise notion that the majority of one’s life shouldn’t be made up of work: It was the socialist Robert Owen who championed the eight-hour workday, coining the slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” For Owen, it was important not only that workers had time to sleep after a hard day’s labor, but also that they had time to pursue their own interests — to enjoy leisure activities, cultivate their own projects, spend time with their families and so forth. After all, a life with nothing but work and sleep is akin to slavery, and not particularly dignified.

Most mornings, I wake up rested and ready for work. Like most people, there are some mornings that I don’t. Unsurprisingly, the mornings when I don’t feel ready for work are those that follow days when I’ve had to do more work-related tasks than usual.

There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth.

I’m reading Utopia for Realists at the moment, which has some excellent suggestions. It presents some startlingly-simple, well-researched ways forward. I think my favourite part is where the author, Rutger Bregman, points out that people who are in need require direct help, rather than complex schemes.

The same goes with our so-called ‘work-life’ balance. What we actually need for a flourishing, healthy society and democracy is more rest. As Alex Pang, author of the book Rest notes, leisure is usually framed these days as a way to get more work done. Instead, we should value it for its own sake.

Source: The Washington Post

What can dreams of a communist robot utopia teach us about human nature?

This article in Aeon by Victor Petrov posits that, in the post-industrial age, we no longer see human beings as primarily manual workers, but as thinkers using digital screens to get stuff done. What does that do to our self-image?

The communist parties of eastern Europe grappled with this new question, too. The utopian social order they were promising from Berlin to Vladivostok rested on the claim that proletarian societies would use technology to its full potential, in the service of all working people. Bourgeois information society would alienate workers even more from their own labour, turning them into playthings of the ruling classes; but a socialist information society would free Man from drudgery, unleash his creative powers, and enable him to ‘hunt in the morning … and criticise after dinner’, as Karl Marx put it in 1845. However, socialist society and its intellectuals foresaw many of the anxieties that are still with us today. What would a man do in a world of no labour, and where thinking was done by machines?

Bulgaria was a communist country that, after the Second World War, went from producing cigarettes to being one of the world’s largest producers of computers. This had a knock-on effect on what people wrote about in the country.

The Bulgarian reader was increasingly treated to debates about what humanity would be in this new age. Some, such as the philosopher Mityu Yankov, argued that what set Man apart from the animals was his ability to change and shape nature. For thousands of years, he had done this through physical means and his own brawn. But the Industrial Revolution had started a change of Man’s own nature, which was culminating with the Information Revolution – humanity now was becoming not a worker but a ‘governor’, a master of nature, and the means of production were not machines or muscles, but the human brain.

Lyuben Dilov, a popular sci-fi author, focused on “the boundaries between man and machine, brain and computer”. His books were full of societies obsessed with technology.

Added to this, there is technological anxiety, too – what is it to be a man when there are so many machines? Thus, Dilov invents a Fourth Law of Robotics, to supplement Asimov’s famous three, which states that ‘the robot must, in all circumstances, legitimate itself as a robot’. This was a reaction by science to the roboticists’ wish to give their creations ever more human qualities and appearance, making them subordinate to their function – often copying animal or insect forms. Zenon muses on human interactions with robots that start from a young age, giving the child power over the machine from the outset. This undermines our trust in the very machines on which we depend. Humans need a distinction from the robots, they need to know that they are always in power and couldn’t be lied to. For Dilov, the anxiety was about the limits of humanity, at least in its current stage – fearful, humans could not yet treat anything else, including their machines, as equals.

This all seems very pertinent at a time when deepfakes make us question what is real online. We’re perhaps less worried about a Blade Runner-style dystopia and more concerned about digital ‘reality’ but, nevertheless, questions about what it means to be human persist.

Bulgarian robots were both to be feared and they were the future. Socialism promised to end meaningless labour but reproduced many of the anxieties that are still with us today in our ever-automating world. What can Man do that a machine cannot do is something we still haven’t solved. But, like Kesarovski, perhaps we need not fear this new world so much, nor give up our reservations for the promise of a better, easier world.

Source: Aeon

The résumé is a poor proxy for a human being

I’ve never been a fan of the résumé, or ‘Curriculum Vitae’ (CV) as we tend to call them in the UK. How on earth can a couple of sheets of paper ever hope to sum up an individual in all of their complexity? It inevitably leads to the kind of things that end up on LinkedIn profiles: your academic qualifications, job history, and a list of hobbies that don’t make you sound like a loser.

In this (long-ish) article for Quartz, Oliver Staley looks at what Laszlo Bock is up to with his new startup, with a detour through the history of the résumé.

“Resumes are terrible,” says Laszlo Bock, the former head of human resources at Google, where his team received 50,000 resumes a week. “It doesn’t capture the whole person. At best, they tell you what someone has done in the past and not what they’re capable of doing in the future.”

I really dislike résumés, and I’m delighted that I’ve managed to get my last couple of jobs without having to rely on them. I guess that’s a huge benefit of working openly; the web is your résumé.

Resumes force job seekers to contort their work and life history into corporately acceptable versions of their actual selves, to better conform to the employer’s expectation of the ideal candidate. Unusual or idiosyncratic careers complicate resumes. Gaps between jobs need to be accounted for. Skills and abilities learned outside of formal work or education aren’t easily explained. Employers may say they’re looking for job seekers to distinguish themselves, but the resume requires them to shed their distinguishing characteristics.

Unfortunately, Henry Ford’s ‘faster horses‘ rule also applies to résumés. And (cue eye roll) people need to find a way to work in buzzwords like ‘blockchain’.

The resume of the near future will be a document with far more information—and information that is far more useful—than the ones we use now. Farther out, it may not be a resume at all, but rather a digital dossier, perhaps secured on the blockchain (paywall), and uploaded to a global job-pairing engine that is sorting you, and billions of other job seekers, against millions of openings to find the perfect match.

I’m more interested in different approaches, rather than doubling-down on the existing approach, so it’s good to see large multinational companies like Unilever doing away with résumés. They prefer game-like assessments.

Two years ago, the North American division of Unilever—the consumer products giant—stopped asking for resumes for the approximately 150-200 positions it fills from college campuses annually. Instead, it’s relying on a mix of game-like assessments, automated video interviews, and in-person problem solving exercises to winnow down the field of 30,000 applicants.

It all sounds great but, at the end of the day it’s extra unpaid work, and more jumping through hoops.

The games are designed so there are no wrong answers— a weakness in one characteristic, like impulsivity, can reveal strength in another, like efficiency—and pymetrics gives candidates who don’t meet the standards for one position the option to apply for others at the company, or even at other companies. The algorithm matches candidates to the opportunities where they’re most likely to succeed. The goal, Polli says, is to eliminate the “rinse and repeat” process of submitting near identical applications for dozens of jobs, and instead use data science to target the best match of job and employee.

Back to Laszlo Bock, who claims that we should have an algorithmic system that matches people to available positions. I’m guessing he hasn’t read Brave New World.

For the system to work, it would need an understanding of a company’s corporate culture, and how people actually function within its walls—not just what the company says about its culture. And employees and applicants would need to be comfortable handing over their personal data.

For-profit entities wouldn’t be trusted as stewards of such sensitive information. Nor would governments, Bock says, noting that in communist Romania, where he was born, “the government literally had dossiers on every single citizen.”

Ultimately, Bock says, the system should be maintained by a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. “What I’m imagining, no human being should ever look inside this thing. You shouldn’t need to,” he says.

Hiring people is a social activity. The problem of having too many applicants is a symptom of a broken system. This might sound crazy, but I feel like hierarchical structures and a lack of employee ownership causes some of the issues we see. Then, of course, there’s much wider issues such as neo-colonialism, commodification, and bullshit jobs. But that’s for another post (or two)…

Source: Quartz at Work

Valuing and signalling your skills

When I rocked up to the MoodleMoot in Miami back in November last year, I ran a workshop that involved human spectrograms, post-it notes, and participatory activities. Although I work in tech and my current role is effectively a product manager for Moodle, I still see myself primarily as an educator.

This, however, was a surprise for some people who didn’t know me very well before I joined Moodle. As one person put it, “I didn’t know you had that in your toolbox”. The same was true at Mozilla; some people there just saw me as a quasi-academic working on web literacy stuff.

Given this, I was particularly interested in a post from Steve Blank which outlined why he enjoys working with startup-like organisations rather than large, established companies:

It never crossed my mind that I gravitated to startups because I thought more of my abilities than the value a large company would put on them. At least not consciously. But that’s the conclusion of a provocative research paper, Asymmetric Information and Entrepreneurship, that explains a new theory of why some people choose to be entrepreneurs. The authors’ conclusion — Entrepreneurs think they are better than their resumes show and realize they can make more money by going it alone.And in most cases, they are right.

If you stop and think for a moment, it’s entirely obvious that you know your skills, interests, and knowledge better than anyone who hires you for a specific role. Ordinarily, they’re interested in the version of you that fits the job description, rather than you as a holistic human being.

The paper that Blank cites covers research which followed 12,686 people over 30+ years. It comes up with seven main findings, but the most interesting thing for me (given my work on badges) is the following:

If the authors are right, the way we signal ability (resumes listing education and work history) is not only a poor predictor of success, but has implications for existing companies, startups, education, and public policy that require further thought and research.

It’s perhaps a little simplistic as a binary, but Blank cites a 1970s paper that uses ‘lemons’ and ‘cherries’ as a metaphors to compare workers:

Lemons Versus Cherries. The most provocative conclusion in the paper is that asymmetric information about ability leads existing companies to employ only “lemons,” relatively unproductive workers. The talented and more productive choose entrepreneurship. (Asymmetric Information is when one party has more or better information than the other.) In this case the entrepreneurs know something potential employers don’t – that nowhere on their resume does it show resiliency, curiosity, agility, resourcefulness, pattern recognition, tenacity and having a passion for products.

This implication, that entrepreneurs are, in fact, “cherries” contrasts with a large body of literature in social science, which says that the entrepreneurs are the “lemons”— those who cannot find, cannot hold, or cannot stand “real jobs.”

My main takeaway from this isn’t necessarily that entrepreneurship is always the best option, but that we’re really bad at signalling abilities and finding the right people to work with. I’m convinced that using digital credentials can improve that, but only if we use them in transformational ways, rather than replicate the status quo.

Source: Steve Blank

Deciding what to do next

This post by Daniel Gross, partner in a well-known startup accelerator is written for an audience of people in tech looking to build their next company. However, I think there’s more widely-applicable takeaways from it.

Gross mentions the following:

  1. If you want to make something grand, don’t start with grand ambitions
  2. Focus on the repeat offenders
  3. Tell your friends what you’re doing
  4. Make sure you enjoy thinking about it
  5. Get in the habit of simplifying
  6. Validate your market
  7. Launch uncomfortably quickly

To explain and unpack, point two is getting at those things that you think about every so often, those things you’re curious about. Points six and seven are, of course, focused on putting products in a marketplace, but I think there’s a way to think about this from a different perspective.

Take someone who’s looking for the next thing to do. Perhaps they’re dissatisfied with their current line of work, and so want to pursue opportunities in a different sector. It’s useful for them to look at what’s ‘normal’ (for example, teachers and lawyers work long hours). Once you’ve done your due diligence, it’s worth just getting started. Go and do something to set yourself on the road.

If there’s anything you remember from the post, let it be these two words: perpetual motion. Just Do It. Make little steps every day. One day that’ll add up to the next Google, Apple or Facebook.

…or, indeed, a role that you much prefer to the one you’re performing now!

Source: Daniel Gross

The ‘1, 2, 3’ approach to organising your working day

I subscribe to the free version of Stowe Boyd’s Work Futures newsletter. He’s jumped around platforms a bit when I think he’d be better off charging a smaller amount for a larger audience on Patreon.

Boyd’s latest post talks about how he approaches his work, a subject I find endlessly fascinating.

I basically employ three styles of work journaling:

  1. On a daily basis, I plan and track my work with the ‘1, 2, 3′ technique.
  2. On a weekly basis, I plan and track using the ‘must, should, might’ technique.
  3. On ‘agenda’ projects, I plan and track using the ‘do, do, do’ technique. I use the term ‘agenda’ to distinguish with the short-range calendar orientation of daily and weekly projects. This will make more sense, later on.

Breaking down that ‘1, 2, 3’ technique, he notes that (like me) he’s realised there’s only a certain amount you can sustainably get done in one day:

Specifically, I have learned that I can do the following:

  1. One major activity, such as working for a few hours on client research, or writing for a few hours. This is the ‘1′ in the ‘1, 2, 3′.
  2. Two medium sized activities, like a 45 minute phone call, or doing an hour-long webinar. This is the ‘2′ in the ‘1, 2, 3′.
  3. Three short activities, taking less than 45 minutes. This is the ‘3′ in the ‘1, 2, 3′.

I’m not sure how many hours per day Boyd works, but I bet it varies. What I like about this approach is that having a ‘major activity’ that you check off each day makes you feel like you’ve achieved something. A day full of short and medium-sized activities feels somewhat wasted.

Source: Work Futures

The spectrum of work autonomy

Some companies have (and advertise as a huge perk) their ‘unlimited vacation’ policy. That, of course, sounds amazing. Except, of course, that there’s a reason why companies are so benevolent.

I can think of at least two:

  1. Your peers will exert downward pressure on the number of holidays you actually take.
  2. If there’s no set holiday entitlement, when you leave the company doesn’t have to pay for unused holiday days.

This article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian uses the unlimited vacation policy as an example of the difference between two ends of the spectrum when it comes to jobs.

And that, increasingly, is the dividing line in modern workplaces: trust versus the lack of it; autonomy versus micro-management; being treated like a human being or programmed like a machine. Human jobs give the people who do them chances to exercise their own judgment, even if it’s only deciding what radio station to have on in the background, or set their own pace. Machine jobs offer at best a petty, box-ticking mentality with no scope for individual discretion, and at worst the ever-present threat of being tracked, timed and stalked by technology – a practice reaching its nadir among gig economy platforms controlling a resentful army of supposedly self-employed workers.

Never mind robots coming to steal our jobs, that’s just a symptom in a wider trend of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism:

There have always been crummy jobs, and badly paid ones. Not everyone gets to follow their dream or discover a vocation – and for some people, work will only ever be a means of paying the rent. But the saving grace of crummy jobs was often that there was at least some leeway for goofing around; for taking a fag break, gossiping with your equally bored workmates, or chatting a bit longer than necessary to lonely customers.

The ‘contract’ with employers these days goes way beyond the piece of paper you sign that states such mundanities as how much you will be paid or how much holiday you get. It’s about trust, as Hinsliff comments:

The mark of human jobs is an increasing understanding that you don’t have to know where your employees are and what they’re doing every second of the day to ensure they do it; that people can be just as productive, say, working from home, or switching their hours around so that they are working in the evening. Machine jobs offer all the insecurity of working for yourself without any of the freedom.

Embedded in this are huge diversity issues. I purposely chose a photo of a young white guy to go with the post, as they’re disproportionately likely to do well from this ‘trust-based’ workplace approach. People of colour, women, and those with disabilities are more likely to suffer from implicit bias and other forms of discrimination.

The debate about whether robots will soon be coming for everyone’s jobs is real. But it shouldn’t blind us to the risk right under our noses: not so much of people being automated out of jobs, as automated while still in them.

I consume a lot of what I post to Thought Shrapnel online, but I originally red this one in the dead-tree version of The Guardian. Interestingly, in the same issue there was a letter from a doctor by the name of Jonathan Shapiro, who wrote that he divides his colleagues into three different types:

  1. Passionate
  2. Dispassionate
  3. Compassionate

The first group suffer burnout, he said. The second group survive but are “lousy”. It’s the third group that cope, as they “care for patients without sacrificing themselves on the altar of professional vocation”.

What we need to be focusing on in education is preparing young people to be compassionate human beings, not cogs in the capitalist machine.

Source: The Guardian

How to get hired

A great short post from Seth Godin, who explains how things work in the real world when you’re looking for a job or your next gig:

You meet someone. You do a small project. You write an article. It leads to another meeting. You do a slightly bigger project for someone else. You make a short film. That leads to a speaking gig. Which leads to an consulting contract. And then you get the gig.

These ‘hops’ as he calls them are important as they affect the mindset we should adopt:

If you’re walking around with a quid pro quo mindset, giving only enough to get what you need right now, and walking away from anyone or anything that isn’t the destination—not only are you eliminating all the possible multi-hop options, you’re probably not having as much as fun or contributing as much as you could either.

Amen to that.

Source: Seth Godin