Tag: remote work

We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet

Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts


Last week, I tweeted this:

I delete my tweets automatically every 30 days, hence the screenshot…

I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.


Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.

Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.

It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.


I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:

People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.

IMDB

If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.


Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?

I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.


Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.

However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.

Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.


For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.

For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.

So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?

Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:

  • Schools
  • Volunteering
  • Offices
  • House prices
  • Community cohesion
  • High street
  • Home delivery

…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.


I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.

Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.

The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.

Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.

Nafeez Ahmed

Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?


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Header image by pan xiaozhen. Anonymous quotation-as-title taken from Scott Klososky’s The Velocity Manifesto

Friday facings

This week’s links seem to have a theme about faces and looking at them through screens. I’m not sure what that says about either my network, or my interests, but there we are…

As ever, let me know what resonates with you, and if you have any thoughts on what’s shared below!


The Age of Instagram Face

The human body is an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time. Art directors at magazines have long edited photos of celebrities to better match unrealistic beauty standards; now you can do that to pictures of yourself with just a few taps on your phone.

Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker)

People, especially women, but there’s increasing pressure on young men too, are literally going to see plastic surgeons with ‘Facetuned’ versions of themselves. It’s hard not to think that we’re heading for a kind of dystopia when people want to look like cartoonish versions of themselves.


What Makes A Good Person?

What I learned as a child is that most people don’t even meet the responsibilities of their positions (husband, wife, teacher, boss, politicians, whatever.) A few do their duty, and I honor them for it, because it is rare. But to go beyond that and actually be a man of honor is unbelievably rare.

Ian Welsh

This question, as I’ve been talking with my therapist about, is one I ask myself all the time. Recently, I’ve settled on Marcus Aurelius’ approach: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”


Boredom is but a window to a sunny day beyond the gloom

Boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should be doing something more enjoyable, more useful, or more fulfilling. From this point of view, boredom is an agent of change and progress, a driver of ambition, shepherding us out into larger, greener pastures.

Neel Burton (Aeon)

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not so sure about the fetishisation of ‘boredom’. It’s good to be creative and let the mind wander. But boredom? Nah. There’s too much interesting stuff out there.


Resting Risk Face

Unlock your devices with a surgical mask that looks just like you.

I don’t usually link to products in this roundup, but I’m not sure this is 100% serious. Good idea, though!


The world’s biggest work-from-home experiment has been triggered by coronavirus

For some employees, like teachers who have conducted classes digitally for weeks, working from home can be a nightmare.
But in other sectors, this unexpected experiment has been so well received that employers are considering adopting it as a more permanent measure. For those who advocate more flexible working options, the past few weeks mark a possible step toward widespread — and long-awaited — reform.

Jessie Yeung (CNN)

Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess? Working from home is great, especially when you have a decent setup.


Setting Up Your Webcam, Lights, and Audio for Remote Work, Podcasting, Videos, and Streaming

Only you really know what level of clarity you want from each piece of your setup. Are you happy with what you have? Please, dear Lord, don’t spend any money. This is intended to be a resource if you want more and don’t know how to do it, not a stress or a judgment to anyone happy with their current setup

And while it’s a lot of fun to have a really high-quality webcam for my remote work, would I have bought it if I didn’t have a more intense need for high quality video for my YouTube stuff? Hell no. Get what you need, in your budget. This is just a resource.

This is a fantastic guide. I bought a great webcam when I saw it drop in price via CamelCamelCamel and bought a decent mic when I recorded the TIDE podcast wiht Dai. It really does make a difference.


Large screen phones: a challenge for UX design (and human hands)

I know it might sound like I have more questions than answers, but it seems to me that we are missing out on a very basic solution for the screen size problem. Manufacturers did so much to increase the screen size, computational power and battery capacity whilst keeping phones thin, that switching the apps navigation to the bottom should have been the automatic response to this new paradigm.

Maria Grilo (Imaginary Cloud)

The struggle is real. I invested in a new phone this week (a OnePlus 7 Pro 5G) and, unlike the phone it replaced from 2017, it’s definitely a hold-with-two-hands device.


Society Desperately Needs An Alternative Web

What has also transpired is a web of unbridled opportunism and exploitation, uncertainty and disparity. We see increasing pockets of silos and echo chambers fueled by anxiety, misplaced trust, and confirmation bias. As the mainstream consumer lays witness to these intentions, we notice a growing marginalization that propels more to unplug from these communities and applications to safeguard their mental health. However, the addiction technology has produced cannot be easily remedied. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.

Hessie Jones (Forbes)

Another call to re-decentralise the web, this time based on arguments about centralised services not being able to handle the scale of abuse and fraudulent activity.


UK Google users could lose EU GDPR data protections

It is understood that Google decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the US, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from US companies. Britain and the US are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Samuel Gibbs (The Guardian)

I’m sure this is a business decision as well, but I guess it makes sense given post-Brexit uncertainty about privacy legislation. It’s a shame, though, and a little concerning.


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Header image by Luc van Loon

Friday ferretings

These things jumped out at me this week:

  • Deepfakes will influence the 2020 election—and our economy, and our prison system (Quartz) ⁠— “The problem doesn’t stop at the elections, however. Deepfakes can alter the very fabric of our economic and legal systems. Recently, we saw a deepfake video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bragging about abusing data collected from users circulated on the internet. The creators of this video said it was produced to demonstrate the power of manipulation and had no malicious intent—yet it revealed how deceptively realistic deepfakes can be.”
  • The Slackification of the American Home (The Atlantic) — “Despite these tools’ utility in home life, it’s work where most people first become comfortable with them. ‘The membrane that divides work and family life is more porous than it’s ever been before,’ says Bruce Feiler, a dad and the author of The Secrets of Happy Families. ‘So it makes total sense that these systems built for team building, problem solving, productivity, and communication that were invented in the workplace are migrating to the family space’.”
  • You probably don’t know what your coworkers think of you. Here’s how to change that (Fast Company) — “[T]he higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to get an accurate picture of how other people view you. Most people want to be viewed favorably by others in a position of power. Once you move up to a supervisory role (or even higher), it is difficult to get people to give you a straight answer about their concerns.”
  • Sharing, Generosity and Gratitude (Cable Green, Creative Commons) — “David is home recovering and growing his liver back to full size. I will be at the Mayo Clinic through the end of July. After the Mayo surgeons skillfully transplanted ⅔ of David’s liver into me, he and I laughed about organ remixes, if he should receive attribution, and wished we’d have asked for a CC tattoo on my new liver.”
  • Flexibility as a key benefit of open (The Ed Techie) — “As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important.”
  • Abolish Eton: Labour groups aim to strip elite schools of privileges (The Guardian) — “Private schools are anachronistic engines of privilege that simply have no place in the 21st century,” said Lewis. “We cannot claim to have an education system that is socially just when children in private schools continue to have 300% more spent on their education than children in state schools.”
  • I Can’t Stop Winning! (Pinboard blog) – “A one-person business is an exercise in long-term anxiety management, so I would say if you are already an anxious person, go ahead and start a business. You’re not going to feel any worse. You’ve already got the main skill set of staying up and worrying, so you might as well make some money.”
  • How To Be The Remote Employee That Proves The Stereotypes Aren’t True (Trello blog) — “I am a big fan of over-communicating in general, and I truly believe that this is a rule all remote employees should swear by.”
  • I Used Google Ads for Social Engineering. It Worked. (The New York Times) — “Ad campaigns that manipulate searchers’ behavior are frighteningly easy for anyone to run.”
  • Road-tripping with the Amazon Nomads (The Verge) — “To stock Amazon’s shelves, merchants travel the backroads of America in search of rare soap and coveted toys.”

Image from Guillermo Acuña fronts his remote Chilean retreat with large wooden staircase (Dezeen)

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.”

Working and leading remotely

As MoodleNet Lead, I’m part of a remote team. If you look at the org chart, I’m nominally the manager of the other three members of my team, but it doesn’t feel like that (at least to me). We’re all working on our areas of expertise and mine happens to be strategy, making sure the team’s OK, and interfacing with the rest of the organisation.

I’m always looking to get better at what I do, so a ‘crash course’ for managing remote teams by Andreas Klinger piqued my interest. There’s a lot of overlap with John O’Duinn’s book on distributed teams, especially in his emphasis of the difference between various types of remote working:

There is a bunch of different setups people call “remote teams”.

  • Satellite teams
    • 2 or more teams are in different offices.
  • Remote employees
    • most of the team is in an office, but a few single employees are remote
  • Fully distributed teams
    • everybody is remote
  • Remote first teams
    • which are “basically” fully distributed
    • but have a non-critical-mass office
    • they focus on remote-friendly communication

When i speak of remote teams, i mean fully distributed teams and, if done right, remote-first teams. I consider all the other one’s hybrid setups.

Using these terms, the Open Badges team at Mozilla was ‘Remote first’, and when I joined Moodle I was a ‘Remote employee’, and now the MoodleNet team is ‘Fully distributed’.

Some things are easier when you work remotely, and some things are harder. One thing that’s definitely more difficult is running effective meetings:

Everybody loves meetings… right? But especially for remote teams, they are expensive, take effort and are – frankly – exhausting.

If you are 5 people, remote team:

  • You need to announce meetings upfront
  • You need to take notes b/c not everyone needs to join
  • Be on time
  • Have a meeting agenda
  • Make sure it’s not overtime
  • Communicate further related information in slack
  • etc

[…]

And this is not only about meetings. Meetings are just a straightforward example here. It’s true for any aspect of communication or teamwork. Remote teams need 5x the process.

I’m a big believer in working openly and documenting all the things. It saves hassle, it makes community contributions easier, and it builds trust. When everything’s out in the open, there’s nowhere to hide.

Working remotely is difficult because you have to be emotionally mature to do it effectively. You’re dealing with people who aren’t physically co-present, meaning you have to over-communicate intention, provide empathy at a distance, and not over-react by reading something into a communication that wasn’t intended. This takes time and practice.

Ideally, as remote team lead, you want what Laura Thomson at Mozilla calls Minimum Viable Bureaucracy, meaning that you don’t just get your ducks in a row, you have self-organising ducks. As Klinger points out:

In remote teams, you need to set up in a way people can be as autonomously as they need. Autonomously doesn’t mean “left alone” it means “be able to run alone” (when needed).

Think of people as “fast decision maker units” and team communication as “slow input/output”. Both are needed to function efficiently, but you want to avoid the slow part when it’s not essential.

At the basis of remote work is trust. There’s no way I can see what my colleagues are doing 99% of the time while they’re working on the same project as me. The same goes for me. Some people talk about having to ‘earn’ trust, but once you’ve taken someone through the hiring process, it’s better just to give them your trust until they act in a way which makes you question it.

Source: Klinger.io (via Dense Discovery)

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

How to defuse remote work issues

Good advice here about resolving difficulties with a remote co-worker.

When it comes to delivering feedback, use the same formula that you would in any other feedback situation. First, provide crisp and clear observations of your teammate’s behavior as free of judgment and subjectivity as possible. (For example, instead of “you were rude to me,” try “when you interrupted me as I tried to be heard over the phone…”) Second, describe the impact of the person’s behavior. Phrase the impact as your reaction or impression, not as the objective truth. (“When you talked over me when I was on the conference call, I felt like you don’t respect what I have to say.”) Finally, ask an open-ended question that engages your teammate in a dialogue and helps you to understand one another’s perceptions. (“How did you perceive that call when you were in the meeting room?”) Don’t stop until you each have a clear vision for how a similar situation could play out better the next time.

Working remotely is great, but it can be an emotional rollercoaster.

Most of us avoid or delay uncomfortable conversations even with people who sit beside us. It’s natural to dislike confrontation. Now imagine how easy it is to let concerns fester when your teammate is two time zones away. Avoiding an important conversation is a bad idea with an office mate and an even worse idea with a virtual teammate. Get the issues out in the open as quickly as possible before they sour your relationship and affect your ability to get the job done.

Source: Harvard Business Review