Tag: culture

Remote work is a different beast

You might not work remotely right now, but the chances are that at some point in your career, and in some capacity, you will do. Remote work has its own challenges and benefits, which are alluded to in three articles in Fast Company that I want to highlight. The first is an article summarising a survey Google performed amongst 5,600 of its remote workers.

On the outset of the study, the team hypothesized that distributed teams might not be as productive as their centrally located counterparts. “We were a little nervous about that,” says [Veronica] Gilrane [manager of Google’s People Innovation Lab]. She was surprised to find that distributed teams performed just as well. Unfortunately, she also found that there is a lot more frustration involved in working remotely. Workers in other offices can sometimes feel burdened to sync up their schedules with the main office. They can also feel disconnected from the team.

That doesn’t surprise me at all. Even though probably spend less AFK (Away From Keyboard) as a remote worker than I would in an office, there’s not that performative element, where you have to look like you’re working. Sometimes work doesn’t look like work; it looks like going for a run to think about a problem, or bouncing an idea off a neighbour as you walk back to your office with a cup of tea.

The main thing, as this article points out, is that it’s really important to have an approach that focuses on results rather than time spent doing the work. You do have to have some process, though:

[I]t’s imperative that you stress disciplinary excellence; workers at home don’t have a manager peering over their shoulder, so they have to act as their own boss and maintain a strict schedule to get things done. Don’t try to dictate every aspect of their lives–remote work is effective because it offers workers flexibility, after all. Nonetheless, be sure that you’re requesting regular status updates, and that you have a system in place to measure productivity.

Fully-remote working is different to ‘working from home’ a day or two per week. It does take discipline, if only to stop raiding the biscuit tin. But it’s also a different mindset, including intentionally sharing your work much more than you’d do in a co-located setting.

Fundamentally, as Greg Galant, CEO of a full-remote organisation, comments, it’s about trust:

“My friends always say to me, ‘How do you know if anyone is really working?’ and I always ask them, ‘How do you know if anybody is really working if they are at the office?’” says Galant. “Because the reality is, you can see somebody at their desk and they can stay late, but that doesn’t mean they’re really working.”

[…]

If managers are adhering to traditional management practices, they’re going to feel anxiety with remote teams. They’re going to want to check in constantly to make sure people are working. But checking in constantly prevents work from getting done.

Remote work is strange and difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. You can, for example, in the same day feel isolated and lonely, while simultaneously getting annoyed with all of the ‘pings’ and internal communication coming at you.

At the end of the day, companies need to set expectations, and remote workers need to set boundaries. It’s the only way to avoid burnout, and to ensure that what can be a wonderful experience doesn’t turn into a nightmare.


Also check out:

  • 5 Great Resources for Remote Workers (Product Hunt) — “If you’re a remote worker or spend part of your day working from outside of the office, the following tools will help you find jobs, discover the best cities for remote workers, and learn from people who have built successful freelance careers or location-independent companies.”
  • Stop Managing Your Remote Workers As If They Work Onsite (ThinkGrowth) — “Managers need to back away from their conventional views of what “working hard” looks like and instead set specific targets, explain what success looks like, and trust the team to get it done where, when, and however works best for them.”
  • 11 Tools That Allow us to Work from Anywhere on Earth as a Distributed Company (Ghost) —”In an office, the collaboration tools you use are akin to a simple device like a screwdriver. They assist with difficult tasks and lessen the amount of effort required to complete them. In a distributed team, the tools you use are more like life-support. Everything to do with distributed team tools is about clawing back some of that contextual awareness which you’ve lost by not being in the same space.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

The title of this post is a quotation from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can attest to its truth.

That’s why, when someone shared this post by Grace Krause, which is basically a poem about work culture, I paid attention. Entitled Appropriate Channels, here’s a flavour:

We would like to remind you all
That we care deeply
About our staff and our students
And in no way do we wish to silence criticism
But please make use of the
Appropriate Channels

The Appropriate Channel is tears cried at home
And not in the workplace
Please refrain from crying at your desk
As it might lower the productivity of your colleagues

Organisational culture is difficult because of the patriarchy. I selected this part of the poem, as I’ve come to realise just how problematic it is to let people know (through words, actions, or policies) that it’s not OK to cry at work. If we’re to bring our full selves to work, then emotion is part of it.

Any organisation has a culture, and that culture can be changed, for better or for worse. Restaurants are notoriously toxic places to work, which is why this article in Quartz, is interesting:

Since four-time James Beard award winner Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune’s doors in 1999, she, along with her co-chef Ashley Merriman, have established a set of principles that help guide employees at the restaurant. According to Hamilton and Merriman, the code has a kind of transformative power. It’s helped the kitchen avoid becoming a hierarchical, top-down fiefdom—a concentration of power that innumerable chefs have abused in the past. It can turn obnoxious, entitled patrons into polite diners who are delighted to have a seat at the table. And it’s created the kind of environment where Hamilton and Merriman, along with their staff, want to spend much of their day.

The five core values of their restaurant, which I think you could apply to any organisation, are:

  1. Be thorough and excellent in everything that you do
  2. Be smart and funny
  3. Be disarmingly honest
  4. Work without division of any kind
  5. Practise servant leadership

We live in the ‘age of burnout’, according to another article in Quartz, but there’s no reason why we can’t love the work we do. It’s all about finding the meaning behind the stuff we get done on a daily basis:

Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.

It’s important to remember this, that we choose to do the work we do, that we don’t have to work for a single employer, and that we can tell a different story about ourselves at any point we choose. It might not be easy, but it’s certainly doable.


Also check out:

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)

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

Anonymity vs accountability

As this article points out, organisational culture is a delicate balance between many things, including accountability and anonymity:

Though some assurance of anonymity is necessary in a few sensitive and exceptional scenarios, dependence on anonymous feedback channels within an organization may stunt the normalization of a culture that encourages diversity and community.

Anonymity can be helpful and positive:

For example, an anonymous suggestion program to garner ideas from members or employees in an organization may strengthen inclusivity and enhance the diversity of suggestions the organization receives. It would also make for a more meritocratic decision-making process, as anonymity would ensure that the quality of the articulated idea, rather than the rank and reputation of the articulator, is what’s under evaluation. Allowing members to anonymously vote for anonymously-submitted ideas would help curb the influence of office politics in decisions affecting the organization’s growth.

…but also problematic:

Reliance on anonymous speech for serious organizational decision-making may also contribute to complacency in an organizational culture that falls short of openness. Outlets for anonymous speech may be as similar to open as crowdsourcing is—or rather, is not. Like efforts to crowdsource creative ideas, anonymous suggestion programs may create an organizational environment in which diverse perspectives are only valued when an organization’s leaders find it convenient to take advantage of members’ ideas.

The author gives some advice to leaders under five sub-headings:

  1. Availability of additional communication mechanisms
  2. Failure of other communication avenues
  3. Consequences of anonymity
  4. Designing the anonymous communication channel
  5. Long-term considerations

There’s some great advice in here, and I’ll certainly be reflecting on it with the organisations of which I’m part.

Source: opensource.com

Why we forget most of what we read

I read a lot of stuff, and I remember random bits of it. I used to be reasonably disciplined about bookmarking stuff, but then realised I hardly ever went back through my bookmarks. So, instead, I try to use what I read, which is kind of the reason for Thought Shrapnel…

Surely some people can read a book or watch a movie once and retain the plot perfectly. But for many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

Well, indeed. Nice metaphor.

In the internet age, recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind—has become less necessary. It’s still good for bar trivia, or remembering your to-do list, but largely, [Jared Horvath, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne] says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

Exactly. You need to know how to find that article you read that backs up the argument you’re making. You don’t need to remember all of the details. Search skills are really important.

One study showed that recalling details about episodes for those bingeing on Netflix series was much lower than for thoose who spaced them out. I guess that’s unsurprising.

People are binging on the written word, too. In 2009, the average American encountered 100,000 words a day, even if they didn’t “read” all of them. It’s hard to imagine that’s decreased in the nine years since. In “Binge-Reading Disorder,” an article for The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani analyzes the meaning of this statistic. “Reading is a nuanced word,” she writes, “but the most common kind of reading is likely reading as consumption: where we read, especially on the internet, merely to acquire information. Information that stands no chance of becoming knowledge unless it ‘sticks.’”

For anyone who knows about spaced learning, the conclusions are pretty obvious:

The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. I used to get irritated in school when an English-class syllabus would have us read only three chapters a week, but there was a good reason for that. Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

So apply what you learn and you’re putting it to work. Hence this post!

Source: The Atlantic (via e180)

Why do some things go viral?

I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?

Memes aren’t things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They’re kind of parasitic on the human mind:

Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.

Dawkins doesn’t like the use of the word ‘meme’ to refer to what we see on the internet:

According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.

So… why should we care?

While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”

It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.

Source: Nautilus

Culture is the behaviour you reward and punish

This is an interesting read on team and organisational culture in practice. Interesting choice of image, too (I’ve used a different one).

Compensation helps very little when it comes to aligning culture, because it’s private. Public rewards are much more influential. Who gets promoted, or hangs out socially with the founders? Who gets the plum project, or a shout-out at the company all-hands? Who gets marginalized on low-value projects, or worse, fired? What earns or derails the job offer when interview panels debrief? These are powerful signals to our teammates, and they’re imprinting on every bit of it.

In my mind, organisational culture is a lot like family dynamics, especially the parenting part. After all, kids follow what you do rather than what you say.

When role models are consistent, everyone gets the message, and they align towards that expectation even if it wasn’t a significant part of their values system before joining the company. That’s how culture gets reproduced, and how we assimilate new co-workers who don’t already possess our values.

People stop taking values seriously when the public rewards (and consequences) don’t match up. We can say that our culture requires treating each other with respect, but all too often, the openly rude high performer is privately disciplined, but keeps getting more and better projects. It doesn’t matter if you docked his bonus or yelled at him in private. When your team sees unkind people get ahead, they understand that the real culture is not one of kindness.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, yet most organisations I’ve worked with and for don’t spend nearly enough time on it.

Culture is powerful. It makes teams highly functional and gives meaning to our work. It’s essential for organizational scale because culture enables people to make good decisions without a lot of oversight. But ironically, culture is particularly vulnerable when you are growing quickly. If newcomers get guidance from teammates and leaders who aren’t assimilated themselves, your company norms don’t have a chance to reproduce. If rewards like stretch projects and promotions are handed out through battlefield triage, there’s no consistency to your value system.

When you strip away everything else, all you’ve got are your principles and values. I think most organisations (and people) would do well to remember that.

Source: Jocelyn Goldfein (via Offscreen Magazine)

Anxiety is the price of convenience

Remote working, which I’ve done for over five years now, sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Open your laptop while still in bed, raid the biscuit barrel at every opportunity, spend more time with your family…

Don’t get me wrong, it is great and I don’t think I could ever go back to working full-time in an office. That being said, there’s a hidden side to remote working which no-one ever tells you about: anxiety.

Every interaction when you’re working remotely is an intentional act. You either have to schedule a meeting with someone, or ‘ping’ them to see if they’re available. You can’t see that they’re free, wander over to talk to them, or bump into them in the corridor, as you could if you were physically co-located.

When people don’t respond in a timely fashion, or within the time frame you were expecting, it’s unclear why that happened. This article picks up on that:

In recent decades, written communication has caught up—or at least come as close as it’s likely to get to mimicking the speed of regular conversation (until they implant thought-to-text microchips in our brains). It takes more than 200 milliseconds to compose a text, but it’s not called “instant” messaging for nothing: There is an understanding that any message you send can be replied to more or less immediately.

But there is also an understanding that you don’t have to reply to any message you receive immediately. As much as these communication tools are designed to be instant, they are also easily ignored. And ignore them we do. Texts go unanswered for hours or days, emails sit in inboxes for so long that “Sorry for the delayed response” has gone from earnest apology to punchline.

It’s not just work, either. Because we carry our smartphones with us everywhere, my wife expects almost an instantaneous response on even the most trivial matters. I’ve come back to my phone with a stream of ‘oi’ messages before…

It’s anxiety-inducing because written communication is now designed to mimic conversation—but only when it comes to timing. It allows for a fast back-and-forth dialogue, but without any of the additional context of body language, facial expression, and intonation. It’s harder, for example, to tell that someone found your word choice off-putting, and thus to correct it in real-time, or try to explain yourself better. When someone’s in front of you, “you do get to see the shadow of your words across someone else’s face,” [Sherry] Turkle says.

Lots to ponder here. A lot of it has to do with the culture of your organisation / family, at the end of the day.

Source: The Atlantic (via Hurry Slowly)

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

A collection of articles on organisational culture from the Harvard Business Review. I need to examine them in more depth, but the diagram above and paragraph below jumped out at me.

Whereas some cultures emphasize stability—prioritizing consistency, predictability, and maintenance of the status quo—others emphasize flexibility, adaptability, and receptiveness to change. Those that favor stability tend to follow rules, use control structures such as seniority-based staffing, reinforce hierarchy, and strive for efficiency. Those that favor flexibility tend to prioritize innovation, openness, diversity, and a longer-term orientation.

Source: Harvard Business Review