Category: Better ways of working (page 2 of 8)

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)

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

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)

Reduce your costs, retain your focus

The older I get, the less important I realise things are that I deemed earlier in life. For example, the main thing in life seems to be to find something you can find interesting to work on for a long period of time. That’s unlikely to be a ‘job’ but more like a problem to be solved values to exemplify and share.

Jason Fried writes on his company’s blog about the journey that they’ve taken over the last 19 years. Everyone knows Basecamp because it’s been around for as long as you’ve been on the web.

2018 will be our 19th year in business. That means we’ve survived a couple of major downturns — 2001, and 2008, specifically. I’ve been asked how. It’s simple: It didn’t cost us much to stay in business. In 2001 we had 4 employees. We were competing against companies that had 40, 400, even 4000. We had 4. We made it through, many did not. In 2008 we had around 20. We had millions in revenue coming in, but we still didn’t spend money on marketing, and we still sublet a corner of someone else’s office. Business was amazing, but we continued to keep our costs low. Keeping a handle on your costs must be a habit, not an occasion. Diets don’t work, eating responsibly does.

What is true in business is true in your personal life. I’m writing this out in the garden of our terraced property. It’s approximately the size of a postage stamp. No matter, it’s big enough for what we need, and living here means my wife doesn’t have to work (unless she wants to) and I’m not under pressure to earn some huge salary.

So keep your costs as low as possible. And it’s likely that true number is even lower than you think possible. That’s how you last through the leanest times. The leanest times are often the earliest times, when you don’t have customers yet, when you don’t have revenue yet. Why would you tank your odds of survival by spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need? Beats me, but people do it all the time. ALL THE TIME. Dreaming of all the amazing things you’ll do in year three doesn’t matter if you can’t get past year two.

These days we have huge expectations of what life should give us. The funny thing is that, if you stand back a moment and ask what you actually need, there’s never been a time in history when the baseline that society provides has been so high.

We rush around the place trying to be like other people and organisations, when we need to think about what who and what we’re trying to be. The way to ‘win’ at life and business is to still be doing what you enjoy and deem important when everyone else has crashed and burned.

Source: Signal v. Noise

Rethinking hierarchy

This study featured on the blog of the Stanford Graduate School of Business talks about the difference between hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures. It cites work by Lisanne van Bunderen from University of Amsterdam, who found that egalitarianism seemed to lead to better performance:

“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate,’” says van Bunderen. “They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”

Context, of course, is vital. One place where hierarchy and a command-and-control approach seems impotant is in high stakes situations such as the battlefield or hospital operating theatres during delicate operations. Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, nevertheless believes that, even in these situations, the amount of hierarchy can be reduced:

In some cases, hierarchy is an unavoidable part of the work. Greer is currently studying the interaction between surgeons and nurses, and surgeons lead by necessity. “If you took the surgeon out of the operating room, you would have some issues,” she says. But surgeons’ dominance in the operating room can also be problematic, creating dysfunctional power dynamics. To help solve this problem, Greer believes that the expression of hierarchy can be moderated. That is, surgeons can learn to behave in a way that’s less hierarchical.

While hierarchy is necessary in some situations, what we need is a more fluid approach to organising, as I’ve written about recently. The article gives the very practical example of Navy SEALs:

Navy SEALS exemplify this idea. Strict hierarchy dominates out in the field: When a leader says go left, they go left. But when the team returns for debrief, “they literally leave their stripes at the door,” says Greer. The hierarchy disappears; nobody is a leader, nobody a follower. “They fluidly shift out of these hierarchical structures,” she says. “It would be great if business leaders could do this too: Shift from top-down command to a position in which everyone has a say.” Importantly, she reiterated, this kind of change is not only about keeping employees happy, but also about enhancing performance and benefiting the bottom line.

Like the article’s author, I’m still looking for something that’s going to gain more traction than Holacracy. Perhaps the sociocratic approach could work well, but does require people to be inducted into it. After all, hierarchy and capitalism is what we’re born into these days. It feels ‘natural’ to people.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Business (via Stowe Boyd)

Crawling before you walk

Alberto Corado, Moodle’s UX Lead, sent me an article by Rebecca Guthrie entitled Crawl, Walk, Run. It’s contains good, concise, advice in three parts:

Crawl. Do things that don’t scale at the beginning. Talk to 50 potential customers, listen, discover pain points, and then begin to form a product to solve that pain. Use this feedback to develop your MVP. Don’t fall in love with your solution. Fall in love with their problem. I’ve mentioned this before, read Lean Startup.

This is what we’ve been doing so far with the MoodleNet project. I must have spoken to around 50 people all told, running the idea past them, getting their feedback, and iterating towards the prototype we came up with during the design sprint. I’d link to the records I have of those conversations, but I had to take down my notes on the wiki, along with community call stuff, due to GDPR.

Walk. Create mock-ups. Start to develop your product. Go back to your early potential customers and ask them if your MVP (or mockups) solve their problem. Pre-sell it. If you really are solving a problem, they will pay you for the software. Don’t give it away for free, but do give them an incentive to participate. If you can’t get one person to buy before it is ready, do not move onto the next stage with building your product. Or, you will launch to crickets. Go back to your mock-ups and keep going until you create something at least one person wants to buy. The one person should not be a family member or acquaintance. Once you have the pre-sale(s), conduct a Beta round where those paying users test out what you’ve built. Stay in Beta until you can leverage testimonials from your users. Leverage this time to plan for what comes next, an influx of customers based of your client’s testimonials.

I’m not sure this completely applies to what we’re doing with MoodleNet. It’s effectively a version of what Tim Ferriss outlines in The 4-Hour Work Week when he suggests creating a page for a product that doesn’t exist and taking sign-ups after someone presses the ‘Buy’ button.

What I think we can do is create clickable prototypes using something like Adobe XD, which allows users to give feedback on specific features. We can use this UX feedback to create an approach ready for when the technical architecture is built.

Run. Once your Beta is proven, RUN! Run as fast as you can and get Sales. The founder (or one of the founders) must be willing to hustle for sales. I recommend downloading the startup course from Close.io. Steli gives amazing advice.

While MoodleNet needs to be sustainable, this isn’t about huge sales growth but about serving educators. We do want as many people to use the platform as possible, and we want to grow in a way where there’s a feedback loop. So we may end up doing something like giving our initial cohort a certain number of invites to encourage their friends/colleagues to join.

Food for thought, certainly.

Source: Rebecca Guthrie